Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
Today we mark the first Sunday in Lent. Lent being the 40 day period that leads up to Easter Sunday. It is a season that is an echo, or reflection, of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry. Jesus’ wilderness journey culminated in a series of temptations. Temptations that confronted him when he was in a physically weakened state and highly vulnerable after 40 days without physical nourishment.
Lent is also a 40 day journey for us – yet the experience of wilderness offered through Lent does not require us to go without nourishment – and particularly without spiritual nourishment. If anything, Lent is a time during which we are invited to pay special attention to spiritual nourishment. To make space for it in intentional ways.
Here at Hyattsville, we will be attending to spiritual nourishment in this season by asking, honoring, holding, and celebrating questions through our theme: Nourishing Questions.
In the human experience, questions are essential for learning and growth.
Reverend Anna Strickland, one of the authors of our worship resources, writes: “Questions are a sign of growth, curiosity, and wonder. We expect that children as they grow will ask thousands of questions about the world around them, not because they are suspicious of it but because they are drawn to it.”
My librarian spouse would suggest that I caveat what I am about to say by openly declaring that I do not have a complete source to cite for this – and I still think it gets at a valuable point…so here goes. Research suggests that by the time a person is 5 years old they have already asked 40,000 questions. The number of questions asked daily by kids ranges from 70 to several hundred as they learn and grow and try to make sense of the world around them. It also appears to be the case that as kids progress further and further through school years and towards adulthood they ask less and less questions. And those of us who are adults ask even fewer – sometimes asking only 20, or less, a day.
If this is, indeed, our experience, it is fitting that we spend some intentional energy nourishing questions within ourselves and this community. In doing so we can celebrate and honor the questions continuously bubbling out of the younger participants in our community, while also reminding and encouraging those of us who are currently less practiced at asking questions that questions are a valuable gift. Questions can offer insight and understanding. Questions can break down barriers and build connections. Questions can expand our worldview and point us towards experiences of revelation.
As people who gather together to learn from the ways of Jesus in the world. We can jump into the practice of nourishing questions by considering: what is it we learn about questions from Jesus through how he taught, showed, and revealed God in the world? As Meryt mentioned at the beginning of the service, during his time of ministry, Jesus was asked hundreds of questions, asked hundreds of questions, and directly answered very few – the count can be as low as 3 or perhaps as high as 60ish depending on how you technically classify what an answer is – either way Jesus directly answers relatively few – preferring instead to redirect responses to questions into new questions, or stories, or perhaps changing the subject altogether. What might that pattern reveal to us about the nature of questions?
Our instinct, when pondering the nature of questions, might be to say that questions are about seeking, or even desiring, answers – about gleaning information – about revealing the way things are. Yet Jesus’ methodology of teaching and being in the world seems to embrace questions more expansively:
Might questions, in and of themselves, beyond any answers they seek, be valuable and revelatory?
Might questions invite us into relationship with God, ourselves, and the world around us in transformative ways?
To further consider Jesus’ approach to questions I pulled together just a few examples of some of the questions scripture has him ask:
What are you looking for?
To what shall we compare the kindom of God?
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?
Do you love me?
Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?
Do you want to get well?
Do you still not understand?
Why are you so afraid?
Will you give me a drink?
Why are you thinking about these things?
What is it you want?
What do you think?
Through this collection of questions, along with the hundreds more to be found in scripture, Jesus invites us to curiosity.
Curiosity in how we explore the world around us: What are you looking for? To what shall we compare the kindom of God?
Curiosity about how we engage in the world: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?
Curiosity about who we listen to and who we grant authority: What is it you want? What do you think?
When we begin to embrace questions with curiosity, we open ourselves to new experiences of questions themselves. When we invite and encourage curiosity in our living and allow ourselves to sit with questions, perhaps holding and pondering them longer than we might be used to or expect, we might even begin asking questions about questions. Wondering and exploring what assumptions the questions coming at us are rooted in. Who might be driving the questions we are asking and are those the questions that we want to root ourselves in? When we choose curiosity we can begin to ask and embrace questions that don’t necessarily provide specific answers – yet invite us into spaces of new perspective, clarity, and transformation.
Making space for curiosity in our living and in our questioning is an act that ignites our imagination. It opens pathways of possibility. Inviting us to embrace mystery, to embody gentleness and generosity as we practice flexibility, explore adaptability, and free ourselves for life-giving growth and transformation – all of which open us to encounters with grace – an experience that often spawns even more curiosity. Making grace-filled space for curiosity reminds us to pay attention, to participate, to learn, and to lean into wonder and awe.
And as much as Jesus did not choose to directly answer questions regularly, Jesus did show the capacity and power of questions and stories to aid us in life-giving discernment. Discernment invites us to respond to questions. While questions tend to desire answers, curiosity reveals that sometimes the questions themselves are valuable source material for insight and discernment – pointing us to consider, not simply an answer to a question, also what is being asked and why. Sometimes the answers we receive are not what we expect, revealing that perhaps our expectations about answers are more about our own assumptions and judgments and less about honest discernment. The practice of nurturing questions might challenge us most by asking us to, time and again, release our sense of judgment in order to make space for curiosity to drive life-giving discernment.
Without curiosity and discernment we might be tempted to embrace easy, comfortable, and particularly power-gifting answers.
Which brings us back to our friend Jesus out there in the wilderness.
I wonder what questions he took with him when the Spirit sent him to the desert? What was he curious about?
When the Tempter arrives and places opportunities for easy relief, safety, and power in his path, we quickly learn some of the questions Jesus has been holding with curiosity: Who am I? What kind of leader/teacher/person will I be? What do I value? What am I rooted in? We also get to bear witness to Jesus’ discernment of those curious questions. In each instance of temptation, instead of accepting easy, simplistic, or power-gifting answers, Jesus chooses relational and expansive faith rooted in God’s love.
And this complex discernment is what Jesus leans into even after 40 days in the wilderness – an experience that surely stretched and stressed his personal capacity. The number 40 in scripture is about a long time – it may not have been a literal 40 days in the wilderness for Jesus but 40 clues us into the fact that the journey was longer than comfortable. Our journey through this season of Lent embracing and nourishing questions may also hold moments of discomfort. Sometimes questions just beget more questions and a lack of answers sometimes breeds frustration. The path may not always be easy, the desire for answers may stretch our personal capacity for curiosity and discernment.
Yet the hope is that in this season, like in all seasons, we can join together on the path. Asking and sharing our questions with each other. Asking questions, not primarily in search of answers, instead inviting and offering questions as a way to to explore the path – to highlight the journey itself – to unveil/reveal the layers of what it is we are experiencing in our living, in our joys, our suffering, our relationships, in our work, in our play, in our curiosity and discernment. And as we practice nourishing questions, we may also find that the questions are also at work nourishing us, expanding our perspective and transforming us on the journey.
A few tangible ways you are invited to participate in nurturing questions during Lent here at HMC:
As Brian mentioned during the peace lamp time, you are invited to join in the Circle of the Spirit group that will meet in the church house each Wednesday during Lent to explore a variety of spiritual practices.
You will find on your pews boxes with papers and pens in them – each week these will be available for you to write down questions that you would like to offer in this space, to this community, to God, to the wind – whatever questions you are carrying or that come to the surface for you in the midst of worship – you are invited to write them down. You may sign them if you are open to engaging with the community about them – and you are also welcome to offer them anonymously. When we have our offering time, you may bring forward those question papers and place them in the designated vessel. In the week ahead those questions will be applied to the path collage out on the coat rack wall in the foyer. A collective wonder wall where we can ask and hold questions with and for each other in the weeks ahead.
For at least this week (and as long as a tape labyrinth might last), you are welcome to travel the labyrinth on the floor of the fellowship hall. An experience that invites you to follow a winding path to the center, where you can linger for as long as you desire and then wind your way back through the path to the exit. Perhaps you will want to carry a question in your mind or spirit as you take that journey? Perhaps you will feel moved to let it go in the heart of the labyrinth? Perhaps you will encounter a new question on the path? There is no right/wrong experience – it is a space to embody being present with curiosity.
And because each of us will engage in the journey of nourishing questions in different ways, we have also created this labyrinth path as the centerpiece for worship arts for this season. A less traditional labyrinth form that offers more than one point of entry and exit while still embracing travelers on the path. This path too will be transformed as we take the journey of lent together.
However you choose and have capacity to engage in nourishing questions during the weeks ahead, in this space and beyond, in community and individually, may you find ways to nourish a sense of curiosity and wonder towards questions in the season ahead and may you also be nourished by the questions you encounter.