Signposts: Daily Devotions

Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” —John 12:24

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Called to Question

The story of Nicodemus shows us that asking questions can be a first step to a stronger faith

Written By Eyleen Farmer

John 3: 1-17

Questioning childWhen my children were very small sometimes their questions just about drove me crazy. Do dogs go to heaven? Where do babies come from? Why does that man have only one leg? How do you get more grapes from seedless grapes?

Part of my irritation derived no doubt from the relentless demand for my attention that their questions represented. But more to the point was the discomfort of not being able to provide satisfactory answers.

“That man was probably in an accident,” I might say. “But why?” would be the next question. And then I was sunk, because I just didn’t know. One time, in exasperation, I responded to the umpteenth question of the day, “Curiosity killed the cat, you know!” But a few minutes later my son was back. “What did the cat want to know?” he asked.

When my daughter was six her Sunday school teacher reported to me that she had asked if Jonah was really swallowed by a whale. The teacher’s answer? “Well, that’s what the Bible says.” Her question, of course, had little to do with Jonah. What she wanted to know was, what’s real and what’s make believe? Can I trust what grown-ups say? The problem inherent in those questions goes even deeper.

What do you do when the grown-ups, i.e. the people in charge, the “authorities,”—what do you do when what they say doesn’t square with your experience of the world? At the tender age of six my daughter knew there was something about that Jonah story that didn’t sound quite right. What she learned in Sunday School that day was that church is not a good place to ask questions.

Maybe Nicodemus had come to the same conclusion about the religious institution he called home, and maybe that is why he came to Jesus by night.

A strange conversation unfolds. Nicodemus begins with what sounds like a sincere honoring of Jesus’ authority and status: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” But Jesus redirects the conversation, skipping past the social niceties and going directly to the heart of the matter. It is as if he can see straight into the soul of the man standing before him in the dark. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Whatever meaning Jesus has in mind, Nicodemus misses the point, focusing instead on the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” It is tempting to dismiss Nicodemus as dense, resistant, a Pharisee who doesn’t get it, and it’s true that his questions are about on the same level as my daughter’s question about Jonah.

But I wonder about the questions that drove Nicodemus out into the night in the first place. Had the old answers begun to unravel? Was he wondering if there was something else, something deeper and more true than the words he heard and the words he spoke in the temple?

Perhaps you yourself have sat in church and thought—silently, of course and to yourself—do I really believe this? Is there anything here worth believing? Who is Jesus, and would he bother to come to this church?

In her book Called to Question, Benedictine sister Joan Chittister tells about her conversion from religion to spirituality. The only child of a Roman Catholic mother and a Presbyterian step-father, Joan had an unusual religious sensibility for a child. It troubled her that her good and faithful step-father was judged by some to be undeserving of heaven because he was a Protestant. “Early on,” she writes, “(I knew) that life was not really the way the church said it was.” But she pushed her questions away, and began to “(haunt) churches the way other children (haunt) back alleys and open hillsides. . .

I went from church to church, smelling the cool, damp
air of their high vaulted caverns. I lit candles in every
candlestand along the way. Then I dropped to my knees
at the marble altar rails next to each flickering bank of
flames to draw God’s attention to the petition they
represented. Most of all, I studied my catechism.
Correction: No, I did not “study” it.…I swallowed it
whole. I memorized every word of it.…I could recount
every feast day. I could recite every gift of the Holy Spirit.
I could list every capital sin.

Given her religious bent, it was not a surprise when Joan entered the convent at sixteen. In the years that followed she fulfilled all the requirements, followed all the rules, took all the vows. She became active in the Civil Rights and women’s movements, wrote over two dozen books, traveled widely on the lecture circuit, taught courses on spirituality, and accumulated honorary degrees by the handfuls. But a moment came when something shifted.

She describes the ensuing journey as one “from the certainties of dogma to that long, slow, personal journey into God. . . . I began my own wrestling match with God, which no catechism, no creed, could mediate. From then on . . . I would have to dare to ask the questions no one had ever wanted me to ask.” She adopted what she called a “spirituality of search” in which openness to other ideas is not considered an infidelity, but rather the beginning of spiritual maturity. She realized that “Being spiritual means that we become more than pursuers and purveyors of a system. It requires a total change of heart.” It requires being born again, if you will.

We are not told what Nicodemus was thinking or feeling as he walked away from that first conversation with Jesus. We can gather a few clues about his journey though from the two more times that he appears in John’s gospel. In the seventh chapter Nicodemus, alone among the Pharisees, protests their treatment of Jesus. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” While this may not sound like much, and it is not be the full-fledged support of Jesus that we might hope for, Nicodemus has at least begun to question the powers that be.

And then in the nineteenth chapter, after Jesus has been killed, after all the disciples have run away, after the worst that could happen has happened, Nicodemus appears yet again, this time with Joseph of Arimethea who has asked for and been given permission to take Jesus’ body away. The two men have brought with them 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes. They wrap the body in linen and place it in a tomb which has never been used before. To provide such an extravagant burial for an executed criminal was a very dangerous thing to do; it placed them at great risk. Nicodemus, finally, has come out of the shadows to show himself a disciple.

Perhaps his journey to discipleship had begun on that night in the dark, asking questions. My own spiritual journey began when I started bringing my questions to speech. I would make an appointment with the pastor and tromp into his office with my list. How do you come to faith when you can’t force your mind to believe the things you are supposed to believe? Why can’t women be deacons? Why are we spending so much money on a new building when there are so many poor children in this city?

Those questions, and a thousand more, eventually drove me to pursue a seminary degree; they eventually led me to seek ordination; and finally, my questions delivered me to Calvary Episcopal Church. Newly ordained, amazed, humbled, grateful.

And what I have to tell you is this: the God-life is not about believing all the right things about Jesus. It’s not about being able to recite the creed without crossing your fingers or believing that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or having an instant, now-you’re-saved, “born again” experience. It is about being willing to let go of everything you think you know and allowing yourself to be drawn into the mystery that is God.

“Believing,” as John uses this word, does not refer to some intellectual process that happens in your head. To “believe” in something is to give your heart to it. The God-life then is about giving your heart to God. Your broken heart. Your disbelieving heart. Your divided, angry, fearful heart. Your hard heart. You do not, of course, have the power to transform your own heart, but you do have the power to offer it, no matter what condition it is in, to the God who is able to make all things new.

My wish, my hope, my most earnest prayer, is that church could be a place, the very place, the best place, for our children and our youth to bring their questions. And for us to bring ours. And then, as we wrestle with the questions of how we are to live and work and worship, as we grow in trust of God and each other—slowly, gradually, over our lifetimes—a new spaciousness would emerge allowing new things to be born in us and in the world.

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart,” wrote Ranier Maria Rilke,

and try to love the questions themselves as if they
were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign
language. Don’t search for the answers, which could
not be given to you now, because you would not be able
to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live
the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the
future, you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.

Copyright ©2006 The Rev. Deacon Eyleen Farmer. Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN