Suppose you were walking with God in a beautiful field—just the two of you—on a perfect fall day. There are wildflowers all along the path, you hear the songs of birds overhead, butterflies are moving lightly from blossom to blossom. The two of you walk along, easily, casually, and after a time of sweet and peaceful quiet, God turns to you and says, “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?”
How will you respond?
That’s an important question, isn’t it? Most of us have things we’d love to know—big things, like what is the purpose of life? And are things going to turn out okay? And did you really mean to create the platypus? So many things we’re curious about—and have probably been curious about all our lives. How did the stars get up there? Why are wooly worms woolly?
But at the center of our hearts, there may be more tender questions too. Questions about why we had to go through a painful time. Or why a loved one has to struggle with an illness. Why unfair things seem to happen to good people. Or whether we’re forgiven—really forgiven—for something we deeply regret.
And especially when it comes to the difficult things–those things we still have feelings about–we may feel we’re not supposed to question God. Some of us have been taught that’s disrespectful. We’re just supposed to trust and accept whatever happened as God’s will. The problem is, sometimes those unasked questions can harden within us, getting in the way and deadening our relationship with God.
So before we get too far into the message today, we’re going to stop right here on the path through this field and ask God a question.
In your bulletins this morning you will find a slip of blank paper. And at the ends of the pews, you’ll see a cup with pens. If you need one, help yourself. So take your pen and paper, maybe take a deep breath or two and relax, let your mind settle. And when you’re ready, pick up the pen with your non-dominant hand—in other words, if you’re right-handed, use your left, and if you’re left-handed, use your right. And with that hand, write on the slip of paper one question you want to ask God. Don’t overthink it—just write whatever comes to mind. No one is going to read this but you and God, so don’t worry about your handwriting or your grammar. Just welcome out whatever’s stirring around in your heart just now.
Were you surprised by your question? Did something appear on the page that was different from what you expected to ask?
I first tried this exercise when I was in my late 30s and I’d been learning about spirituality for a good long while. I hadn’t yet been to seminary, but I felt my relationship with God was strong, I prayed and read regularly, and tried to do my best to live out my faith each day. I can still remember the question I thought I was going to write, when I had the pen in my right hand. I was going to ask God, What else can do to get closer to You? But when the person leading the exercise told us to use our non-dominant hand, I first thought, “Well, this is silly—” and then put the pen to paper and wrote my question to God. And to my surprise, the question that came out was completely different from the one I had intended to ask. I saw myself write–badly, because I was using my left hand, “Do You love me?” I was stunned. Because as a 38-year-old woman, I felt pretty sure by then of God’s love. But the me that asked that question didn’t like a grown woman; that me felt eight again.
Over the coming week, I prayed with that question, asking God to help that part of me that was still uncertain feel a more solid sense of God’s presence and love. That prayer deepened my faith and opened the door to a truer connection with God. I would invite you to pray with your question, too, and notice how God uses it in the coming weeks to draw you closer.
There is a technique in mindfulness that suggests that doing everyday tasks with our non-dominant hand—brushing our teeth, opening a door, picking up the remote—makes the activity new to us. When we use the hand we always use, we do the task without thinking, without awareness, just like we do a dozen times a week. But when we do that simple task with a different hand, suddenly we feel how strange it is and we are aware of everything that goes into the experience—the balance of the remote, the pressure on the toothbrush, the twisting of our wrist when we turn the handle on the door.
The benefit of trying something different—or doing something familiar in a different way—is that it gives us a fresh new awareness of what we’re doing. We’re paying attention. We have to try a little harder. We think about the details, instead of going through the experience on auto-pilot. Researchers say this is good for us because our brains love learning—and they stay stimulated and engaged when they are figuring out something new. When we do things over and over again, always the same, day in and day out, we’re not learning, discovering, trying. We’re just going through the motions and our minds are probably elsewhere. Hence the need for mindfulness. The trouble is, this kind of autopilot approach can spill over into our spiritual lives too, and doing what we’ve always done the way we’ve always done it can result in a relationship with God that feels stale, distant, vulnerable to doubt.
You may be interested to know that the first question in the Bible is actually asked by God in the Garden of Eden. It’s that heartbreaking part of the story when God goes to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening—they do this every day and it sounds like paradise to me—but Adam and Eve are nowhere to be found. God knows instantly something has changed—they have never hidden from him before and it’s not like they had something else to do: What could possibly be more important than walking with God? So God asks, “Where are you?” God’s question has a purpose—a purpose of reaching out, hoping to connect with his children and bridge the gap that has suddenly appeared between them. And as we all know, that story is still unfolding.
In our Old Testament reading today, we heard how Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, turned to God and asked a question when her pregnancy was becoming unbearable. The story says that Isaac had prayed because Rebekah was unable to have children, and God heard and responded to that prayer. But when Rebekah was pregnant with twins, they wrestled so much within her they caused her great suffering. She went to “inquire of the Lord,” the scripture says. Her one question for God was, “What is the cause of this terrible discomfort?” She is asking for understanding, for light to make her condition more bearable.
And God gives her the answer, telling her that the two babies represent two nations, who will continue to struggle and be divided. Now into the third generation, we see the separation Adam and Eve started, evolving into nation against nation. Knowing this might not have made her discomfort subside, but it may have reassured her to know that God was guiding her through it.
We ask questions for many reasons our lives—some more obvious than others. In the 1970s, researchers determined that there are two basic purposes for our questions: First, we ask a question to get information. No big surprise there. Second, we ask questions for what they call “impression management” reasons. In other words, we want the other person to like us or think well of us. A question can be a means to building or improving or starting a relationship with another person.
More recently, research was done at Harvard that reviewed natural conversations among participants who were just getting to know each other through speed dates or online chats. Some participants were told to ask many questions and others were told to ask only a few. The research showed that the people who asked the greater number of questions were better liked than the ones who asked few. The reason? Through questions we begin to know one another, and a sense of intimacy begins to build.
It’s with this intent that I think Saul asks his question in our New Testament story. This is a moment of divine encounter that is among the most dramatic in all of scripture. At the opening of this story, Paul—who was still named Saul—was busy doing what Saul did, persecuting the followers of Jesus. He had made it his personal mission to find and arrest—and perhaps torture and kill—those who professed to be part of the Way. He was making plans for a trip to Damascus, where he planned to snare more of Jesus’ followers and bring them, bound, back to Jerusalem. But on the way he and his party are stopped in the road by a blinding light, and a voice—which was heard by everyone present–said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
In this shocking and life-changing moment, Saul had a number of options. He could have dropped to the dirt and covered his head and waited to see if the moment would pass. Maybe he dreamed it. He might have stood there, dumbstruck, uncertain how to proceed. He could have grabbed one of his fellow travelers and pushed him ahead, trying to pass that person off as Saul. But instead he chose a question. He made himself vulnerable—this righteous, highly educated zealot—and opened up to the possibility of relationship with this heavenly One who had called him by name. “Who are you, Lord?” he asked.
That turned out to be the perfect One Question for Saul, because God would spend the whole rest of Paul’s life answering it with faith and grace and light.
We Friends hold intimacy and immediacy in our present relationship with God as the virtual heart of our tradition and faith. George Fox’s initial divine encounter on the hillside in England taught him that “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” And not long after that, in 1652, Margaret Fell heard Fox speak for the first time. He said,
“You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and has thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
Now that’s a question! Margaret Fell wrote later in her journal: “This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong.”
Quakers use questions in this way, not only to get information, and not only to build relationship, but also to invite God’s Light to search us and teach us the truth about ourselves. Where can we be more loving? Is there a board in our eye we cannot see? Quaker queries are questions that are used for reflection and spiritual deepening, helping us assess the state of our relationship with God, ask ourselves whether we’re living up to the light we’ve been given, and explore where in our lives we need God’s grace and guidance. In this case, our question is asked not to God somewhere “out there” but to that of God deep within each one of us: How can we love more truly? How can we bring more peace to the world? What can the Light reveal in us that will deepen our connection with God?
Whatever question we have at the center of our hearts, we can trust that God knows it and loves it and blesses it, ultimately using it to draw us closer, if we are willing. Let’s ask—and listen—and ask again, staying open to answers that may come in new and surprising and even challenging ways. We can trust the way life stretches us when we know it comes from God. How lucky we are to be so loved and guided. We can be confident that God is continually drawing us ever closer, answering the yearning of every heart—the whole world over—for light, and peace, and home.
- OT Genesis 25: 21-23
- NT Acts 9: 1-9
- Queries in Quaker Faith Practice: http://www.noblesvillefriends.org/local-friends-meetings.php