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  • Reverend James Squire

New Year's Questions

We hear a great deal about the importance of New Year’s resolutions. Most people make new year resolutions because it gives the individual a sense of a second chance to get something right. It could be to return to exercise or lose weight which are common examples. The culture tells us that goals and answers are folded into resolutions. A 2016 study of the 41% of Americans who made resolutions, only 9% feel they were successful. 9% doesn’t seem to me to be great odds.

Why not change resolutions to questions that we want answered as we move through the year that may take us to a deeper version of the feeling of having a second chance. We are driven by a culture that is goal oriented to produce success and its cousin, the answer. I have spent a great deal of time in a school culture where answers were the golden ring to success seen most clearly in that artifact of SAT scores to enable us to apply to the college of our dreams. When a member of Congress, Elizabeth Warren, was asked an important question, her response was “I have a plan (answer) for that!” It was her mantra.

As we began a new year, I find myself asking more questions than looking for answers. My goals haven’t changed that much but the nature of my life’s work takes me often to the most sacred place where people such as myself and others can find ourselves. It is being with someone who has died or helping myself and others through a grief process of loss of a loved one. Resolutions are for beginnings seeking answers. Questions take us to the world of “I don’t know” which can stir the psyche and soul to deeper experience and understanding.

When I am at that moment of death with someone, I always silently ask God, “What does he or she know now that I don’t know and haven’t experienced?” It leads to an answer where we see things as a matter of faith. Job in the Old Testament put it this way, “God, I demand to reason with you after all of my losses.” God’s response is you are going in the wrong direction, “Your question will never be addressed by reason. You will have to live by faith.” You are looking for love in all the wrong places which is a human flaw. I am aware of one teacher who didn’t ask for answers on tests. He asked his class to identify the most important questions that the unit of study raised. He thought that approach led to deeper understanding.

I believe that new beginnings in life go beyond reason to an answer that can only be addressed by the questions that one encounters in endings as St. Paul put it, “Once we saw through a glass darkly but now see face to face.” (First Corinthians 13:12)

Gertrude Stein, an American novelist, poet, and playwright, moved to Paris and made France her home for a good deal of her life. On her deathbed she asked, “What is the answer?” Then after a long silence, “What is the question?” Many people have interpreted her words. My reflection is that in the end what she experienced was so magnificent and clear that answers are less important than getting the question right. It is the question that leads to the realization and presence of the eternal one.

Frederick Buechner, American author, theologian, and School Chaplain at Exeter, wrote in Wishful Thinking, that “we are involved, all of us, with questions about things that matter a good day deal today but will be forgotten by this time tomorrow, the immediate where(s)s and when(s)and how(s) that face us daily at home and work, but at the same time we tend to lose track of the questions about things that matter always, life and death questions about meaning, purpose, and value. To lose track of such deep questions as these is to risk losing track of who we really are in our own depths and where we are going.”

The Bible provides many questions of an ultimate nature.

What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? (Matthew 16:26)

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8: 31)

Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9)

When will we realize that consciously and unconsciously, we live life the way we view death? Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

A good place to start this new year is “What is the answer? Can I live into that which is the most important, meeting the eternal presence face to face, and asking in that case, “What is the question?”

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