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Thursday
Sep112014

Resting in the Questions

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?
—C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces


I was ten years old and I loved questions. Whenever I was bored after dinner, I would leave my parents talking in the dining room and go to the kitchen, where I scribbled questions on slips of paper. Then I eased each scrap, one by one, into a wooden jar reserved for that purpose. I would let the lid thunk close before I carried it, like a final course, back to the table.

“Did Adam have a belly button?” 

“When will we go on vacation?” 

“Do you wish I had been born a boy?”

I remember only a few of the questions I asked, a child’s handful. I don’t remember a single answer I received.

I do remember my dad wanting to know what I had written. I remember him pulling out the slips one by one and tilting his head as he read. His hands, so attentive to the paper, were more important than his eventual response. The way his eyes looked toward the ceiling as he thought about what to say. The curve of his mouth around the words.

Like the ten-year-old who is still part of me, I can barely keep up with the questions that come to me today. But as a parent and a news watcher and a friend grieving for the stories others bear, I find today’s questions hold more fear and confusion than excitement. 

How can evil and hunger kill children while my children have an abundance of love, a drawer just for snacks? I ask as I clean the kitchen counter.

Why could she not live to see her daughters grow up? I ask when I pass my friend’s empty seat at church.

How do I live well in the midst of others’ questions as they see their marriages crumble, the doctors shake their heads, the anxiety return? I ask when I get off the phone, when I read another difficult update.

Richard Rohr writes that the Bible records 183 questions posed to Jesus. Jesus directly answered three of them. Christ gave presence, He gave listening, He gave peace. But He rarely gave answers.

When my older daughter, Eden, was a newborn, my husband and I sat on the sofa one evening, staring into the living room air. It had been only days since we’d first held her, days since we’d learned she had Down syndrome and a heart defect and might not live. Our prayer journal sat between us, our most recent entry being happy prayers for the baby’s upcoming birth and thankfulness for her presumed health. But that night we were too tired to write anything beyond the date on the page.

“Are our lives ruined?” I asked finally. We had no answer at the time, no way to even frame our fears to God. Great prayers, like great sorrows, are silent. But it felt good and true to voice the question I’d fought against since the afternoon Eden was born. It created space for me to know the answer with my heart if not with my mind.

Peace, my question told me. Eden will enrich, shape, sharpen your lives in ways so far from ruining them that one day your question will seem ridiculous. But you don’t need to know that yet.

With the psalmist, we find that every question born of pain speaks the rhythm of Why? and How long?i Sometimes we realize that God is worth more than any earthly answer. Sometimes we find God in the asking itself.

When God asked Ezekiel if the bones of Israel would live again, Ezekiel, standing in a valley dry and dusty, could only respond, “Lord, you alone know the answer to that.”ii And Ezekiel did as God called him to do.

Living with questions, embracing and engaging and asking the questions, is a way of hoping. A way of saying, I acknowledge that I don’t know the answer to this, but I still move forward because, Lord, you know.

So every time we choose to “love the questions themselves,” as Rilke wrote, we choose to hope. We choose to scribble on slips of paper each question that comes to mind. We choose to trust a God who gives a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night but rarely gives an answer for leading us in the “roundabout way through the wilderness.”iii

Eden, now nearly ten years old herself, has struggled the past few months with fear of the dark. Her mind falls into panic as the sun sets and the curtains close. She twirls her hair in her fingers and asks us not to leave her alone.

We reassure her of God’s presence with her. We make large drawings of angels to put by her bed. We sing “It is Well with My Soul” after tucking her in and we remind her that morning always comes.

The other night, in the middle of these spiritual reassurances, Eden sighed and said, “I know, I know. God is with me. But I can’t see Him. How do I know He is there?”

I hug her because I too know that God is with me but I can’t see Him either. She is asking the same questions I am about faith and God’s presence in darkness. So I stop praying and singing, for a time, and simply stay with her. I brush her hair from her face and let her questions rest too. I leave the hall light on all night.

I believe that God honors our questions just as my dad honored mine. I believe that God stays with us, even when prayers and songs seem flimsy as paper angels. I believe that it helps to leave the hall light on when the questions come faster than morning. And I keep asking those questions because somewhere in the asking I find I am not answered but I am heard.

Lord, you alone know. Let it be enough.

Tonight Eden wrapped a porcelain angel in a sock to hold as she went to sleep. In a few hours, she will wake again and ask, “Is it morning yet?” A question each of us asks in different ways when the night is long.

“Not yet,” I’ll say, and kiss her forehead, her true angels surrounding her and Christ within her, the hope of glory. She and I will ask our questions together. We’ll live them out in restlessness and peace. Together we will wait for the morning, knowing that morning always comes.

Elisa Fryling Stanford is the author of Ordinary Losses: Naming the Graces That Shape Us. She and her husband, Eric, live in Colorado with their two daughters.


i See, for example, Psalms 13, 44, and 89.

ii Ezekiel 37:3, nlt.

iii Exodus 13:18, nlt.

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Reader Comments (6)

Elisa,
God tilting his head, leaning closer to hear, looking in my eyes and heart - what a great picture to carry with us as we learn to question. Beautiful reminder of a caring father extending himself to us, not the answers. Peace and presence can be enough for today. Thank you.

September 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDotti

This is so beautiful and so poignant for my family right now. We are asking questions that will never be answered on this side of heaven, not in a way that satisfies at least. Thank you for speaking this out in the open and pointing our hearts to Scripture.

September 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

Thank you, Elisa. Even in my older years I'm asking questions of God, others, the universe, and at the end of it all, I can only weep. I can only trust. MK

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMaryKate Morse

Lovely Elisa, yesterday as I thought of a difficult situation the old hymn surfaced in my mind--"I am not skilled to understand what God has willed what God has planned I only know at his right hand stands one who is my Savior" Your blog adds the beauty of God within and around and over me. Sweet, sweet thoughts! Thanks

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna

This is wonderful, beautiful. Helpful and affirming. Thank you.

September 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca D. Martin

Thank you for your gift of words sharing such heartfelt thoughts. "Eden's nightlight" could be your new book title!! It's a privilege to share in your journey. Thanks for your honesty, your practicality, your struggle, and your resolve. Eden is blessed to have you as her mom. Does she have favorite music? Our Down's syndrome friend could be soothed by her love of certain singing.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBetty Lingle

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