Wicked Questions: A Christian Perspective

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Wicked Questions: A Christian Perspective

About the Author

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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When have you noticed two opposite things to be true at the same time?

  1. We want to keep our children close and we want them to be independent.
  2. We want to give our all at work and put our family first.
  3. We want to be safe and we want to see the world.

A phrase from Psalm 139 comes to mind:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalm 139.14

The human body is terrifying: it gives out, breaks, succumbs; but it is also a wonder, impossible for me to imagine without God’s hand at work.

Life is full of paradox. How we deal with paradox, then, is pretty crucial.

  1. A lot of the time, we refuse to accept the paradox and make decisions as if life is simpler: “Go to your room and come out when you’re thirty!”
  2. And sometimes we feel paralysed because we can’t imagine how we can move forward through the paradoxes: How do we know when to hold a child close and when to give them space to fly?

Professor Brenda (Zimmerman) Ellis embraced the paradoxical nature of life. When faced with a paradox, she wasn’t afraid to ask what she called, “wicked questions.”

“Wicked Questions engage everyone in sharper strategic thinking by revealing entangled challenges and possibilities that are not intuitively obvious.”

Wicked questions are those questions that embraced two conflicting realities.
Instead of choosing one reality and denying another, or being paralyzed, she would ask the question that would accept both and open the possibility of a third way.

She asked herself, “How is it that I can raise my children to be very loyal and attached to our family and very independent individuals simultaneously?”

Her daughters describe a model of what she came to see as family:

Mom always talked about how there were two types of families – garrison vs oasis families. Where garrison families’ separate themselves and put up barriers to keep out others, oasis families open themselves up…new people and ideas are welcomed in and the family grows and strengthens with the new additions. (Stephanie and Jill Zimmerman at their mother’s memorial service.)

Jesus’ disciples were more ‘garrison’ folk than ‘oasis’ folk.
Jesus tells the disciples, not for the first time, that he is going to be betrayed, to suffer and die. ‘I’m the Christ! anointed, sent to save the world and I’m going to do it by being betrayed, handed over, by suffering and dying and in three days I will be raised. The world’s great paradox — suffering and death bringing new life.

Brenda loved the Christian story, perhaps precisely because of this paradox.

The disciples though, didn’t understand; but they were afraid to ask Jesus any questions.

“they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Brenda wasn’t afraid to ask the wicked question.

‘How can a leader effect change by suffering and dying?’

But not all of us are so brave.

Responses to the Paradox of the Christian Faith

Some, when faced with this part of the Christian story, reject God. Gretta Vosper writes,

‘We believe that we are light to the world, to ourselves, to each other and that the world and all its inhabitants can be light to us.’

Vosper describes herself as an atheist, yet she serves as a minister in the United Church of Canada.
Toronto Conference of the United Church, to whom she is accountable, is trying to figure out what to do with a minister who teaches out of a lack of belief in God.

Her supporters accuse the UCC of holding an inquisition. I don’t think they plan to hold an inquisition but rather to raise the question, ‘how do ministers live out their ordination vows?’ which is a pretty great wicked question.

I don’t perceive the questions that her writings generate as dangerous in themselves. They are hard questions. But they are not ‘wicked’ questions because they deny the paradox of a God who suffers and dies for the world’s salvation. It is just us who are a light to the world; (I’m afraid if it is just up to me, the world doesn’t have a hope).

Others simply deny the suffering and death part. Peter simply disagreed with Jesus: ‘Oh no,
it’s not going to happen.’

Jesus tells the disciples, “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands.”

Jesus is going to move from God’s authority to human authority.

The question was, who hands him over?
Judas? the Romans?
The disciples were afraid to ask questions. Perhaps they were afraid to ask Jesus: ‘Is it me? Will I hand you over to be killed?’

So instead of asking wicked questions that hold together the suffering and salvation of the world;
Instead of asking the hard question: ís it me who drags you away from God and gives you to humans? Instead, they ask one another, ‘who of us is the greatest?’

What were they thinking?
Perhaps it was
If Jesus is going to wimp out,
If God is not going to give us a military leader to overthrow these Romans,
then human power has to fill the void,
so let’s see who of us is going to take over to be the greatest.

Jesus lets them ask their hard questions even if they are the wrong questions, but brings them back to the paradox of faith:

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Brenda (Zimmerman) Ellis embraced the paradox and saw God working through weakness to effect transformation.

In her book Getting to Maybe, she begins with the example of Bob Geldof, who founded Band Aid to address the famine in Ethiopia — but she didn’t list his accomplishments.
She wrote instead of his own sense of failure:

a marginally successful musician, leading a desolate life, making little effort to contribute to anything outside of himself, with no education.
As one journalist put it, “God opened the door, saw this scruffy Irishman, and said, ‘what the heck, he’ll do.’”

Weakness transformed the world.

What if the community of faith was the place where you could ask those hard questions AND wicked questions? What if we were to share these questions to find a way to move forward in faith, with God, with the crazy paradoxes of human existence with its power and its pain.

The church should be such a community. Ask your questions.

As one example of how a church can grow into this kind of community, Maple Grove United Church this fall, Dr. Russell Martin will offer us the opportunity to ask the science and religion questions — not in the ‘science is bad, religion is good mode;’ or in the ‘religion is bad, science is good mode.’ But asking wicked questions that hold together the paradoxes of life and seeing how our faith grows in the conversation.

To open up these things is to raise some of the mystery at the heart of our faith — we don’t fully understand but together we can grow in our faith when we aren’t afraid to ask

The suffering of the cross tells us something about Jesus, about God and about ourselves. God is willing to suffer on the cross for us and that suffering is more powerful than all the world’s armies. The paradox of our faith.

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