Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

“Oh please help me to ask real questions”

February 04, 2013

I’m a seminary president, but in many respects, don’t fit the stereotype. Often when a knotty theological issue comes up or a biblical interpretation seems in question—people glance deferentially in my direction before offering their own thoughts. A seminary president is after all, a bigger than life purveyor of orthodoxy, right? The presumed authority on all things theological.

Before I was a president—I am a human being—born in Ethiopia, the child of missionary parents. Whether it was that point of origin—or all that’s happened in the meantime—life has always seemed a bit askew. I can’t help but examine any purported answer from multiple angles, eager with questions that break open our givens. Not questions for their own sake—but questions that drive us closer to the heart of the matter: toward the One in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell; the One through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things (Colossians 1:19-20).

I’ve often shared with my students an excerpt from a book called Mister God, This is Anna about an enthralled-with-God, precocious little girl. Her guardian, Fynn, overheard Anna tearfully pleading with God one night: “Please, please, Mister God, teach me how to ask real questions. Oh please, Mister God, help me to ask real questions.”

Later when Fynn inquired about why she was asking God about real questions, Anna talked about how sad it is that people who ought to get wiser when they grow older, don’t.

“Don’t you think so?” Fynn asked.
“No. People’s boxes get littler and littler.”
“Boxes? I don’t understand that.”
“Questions are in boxes”, she explained, “and the answers they get only fit the size of the box.”
“That’s difficult; go on a bit.”
“It’s hard to say. It’s like — it’s like the answers are the same size as the box. It’s like them dimensions.”
“If you ask a question in two dimensions, then the answer is in two dimensions too. It’s like a box. You can’t get out.”

Children keep us honest. As does everyone who asks hard questions; restless questions that know the matter isn’t settled; that we haven’t yet come down where we ought to be—in “the valley of love and delight.”

In my experience, too much theologizing in the church has been far too serious, indeed deadly serious. We strain every moral fiber to get it right—because truly, the stakes are high. But getting it right has become such an obsession that we’re locked up in polarized camps, threatening to cut each other off because of differing, deeply held convictions. The lock-up means we’re not free to ask questions without setting off shock waves. We’re not free to test answers without being boxed in by two-dimensional categories.

Practicing Reconciliation will serve as a space to pose questions, play with possibilities that move us beyond two-dimensional thinking, and experiment with the multi-dimensional wholeness of shalom. We have it on good authority that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Might it be that: “To turn, to turn will be our delight ‘til by turning, turning, we come round right”?

Practical theologians (which all Christians worth their salt are called to be) forge a life of meaning out of the messy stuff of ordinary life. We draw from the wisdom of the Spirit, the multi-dimensional narratives of the Bible, and a cloud of witnesses to reality on the ground as we make what sense we can of confounding complexity.

With grace, some of us are able to move beyond disappointment, fear, disabling pain, selfishness, resentment and hatred into the freeing embrace of God’s shalom. We come alive to the irrepressible joy of reconciliation—with God, with ourselves, our neighbors, family members, brothers and sisters in Christ, and with all of God’s created world.


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@ Jim. Right on questions--that will no doubt underlie much of my reflection in this blog. Moving to either extreme on any issue is generally the easy, cop out way to go. Finding ways to hold values/perspectives together in tension is tough, but the stuff of a strong and enduring love that under girds true unity.
Sara 11:19AM 03/05/13
@ George! Amen! Thank you for sounding these deeply resonant notes!
Sara 11:13AM 03/05/13
@ Martha. Absolutely--and perhaps most importantly "enemies." Thank God for a United Methodist sister to point this out to a Mennonite. :)
Sara 11:07AM 03/05/13
@ Mike. Astute precautionary observation! Questions can be just another clever device to trip up an opponent. So what are the right questions to ask that will lead toward possible reconciliation? How does one offer questions as an invitation for genuine conversation? When is a question used to demolish an argument and when does it come out of a sincere desire to better understand where the other is coming from, what motivates their concern, what underlies their position? Questions for me arise out of a deep desire to carefully listen, to sensitively build a relationship so that the other may begin to trust that we could work together to establish some common ground. I'm hopeful that with the right kinds of questions, the other might feel free to let down his/her guard in order to become more honest about what is really at stake. Oh--great line of inquiry! Thanks.
Sara 11:04AM 03/05/13
@ Samantha. Why are contemplative spirituality and activist involvement so often disconnected? I'm encouraged by your determination to integrate the two in ways that strengthen both. I'm reminded of Jesus question to Peter: Do you love me? (Yes, Lord) Feed my sheep.
Sara 10:47AM 03/05/13
@Melanie. Wow. Practical living theology--with attentive questions that guide a person to deeper faith. I love it.
Sara 10:39AM 03/05/13
@ All those who commented--thank you! We're getting up to speed with the blog management which delayed any responses from me. Here on out we should be good to go.
Sara 10:33AM 03/05/13
This certainly rings true with the call to vulnerability we've been hearing as part of this Lenten season's theme!
Angie Clemens 7:43PM 02/27/13
sara, thank you!!!! so glad you have developed this!!!
bonnie whittier 3:20PM 02/27/13
Sara, as I finished my visit with a grieving patient the other day, it hit me that I had been helping her to theologize her loss. She had been feeling guilty that she was angry with God for the death of her son. Although she has very little education, she has been a faithful churchgoer, and we were able to tap into that. Through asking questions, and talking about scripture that she was familiar with, she realized some new things about her relationship with God, which brought her great comfort. So much of what I’m doing in the hospital is exactly this practical, living theology. For that, I look forward to future installments of your blog.
Melanie Lewis 11:46AM 02/27/13
Beautiful, Sara; thank you. Big fan of asking real questions! Questions I'm living presently... how to integrate contemplative spirituality with active resistance to structures which perpetuate violence...I know it's age-old, this need to keep them together...still, don't see a ton of great models. I am committed to _being_ a good model, but... :) Ex.: We were having a conversation at a Franconia/Eastern District pastors & leaders breakfast the other day about gun violence prevention, having named some roots of spiritual fragmentation but not really talked about them, and I was longing for us to be better at speaking in one conversation about both holding vigil outside gun shops where illegal handguns originate, and ways mature, grounded Christian men can mentor boys in an understanding of masculinity which does not require recourse to violence. On the other hand, at our Winter Peace Retreat a couple weekends ago, the speaker (Kelly Denton-Borhaug, who brought thorough research and tons of statistics exposing pervasive "U.S. war culture") led us in reflecting on our own pain/places needing peace, as essential to being peacemakers. People's willingness to be vulnerable was moving. Mm. There is hope...
Samantha E. Lioi 10:59PM 02/22/13
I found your blog very refreshing. In particular I enjoyed your quotes. At present I don't have a real good question, but would like to read "Mister God". Maybe that does prompt a question: How do we accept and understand the many views of God that we have as individuals and as people of different cultures within the Mennonite church context. Mary S.
Mary Schiedel 4:48PM 02/21/13
Dear Sara, Thank you for the interesting reflection. With love and prayers, Alma Coffman
Alma Coffman 7:21PM 02/20/13
I appreciated your blog today. As I am preparing to do a Bible Study on Matthew 18 at Menno Haven, your thoughts on reconciliation perked up my thinking here this morning. Unless we become as children...thanks for the reminder...means for me peeling off some "religious layers" and "playing" with the theme, (much as Ted Swartz does-I just finished reading his book and hearing him again in Orlando at the MHA/Educators conference) so we can "see again" as children. Sara, thanks for your leadership!
Bob Keener 11:38AM 02/20/13
Reconciliation – I think this is a timely topic Sara, hopefully it will attract many readers and many comments. One of my jobs is serving as a County Commissioner. The realm of politics (even local politics) is not a world that currently fully embraces the concept of reconciliation. Instead it seems to be more about being ‘right’ and most everyone is very certain their specific view is ‘right’. I remember an incident during the last election campaign when a longtime friend confronted me concerning a stance I held on a local policy issue. My friend was actively working on my election opponent’s campaign. He wanted me out of office. That morning I had read a very clever response I could use in these confrontational situations, so I decided to try it out. After he had concluded his argument on why he was right, I told him that I might agree he was right, but did he understand that my agreeing to his perspective did not make my opposing perspective wrong? I momentarily felt proud of myself for pulling off this clever maneuver because it did ‘stop him in his tracks’ for a few seconds. Then he responded with the conventional political response we are all familiar with; “Mike, you and I will have to simply agree to disagree on this point.” Is that reconciliation? I don’t think so because neither one of us moved forward through the situation to agree on some kind of solution. Or even a path toward a solution. We both still remained in our individual ‘right’ positions. Asking the right questions is a good start, but even this can be abused. I once thought if I can only ask enough questions, the right questions, smart questions that would make the other person think. Then they would come around to understanding that I was correct and they were wrong – their position was obviously the result of bad information or incorrect conclusions, or whatever. No doubt my ‘right questions’ in this strategy were still inside my own two dimensional box. Perhaps besides not knowing how to do reconciliation, the bigger challenge is we are giving up on achieving it? It is, after all, easier to gather with fellow like-minded right people and just out-vote the wrong folks.
Mike Yoder 8:35AM 02/20/13
I just thought that in your last sentence you forgot to mention our enemies in the list too. Just something to ponder...
Martha Beals 6:18PM 02/19/13
Sara, I pray as a church leader I too can think out of the box. We maybe need to give up the box, the way Angle-European traditionally do theology aiming to define the TRUTH. I am hearing people wanting to define truth for themselves part of living in a post-modern world. Our Anabaptist way of doing theology leans itself to do theology in a Multi-dimensional way, we believe in the hermeneutical community after ALL!!! Or as your story we need to pray as a child teach me to ask questions....
Elizabeth Soto 2:38PM 02/19/13
Thanks for the way you help create space (at AMBS and in the church) to allow all sorts of questions and cultivate living un-boxed answers (or more questions) to them.
ST 1:00PM 02/19/13
This is refreshing! I look forward to reading 'real questions' and lively, probing conversation here!
Joetta Schlabach 11:25AM 02/19/13
I am thrilled to read your comments about these issues. I don't really know where to start. First, our dualistic thinking that we use to navigate our world from the earliest age must be important in some way since it is so universal. I believe that its practical value is that it helps us along the way exactly like a watchful and careful parent, but finally we sense its shallowness and addictive power that limits are ability to approach and incorporate God into our very being. It stands in the way of love, of identification with others and with God. It is an addiction because dualistic thinking is the very opposite of "all things reconciled," and so keeps us stuck in the thought that mouthing doctrines is the essence of faith. Second, we see this tension all through the Bible and on into the contemporary church between doctrine (its primacy and preservation), and living in Christ. It's played out between the prophets and the priests, the Pharisees and the Apostles, the "Church" in any age and the reformers. Again, this pervasive ubiquity must point to some important function which may be the basis from which change and growth comes, just as dualistic thinking pushes us toward reconciling opposites. Out here in Albuquerque, NM, we are blessed with the presence of Father Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. His daily meditations are most often dealing with this issue of asking new questions, see the Bible as giving us questions and not answers, seeing non dualistic thinking and not human perfection as the highest calling of religion. I reprint here an excerpt of one of his daily meditations: Struggling with Inherent Tensions Meditation 24 of 57 All of the stories of healing and transformation, awareness and enlightenment that we find in the Bible come to people moving beyond the usual definitions of power (i.e., false power, temporary power, dominative power, cultural power) to discover their deeper soul and their true spiritual power. The Bible and all spiritual books are books whose primary focus lies outside of themselves. Sacred texts are not an end in themselves, but they must insert you into new and larger realities—through a necessary struggle with your present level of consciousness (Faith holds onto you during that time!). Religious texts and rituals are not a substitute for human experience. They are meant to invite you into a helpful struggle, and in a certain way, they actually create a conflict or dissonance for you! If you resolve that tension too quickly by glib belief, you actually learn nothing new and go to no new place. Let me give you an example. When Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16), you can glibly say “Yes, I agree with that. Jesus said it so it is true.” In fact you don’t really agree with it, you don’t even understand it until you eventually struggle with it and finally admit that you don’t know if you agree with it: “How is that true? I don’t know that I even agree with it.” Maybe this struggle will last years before it finally becomes inner experience. So to say you believe it and yet avoid its often inherent unreasonability, contradictions, dilemmas, and tensions, is to not really understand its purpose and message at all. It will have no transformative effect on you.
George Muedeking 11:10AM 02/19/13
I love Anna's perspective on being limited by the questions. In another part of the book, Anna literally throws herself at Fynn- trusting him to catch her. She also did this with God. May I gain such trust and such freedom!
Eldon Epp 10:25AM 02/19/13
Thank you for your interesting comments. After attending and being part of a Mennonite church for 70 years, I find it not always easy to enter into a heavy discussion in Mennonite and other church settings of complex problematic issues of spiritual doubt and issues in which there is not a rehash of the same thing for the umpteenth time. Too much spiritualizing about scriptural passages and very little dealing with hard to understand issues of the Old Testament especially, and of the New Testament. That has been why I sometimes like to read material from persons such as Francis S. Collins, Richard Swinburne, Eric A. Seibert, Alvin Plantinga, C. S. Lewis, Sharon L. Baker, Thom Stark, Charles Taliaferro, John Polkinghorne, etc. Thanks for having a blog. Take care. P.S. I once was married to a Wenger cousin of yours that lived for a bit in Ethiopia and is now in Elkhart.
Donovan (Don) Beyeler 10:03AM 02/19/13
I look forward to following your blog, Sara. Best wishes!
Dan 9:58AM 02/19/13
A very prophetic emphasis, one tht enables us to reach across cultural lines tht divide and b His agents of reconciliation. God bless you in your role of service. In Him. Myron
Myron Augsburger 9:45AM 02/19/13
Thanks for starting this Sara. For a couple decades I have wondered how to balance unity vs faithfulness as Mennonites. Another way of putting it is, how much do we need to believe in common in order to be able to commit ourselves to each other as Christians? On the one hand I feel there are those who place "being right" above all. And we have a history of many church splits over the fine details. On the other hand it seems some advocate loyalty to the denomination no matter what you believe. Neither of those extremes seems healthy to me. Any thoughts? Jim
Jim Brown 9:18AM 02/19/13

This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.

The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.