Children are the ultimate symbol of an open and questioning innocence, not yet knowing and understanding. At this age there is no such thing as a secret agenda, no competitive scheming. And I find their questions fascinating, myself, but then of course, I don’t have any children of my own to take home and care for 24/7! But it seems to me there’s something about the dogged pursuit of “why,” that they have, that fearlessly keeps digging into things, which I’ve probably long ago given up on.
The disciples are afraid to ask Jesus any tough questions at all about what he was teaching them. They don’t really understand what he’s talking about when he says he’ll be betrayed into human hands and killed.
I remember when I failed to ask questions of my Algebra teacher back in the 7th grade, and it got me in a heap of trouble! I didn’t really get Algebra, why I needed it, or what it could possible do for me, then, or anywhere down the line when I got older. And the truth was, advanced math and science were not going to be my best subjects – I just didn’t have the aptitude for them. But, more than that, what I didn’t realize, even then, was how linearly progressive Algebra was, and if you misunderstand one theorem one day, you won’t get the next one the next day, and so soon I was hopelessly behind. Lack of aptitude and interest, led to lack of understanding, and fear of raising my hand in Algebra class. I was afraid to ask for help becasue I didn’t want to sound dumb. And so, ironically, I got dummer and dummer every day!
The disciples, at least on their first day, had done well on their Quiz with Jesus. “Who do people say that I am?” he asked them, and Peter answered correctly: the Messiah. But, they must have been texting in class when Jesus instructed them on the next theological theorem, that he is more like a Son of the Human One/Son of Man, kind of Messiah. And so they just got dummer and dummer, and more and more afraid to ask him what that meant. Suffer and die? Messiah’s didn’t do that! The Messiah they expected was supposed to be a royal ruler of all, an unassailable conqueror, not this odd, contrarian, self-emptying, and awkward kind of savior. Something just didn’t compute! And so they were afraid to ask and it got them in a heap of trouble.
Communities of faith, it is said, often experience conflict when they fail to provide a safe place to ask questions, which is why at Unity we’ve worked hard to open up a safe space for discussion, and to encourage questions. Here, we admit we don’t have all the answers, or even that there is just one, and we make questioning and discussion a high priority. Questions show openness to diversity and a wide range of opinion. They don’t presuppose answers, but leave room for our personal and community transformation. As an urban green space, welcoming everyone, here at Unity, we encourage engagement with one another and with the Holy Spirit, that we might be changed and open to where God wants us to go. We love discovering new friendships and partnerships, even as we cherish those we have made over the years, like with the Chicago Chamber Choir, who has been our friend and partner for a long time, because of that.
And here at Unity, we are proud of our welcome for everyone, including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning. In the spirit of openness, some people have asked me about why the Q is added on to LGBT? And, that’s a whole discussion in itself, of course, but in a word, most say Q stands for Queer, on the one hand, in a positive sense, as a reclaiming of a term that was for a long time used in a hurtful and derogatory way, and so, because for some it can be a bit shocking still, we want to be sensitive and aware of that. And then, on the other hand, Q is for questioning, for raising the awareness for all of us about “what” gender identity is, “how” it is taught to us, and how fluid, gender is! Most of us don’t fit so neatly into female or male caricatures as we might think. If we sit down to discuss it, we find that questions arise. Questions like, Are you a man who doesn’t like violence? Are you a strong woman? Do you wear your hair “wrong” for your gender, or wear the “wrong” color for your gender, or walk wrong, or read the wrong books, or date wrong, or vote wrong? So Q is for questioning gender identity and being open to who we truly are without the gloss of the dominant cultural stereotypes that have been predetermined for us. We rejoice in this Q, and pray for the openness to ask these questions – and keep the discussion going.
Which leads me, finally, to prayer, where, hiding in plain view, we may find the ultimate safe space for questioning, and where we are free to ask our deepest and most child-like questions. I have found, ironically, that church people sometimes get this turned around, and that asking God “why” in times of greatest despair, is not only natural, but can be truly healing. In prayer, we can ask God “why.” Why do bad things can happen to good people? Becasue if we can’t go to God about the suffering we experience, the evil we do to one another, and the brokenness we experience, than who can we go to? Prayer is bringing our questions before God unequivocally, in child-like openness, where there is total safety and perfect understanding, and without fear.
So, it turns out that Jesus’ disciples had an Algebra problem too. Their burning question was not “who” is the Son of the Human One, or even who is the Messiah? They didn’t seem to have an aptitude for that. Their burning question that they were asking one another was, who is the greatest among them? Who should have first place in Jesus’ cabinet? Who should be vice-president? Who should be Secretary of State or Education? Who should be Secretary of Miracles or Press Secretary for Smart Snappy Answers for their opponents in the other party?
And so for Jesus, this was a teaching moment, if you will. He has another way of being community in mind, one which provides a safe space for asking tough questions, so that no Question is ever out of bounds. It’s probably natural that no one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. And so sometimes we withhold our toughest questions, or pretend we don't have them. But to understand the deepest mysteries and sufferings of life, we have to take the risk of asking hard questions. Questions like, Why do good people suffer? Why are we so brutal to one another? Why does evil succeed? And, If God's own Son is betrayed and killed, then, is no one safe? Why, why, why?
Prayer may be the ultimate safe space for asking these questions, but they will only be effective if we can continue to ask them of each other – and like Jesus, make them incarnate within our experience. By the gift of the Spirit, we are the reflection of God’s realm of peace and justice in the world, and God’s reign takes on flesh and blood, in and through us.
We give thanks for the ways Unity, and so many other communities we are part of, are safe and open places for serious discussion and questioning, so that fear will never hold us back – so that we may all know and understand the spirit of the little child Jesus sets in our midst, asking “why,” over and over again – and that the greatest wisdom, the wisdom of God incarnate in the world, in all of us, may arise and find life, and, even as we grow up – never give-up that questioning.