Commentary, Featured Stories

Living the questions

Martha E. Stortz

A student came into the office, troubled. She had the opportunity to take an internship in Washington D.C., but her grandmother was dying in Minneapolis. “What should I do?,” she wondered.

We talked into that late fall afternoon, outlining possible courses of action, sorting through potential consequences, and watching golden mountain ash leaves swirl in the wind.

Then I posed another question: “Where’s the invitation in all of this?”

I had no answers; I simply reframed the question, shifting from what she should do to what God might be doing: “Where’s the invitation in all of this?”

Sometimes asking the right question is more important than coming up with an answer to the wrong one; sometimes even asking a different question helps. Conversations like this one invite us to encounter afresh the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, this time as a God who’s always asking questions.

According to the book of Genesis, the cosmos comes into being not by command, but by invitation: “Let there be light.” “Let dry land appear.” “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters.”

Sometimes asking the right question is more important than coming up with an answer to the wrong one.

Then comes naming: “God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night.” One could debate forever whether what makes Day actually is the divine invitation or the divine naming, but I have walked the streets of Berkeley with a former student and director of the Berkeley Emergency Food Project and Shelter, Wendy Georges, and have watched homeless people come alive when she greeted them by name: “Shafik!” “Sherry!” “Richard!” A divine alchemy of invitation and naming animates things. Suddenly you have Day and Night; Adam and Eve; Shafik and Sherry and Richard.

After being invited, then what?

So first comes invitation, then naming, and finally, blessing. Blessing is the refrain of the creation story: “And God saw that it was good.”

And how does the creator lead the creation which has been so wonderfully called forth, named, blessed? By asking the right questions.

Look at them: They are littered throughout the first chapters of Genesis, and the questions can direct you for a lifetime. There are five of them.

1. “Adam, where are you?” (3:9) Adam used to walk in the garden in the cool of the evening and talk with God, until that fateful incident with the forbidden fruit.

“Where are you?” I wish I had posed that question to my student, because it invites her to take stock, examine her situation in a manner both clear-eyed and clear-headed. It instructs her to locate herself in terms of both family and future, relationships that both bind and feed her.

2. Then a second question: “Who told you that?” (3:11) God asks Adam how that feeling of “nakedness” entered his consciousness, why he needs to cover himself.

“Who told you that?” It’s a question that asks about the scripts we live out and the messages we carry with us — telling us what to buy and where to buy it; what to do and with whom. It invites us to sort through the scripts, deciding which to play out and which to put aside.

3. And then a third question: “What have you done?” (3:13) Of course, God is asking Adam to narrate the story in his own words. Adam resorts to blaming Eve, then blaming God for creating her. (3:12)

“What have you done?” Sometimes it’s important to take stock of the past, for the way forward is often clarified by the way taken. The steps forward emerge from the steps that brought you here.

4. Then a fourth question: “Why are you angry?” (4:6). God poses this one to Cain, who seeks to please God with an offering of meat. God prefers the grain offering of his brother Abel. Cain’s anger is a thin veneer over fear. “Why are you afraid?” he might have asked.

Underneath the issues that most divide us is a common fear of doing the wrong thing, of divine disfavor … like Cain.

5. The final question is another one of location: “Where is your brother?” (4:9) In his anger and out of deep fear, Cain killed Abel; and God noticed.

Finally, we encounter the question of the “other,” whether that “other” be a grandmother or partner or friend or potential client, whether that “other” be Christian or non-Christian, whether that “other” be near or distant. The question invites us to name the “others” in our lives – and to name them as family.

Luther had a distinctive word for the other: “neighbor.” In living the questions, he recognized the need to start asking God’s.

Martha E. Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg College, Minneapolis. She is a member of Central Lutheran Church (ELCA).

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