Unanswered Questions


I used to think that part of the responsibility of a pastor was to answer people’s deepest questions about life and God and death. That’s why seminary was essential; that’s the place where we learn all the answers, right? And if seminary didn’t give us everything we needed, then we’d figure the rest out with good ol’ experience.

After twenty years of pastoring, however, I’m still struggling with those questions. I’m less sure about my answers now than when I started.

This has nothing to do with a crisis of faith; no, I am confident in my relationship with God, but the shape and form of that God keeps changing. Every time I think I have got God sorted out, God slips out from under my theology. I have to wrestle all over again with basic concepts like providence, sovereignty, and free will.

It’s also been difficult to get a handle on the death and afterlife matters. After so many funerals and unexpected deaths, I still have lots of questions myself. What really happens after the moment the body shuts down? Is there really such a place as heaven, or is it more a kind of third dimension?

Again, I have a confidence, a trust that God will be with me throughout the process of dying, including afterwards, but it sure would be nice to have some clarity.

Complicating all these matters is the fact that I don’t have confidence anymore in the basic institutions that I once did, first and foremost of which, is the church itself. We United Methodists seem destined to divide ourselves, just as Christians of other stripes have done.

And then there’s the “so-called Christians” in our country who promote heretical ideas and support white supremacy and corrupt political leaders. At times, I wonder if we share the same religion. Do we really know the same Jesus?

If I’m honest, I will admit that I have unanswered questions as the pastor of Kessler Park UMC. What are we to do about our youth program? What should our long-term vision be? How do we extend our ministry to the thousands of people moving into our community? What should we be doing differently?

Every day, I wake up with these questions on my mind, and sometimes I feel pressure to come up with a quick answer.

However, I have learned something in these twenty years of pastoral ministry. And one of the most important things is this: I don’t have to know all the answers. In fact, if I thought I did, that would be a very bad thing.

But that’s not what being a pastor is all about. And it’s not what being a Christian is about either.
We are really only supposed to follow Jesus. Following is a completely different kind of thing than knowing. Jesus rarely explained things to his disciples; he simply beckoned them forward, and they moved. Sometimes they would learn the answer to a question in the action of following; other times, they never did learn anything. I think that, most of the time, we end up learning that the questions we thought were so important, are irrelevant.

In the end, that’s the best I can do as a pastor. I just want to keep following Jesus on down the road of life. He’s led me to some fascinating places so far, and I have the feeling that the best is yet to come.

Revisiting Jesus' Baptism


    I preached about the baptism of Jesus last Sunday. As one person was leaving the sanctuary, she shook my hand and said, “I’ve always wondered why Jesus was baptized in the first place. Jesus didn’t have any sins to repent for and he didn’t need to have any sins forgiven.”
    It’s a very good — and popular — question. Almost every commentary written about the gospels has to address this matter, since Christianity traditionally holds that Jesus was sin-less.
    For one thing, scholars across the board agree that this event actually took place. The fact that all four gospels tell the same story lend credence to the idea that Jesus really was baptized by John. It appears to be a very important story to the followers of Jesus.
    So why was Jesus baptized?
    I’ll be honest; I think this is a misleading question. It assumes that Jesus knew he was sinless, or conscious of his status, when he was baptized. I think this story is best read as Jesus’ own call story. This is the event in Jesus’ life which jolted him into awareness of who he was, and what he was called to do.
    You may have noticed that the gospels are extremely light on details of Jesus’ life before his baptism. All we have are birth stories from Matthew and Luke, and a story about Jesus in the temple as a 12-year old (Luke 2:41-52), and those stories are all of dubious historicity.
    The truth is that nothing is really known about Jesus before he was baptized. He came down to the Jordan River that day to see and hear John the Baptist. He was moved by John’s proclamation, decided that he wanted to be part of John’s movement, and went down into the water with everybody else to be baptized.
    But when he came up out of the water, something happened. He saw into heaven, he saw the Spirit of God descending and entering him, and he heard God’s voice saying to him, “You are my Son, my beloved; in you, I am well pleased.”   
    What happened in the Jordan River was the defining event of Jesus’ life, up to this point. This is his coming out party, his debut, his “burning bush” moment. From this time forward, Jesus begins to live into the reality of who he is. He begins to understand more and more about his calling and his task; he starts to speak and act with authority.
    I think he didn’t fully understand his identity before the baptism; he didn’t know who he was or what he was supposed to be doing. I don’t believe this is a heretical idea; the orthodox belief is that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. To be fully human means to have knowledge which is limited to one’s own experience. Until Jesus experienced God’s call, he couldn’t have known precisely who he was.
    The more important question that this story raises is whether or not each one of us has heard God’s call upon our lives. God didn’t call only Jesus; no, the New Testament is full of stories of men and women who recognize — or not — God’s call and then act — or not — upon it.
    I believe that God has called every one of us — man, woman, and child — to a life full of meaning, fulfillment, and grace. Each life has its own unique bent; some, like myself, are called to ordained ministry, others are sent into the corporate work place, while others are called to the teaching, healthcare, or law enforcement professions, just to give a few examples.
    Yes, your life has its own special divine calling. You are the only one who can follow it. You are the one chosen by God to fulfill God's own particular mission.
     It's a high calling. But you are equipped for it. And so am I.