Questions worth living

One of the questions I asked three weeks ago was, “What is your most urgent question?” Your responses were more than interesting. They were thoughtful and engaging, curious in a way that might launch a serious and fruitful exploration of faith. And they expressed the deep yearning for God I believe St. Augustine had in mind when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you” (Confessions). God has made us so we will continue asking questions until we are completely grounded in God.

Several of your questions led me to believe Nicodemus might have been in the congregation that day. We remember Nicodemus as the well-placed Jewish leader who came to Jesus because he was struggling to make sense of what Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God, teaching that seemed out of place in his tradition. I suppose he came because, although he could make no sense of what Jesus was teaching, Jesus seemed to know what he was talking about. He taught “as one having authority” (Matt. 7:29), and Nicodemus had serious, urgent questions that needed authoritative answers (see John 3:1-17).

I have questions about the kingdom of God. You do, too, and here are some of them: “How can we live together with each other and help those who need it?” “How do I stop my anxiety from taking over?” “How can I make a meaningful impact that will help the people I love lead better and healthier lives?” “Why is there so much conflict in the world?” “Can I find a way to be content with the life I have?” They’re the kind of questions Nicodemus asked, the kind human beings have been asking for as long as anyone can remember, the kind of questions I suppose we’ll go on asking till the kingdom comes.

Till the kingdom comes. But Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). The banquet of heaven is spread before you, he said; you’ve been called to the table; and if you don’t come to the feast now, you’ll find that later will be too late (Luke 14:15-24). “When will this new world, this thing they call the ‘kingdom of God,’ come?” the disciples wanted to know, and Jesus said “What you are waiting for has already come, but you don’t recognize it” (Gospel of Thomas, 51).

 “What is ‘the good news’?” Nietzsche asked. “That true life, eternal life, has been found – it is not something promised, it is already here, it is within you” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichristian). The satisfaction of our deepest human yearnings is woven into our yearnings; the answer to our question is hidden in the question, like treasure hidden in a field or the pearl of great value Jesus talked about (Matt. 13:44-45). To the one who stopped praising God because he never heard anything back, the poet Rumi said, “This longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection” (Jelāl al-Dīn Rumi, “Love Dogs”).

When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about how to enter the kingdom of God, he said no one can enter it “without being born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). You must be “born from above,” he said (v. 7). And Nicodemus, struggling to understand, asked, “How can these things be?” (v. 9). There’s no indication that Nicodemus ever understood, that he ever knew the answer to his questions. But this much we do know, that he stayed close to Jesus, and at the very end, after all the disciples had deserted Jesus, Nicodemus was the one who came with spices for his burial (John 19:39). His questions may never have left him, but I have the feeling that, at the end, Nicodemus knew something far deeper and truer than the answers to his questions.

How do we enter the kingdom of God? How do we see through the scrim to discern the hidden reality in our midst? How do we come to know what is deeper and truer than the answers to our questions? Jesus’ answer was not about what actions we are to take, what rules to follow, what beliefs to hold, what religion to practice, or anything at all like those things. It was about a different way of being in the world, as if we are born all over again, as if we were blind but now see (John 9:25), as if we were bound in grave clothes but now have been called out of our tombs, unbound, and set free (John 11:38-44).

Jesus spoke about something unattainable by anything we can do but that is already ours, and he called us to wake up and open our eyes – to open our hearts at the deep center of our being – and receive with gratitude what God is already giving us – the banquet of heaven, the kingdom of God – and to celebrate its presence even though our questions remain – to celebrate its presence precisely amid all our questions.

In a letter to a young poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

The questions that led me to seminary, and the questions I took with me there, have never left me, not in four decades of living with them. They have changed, they have deepened, and in some ways they have grown more necessary and urgent. I’ve come to appreciate how they open up new possibilities, new discoveries, new depths of relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. They’re questions worth asking, and they’re questions worth living with.

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