Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

June 15, 1997

Wayne Danielson

What is the Question?

Mark 5:6-9. Catching sight of Jesus at a distance, he ran up and fell at his feet and shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?  Swear by God you will not torture me!”  For Jesus had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit.”  “What is your name?”  Jesus asked, “My name is Legion,” he answered, “for there are many of us.”  ... With that, the unclean spirits came out and went into the pigs, and the herd of about two thousand of them charged down the cliff into the lake, and there they were drowned.

Mark 8:27-30.  Jesus and his disciples left for the villages around Caesarea Philippi.  On the way he put this question to his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” And they told him.  “John the Baptist,” they said, “others Elijah; others again, one of the prophets.”  “But you,” he asked, “who do you say that I am?”  Peter spoke up and said to him, “You are the Christ.”  And he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.

Mark 4:35-40.  With the coming of evening that same day, he said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd behind they took him, just as he was, in the boat; and there were other boats with him.  Then it began to blow a gale and the waves were breaking into the boat so that it was almost swamped.  But he was in the stern, his head on the cushion, asleep.  They woke him and said to him, “Master, do you not care?  We are going down!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Quiet now!  Be calm!” and the wind dropped, and all was calm again.  Then he said to them, “Why are you so frightened?  How is it that you have no faith?”

Mark 8: 34-38.  And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.  For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

What is the question?

Jo Caldwell Meyer, who was my executive assistant some years ago, told me that that is one of my favorite sayings.

I was unaware of it.

I know that I overuse the words very, really, there is, and there are.  Before I turn in any writing, I always search the text for those words and get rid of them.  I know that I overuse them.

But  – what is the question?  I didn’t know I asked that so often.

As a journalist, of course, I guess I’ve always realized the value of asking good questions.

We’ve all seen those TV journalists who back a tornado victim up against what’s left of her house and ask, “How did you feel when your husband got sucked up in the funnel cloud?”  Dumb question.  Really dumb. 

I wrote a computer game a few years back to help beginning journalism students learn to ask better questions, incisive questions.  In the game as in the profession itself, asking the right question means you get a story.   Asking the wrong question means you don’t have anything to write about. Some people never learn how to do it.

What is the question?

Come to think of it, I guess I do use that phrase a lot.

Students sometimes come to me with their problems.  Often they start way out in left field.  They mention the way their parents treated them as children.  They discuss their experiences in elementary school and high school.  They talk about their roommates.  They talk about the lack of parking spaces on campus.  I nod and listen, trying to figure out what on earth they came to see me for.  Finally I can’t stand it any longer.

“What is the question?” I ask.

Sometimes I get more camouflage, more digression, more going round and round the barn, as we used to say in Iowa. 

“What exactly is the question?” I insist.

Usually they come around to it. They do know what the question is.  And the interesting thing is, when the students finally ask the question, the real question that is bothering them, the answer is often obvious. They have known the answer all along.  They simply couldn’t bring themselves to ask the question, to say it out loud, to face up to it.

Have you ever listened to Dr. Laura Schlessinger on the radio?  (I’ve been reading one of her books: How Could you Do that? )  I can recommend her to you.  She’s a kind of curious, conservative, old-fashioned counselor. People call in with questions about their relationships.  Usually they are a mess.  Dr. Laura listens, for a while, not long as a rule.  She doesn’t waste much time with details.  Then she says something direct and to the point: “What is it that you want to know?

The person gives some fumbling attempt at framing a question, usually trying to look good in the process.

“Don’t waste your time or mine,” Dr. Laura says.  “You know what the question is: you’re tired of living with this loser and you’re afraid to bail out.  Isn’t that it?”

“Well, yes, I guess so,” the person says.

“Well, get a life,” Dr. Laura says. “Let him worry about his drinking problem.  Tell him to pack his stuff and move out next Saturday.”

“But I love him,” the person implores.

“Give me a break,” Dr. Laura says.  “He’s a creep.  He’s undependable.  He’s cheating on you.  He’ll never be good for you unless and until he straightens himself out.”

Click.  She hangs up.

Have you heard Dr. Laura?  I think she’s too fast on the trigger most of the time.  On the other hand, it is true that many people know deep down what the question is in a relationship,  they are simply afraid to ask it and face up to the answer that they already know is coming.  They tend to spend too much time on the details and never get around to asking the real question.

What is the question?

Asking the right question can be extremely helpful.

Jim Grant, who lives down the street, is a retired medical doctor.  Well, he’s not really retired.  With his wife Marion, he owns and operates two large and modern facilities in Texas that collect plasma.  They sell the plasma to a Swiss firm that makes life-saving products out of it  and sells those products to health care centers around the world.  Jim is one of the best question-askers I have ever known.  Just as LaVonne was about to leave for Guam three weeks ago to attend Kristin’s commencement, our dog Chelsea  stopped eating and drinking.  On the morning that she left, Chelsea sat on her lap for 10 minutes just looking at her.  Farewell, Chelsea,  I thought.   He’s going to die while she’s gone.  I was determined that this would not happen on my shift.  I went to see Jim. Jim took a look at Chelsea.

  “This dog is dying of malnutrition,” he said. “What does he like to eat?”

“I can’t think of anything,” I said.

“No,” Jim replied.  “You do know the answer.  What does he like to eat?”

“Well, “ I said, “He used to turn over the garbage can and get out the chicken bones.”

“Okay,” Jim said.  “Get him some chicken.”

“That’s not a good diet,” I said.

“This dog is fourteen years old and he’s not eating or drinking,” he said. “He doesn’t need a dietitian.  He needs calories.  Get him some chicken and see if he’ll eat it.”

I went down to Randalls and got one of those whole roasted herb and garlic chickens.  I cut it up in little pieces and offered it to the dog.  He ate it.

“Will he drink Gatorade?” Jim asked.

“Gatorade?” I said. “That’s for football players.”

“I think his electrolytes are shot,” he said.  “Try him on Gatorade.”

Well, I tried it.  Chelsea lapped it right up.  Jim gave him some prednisone to perk up his appetite.  And when LaVonne got home last Thursday, Chelsea was living on Gatorade and Randall’s roast chicken. He had gained a pound, and he was ordering me around the way he used to.

I took all the credit, but it was Jim who knew what questions to ask.  How to cut through all the malarkey and get down to basics.  That’s a talent.  It makes a special doctor and a special friend.

I remember that when the children were small they often didn’t want to go to bed, particularly in summer when it was still light outside. 

“Are you ready to go to bed?” was not the question to ask. The answer was always a resounding “No!” and a battle of wills ensued.  Then I heard one of our neighbors ask her kids this question:

“Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes when the timer goes off?”

“When the timer goes off,” the kids always said.  What a great question.  They got to play a few minutes more, and mom got them to commit to going to bed.

Eating problems presented similar opportunities for helpful questions.

“Are you going to eat your broccoli?” was the wrong question to ask.  We knew that, but we didn’t know what the right question was.   Then one day I heard a relative say to her children:

“Are you going to eat your broccoli now or are you willing to wait until I give you your regular breakfast tomorrow morning?” It was a much better question.

Often the kids ate the broccoli.  But if they didn’t, they had committed themselves to wait until breakfast, and a little hunger usually did wonders for their ability at breakfast to eat whatever was placed before them – even o˚atmeal or cream of wheat, lumps and all.

What is the question?

Has someone, somewhere along the line, asked you a question that changed your life?  I think this has happened to most of us.

After his wife died, Grandfather Kinsell, Bev’s dad, was at loose ends.  He couldn’t  stay anywhere long.  He would drop in unexpectedly at our home in Chapel Hill, stay a couple of days, get annoyed with the children and yell at them (or at us for not being good parents) and then  leave. Sooner or later we’d get a postcard from London, or Tahiti, or South Africa. He couldn’t settle down. 

On one of his trips he met Rose, a lovely California woman whom he courted and later married.  She was a wonderful companion for him.  She would pick up and go wherever he wanted to go, whenever he wanted to go there.  She came with him on his family visits to see the grandchildren.  His children and grandchildren still irritated him.  Often he would drink too much in the evening and lose his temper with one of them or with us.  Rose watched this behavior for a long time, saying nothing.  Then one day she asked grandpa this question:  “Exactly how do you want your children and grandchildren to remember you?  Do you want them to remember you as a kind and loving grandpa or an angry, out of control old man who drank too much?”

That was the question.

Grandpa knew it.

And at the age of 60 something, he changed his ways.  He quit drinking.  He settled down.  He was nice to his children and his grandchildren for the rest of his life. He was nice to Rose, too.

She had asked him a good question, a life-defining question, a question that made all the difference to him and to everybody in the family when he faced up to it and decided what his answer would be.

A life-defining question.

That’s the point, isn’t it?

We often ask little children – what are you going to be when you grow up?

They respond with the names of occupations, “a farmer,”  “a cowboy,” “a professional basketball player.” Later on they’ll get more specific, “I’m going to be southern regional sales manager for Conrad Hilton Hotels,” they’ll say, or “I’m going to be head of oncology at Baylor Med School in Houston.”

The answer to the question gets sharper and more insightful as they get older. (Of course, if they’re 35 years old and they’re still staying “cowboy” or “movie star” or “professional basketball player,” we can be fairly sure that we have a problem on your hands.} But an occupational answer to the question of who we are or who we are going to be, even a sharp occupational answer, is still not all there is.  We often still have not got down to basics.  We haven’t asked the life-defining question, the kind of question that Rose asked – the question that cuts through the haze and confronts us with who we are, what we have done that got us here, and what we intend to do about it.

It’s at this point that I like to think about Jesus, and recall the questions people asked him and the questions he asked people, and the answers that he got, and his reflections about those answers. 

Jesus was a good question-asker.  When people came to him complaining about one thing, he often asked them a question in return that showed their real problem was actually something else.  He tended to skip over the details and go for the heart of the matter.

The story of the demon-filled man by the lake shows Jesus at his most simple and direct.  The troubled, violent man knows who Jesus is – or at least the demons in the man recognize that here is the son of the Most High.  Jesus asks him one question:  “What is your name?” Would the man be able to answer him?  Would he be able to say his name to the Lord?  He gets up his courage and gives Jesus the answer: “My name is Legion,” he says, and Jesus acts to save him, to rescue him, to free him from his tormenting devils.

I think Jesus often asks us the same question.  Who are you?  What is your name?  Many of us are as ill-prepared as the demon-filled man to answer that question. We don’t know our names.  We don’t know who we are.  We are plagued by doubts and conflicts and fears.  We think of ourselves as victims.  We can’t summon up the courage to answer.  To answer would mean making a direction connection with Jesus, a direct connection with the son of the Most High.  Can we name our name to Jesus?  Can we say, “My name is Wayne?”  Can we say, “Here I am, Lord, this is Wayne standing here.”  It seems to me that before anything significant can happen in our lives, we need to know who we are.  We need to be able to say our names.  We need to be able to face up to all the problems, all the baggage we have managed to attach to ourselves over the years.  We need to be able to say, “Lord, this is your servant, Wayne, here.  Have mercy on me, a sinner.”  When we can say that, then something can begin to happen.  

At another time, Jesus called his disciples to him and asked them some straightforward questions:

“Who do people say I am?” And they told him.  “John the Baptist,” they said, “others Elijah; others again, one of the prophets.”  “But you,” he asked, “who do you say that I am?”  Peter spoke up and said to him, “You are the Christ.”  And he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.

How direct Jesus is, isn’t he?  No hinting.  No dissembling.  Just the straight out questions that go to the heart of the matter. Who do people say I am?  And Who do you say that I am?  The disciples are totally confused by his questions, as usual.  They answer, “Well, some say this and and some say that.”  When Jesus asks, Who do you say  that I am? only Peter has by this time grown enough to understand what Jesus is asking and to reply in the words that later would form the Christian church:  “You are the Christ.”

Good questions beget good answers.  In this case the question is one that all of us must answer in one way or another.  Who do you say that I am?     In order for our lives to work, in order for helpful change to take place, …we need to know not only who we are but who Jesus is.  Once these two questions are answered, we can move on.  May all of us have the courage to answer this life-defining question of who Jesus is simply and directly as the sturdy Peter did.

What happens next?  What is the next question?

I like to remember the story of the disciples in the boat in the midst of the storm and the question that Jesus asked them then.  Jesus was sleeping right through the storm in the stern of the boat, his head on a cushion.  The winds were raging.  The waves were high.  The disciples were sure they were going to drown.  And here was the Master, peacefully sleeping.  In the words of Mark:

They woke him and said to him, “Master, do you not care?  We are going down!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Quiet now!  Be calm!” and the wind dropped, and all was calm again.  Then he said to them, “Why are you so frightened?  How is it that you have no faith?”

  The disciples thought the question was one thing – they were going to die.  They were frightened, incapable of acting.   “Don’t you care that we are going down?” they asked Jesus.  Jesus went right to the heart of the matter – their lack of faith.  “Why are you so frightened?” was the question he asked.  “How is it that you have no faith?”

That was the question, wasn’t it?  We may know who we are, we may know who God is, but if we don’t put the two together nothing happens.  Faith is what connects us to God. That’s the tie that makes some people heroes, able to act in the face of danger, able to do what needs to be done.  That’s the question that makes other people cowards, unable to act, hiding from danger, preparing to die instead of to live.  The question is one of faith.  The person, the true person, the God-filled person, knows who he is, knows who Jesus is, knows how the two are connected, and has faith that things will turn out all right, that storms will end, that winds will calm down, and that brave men and women can live triumphantly as human beings.  Why are you so frightened?  How is it that you have no faith?

More of us need faith like the faith that Jesus had.  Reading this gospel story again, I thought the manager of the supermarket on Highway 183 who acted during the tornado to save his customers.  The tornado was coming right at the store.  He had every right simply to save himself, to run to safety and leave the shoppers to fend for themselves. But he had courage and presence of mind and a desire to help. He called to people to come to the back of the store and get in the refrigerators.  After the winds passed,  that store was a shambles.   Every one of  his customers came out of the cold storage lockers safe and sound. Not one person was lost. His faith and calm action in the presence of danger saved many lives.

What is the question?

Dr Laura says the question for most people has three parts – character, courage and conscience.

Character is sometimes defined as  “what you are when no one is looking.”   In Biblical terms it is our name –who we are, what we stand for. Character begins, in my opinion, when Jesus asks us our name and we honestly reply.  That’s the beginning. 

Courage has to come from somewhere.  In my opinion, courage – particularly courage to change – comes from making a connection to God.  We not only need to know who we are, we need to know who God is. If we know that, we are no longer acting on our own, we are acting in harmony with God.  In contemporary terms, we can be courageous when the force is with us.

Conscience means knowing what is right or wrong.  It comes when we know who we are and who God is.  It comes when we are connected to God through faith.  Then conscience enters our hearts and minds.  We know that we have a soul, and we are in no mood to risk losing it by lying or cheating or stealing or murdering.  Jesus asked, For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

People who know who they are, people who know who God is, people of faith, people with souls they  won’t risk losing by lying or cheating or stealing or murdering, are the people of character, courage and conscience that Dr. Laura talks about on her radio program and in her books.  The world always needs people of character, courage and conscience. That’s why we are here today. We are here to ask once again and once again find answers to these life-defining questions first asked by our Lord so long ago: Who are we?  Who is God?  How are we connected?  What is the right thing to do?