Q & A

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Conversation with a Wonderful Visitor at church:

WV: Why did John the Baptist ask if Jesus was the one that they were looking for? I mean, if he was preparing the way, shouldn’t he have known the answer to that question?

Me: [Excitedly] That’s a great question! Why do you think it was?

WV: Well… I don’t know. That’s why I asked you. You’re the minister! You’re supposed to have all the answers.

Me: Oh. Oh yeah.

That’s when I remembered, some people are excited by the questions and some people just want to know the answers.

When she asked me, a hundred questions popped in my mind. Why was she wondering about this? Did she hear a sermon on it? Does it make ever make sense to people in the pew that these strange John the Baptist texts always pop up in Advent? Did it bother her that John might have lost his faith in Jesus? Did she think he lost his faith in himself as well? What was worse for John, losing his faith in Jesus, or losing his faith in himself? Was he worried that his life was a complete waste?

Why did the gospel writers include this bit? Why was it important to keep it in the story? Why’s John considered to be the man who made the paths straight for Jesus, when he questioned Jesus in the end?

How would she have felt if she were in the jail cell? Is there something about confinement that hinders faith? Why does it seem that some people are called to die untimely deaths? Why do prophets so often die early?

Why does a young woman have so much power in this situation? Why was Herod willing to give her half his kingdom? Was there that much power in the art of seduction? Was this sort of thing common in the King’s court? Did women have more power than we think they did? Was seduction the only way they could get it?

And what about prophets? How much did prophets actually know? How much do they know today? Are there any alive today? Who are they? Could an early death make someone a prophet, who would have never been one if s/he lived to a ripe old age? Is there some power in the death, in the martyrdom?

We could have talked for hours. The discussion had endless possibilities and I could have learned a great deal. But, she just wanted an answer and I was running to teach a class, so I gave her one.

I explained that I don’t know why John the Baptist asked that question. I can imagine what it might have been. I figure that John was sitting behind bars, knowing that he was about to get his head chopped off at the bequest of some floozy dancer. Even as a great prophet, he certainly didn’t predict that ridiculous ending. So, he started questioning himself, his message, Jesus. I mean, if we sit beside John in that dirty cell, while he’s eating his final meal of locusts and wild honey, he’s probably thinking that the Kingdom of God was not supposed to turn out with his head on a platter.

I eventually give her that answer…because I’m the minister. But I would have much rather had the discussion. I know a lot of stuff because I’ve studied this passage for years. But I don’t know the important things. I don’t know John’s feelings or motivations. I don’t know how the WV was interacting with the text, what it was doing inside of her, why she needed to ask the question. I hadn’t really thought about what the words were doing inside of me. When she asked the question about John’s question, I realized that a lot of things were shifting internally.

But it did remind me of an important shift in our roles and people’s expectations. A good pastor used to be the one with all the answers about the text. He would expound upon them, definitively, in the pulpit. Now, most pastors are good because they understand how to ask the questions.

So what you think? How do you answer these questions? You may answer with a question.

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7 thoughts on “Q & A

  1. TC,

    What an insightful post, both about people and about John the B. I know EXACTLY the situation you are describing! I guess part of our pastoral sensitivity is knowing when to ask more questions and when to give (at least preliminary) answers. Sometimes, people need to wrestle with questions in the moment, but sometimes I think they need SOME definitive something to take away and chew on alone, even if we qualify that something with “Here’s the kind of questions I still have.”

    I think the real art of teaching/pastoring is knowing how little or much to give in response, and you seem particularly insightful and sensitive to that dynamic. 🙂

    In Christ,

    Robert Austell

  2. I find that conversation interesting. Here you have this WV asking you a question, wondering why John questioned, and frustrated that you answered with a question.

    I think people do expect us to be experts, and on some level in some situations, I think that’s fair. After all, what were you on your way to do after that conversation? Teach a class.

    I believe the challenge for us is to know when to ask the questions, when to give them the answer they are looking for, and when to give them the answer they need instead of the answer they are looking for.

    I have sat with people experiencing tragic, unexpected loss who wonder why it has happened. I can tell from the way they ask that it would actually be comforting (though fleetingly so) if I said that it was because of their sin. The they would have an explanation, something to grab hold of, and blame. Something to deal with, rather than the mystery of Why Them? But here’s the thing. I can’t say that because it does not represent the God I believe in.

    I think what people really look for are answers -or questions- that invite them back to ask more. Relationship.

    Because in relationship, people begin to feel that freedom to question. Their thoughts move from, If John the Baptist questioned his faith, what hope is there for me to, If John the Baptist questioned his faith, maybe I can, too.

  3. I think it is unfortunate, actually, when people turn to the clergy to supply them with all the answers. Maybe part of this has to do with the idea of the clergy being authority figures–and of course they have significant training on theological matters that most of us lack. But still, no one has all the answers; and to me, the best thing that a pastor can do is to help frame the questions more clearly and then, maybe, find their own answers. And also to help people recognize that they may not always find all the answers.

    Sometimes the joy is to found in the journey, not in the destination.

  4. I had a great fried tell me once that we can build the church with seekers of the truth. We cannot build the church with possessors of the truth.

    I have always loved this.

    I hope to be a pastor that walks with folks that hurt and love absent a voice and present in action.

    I wish we could sit in the unfathomable presence of God and forget about own and labeling the mystery.

    Can we worship absent of answers?

  5. I love this question! On our ordination exams, these are called “coffee hour questions” — things that are asked off the cuff while we’re juggling cookies and a cup of coffee. I think 2 things about this. I know my own perception of God’s call is that I don’t get the whole picture, only “next right steps.” So John didn’t have the full picture of what the Messiah would be like. The other thing is that 1st century Messianism (as far as we can know it, but also from John’s spoken prophecies) was so full of drama and judgment and conflict and “last days” scenarios, and only minimally about mercy, acts of healing, etc. Jesus had to remind John to look at Isaiah, rather than the more apocalyptic passages from places like Daniel and Ezekiel, which the Jewish culture of the day tended to cite.

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