Asking Stupid Questions

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent: 

Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding… (Psalm 32)
This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

Back in 1965, singer and songwriter Paul Simon found himself stranded at a train station in England. During his down time, he wrote a song about how much he missed his home and his then girlfriend. The song became one of the signature pieces he performed with his partner Art Garfunkel. The song “Homeward Bound” peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts back in 1966.

I’m sittin’ in the railway station,
Got a ticket for my destination, mm
On a tour of one night stands,
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned,
For a poet and a one man band

Homeward bound, I wish I was,
Homeward bound
Home, where my thought’s escaping
Home, where my music’s playing
Home, where my love lies waiting Silently for me

A few years back, the toy company Mattel made feminists very angry when they allowed their Barbie doll to start talking. Do you remember the controversy over the talking Barbie? She could say 270 phrases including such startlingly intelligent things as, “Will we ever have enough clothes?”, “I love shopping!”, and “Wanna have a pizza party?”

Those were not controversial, however. What she said that caused an uproar was, “Math class is tough” – which is remembered in the media as “Math is hard.” I, for one, was not upset by Barbie’s words, instead, I found them to be the most sagely thing the tiny, plastic, impossibly thin, doll could ever utter. I wholeheartedly agreed. As a teenager, I often uttered the phrase “Math class is tough” – though I didn’t use those exact words – I most likely said it sucked – a word that would probably get poor Barbie barbequed.

Math class sucked because of an impossibly tall teacher at my high school named Mr. Hopper. He was originally from Austria so he had a very thick accent that made math just that much harder to understand. Mr. Hopper did not suffer fools, or Barbie sympathizers, lightly. He was a harsh taskmaster. Math made sense to him, so naturally, it made sense to everyone. He would tolerate no stupid questions – and in Mr. Hopper’s world, all questions were stupid questions. I asked no questions in his class, and soon discovered the other thing he hated more than questions was for anyone to profess that they did not know an answer. How could you not know – math made sense and if you worked the problem as he taught, you’d know!

One fateful day, Mr. Hopper and I had a show down. He was going through the problems one by one, going down the row expecting us to give the answer to each problem. He arrived at me. I did not know the answer. I had no clue.

“Ms. Chellew, what is the answer to question 5?” he boomed.

I sat motionless for a moment – a deer in the Austrian’s headlights. Others sensed my panic and shuffled in their desks. Finally, I said, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?!” he screamed.

“I don’t know,” I repeated. What else could I say, “Sorry, just joking, here’s the answer …”

Again, he screamed, “You don’t know?!” As if yelling at me would suddenly make the answer pop into my brain.

At this point, one guy ahead of me scrawled the answer on a piece of paper and held it up for me to see, but I couldn’t give in. If I suddenly knew the answer after being yelled at he’d be reinforced in thinking that yelling produces correct answers. So, I disregarded the note and repeated, “I don’t know.”

Again, he yelled – again I affirmed my ignorance of the answer.

There was no backing up, no walking me through the problem, no asking where I may have failed in my understanding – just shock that someone had the temerity to say, “I don’t know,” and really mean it.

Finally, he moved on to the person behind me who knew the answer – since the guy ahead of us had clued us all in. I, however, was a wreck.

I was shaking, on the verge of tears – mainly from anger. I knew the answer, because someone told me, but I was denied the chance to learn how to arrive at that answer on my own. I was denied the chance to ask a stupid question, and learn something valuable. All I wanted to do was go home, and never come back. Everyday’s an endless stream, Of cigarettes and magazines, mmm And each town looks the same to me, The movies and the factories And every stranger’s face I see, reminds me that I long to be Homeward bound, I wish I was, Homeward bound Home, where my thought’s escaping Home, where my music’s playing Home, where my love lies waiting Silently for me

College was an epiphany for me where math was concerned. Because of my high school experience, I was placed in remedial math. God, however, took mercy on me and granted me a completely different type of teacher. With her, there was no such thing as a stupid question. All questions were welcome. She’d even start over on a problem and walk you through it from beginning to end. I was blessed with another teacher of the same caliber later in my college career. Thanks to these teachers I made an A in Algebra, and even managed to pull a B out of Calculus. Math wasn’t hard when I was allowed to ask stupid questions, make mistakes, and learn how to get from the beginning of a problem to the end of problem on my own.

This is the mark of a good teacher – there are no stupid questions. This is also the mark of a good religion – it welcomes questions and embraces our doubts. Bad religion is like Mr. Hopper – where questions are not allowed. The Psalmist knows the danger in not being allowed to ask stupid questions:

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”

When our questions are silenced – when religion tells us, “This is what you must believe and you must not ask why,” we waste away – our strength dries up. This false certainty of religious dogma keeps us locked in our ignorance, weak in our faith.

Like Mr. Hopper, too, this form of religion forbids us from saying, “I don’t know,” because when we utter that phrase we give permission to the mystery of God to enter our lives.

“You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

It is only in the mystery, in the “I don’t know” of our stupid questions that we come into that hiding place where the Holy keeps us from trouble and surrounds us with glad cries of deliverance. In that deliverance we can come home to where love lies waiting silently for us. What carries us home is our stupid questions and our ability to say, “I don’t know” and fully embrace the mystery of our faith.

Breathe deeply.

Tonight I’ll sing my songs again,
I’ll play the game and pretend, mmm
But all my words come back to me,
in shades of mediocrity
Like emptiness in harmony,
I need someone to comfort me

Homeward bound, I wish I was,
Homeward bound
Home, where my thought’s escaping
Home, where my music’s playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me

In 2005, Bon Jovi released his ninth album called “Have a Nice Day.” Our next song comes from that album. It peaked at #23 on the U.S. charts but was #5 on the U.K. charts, which is odd, since the song, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” was written about Bon Jovi’s native New Jersey. The song was used by the state’s tourism office for a TV commercial. There are two versions of this song, including one marketed to country radio as a duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles.

[Verse] I spent 20 years trying to get out of this place,
I was looking for something I couldn’t replace
I was running away from the only thing I’ve ever known
Like a blind dog without a bone,
I was a gypsy lost in the twilight zone
I hijacked a rainbow and crashed into a pot of gold
I been there, done that, I ain’t lookin’ back
on the seeds I’ve sown,
Saving dimes, spending too much time on the telephone,
Who says you can’t go home

[Chorus] Who says you can’t go home
There’s only one place they call me one of their own
Just a hometown boy, born a rolling stone,
who says you can’t go home
Who says you can’t go back,
been all around the world and as a matter of fact
There’s only one place left I want to go,
who says you can’t go home
It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright

In our reading from the Jesus story, we find a story so familiar it has become part of our national psyche. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you know the story of the Prodigal Son. Since we’ve heard this story a million times before, let’s hear it in a new way:

Feeling footloose, fancy-free and frisky, this feather-brained fellow finagled his fond father into forking over his fortune. Forthwith, he fled for foreign fields and frittered his farthings feasting fabulously with fair-weather friends. Finally, fleeced by those folly filled fellows and facing famine, he found himself a feed flinger in a filthy farm-lot. He fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments.

“Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, frankly facing fact.

Frustrated from failure and filled with forebodings, he fled for his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he floundered forlornly. “Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited further family favors . . .”

But the faithful father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged his flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.

But the fugitive’s fault finding frater, faithfully farming his father’s fields for free, frowned at this fickle forgiveness of former falderal. His fury flashed, but fussing was futile.

His foresighted father figured, “Such filial fidelity is fine, but what forbids fervent festivities? The fugitive is found! Unfurl the flags! With fanfare flaring, let fun, frolic and frivolity flow freely, former failures forgotten and folly forsaken. Forgiveness forms a firm foundation for future fortitude.”

No matter how many times we hear this story, in its familiar, or unfamiliar form – we immediately understand it as a story of repentance and forgiveness. The young man finds himself in dire straits and wants to go home. He’s hoping he’ll simply be welcomed as a servant, but he’s celebrated as a returning hero by his father. This is a story of assurance that no matter how far we stray, God always welcomes us home.

We know that story – and yet – we still doubt – we still wonder. We’re still afraid to ask one simple, stupid question. It’s often pride and fear that keep us from coming home to God. We feel like we can’t ask that stupid question. We feel like, now that we’re all grown up, we should know all the answers. Parents suffer from this malady. They believe asking for parenting help is a sign of weakness when it is really a sign of maturity. Asking questions means we want to learn more, to grow deeper in our understanding – and deeper understanding, instead of producing unwavering certainty plunges us further into mystery. This is the paradox of true knowledge: the more we understand, the less we know for certain. That’s because truly understanding something means we can see all sides of an issue – we can empathize with those we may consider “other.” Coming to a place of understanding then, instead of entrenching us in our certainty, means we value the lives, the opinions, and the choices of other people, even if we don’t agree with it.

Those who are certain, who cannot ask the stupid questions out of fear or pride, are like our prodigal son before he realized that it is better to take the risk and ask that one stupid question: “Does God still love me? Even after everything I’ve done, everything I’ve thought, everything I’ve failed to do, does God still love me?”

Now, that’s a stupid question, that is put to rest by the father running to greet his son. That question is also answered in how the father treats the son’s confession of sin. He doesn’t say “I told you so,” or “It’s about time you came to your senses.”

No, the father doesn’t gloat – he’s not even listening – because he’s ordering his people to bring out the best clothes for his son and to prepare a feast. We’re told so often that we’ve got to bow and scrape before God – to beat ourselves up about our sin and make a full confession. This story says differently. The father was running to meet the son as soon as he saw him in the distance – the sins were already forgiven as soon as the son headed home. He didn’t need to make any tearful confessions – just the act of turning around – which is what the word “repent” means – to turn around – just that simple act meant that forgiveness was granted. The moment we realize we’re on the wrong path in our lives and we turn back toward God’s path is the moment we’re forgiven – no begging or pleading is required. “Yes,” God tells us, “I still love you – no matter what.”

Breathe deeply.

While we love to be the prodigal coming home and getting a party thrown for us – we’re also the older brother from time to time – standing in astonishment that God’s grace and forgiveness can be given to people we don’t think deserve it. When we get into this role, we’re entrenched in our certainty about who God should forgive and who God should damn to hell. We’re in our Mr. Hopper role here – not tolerating any stupid questions like “Does God love me?” Here is where we say, “Sure he does, but he hates your sin.” As the older brother we can’t let go of our resentment that people we don’t like are still loved by God and forgiven just as completely as we are. At this point, it is our certainty that clouds our understanding. We are like the psalmist says, like a horse or a mule – without understanding. We don’t understand why God would throw a party for “those” kind of people – or how God can love “those” kinds of people as much as God loves us.

This kind of religious certainty makes us look even more stupid than if we’ll just ask the stupid questions. Some are still certain that the earth is flat, even in the face of solid evidence otherwise. But, more often than not, it is a complete lack of compassion that makes us look stupid – like this older brother.

In the end of the story, the older brother is left on the porch to decide his own fate. Will he ask the same stupid question the younger brother asked: “Does God still love me?” and get the same emphatic “Yes!” that his little brother got, or will he stay on the porch and sulk – dividing the world into “us” and “them,” the “saved” and the “damned,” the “good” and the “bad,” and continue to feel certain in his misery?

Even though the older brother never physically left home – will he make the choice to truly come home?

[Verse] I went as far as I could, I tried to find a new face,
There isn’t one of these lines that I would erase
Lived a million miles of memories on that road,
With every step I take I know that I’m not alone
You take the home from the boy,
but not the boy from his home
These are my streets, the only life I’ve ever known,
who says you can’t go home

[Chorus] Who says you can’t go home
There’s only one place they call me one of their own
Just a hometown boy, born a rolling stone,
who says you can’t go home
Who says you can’t go back,
been all around the world and as a matter of fact
There’s only one place left I want to go,
who says you can’t go home
It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright

While we enjoy identifying with the prodigal and take the older brother’s story as a cautionary tale, I think we’re still missing the point of this whole story. I think the true challenge of this story is not to learn how to repent, or learn how to rejoice in other’s repentance. Instead, I think Jesus is calling us to assume the role of father. Not to be God – but to embody God.

I invite you to imagine the person (or persons) in this world who has hurt you the most. The person who you are most angry with – the person you have vowed would never receive your forgiveness. Bring to mind the offense they committed against you. Feel it in all its depth and power.

Now, imagine that person is coming to your house. You see them at a distance and you know it’s them. What do you do? Lock the door, pull the shades, turn off the lights and pretend to not be home?

Or, perhaps you wait at your doorstep until they get there and before they even have a chance to speak you start dressing them down, telling them how hurt and offended you are and exactly what kind of pond scum they are for what they’ve done to you?

Or, do you run to them while they’re still a block or two away and meet them with open arms, ready to throw a party – and not really hearing them when they apologize for all the terrible things they’ve done?

Are you willing to ask this stupid question: “Am I able to forgive as I have been forgiven?”

Can we offer the same extravagant forgiveness and mercy that God offers? In the story, God doesn’t wait for words of repentance, he’s not listening – he’s just glad his beloved son has returned. Can we forgive this way – not waiting to hear someone say we were right and they were wrong. Can we forgive without condition? Can we forgive with mercy? Can we throw a party for those who have wronged us, or will we sit outside on the porch with the older brother and talk about how unfair it all is?

God invites us in – invites us to come home – invites us to ask the stupid questions. Does God still love you? Yes! Has God always loved you? Yes! Can I love like God? That’s a stupid question only you and the older brother can answer.

It doesn’t matter where you are,
it doesn’t matter where you go,
If it’s a million miles away or just a mile up the road
Take it in, take it with you when you go,
who says you can’t go home

[Chorus] Who says you can’t go back,
been all around the world and as a matter of fact
There’s only one place left I want to go,
who says you can’t go home
It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright
Who says you can’t go home