There Is Only One Question

There are plenty of important questions to ask, but only one will set you free.

Connor Gwin / 6.9.23

Walking around the halls of a church, one hears many questions.

When is the next service?
Where is the food pantry?
Who is preaching on Sunday?
When is this or that class? 
Where is the bathroom?
When will this service end?

Despite the fact that most answers are printed in the bulletin or were included in the weekly email, part of working in a church is answering the full spectrum of questions from the full spectrum of God’s people.

Sometimes there are questions that come with a little more heat. The ones that land like a grenade in the middle of the room (or the email inbox) and you have to make a split-second decision to pick it up and risk the explosion or try to diffuse or deflect the blast. These questions run from the surface level to the deepest trenches of animosity that dominate our current zeitgeist.

Why don’t we have guitars (or an organ) in worship?
Why do you (or don’t you) wear robes?
Why didn’t the church take a stand on this or that issue?
Where do you (the pastor) stand?
Why don’t you talk about x or y political issue more often?

While these questions have come up in every pastoral context I have ever served or seen, they are often not the real question. The person asking is often only casually connected to the actual question or debate but that does not take any of the heat out of the question as it is pitched. It seems important. Given the stock we have put into the surface-level debates, questions of wardrobe or music or legislation can feel like salvation is in the balance. Hello, #seculosity.

In closed-door meetings with other clergy, you hear other questions come up over and over again.

What new program has your church started?
Is it working? Are people coming? How many people?
Is your church growing or shrinking? Shrinking by how much? 
Will my church be here in fifty years? In twenty-five? In ten?
What other careers have you considered?
When was the last time you felt the presence of Jesus? That long ago, really?

I recently got to know a man who joined our parish last year after being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. He was given three to six months to live. His first Sunday was the week after the diagnosis.

He came to worship exactly once in person. Soon after, he was homebound and unable to attend, so he watched online and I brought him communion every two weeks or so.

This man was a brilliant artist. He worked in universities and schools. He was a practicing Buddhist for more than three decades but when he was diagnosed he felt compelled to find a Christian church and we were one of the closest.

When I walked into his bedroom for a visit he would pull out a list of questions he had compiled in the time since my last visit. Questions about Christianity and theology. Questions about the life of Jesus and the Gospels. Questions about how exactly one feels the love of God he had read so much about.

Our conversations were lively and I looked forward to the intellectual exercise I would get in my time with him, but as his disease progressed the list of questions got smaller and smaller. Instead, he told me stories of his wild and beautifully creative life.

After a few months of visits, I noticed a change in the décor of his bedroom. A beautiful hand drum that once hung above his bed had been replaced by a simple black cross.

I didn’t ask why he had put the cross above his bed. I knew why he was suddenly and quite surprisingly (at least to he and his wife) drawn to the blood of Jesus and his cross.

In one of the last visits before his death, we had a short conversation because he was in great pain and discomfort after a night of fitful sleep. When I finished the prayers and packed up my communion kit, he said that he loved the final blessing I used each time I brought him the bread and wine.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your heart and mind in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord …

Then he looked up at me from the bed where he would die a month later and asked, seemingly out the blue but in reality the question had been on the tip of his tongue for most of his life,

“Is everything forgiven?”

“Yes,” I said, “it is all forgiven.”

He closed his eyes and tears fell down his cheeks.

“Thank you for coming,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” I replied as I took my supplies and left him in the silence of that question and its aftermath.

It took six months of conversations and intellectual acrobatics with a priest and a lifetime of searching for him to get to that question, the one question that sits in our chest just below our heart to the left of our sternum.

The Good News is not an intellectual exercise. It is the answer to the only question that truly matters. The answer comes in the form of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is alive and stands ready to respond in this and every moment.

There are plenty of important questions to ask, but there is only one question with an answer that will set you free. It may take a diagnosis or a divorce or a failure so grand that you expect the Guinness Book of World Records to call any moment for you to ask the question. It may take a lifetime and your deathbed to get up the nerve to ask it out loud.

Of course, you could ask it right now. You don’t have to wait.

Is everything forgiven?

If you quiet down, even for the split second it takes you to breathe one deep breath, you can hear the reply as a still, small voice echoing in the cathedral of your chest or like a lion’s roar from the tip of your toes to the top of your head:

It is finished. It is forgiven. You are free.

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2 responses to “There Is Only One Question”

  1. Bill Porter says:

    I loved this. Thank you very much for sharing it.

  2. Scott K says:

    Amen. Thank you

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