A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Beautiful Questions to Explore

One of our congregation’s four Core Values is having “An Inquiring Faith.” In elaborating on that value, we have said: “Following Christ’s example in Scripture, we believe that curiosity and questioning are essential practices of faith, and that some of our most important work as a congregation is helping each other to ask better questions about faith and life, and to seek more faithful answers together.”

In a sermon series on our Core Values that I preached last June, I quoted the poet e.e. cummings as we explored what it means to have an inquiring faith. In one of his best poems, cummings says, “always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question,” and I used that to describe what it means to be “faithfully inquiring and inquiringly faithful.”

That quote, though, raises a question in itself: what is a beautiful question? Well, we could spend years debating the meaning of beauty, but I’m going to argue that at least two aspects are crucial, especially for us in this moment we’re in.

First, beauty requires truth, as another poet (John Keats) memorably stated: “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” And second, beauty cannot be fully described or explained; it contains a degree of mystery or elusiveness. A beautiful question, then, is both grounded in truth and seeking it out; this is part of how it leads to a more beautiful answer, because it is not content with answers that provide the comfort of conforming to our expectations or desires, but shy away from uncomfortable truths.

And a beautiful question does not expect a beautiful answer to answer everything; it recognizes that the question itself opens us up to a beauty that cannot necessarily be fully defined, but still lead us into greater truth and understanding.

I say all this because I think the art of inquiring well, of asking “beautiful questions,” is more important than ever to our life and faith right now. This is partly because there are some ugly questions being asked by some Christians right now, questions like: “why is God punishing us with this plague?”

That, unsurprisingly, has led them to ugly answers that assign blame to the familiar scapegoats of various minorities (e.g., Asian people, LGBTQ+ people, etc.). And it’s important for us to reject those questions and those answers as contrary to what it means to follow Christ’s example in Scripture of using questions to lead us into greater love and faithfulness as his disciples.

But more importantly, I want to encourage all of us to be asking more beautiful questions about what it does mean to live with greater love and faithfulness as Christ’s disciples in the midst of this pandemic. The Session is actually framing its strategic leadership right now around this very theme: what are the questions we need to be asking to help us respond more faithfully to this pandemic as a congregation of Christ’s disciples?

But I want to encourage all of us to be doing that as well. So, to get your started, here are a few questions that you might begin exploring in your own prayer life and spiritual reflections:

  • What am I not missing (perhaps even surprisingly so) from pre-pandemic life?
  • What am I really grieving from pre-pandemic life right now?
  • Where am I personally/directly seeing God at work right now?
  • How can I be sharing Christ’s love when I can’t get physically close to anyone?
  • What does it mean to follow Christ in these anxious and uncertain times?

What questions would you add? Let me know!

Grace and peace,