It is a great loss if we greet every day with clenched hands stuffed with our own devices. We will never know what is out there waiting for us if we don’t extend an empty hand to the world and wait for the wonder to happen. –Daniel Holman and Lonni Collins Pratt
He felt like a caged rat, buried alive in a tiny boxlike container, three thousand feet under the earth for fourteen brutal days. He was desperate but he wasn’t alone. In early April 2006 three Australian miners, BrantWebb, Todd Russell, and Larry Knight, were working in a century-old gold mine when an earthquake hit, killing Knight and trapping the other two in a cramped steel safety cage over half a mile from fresh air, buried by tons of rubble and rock.
For two agonizing weeks Webb and Russell endured the suffocating confines of their claustrophobic space. The situation was dire, and with their lower bodies pinned by debris, they considered amputating their legs with box cutters if surviving required it. Panic set in, and they coped with their terrifying impasse with humor and music. Trying to find a song they both knew the lyrics for, they settled on Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler,” spending harrowing hours reminding the crushing, pressing earth around them that indeed you “got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
Confined and shut in, the darkness and the distance from other people worked against their humanity. “I just thought I was a caged rat,” Webb said. Realizing the very real possibility that they would never see their families again, they wrote messages of love and affection on their skin, the only parchment they had. Miraculously, the messages were unnecessary. On April 25, after two unthinkable weeks buried alive, they saw the hands of rescuers reaching down, pulling them out of the small hellhole that had become their temporary home.
Being trapped in a small place is a horrible state for the body. It is an even more ghastly state for the soul. Yet most of us find ourselves there at some point, when our fears have run rampant or our disappointments have mounted.
We have felt deep rejection. We have seen the darkness of our heart. We have been abandoned or betrayed or simply ignored. We know what it is to be buried under layers of shame. We have been in hiding, maybe we are in hiding, far from sunshine and fresh air, like a caged rat. The paradox of our deep-earth dilemma is that, while we never would have chosen this solitary darkness, we are choosing it, day by suffocating day. We are too afraid of being hurt . . . again. We are too afraid of hoping . . . again, disappointed . . . again.
And so we do what fearful people do. We hide. It might not look like hiding at all. We might talk a steady stream or wear an exquisitely crafted smile. We might take on some manageable role—the group jester, the profound thinker, the dutiful wife, the dependable husband, the melancholy cynic. But all these masks are only assorted ways of hiding. We might not see it but we are incredibly self-saturated, engrossed in the smallness of ourselves. And if we live here long enough, we grow quite used to being trapped in a small, small place.
I have a friend who has known true tragedy in his life. He has many reasons to grieve and good cause to be angry. However, he hasn’t grieved well, and he doesn’t allow his anger the space to boil so it can be tended to within the context of good friends and loving community.
My friend has resorted to hiding and sulking and sabotaging relationships, places where he could be known in the very ways for which he longs. He is used to his smallness, content with his cramped space. I want to have the courage (and the permission) to ask him a straightforward question: Are you bored with yourself yet? It seems to me that a blunt question, aimed at the heart, from one who truly loves, would provide the best chance at jarring us from the hellholes into which we so readily descend.
I came to this conviction by way of personal experience. During graduate school, I ran headlong into my addictive perfectionist tendencies. I was hard on myself and hard on those I most deeply loved. One result of my neurosis was a near nervous breakdown. Many days I couldn’t eat and merely endured the hours between opportunities to sleep. I was distant from my family, withdrawn, and dour. I was hiding and hiding quite well.
One night a mentor asked me a most unwelcome question.
“Winn, are you willing to be wrong?”
He touched a nerve. His meddling question dug down into my small space and curled up next to me. It would not be ignored; it forced me to ask
how long I would exist closed off and self-consumed.
“So, Winn, are you bored with yourself yet?” There have been many occasions when such questions have arrested my attention. Another I remember well is when a friend asked me how I wanted my boys to remember me when I am gone. I can’t think of any question that gets to my deepest longings and most crushing fears more than a question like that. It won’t allow me the small space. It calls me out into the wild open. It calls me to live.
To live—truly live—requires courage. It is a dangerous thing to step into the untamed world where disappointments and tragedies and shame and sin run free. It takes a bit of moxie and more than a little nerve to shrug off the fear and the guilt and run with a devil-may-care abandon. If we give ourselves fully to hope, chances are that some mishap will crush our spirit. If we surrender to the chaos we have previously committed to hold at bay, good odds are that some terror will find its way to us. If we yield to desire, we run the risk of finding ourselves knee-deep in all sorts of scandalous behavior.
So we often surmise it is more important to guard against these unfavorable outcomes than to dive into the unpredictable mess. However, we have named our breathing of this air and our movements on this sod an unambiguous word: living. And living is more than existing, more than hiding and hoarding, more than self-protection, more than guarding ourselves from the phobia of what might be. The word living, when spoken rightly, carries with it a hint of danger, a sense of awe. To live is a courageous act.
And it was precisely this—life—that Jesus said he brought to humanity. He stepped onto dusty soil, where little that he encountered could be called, in any true sense, life. Here he collided with a world long plunged into the fall, strangled by death, heaving and gasping in a spiraling darkness. Jesus’ mission was to give himself over to the brutality of a Roman cross, and every redemptive act Jesus offered (and offers)finds its power in that cruel moment when God went silent and the sky turned black.
It is sometimes difficult, however, to find meaningful comfort in the abstract realities of Jesus’ death-embracing and life-generating sacrifice. I need something more particular.
I need a conversation. I need a touch. I need Jesus, God with flesh and bones. How did Jesus, God walking among us, speak against the death and the darkness and the loneliness and the shame? How did he seek to pull us into redemption as he met us on the street or shared a meal with us? How did he call us to emancipation when he faced our tears or our vice or our panic? Often Jesus used a simple, subversive power.
Jesus used a question.
Jesus’ questions probed the soul, and they were not easily ignored. He posed one question to a grieving sister emptied of hope. He directed one toward a friend who couldn’t muster up the courage to trust, and another toward the ears of a band of piously religious hypocrites. On another occasion, he questioned an invalid who seemed to prefer to wallow in regret rather than take the risk to believe.
These Jesus-questions refuse to stay put in dusty Palestine. They make an unsettling turn—toward us. Originally posed to distant people on a far-distant day, these questions, as all Jesus’ questions do, get personal and begin to meddle. We find ourselves the characters in these stories—the grieving sister, the fearful friend, the power-crazed hypocrite, the wallowing invalid. Finding our place with them, we discover that Jesus’ questions—first tossed in their direction—become our own disorienting, gracious queries. This soul work, this asking of true heart-deep questions, is an art we learn from Jesus. Jesus is well aware we have our own questions, and he knows the raw and honest ones have always been a vital element of an authentic and alive spirituality.
The wisdom writers knew it too. They lead us down the path of offering all we are to God, even those unsavory portions—our doubts, anger, complaints. Honesty is more important than pleasantry. If we are distrustful of God, it is ours to own. If we doubt God is real, we have to say as much to him. We can pull no punches. We cannot dance around the harder stuff, nor soften the vocabulary. If God’s silence bewilders us, then bewilder must be the word God hears from us. If anger is what we feel toward God, anger must be what God feels from us. Far from the unleashing of emotional temper tantrums, this is merely a commitment to candor. If God is real, then God already knows the truth about us—all the truth—and it is the ultimate dishonoring of another to hide the sickness and ugliness erecting barriers to our giving and receiving love.
When we pose our questions, particularly the darker ones, to God, it can be an act of faith, perhaps the greatest act of faith. Questions can be a way of tenaciously holding on to the core conviction that God is good and reliable and strong, big enough to handle even our mistrust. Jesus is comfortable with our questions, and he knows that our questions (at least the honest ones) are good and necessary.
But Jesus has a few questions of his own.
If our questions become the goal, we are no longer being honest but merely using our questions to hide. This will never do. Jesus will not leave us in our smallness. He does not want us to flounder in the suffocating space of humiliation or cynicism or dread. He will stand, firm and solid, and ask an unnerving question, inviting us to allow the question to have its impact, to unsettle us, to toy with our paradigms and shift the certain, steady ground we cling to so desperately. He will use the question to call us past our obsession with safety. Jesus’ questions make us wiggle and squirm; they call us out.
When my son Wyatt was three, he had an interesting view of reality. He was learning how he was connected to his world, that he has a history and that he had not always been—and would not always be—three. Add a little imagination and a preschooler’s philosophical wit to the mix, and you have something of a budding “circle of life” approach to metaphysics. Wyatt placed himself in most every event and imagined himself to have at one point been most every creature.
During the throes of summer, when mosquitoes were aplenty, Wyatt was the local mosquito population’s favorite entrée. One day, while we were salving the multitude of bites on his legs, Wyatt said, “Daddy, when I was a mosquito, I would bite legs.”
Wyatt’s imaginative sense made for some interesting inquiries. One day he asked me where God was.
“Everywhere,” I answered, pleased I had offered a simple reply that still did justice to the ontological realities of the Almighty.
“But where is he? I can’t see him,” he insisted.
Where would I go from there, conversing with my three-year-old, when everywhere as an answer would not do? Wyatt’s question pushed past the easy, the trite. His question forced me, sitting on my newly potty-trained son’s bed, to acknowledge that his question was too big, and my words were too small: “Well, Wyatt, you’re right. I can’t see him all the time, either, and that is frustrating.”
God’s questions do the same, pushing us toward honesty and humility, refusing to let us hide behind stock answers.
After the tragedy of the fall, Adam and Eve hid. They hid their bodies and they hid their hearts. This is our introduction to sin. What began as Adam and Eve’s stiff-necked rebellion quickly morphed into their rabid fear of being found out and a panic over their complete inability to decelerate the meltdown they had initiated. So Adam and Eve’s response was to stick their fingers in their ears, close their eyes, and hum as loud as they could in the bushes, pretending they could hide from the truth. God stepped into the tragedy, though, and he posed a question: “Adam, where are you?” It was a question intended to unnerve them, to reveal their desperation, to call them out of their hiding.
God asked a question to the two hiding in the garden, and he has been asking questions to us ever since. His questions urge us out of our self-absorption and pull us into something far bigger: God. God’s questions are subversive. They reframe the discussion. They are always at work pulling us out of ourselves and drawing us into himself. Ask Job or Moses if God has ever used an intrusive question to serve his purposes.
Recently a friend who has journeyed with me through much of my own cynicism and wimpish behavior asked me if I was angry about it all, yet angry enough to move into action. He knew that as long as I huddled in the cramped but well-pampered and defensive space of distrust, fear had won. This defensive posture is too easy. Anyone can surrender his courage. Anyone can not believe. But to believe—to step forward even in our cowardice—to dare to risk and move, that is another thing altogether. That is the stuff hearty faith is made of, and Jesus will use powerful questions to spur us toward a hearty faith.
Jesus’ encounter with the apostle Peter provides another example of this subversive nature of Jesus’ questions. Peter was a volatile fellow. He lived in only two gears: all or nothing. He was either diving headlong into the storm-ravaged sea, full of confident faith, or he was sinking to the ocean floor, gasping with fear. He was either falling asleep, unable to stay awake at Jesus’ request, or he was swinging his sword, single-handedly taking on the armed band arresting Jesus. Peter was wild. It is no surprise, then, that in Peter’s most tragic hour, his sin was of the boldest sort: denying the Jesus he loved.
Common wisdom suggests that Peter’s denial was fundamentally grounded in an effort to save his neck. Peter feared for his life, and so, in the middle of the high priest’s courtyard where sentiment against Jesus had hit fever pitch, Peter denounced his friend. This might be so. But I read the story differently. Only hours earlier, Peter had risked his life for Jesus. When no one else moved to defend him, Peter pulled a sword. Surely this is loyalty, he must have thought. Surely this is obedience to Jesus’ description of noble friendship: one person laying down his life for another. But Jesus’ answer to Peter’s bravery was rebuke. Peter had offered his life, and Jesus dismissed his act as misguided.
Adding to Peter’s puzzlement, Jesus was now held captive by those intending to silence him once and for all. And Jesus did nothing. He wouldn’t fight. He wouldn’t let Peter fight. He just sat there, silent. What sort of king is this? Peter must have thought. Still, when nearly every other follower had deserted Jesus, Peter hadn’t. He followed Jesus into the lair of the scheming religious leaders.
Peter was confused, no doubt. He was perplexed and anxious. However, with his ear-chopping fervor and his refusal to run, does it really seem plausible that Peter’s strongest motivation was self-preservation? Or might it be that the one who had pulled the sword was driven by a dread of something other than death? Peter must have been engulfed in the bitterness of disappointment, doubts fueled by expectations ripped apart. Was Peter beginning to believe he had hoped in the wrong thing, the wrong one?
Warming by the enemy’s fire, three critics posed Peter the most straightforward query: “Are you a follower of Jesus?” They did not ask what Peter thought of the Galilean’s
theology. They did not quiz him on the political positions of the carpenter turned prophet. They did not ask Peter if he believed Jesus’ claim to be Messiah was a farce. Peter faced a more basic, less theoretical, inquiry. “Are you a follower?” Peter, doubting all he had experienced with Jesus, offered what might have been the most honest response available to him: “No.”
Peter’s betrayal was born of disillusion. The gloomy garden and the Judas kiss and Jesus’ deafening silence in the face of it all were simply too much for Peter. And three times, all before the cock finished its crowing, Peter’s confusion took shape in the form of a harsh, disillusioned No. He had no space for this sort of king, no category for this twist in the story. Peter’s heart was good, but as with most of us, his “clenched hands [were] stuffed with his own devices.” When what we expect will be is smothered by what actually is, doubts and clenched fists are our common response.
Peter’s betrayal was odious. Though redemption came for Peter in the same way it is offered to us all, he will forever be remembered as the one who denied Jesus. This is a sad and unfortunate tale; yet if my read on Peter’s place in the night before Good Friday is reasonable, I detect a sliver of respectability in Peter’s disloyal hours: Peter was honest. Peter was angry. Perplexed and disappointed by Jesus’ bizarre actions, Peter had more questions than faith. When asked if his loyalty lay with Jesus, he would not lie. Honesty of any sort, even the treasonous kind, is better than deception. The one barrier to redemption is refusing to own up to the darkness that led us to our humble place. Such refusal will keep us from falling before the feet of grace, which is precisely where Peter finds himself several days following his threefold denial.
When Jesus appeared to Peter after the resurrection, he didn’t address Peter’s treachery. Obviously Jesus had not been surprised by the denial; in fact, he had warned of its coming.
Jesus did not offer Peter a theological treatise on doubt and faith. He did not chide Peter for his seditious acts. Jesus chose a more subversive path. Rather than answer Peter’s many questions, Jesus proffered his own: “Do you love me?”
It’s the sort of question that cuts to the center of things. It bypasses should and why and how could you? It digs deep for the rawest place. It is the sort of question that swallows you whole. With Jesus, the question takes shape; it becomes flesh and bones.
It is this flesh-and-bone rawness, this rich humanity of Jesus, that meddles with our callous, constricted hearts. Jesus does not ask a question—of Peter or of us—merely to make a point. The question is not just a rhetorical device, as if Jesus is merely pulling some tool out of his bag. Sometimes Jesus asks a question because he would really like to know the answer: Do we love him? It is a mystery how both true divine knowledge and true human inquiry mingle in one man, one God. But they do. The ancient catechisms insist as much. There is nothing more human, more honest, more inviting to friendship than a good soul-opening question. It cuts to the center, past the hubris. It carries love with it as it reaches into our depth. And the question lingers until we answer.
George Eliot surmises that animals make such good friends because they do not ask any questions and they do not offer any criticisms. If this criteria for friendship sticks, Jesus doesn’t score well. The truth, however, is that a true friend is one who will sit with us in our emotional filth and our most disturbing neurotic fits, just sitting, perhaps with a faint hint of a smile. And then when the time is right, a true friend will offer a well-placed question, not one that manipulates or preaches, but one that invites us to peer deeper and to look harder, to wonder if repentance might be in order or hope might be embraced just past the chaos.
Jesus is such a friend, a strong friend with a fierce love.With the power and the hope and the sting of a well-placed question, Jesus calls us out of our smallness, out of ourselves. He calls us to open up our clenched fists, to embrace thewonder and to live—truly live.
My wife, Miska, is good at asking the well-placed question. Whenever I am in meltdown mode or living in obviously unhealthy ways, she likes to ask, “So, how’s that working for you?” I hate that question. But it’s a good one. It’s the sort of question Jesus would ask.
Excerpted from Holy Curiosity by Winn Collier (ThM, 1997) Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 2008. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group, www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.