“Oh please help me to ask real questions”

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.