lenten journal: good questions

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We moved from Africa back to the States for good the middle of my junior year in high school. For the first time in all our moves, I started a new school in the middle of the year and i started at a school where I knew no one. When they asked me what electives I wanted to take, I didn’t really know what an elective was, but I saw Drama on the list and signed up.

The students, all of whom had been in the class for awhile, were getting ready for one-act play competition and used the class time to perform and ask for critique from the rest of the class. One pair of folks did a scene from The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco, which was my introduction to the Theater of the Absurd.

I haven’t thought about that class for a long time. It has come to mind several times as I have watched the White House daily briefings and listened to the absolute–no, absurdist–disconnect between the questions asked and the random string of words that come as responses. For the Absurdist playwrights, the point was that life has no ultimate meaning. As fascinated as I was by Ionesco and Beckett and others, that is a perspective I have never been willing to fully embrace.

On the other side of the continuum, I grew up as a Baptist kid who heard more than once that “Jesus was the answer,” which pretty early on made me wonder what the question was because life never felt that simple. The more I got to know Jesus, the more he became the question.

Sometimes the answers we get depend on the quality of our questions, as demonstrated in this clip from The Pink Panther.

Pádraig Ó Tuama tells of leading an Ignatian prayer retreat for a group of teenagers at a church in Australia. After a guided meditation, one of the young people said in his “imagination walk” he had encountered Jesus and that Jesus had asked him three questions:

How would you describe today?
Have you seen anything interesting along the way?
Is it working?

I carried those with me as the day passed. I thought more about what it would mean to answer them instead of just thinking about today. They feel worth carrying for the coming days.

How would I describe today?

It is tempting in these days to just say it was a lot like the last few days of our unfortunate isolation, or rattle off a list of details, but describing today asks for something more that just rattling off what I did or didn’t do. The question is asking for more than a line drawing of my day; it wants a full color image. Details. Feelings. Relationships. Awareness.

I walked over with Ginger at ten this morning to meet Jake, our Minister of Faith Formation, so they could ring the bell for worship and hit send on the link for the online service. The day felt like the room: vacant when it should have been filled. The online stuff was meaningful, but it was not filling in the way the smiles and hugs and joys and concerns of the people I am used to seeing every week are.

That was not the only way the day felt, but there is definitely a vacancy sign on the door of my heart.

Have I seen anything interesting along the way?

The question seems to be another way of asking have I paid attention. It calls to mind the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

It was cold today in Guilford, but sunny. The sky was as blue as the air was chilled. A number of people were out walking, which is about all we have left to do when it comes to getting outside. We all paid attention as we passed one another to create safe space. Ginger and I watched a really fat squirrel try to negotiate the huge acorn he had found as he tried to climb back up the tree. Whatever time of day it is, the way the light hits the steeple of our church always catches my eye.

Paying attention leads to lots of questions: What is growing? What has died? What did I hear? What did I listen to? What did I see? What did I miss?

Is it working?

I am more puzzled by this question. I wonder what it is, and I wonder what working means. Ruminating on it also led to other questions: What resonates with the picture of my life? What needs to change? What can I change? Is the way I am living sustainable? Who can help me make this work?

All three of the questions pull me into the moment. They are not of the what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-life kind of questions. They are questions that need to be asked over and over; the power is not the answer, but in the asking.

In one of the songs we wrote together, Billy Crockett looked back on our friendship and thought about questions friends ask each other over the life of a friendship. The song “Are You” put those questions to music. I hadn’t heard it in a while, but tonight, with all of these questions, I went back and listened. It seems worth sharing.

put on the coffee
and I’ll tell you a memory
we stood on the edge of time
as the river flowed silently by

we looked up at the stars
I still remember
and talked of what your life could be
you’re an old friend
won’t you tell me

are you as sure of the dream that you had on the way
finding enough of the truth at the end of the day
caught now and then by something like grace
are you

are you still keeping the light on inside
shimmer of hope against the tide
finding your life is worth the ride
tell me are you

remember that summer
we told one another
how we could change this world of ours
and quoted our heroes by heart

and here in this moment
we watch the way the river bends
you’re an old friend
I’m going to ask you again

The meaning of life, my friends, is not in our answers, but in the quality and persistence of our questions.

Peace,
Milton

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1 COMMENT

  1. At 71, I am still loving the questions, but I’m noticing that, along with the times, the questions they are a’changing. I have spent my life asking questions about the crazy world that lives in me. NOW, the questions are relational. That makes things difficult for a recluse who has a black belt in social distancing. From the beginning, God is relational. “Let ‘us’ make humankind in our image, after ‘our’ likeness.” In my way of reading this is not about the trinity. God is calling the “heavenly council” (see Job 1) together to brainstorm ingredients, blueprints and possibilities that might be useful in creating a human being (since God has never made one before).

    You’ve had an untamed appetite for relationship as long as I’ve known you (30 years on). Hero material!

    I love you. -kenny

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