When God Asks a Question…

We often fear questions. We are afraid to ask questions; we are afraid of being questioned; we are afraid of asking the wrong questions or not asking the right ones. And we are often afraid of the answers, too.

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God is not afraid of our questions. In fact, He wants us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7, Jeremiah 33:3, and others). God knows the answers to our questions– He even knows our motives in asking them! God may not give us the answers we expect, or answer in the manner or time we expect. But God encourages us to ask anyway, and to trust in His ability and His desire to give us what we need in the moment we most need it.

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God also asks questions–not because He doesn’t already know the answers, but because we can learn from the questions He asks, and the answers we give. Some of God’s questions seem self-evident; others are probing. Some are rhetorical; others are anguished. Let’s take a look at just a few, and see what we might be able to learn from them:

  • In Genesis 3, God asks some very obvious questions of Adam and Eve after they hide from him. “Where are you?” Adam and Eve had not successfully hidden from God. He knew exactly where they were and even why they were hiding. But instead of storming into the Garden of Eden with condemnation and instant judgment, God asked a simple question, giving them both the opportunity to confess, and a clear reminder of their broken relationship. There had never been a need (on either side) to ask “Where are you?” After Adam responds with the excuse of being naked and ashamed, God asks his second question, “Who told you that you were naked?” God knew the answer to this, as well, but He added a third question that forced Adam to get to the heart of the matter and tell Him the truth– “Have you eaten from the tree…?” God could have asked condemning questions– “How could you disobey me like this?” “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!” But God isn’t asking questions to overwhelm Adam and Eve with their guilt and shame. He’s asking for truthful acknowledgment of their disobedience, so their broken relationship can begin to be repaired. God assigns punishment, but He does not bring additional questions and condemnation
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  • In the very next chapter, God asks Cain a probing question, “Why are you angry? (And why has your countenance fallen?)” God knows the answer. He knows how Cain feels and what Cain is thinking. God knows it so well, that He challenges Cain to master his anger and turn his face upward (i.e. seek God’s counsel over his own emotions). We don’t like probing questions, because they reveal our selfish motives and dark impulses. But God actually WANTS us to be aware of our own tendencies–and our need for His wisdom and grace! God is not afraid of our darkest thought– He doesn’t want to expose them for our shame, but enlighten us for our own good!
  • In Genesis chapter 18, the Lord asks a rhetorical question, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…” (concerning the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah). God had already determined that they should be destroyed; He had no need to share this information with Abraham. But in asking the rhetorical question, God gave us a glimpse into His character (as well as a window into Abraham’s character!) God does everything with purpose. He is not willing to hide information we need, nor to waste time or energy on useless information. Imagine if we knew everything–everything!- that would happen to us for the next year? If we knew about that near miss at the intersection on May 22, or the toothache on June 2, or the “surprise” birthday party in October? But when God does choose to open a window, He gives us a chance to respond. Abraham did not choose to argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were not wicked cities, or that God had no business destroying them. His heart was driven to discover if God would destroy the innocent with the wicked. He got his answer (several times over!) And even when God did not find ten innocent people in the cities, He still offered rescue for Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family.
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  • It isn’t only God the father who asks questions. Jesus the son asked two agonizing questions in the New Testament. While He was dying on the cross, He asked the Father, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus knew, intellectually and spiritually, why God had forsaken him; but His question echoed the one found all the way back in the Garden of Eden– “Where ARE you?” The ultimate anguish of being separated from God’s presence was felt by God himself! The agony of loneliness that comes from sin and shame and guilt– God knows it intimately from both sides!
  • Jesus also asked and anguished question of Saul of Tarsus– “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Just as God asked Cain to look carefully at his motives and emotions, so Jesus challenges Saul to reexamine his activities and ambitions. Jesus knew, of course, why Saul was hunting down those who were preaching the Good News. He knew Saul’s ambition and his zeal for the Law. He knew that it had blinded him to the truth. And in Saul’s physical blindness, Jesus could “open his eyes” to a greater ambition and zeal–to preach this same Good News to the Gentiles– the same Gospel that is opening eyes around the world to this day to see the Awesome, Eternal, Victorious, and All-Encompassing Love of God.

Today, may we ask, seek, search out, study, cry out, knock on doors, and pursue this truth–God wants to meet with us! He wants to talk to us, to listen to us, to share closeness, to increase our Joy and be joined to us in our Grief, to lift up our countenance, end our isolation, and be the ultimate answer to our questions.

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St. Francis Visits a Contemporary University…

St. Francis was allowed to visit a 21st century university, which housed a chapel bearing his name. He was both honored and confused by the opportunity. Walking about the campus, he was amazed at the number and variety of students rushing to and fro; they were not looking at the grounds or the sidewalks or at each other– they were focused on their devices. It was a noisy campus, full of the sounds of buses and other traffic, music and podcasts playing, people arguing… Finally, St. Francis arrived at “his” chapel. It was a beautiful building, quiet and simple in its design. It was empty, except for a single student, saying her prayers. At the entrance, there was a plaque with a well-known prayer:

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Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
And where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console; 
To be understood, as to understand; 
To be loved, as to love; 
For it is in giving that we receive, 
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. 
Amen.

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Francis took a seat, absorbing the peaceful stillness, yet wondering at his assignment. Why had he been sent here? Why this moment in time? Taking his cue from the student, he also spent some time in prayer. Then he walked back outside.

He was struck again by the students– they were everywhere, but they were isolated. No one noticed him or stopped to speak. He tried to talk to someone–anyone–but they were all busy and not inclined to pause or interact. He noticed a coffee house across the street. Carefully avoiding speeding buses and weaving bikes, he crossed and entered the shop. It was a little quieter than the commons, but most of the customers were sipping their drinks and staring at screens–personal devices or the huge screen above the counter, streaming the latest news. War, scandal, protests, mud-slinging politicians, all made their appearance, only to be replaced by a commercial break and the next headline. No one stopped in horror at the litany of injustice, death, greed, or duplicity. They simply sipped their lattes and went back to scrolling through their Instagram accounts.

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The door opened to admit the student he had seen earlier in the chapel. She glanced up at the big screen, shook her head, and ordered a coffee. She found a table, and sat down. The coffee house was busy; it was the last empty table. She smiled as another student came in. She invited the other student to sit with her. She started a conversation. At first, the other student was jumpy and disinclined to talk. But soon, the two students were chatting. The sound of it attracted attention. Some customers were bothered by the new noise; others were intrigued by the sound of real conversation– even laughter! Two other students brought their chairs and drinks over and joined the conversation. They spoke of missing their families, of struggling with certain classes, and enjoying others. They spoke of future plans, and the obstacles that stood in the way. They spoke of fears for the future, as well. Francis noticed that one student listened from a distance, but did not join the others. He seemed weary and despondent. Francis walked over and asked if he could just sit at his table for awhile. The young man was startled, but said, “Suit yourself.”

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Francis sat in silence, his head bowed. Finally, the young man spoke quietly. “I saw you watching that girl. Just a word of warning– she’s a nut job. She comes in here about once a week, talking nonsense. She’s not even a student here.”

“And yet, I saw you were also watching her. She intrigues you.”

“I don’t know how she does it. She comes in here, talking about love and joy and faith, and people listen to her. They eat that stuff up. Don’t they know it’s all garbage? Look at the news! But she comes in, all smiling and happy– she’s crazy.”

“But she still intrigues you. Could it be that she is at peace, and you are not?”

“Peace?! Peace is nothing but an illusion. Power is what counts. Action. Look at her– she’s not doing anything to make the world better, and yet she acts like she’s got all the answers. It’s sickening!”

“Why do you keep watching her?”

“I don’t even know. She’s so stupid. She’s all wrong, and she acts like everything is fine.”

“Have you spoken to her? How do you know what she thinks and feels?”

“I’ve told you. She’s crazy. I don’t want to talk to someone like that.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“That she’s not as crazy as you think. That she might laugh at your thoughts, the way you laugh at hers. That she won’t talk to you, like she talks to the others… Maybe you’re afraid of what you would say.”

“What do you mean?”

“What would you say to her if she spoke to you? Would you listen, or would you argue? Would you wipe the smile off her face and take away her joy and faith? Would you make the world a better place by winning your argument with her?”

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The young man was at a loss for words. He suddenly noticed that other conversation had stopped. People were looking at him– even the young woman he had been talking about. His face turned red, and he jumped out of his seat and dashed out of the coffee house. The group dispersed, and Francis was left alone with the young woman.

“He may be right, you know,” she said with a wry smile. I don’t think I do enough to make the world a better place. I just sit and talk with people, and listen, and pray. It’s not much. Not enough to make a real difference.”

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Francis put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “It is enough in God’s economy to be available. To be humble and willing and faithful. Keep up the good work. And may God bless you.”

Keep Silence

We have entered the season of Advent, and as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child, one of the first steps should involve quieting our hearts.

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This can be difficult in the daily noise and bustle around us– particularly in this season! We have filled Christmas with sparkle and glitter; the ringing of bells and endless songs about reindeer and jolly fat men and decorated trees. But this is NOT Christmas– not yet. The bright lights of Christmas, the joyful songs of the angel hosts, all need a proper context. And that means a cold, dark night more than 2000 years ago. It means an emptiness. A heavenly silence that stretched over 400 years. Silence from heaven; silence in the earth; silence in the soul.

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In silence, we ponder. We wait. We anticipate–perhaps even dread– what may come. What will God say when He finally speaks again? Will it be judgment–severe, holy, deserved, undeniable? Will it be condemnation? Will it be that final pronouncement of God’s Holy Sovereignty, and our utter failure to measure up?

The joy of Christmas comes, not because of seeing light shows and snow glistening on trees, or listening to jingle bells and laughter. It comes from knowing that God’s Word is Peace! It is reconciliation and restoration. It is Freedom and Victory over Sin and silence and eternal Death! It is not first felt in the blaring of anthems and resounding of carols. It is in the soft cooing of new Life coming into a dark and silent world. Of everlasting love being wrapped in rags and gently laid in straw.

God delights in turning earthly things upside-down. And so He comes to us, not with fanfares and regal procession, but in stillness and gentleness, in the middle of a dark and silent night.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Sacred Spaces

I love visiting old churches and cathedrals, with their vaulted ceilings and solid stone walls infused with centuries of incense and the echoed prayers. And I love being outdoors surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation. These spaces seem infused with a special sense of the sacred. It is easy to feel close to God is such spaces.

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But God is omnipresent. A crowded bus is no farther from God’s presence than a majestic mesa. The hush of a hospital ward is just as close to His heart as the swelling choir in a cathedral. In fact, when Jesus lived among us on earth, He spent much of His time walking dusty roads, talking and working miracles among the noisy “rabble” of ordinary people. He did not seek out “sacred spaces;” instead, He took the “sacred” into the dark and dirty streets where it was often ignored or dismissed.

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Sometimes, Jesus would go off by Himself into the wilderness or into the hills to pray, as well. It is important to make a time or space to do this. But there is nothing especially sacred about particular spaces– even ones designed to be places of worship. It may not be easy to find a physical space for prayer and worship, but we can make a mental “space”– close off distractions, move or turn away from others for a few precious minutes–focus on God’s presence. Remember, His presence is always with us; we just need to acknowledge it!

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Prayer connects us to God– wherever and whenever we pray. That doesn’t mean that we should not seek out special times and places to be alone with God. But we needn’t wait for a certain moment or location or position in which to meet with God. He is eternally, immediately available to listen. Are we?

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Just Another Haunted House?

He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

Matthew 21:13 (Christian Standard Bible, via Biblehub.com)
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It’s October. Time for apple cider, falling leaves, pumpkin spice cookies, bonfires, corn mazes, and “haunted houses.” I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my neighborhood, we usually have dozens of local charities decorating barns or old factories or houses, and charging people to visit in the nights leading up to Halloween. They hang cobwebs and mirrors, create mazes and special effects– creaky doors, moving floors, glowing objects, eerie moans, flashing lights, and pop-up creatures , along with volunteers dressed up as ghosts or mummies or zombies to guide them along the way. Hundreds of people tromp and shudder, laugh and scream, as they travel through the house. They come back and bring their friends, eager to watch their reactions, and see if they can remember all the “surprises” to come.

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I’m not a big fan of haunted houses. I don’t like being frightened for “fun.” And I don’t like giving money, time, and thought to making “fun” of death and evil spirits. This year, with COVID still a factor, many of the haunted houses are closed or operating very differently. So are many other venues, including churches.

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Which brings me to a startling thought–have some of our churches become nothing more than a kind of haunted house? People come to be entertained; to feel their pulse beat faster, or get excited about a particularly good worship sequence. They may even come to be “frightened” a little by sermons about hell and death, sort of like watching a spooky movie or listening to ghost stories by the campfire. They meet up with their friends, and go out together afterwards to their favorite restaurant. The service is filled with special effects– lights and videos, booming bass lines and dynamic guitar solos, volunteers dressed up to greet visitors, serve coffee and donuts, collect money, and take attendance; sometimes even gimmicks, and props, and prizes.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong for churches to be warm and welcoming; I don’t think they have to be gloomy and boring. But we’ve spent so much time making our churches “attractive;” put so much of our time and effort into making worship thrilling and fulfilling, that we’ve lost our focus. This isn’t “the people’s house.” It isn’t a “fun house.” It is God’s house. A house of prayer. A house of honor and reverence. A Holy place. We’ve made our churches places of basketball courts and coffee bars; playrooms and gift shops; social networks and small business incubators…

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We read about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, but we erect huge signs in front of the church tracking our fundraising efforts for a new roof. We are not a “den of thieves.” But are we a “house of prayer?” Are we meeting together to pray, or to be entertained? To meet with God, or to meet up for fellowship? Are we creating a maze of mirrors and gimmicks, instead of calling out in urgency and humility to Almighty God? Are the pews, or chairs, or stadiums, filled with the (spiritually) walking dead?

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Jesus created a stir when He rebuked the money changers. They hadn’t suddenly appeared and set up shop. They didn’t see themselves as “thieves.” After all, they weren’t stealing from anyone. They were buying and selling items connected with the Temple worship–animals for sacrifice, incense, food for hungry travelers… They weren’t stealing money– not exactly. Maybe they charged extra for their services; for the convenience. Maybe they had bribed someone or used their influence to get a prime marketing spot inside the Temple perimeter. But that’s just business. And, until Jesus kicked up a fuss, no one seemed to notice or mind.

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Jesus wasn’t upset about money– He was upset about those who were stealing from the Father. Cheapening His glory, crowding in on His House, bringing the noise of everyday commerce into the court of contemplation. Bringing dust and pettiness into His Holy presence. Trading the Awe of His Majestic Temple for the “aw, shucks” of a day at the mall– or a trip to the Haunted House.

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We have a real opportunity as “The Church” to take a close look at what we have become, and how we want to adjust to “life after the pandemic.” If Jesus were to visit our church, would He find it a House of Prayer, or a Haunted House?

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