Sunday, March 20, 2011

Asking Questions: The Witness of Curiosity

This is the sermon I preached today in First Baptist-Madison. The texts were Acts 8:28-40 and John 5:2-9a.

I chose these two Scripture readings because they are both examples of the under-practiced ministry of asking questions. In the Acts reading, Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to a road, to a specific man in a chariot. Yet he does not begin the conversation with the assertive statement one might expect from someone who has been given a mission from an angel of God and led by the Spirit to this place. He does not open with “Hey there, I’ve been called by God to explain to you what you have been reading. You may think you understand, but from what this angel tells me you clearly don’t.” This statement comes with an implicit judgment, an assumption. Instead of going the judgment route, he opens with an expression of curiosity. “Do you understand what that means?”
The set-up in the gospel reading invites an assumption that is so commonplace in reading Scripture we may not even be aware we make it. There’s a lame man by the pool. Jesus comes along. We’ve all heard this story before. Lame man wants to be healed, Jesus will heal him. I would think Jesus, who lives this reality every day, would be the first to assume that the lame man seeks to be healed. But he doesn’t simply heal him. He asks first: “Do you want to be healed?”
Perhaps more surprising than the question is the answer, which shows that the lame man also assumes he wants to be healed, but doesn’t stop to actually think about it. He complains that he can never get to the pool that can heal him. This statement is based on the underlying assumption that he wants to be cured, but he doesn’t actually come out and say, “I want to be healed.” The difference between that statement and “I can’t be healed” is one of agency. He is unwilling to take responsibility for his own healing; he blames his situation. He says, in effect, that it doesn’t matter if he wants to or not; he can’t be healed because of his place in life. This learned helplessness is even more debilitating than his physical impairment. In asking what may seem like an obvious question, Jesus brings the lame man to reveal that his true affliction resides in his mind, not his legs. Jesus then tells the man to stand and take up his mat. The command makes me wonder. What if, in lying there for heaven knows how long, the man’s body had healed by itself, but he had become so used to being a cripple, he hadn’t realized it? In any case, the real miracle here is as much the man actually taking action for the first time, at Jesus’ command. He is no longer helpless. The story goes on to prove that this affliction is much more difficult to heal than his physical disability had been.
This kind of learned helplessness is a pernicious affliction of those who suffer financially, emotionally, and physically. It would be an excellent sermon topic, but that’s not what I want to focus on today. I want to focus on Jesus’ approach to ministry that begins with a question rather than an assertion or a command. He opens the scene with an expression of curiosity, rather than judgment. This allows the truth of the scene to be revealed. Curiosity affords a deeper understanding of others, allowing them to define themselves rather than be defined by the inquirers, which sets the scene for conversations to happen at a deeper level, beneath the normal back and forth conditioned by assumption and habituated response. This kind of conversation leads to true relationship and mutual understanding. It’s more than just an attitude. It’s a Christian witness. I am going to talk about how this witness applies to civil discourse, which includes not only government, but also business, professional, church meeting-ish relationships and to personal relationships.
When I went to Nicaragua for a year and a half, I was constantly presented with new and challenging situations that left me with nothing but questions. It is easy in such situations to fall into a judgmental or complaining mentality. Why can’t anyone arrive on time? Why aren’t school resources used more efficiently? Why can’t you just do things my way? It would be the equivalent of Philip coming up to the chariot, hopping in uninvited and saying, “here, let me explain this to you.” For this reason, perhaps, Americans have developed a bit of a reputation for being insufferably bossy. This kind of complaining mentality is a bottomless pit, because there are always things in every culture that are silly and can be complained about. We simply get inured to a certain degree to the ridiculousness of our own culture. In any case, if you fall in, you will never be content.
While it is especially easy to be judgmental and miserable in another country, there is still no better place to cultivate an attitude of curiosity. This is precisely because everything is new and foreign. When I constantly find myself confronted with difference, I can more easily make the shift in thinking from “Ugh!” to “Huh!”
When presented with the unknown, you have a greater power to decide how to react because you haven’t developed a habitual pattern of reaction yet. I had never had to wait two hours for a practice that may or may not happen. I had never had school cancelled last minute because of rain. My year and a half in Nicaragua was a great opportunity for me to cultivate more flexible, even-keeled response patterns based on suspending judgment and seeking more information because it was so far from all the things I know that I hadn’t realized that I knew, which Hunter Forrester says is the very definition of “culture.”
It is much more difficult to approach situations and people we see every day with curiosity rather than judgment, because we are so thoroughly habituated to the response patterns we already have. In Nicaragua, if I saw a political sign supporting one of the local political parties, I always wondered why they supported that party. In the US, if I see a political sign supporting a candidate, I respond with positive emotion or negative emotion. All these ideas start to form in my head of what this person must be like and why they would support this candidate. I can hear what Daniel Ortega does, and I take it into consideration, I may or may not believe it. I hear what Walker does, and I respond emotionally. I don’t take the same time to question is this true, why do I feel this way, what are this person’s motives. Emotions aren’t bad. Habituated responses, left unquestioned, are bad.
Cultural familiarity leads to habituated responses and impedes a witness of curiosity. It is much harder to practice new ways of being in a set of circumstances we are utterly and completely used to. For this reason, it was actually harder for me to live in community with two fellow American ex-pats than it was to interact with the people of Nicaragua. In community, I would get so used to being angered and irritated that I wouldn’t ask the questions I needed to ask to interrogate and perhaps transform the situation. For example, I got really sick of one of my housemate’s frequent complaints about various elements of life in Nicaragua. I would become silent and sullen whenever she launched into some critique of something she had encountered there, and it was a major impediment to our relationship. Yet it wasn’t until we were in a mediated, intentional conversation that I was actually able to look at her and say, “Do you like being here?” To which she answered yes, I do. And we just left at that. She later told me that asking her that had been really helpful for her, because it made her think, “Huh, why don’t I talk about the stuff I like more?” So the question had allowed us both to shift the focus from what was being said to what was not being said, which was what I had needed. But in our daily conversations, my irritation dominated me and I couldn’t bring myself to shift the conversation in the way I needed it to shift.
Asking questions can be a way to challenge or overcome habitual ways of acting and reacting. It can also be a way to challenge habitual ways of non-acting and reacting. When I think I know a person well, I more freely assume I understand their motivations for acting the way they do. Then it turns out the other person doesn’t share my assumptions, and conflict and hard feelings ensue. An example would be a couple weeks after I got back from Nicaragua, I mentioned to Twink that I was surprised that no one had asked me to preach or share or anything about my experience there. I harbor the belief that the church which nurtures and encourages the development of spiritual gifts has a right and a duty to almost obligate its members to share those gifts with the community. She explained to me that people tended to assume that I was busy with my, you know, like, life or something, and that if I wanted to share I had to come forward. “So you wanted to preach then?” “Well, yeah, I guess so.” I assumed that I would be asked if my gifts were wanted, and others had assumed that I would come forward if I wanted to share. As a result, no communication happened, and I like to think we were all the worse off for it. I remember I think it was Claire Rider who told me I should sing in the choir, and then said, “And now you feel guilty about it.” I thought somewhat self-consciously, like she shouldn’t have said it. I wanted to respond, “No. That’s perfect. Obligate me!” That’s the church’s job.
There was a line from the song “Iowa” by Dar Williams that kept repeating in my head while I was in Nicaragua. “Way back where I come from, we never mean to bother. We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern. We walk in a world of safe people, and at night we walk into our houses and burn.” She’s talking about the Midwestern American cultural phenomenon of the “polite but aloof,” in which people make the assumption that others want to keep their passions, their fears and their inner struggles to themselves. We don’t ask questions. The Nicaraguans do not share this predilection for privacy. Your passions are everybody’s concerns. I was once stopped by an acquaintance on the street, a woman who sold snacks outside of the school grounds where I worked, and she looked at me and said, “You look sad today. What’s wrong? Did something happen at home?” Another time I was walking beside a woman I didn’t know on the street. We exchanged greetings, and then she began to tell me about how her son was alcoholic and obnoxious and she wanted to kick him out.
This cultural practice of sharing everything has its downsides. The gossip, for example, can be vicious and out of control. On the other hand, it made me feel cared about. I felt like I had an obligation to be part of community, to share of myself and to share in the struggles of others. Both a Norwegian and Nicaraguan friends mentioned to me on separate occasions something to the effect of, “With Americans, you can have a conversation for an hour, but you’ll never really talk about anything important. You never really know who they are.” That may work for the supermarket and cocktail parties, but it’s not good enough for a church. We are the body of Christ, that suffers with the pain and rejoices in the strength of every stomach, foot, and shoulder. In order to do that, we have to ask the questions. We have to provoke with our curiosity, and not default on the assumption that others don’t want to share their deepest insecurities. When I went to visit my little church in Milwaukee, a Baptist gathering called the Broken Walls Christian Community, we got into a discussion of which divinity school or seminary I should attend. The pastor looked at me thoughtfully for a moment and then he asked me, “What are you hungry for?” This gave me pause. I realized I wasn’t sure. It was actually somewhat maddening. I was frustrated because I didn’t have a ready response, which is such a fundamental part of American conversations. But that was the beauty of the question. It gave me something to think about that I really needed to think about. He said, “when you know that, you’ll know where to go.”
“What are you hungry for?” “What’s most difficult in life for you right now?” “Where are you on your faith journey?” “What are you learning about yourself these days?” What if these questions replaced “How are you dealing with the cold spell?” “What are doing these days?” ? It would be obnoxious and intrusive, just like the mustard weeds of the kingdom of God. It might bring responses of “I’m not sure” and that would be okay. It might mean risking overstepping one’s bounds and getting “I don’t really want to talk about that right now.” Which would be a beautiful amalgam of Latin American and American culture, with both a dogged interest in the lives and wellbeing of others, while allowing the other person to put up boundaries without the need for anyone being hurt or defensive.
Church is a place of tradition, which means it’s also a place of deeply held belief and habit. Nowhere will it be harder to ask tough questions of one another, to challenge ourselves and each other to see the community and each individual in new ways. But church is also a safe space to grow in frightening new directions, to learn, to be wrong. This is the kind of transformation Christ calls us to. Jesus’ question to the lame man is still before us: “Do you want to be healed?”

1 comment:

  1. First, let me note that I am strongly in favor of inserting Dar Williams into all possible contexts.

    Second,I find this sermon well written and truthful, yet at the same time personally challenging, probably because there is a large part of me (between being an introvert and a midwesterner myself) that shares the "polite but aloof" nature. I've had this come in conflict with the Jewish half of my family numerous times-- I sometimes think they translate "I don't want to talk about it" as "Please pester me for another 30 minutes until I take the path of least resistance!"

    And yet, with all that said, you're right. Because I also can't tell you how many times I've heard "X doesn't want to be bothered" used to mean, "Interacting with X's pain makes me uncomfortable." (Or as Dan Fishback so acidly puts it, "I'm sorry that old lady asked you for change/I'm sorry poverty makes you feel strange...") And I really don't want to admit how many times I've done that myself.

    I suppose the balance is to ask...and then to respect one's subject enough to interpret the potential response of "I don't want to talk about it" as exactly that.