A story is told of the last moments of Gertrude Stein's life. As she lay upon her deathbed she asked, "What is the answer?" There was a long silence. Then again she spoke, "What is the question?" Seldom do many of us allow such questions to get to the place where we must deal with it. We don't want to be challenged about our priorities. We grow impatient when our children confront us with why are we doing what we are doing. We are reluctant to face questions about what is most important.
Governments argue over whether spending more or less money will make people happy. Organizations strive to receive more money from there members in order to support buildings and employees. Preachers and politicians too often say and support whatever they think their constituents want them to say and support.
Decisions are made, policies and programs carried out, businesses maintained, and all the while leaders and followers are hoping no one asks the question, "Why are you doing this?" For is this the answer to the deepest longings? Is this the most important thing? Psychologists, physicians and pastors have a steady stream of people through their offices looking for answers to their deepest questions. The questions of meaning, purpose and value hound us as individuals and nations.
Shortly after the establishment of the new African nation I made a visit to that country. While there was much anxiety about all the changes that were occurring, there was also much hope.
One evening, a group was invited to the home of one of the nation's leaders for dinner. We went to the man's home, a large estate on a hill with a magnificent view of the capitol city. As we approached the driveway entrance we were stopped at the gate by armed guards. Each of us got out of our cars, were inspected, showed our passports and pictures, and finally were allowed through the iron fence and gate surrounding the property.
The dinner was a grand one. The buffet table was loaded with food, with most of it grown in the country and some imported. Our host attempted to be hospitable but was frequently interrupted by telephone calls and messages delivered by uniformed personnel. Our group ate, talked with each other, admired the view, heard a plea for financial support for the leader's work and soon thereafter we left.
Two evenings later our host in the country made arrangements for us to visit a home of a family living just outside the capitol in one of the very crowded suburbs. It took awhile to find the neighborhood and even longer to find the appropriate unpaved street. The roadway was narrow with housed built almost on top of the road. Finally the driver stopped, pointing to a small house amidst a whole row of very small houses, and said you are here.
The smoke from cooking fires obstructed our view of the sky, with smells of garbage and small flower gardens competing. Row upon row upon row of closely built houses were everywhere. Children ran and played with scrap wire and rubber toys. Leaving the car we could hear many noises, but there was something more. For through the smells and the smoke and the noise we began to hear music. It was coming from a group of people standing in the small garden of the house that we were to visit. They were singing, God is so good, God is so good, God is so good to me. We greeted our host and they sang us into the house. It was small. There were nearly twenty people there by the time we all gathered.
They served us tea and nothing more. Some of us sat on the floor and some of us stood. The Africans tried to use their second language English with us monolingual people. We laughed at our sometime confusing and feeble attempts in each other's language. They told us stories of war and death as they struggled for freedom. They talked of being removed from their farmlands and having their fields and crops destroyed. They spoke of beatings and imprisonment they had endured when they had challenged the oppressive leaders.
We wept at what they told us and we wondered how they had endured. Didn't you hear when you arrived they asked us. We were able because we believed. We know God is so good and that we are not alone. So we endured hoping in the future.
The place where we thought we would find the answer to the country's liberation was not where we looked. It was not at the obvious places of power, but rather where people struggled for life itself.
A very long time ago Jesus tried to teach His disciples and others who came to learn from and be healed by him. He said meaning does not come when we have everything money can buy, or more than enough food to eat. He said thinking life is one big party and having everyone love you is not enough. He said building fences and having elaborate security systems doesn't give you peace of mind. Instead Jesus said something that sounded quite irregular then and which continues to confound us. He said that poor people and scared people, people the government and everyone else doesn't like; and homeless people and hungry people and sick people are the very ones from whom the rest of us can learn the answers to the mystery of life. They can teach us because those are the very people who don't have to live with the pretense that they have enough knowledge or enough money, or enough security or enough good looks and personality to take care of themselves which we all really know we can't.
It's true the vast majority of the people of this nation know that we are about two or three paychecks or a serious illness away from being dependent upon someone other than ourselves. We buy more insurance policies. We keep looking for better ways to make our savings grow. We work more and more hours, exercise more, avoid any and all unpleasantness and try to make ourselves as likeable to others as we possibly can. And still we don't have the answer.
Jesus didn't imply there is anything wrong with being able to eat or having a roof over your heads. He didn't come from wealth and he knew the demands from hard work. He went to parties, enjoyed his friends and cared deeply when they died or were having difficulties. But he did teach that when popularity, wealth and having the highest paid jobs, and dining in the best restaurants, buying gourmet coffee and being pain free become the primary value of our lives, then we risk living only for today and hopelessly dying asking the question of that old song, "What's it all about Alfie?"
Sarah is the eight-year-old daughter of a clergy couple in Wisconsin. Recently I joined Sarah and her family for worship as their new church building and renovation facilities were dedicated. Sarah sat with an older woman in the congregation, right in the front row of the sanctuary, through the worship service since both her parents had leadership responsibilities. This eight-year-old paid close attention to my sermon and after the service she complimented me on it. I thought Sara was a very special child, but not just because she knew all the right things to say to a bishop. You see Sarah was born with a highly rare disease that causes the tissue in her body to turn to bone. She is about average height now for an eight-year-old but will not grow much taller. She is hearing impaired. Her hands are somewhat crippled. She can walk only short distances. Predictions are that she will not live to be twenty years of age. Recently she got an electric wheel chair to help her around.
The local Kiwanis Club has found renewed life and a purpose as they have decided to raise the money Sarah needs to get a guide dog who will provide support for her and help her pick up things that she drops.
During brunch after that worship service Sarah told me about her school life. She talked about how she tutors some of her classmates who are having trouble in reading. She has to remind them, she says, about vowel sounds and she helps them practice their spelling. She is so articulate, bright and cheerful, I commented to Sarah's mother. Yes, she said, most days she is but there was one day when I asked Sarah how she-would respond to people who wanted to feel sorry for her or make her into a pitiful child. And Sarah responded, "Oh I just tell them this was the way I was made and I guess God knew what God was doing." "I think," said the little girl's mother "that Sarah has decided that she will put all her energies into the things that she can do and those that are most important and she'll let all the rest of it go."
Long ago Jesus taught the folk of his time a lesson that is yet appropriate for us today. He taught that it is the caring and the sharing, the loving and the losing, the weeping and the laughing, the giving up and the taking on that makes life worthwhile.
We have not created ourselves or this world. We cannot make it alone. We are dependent on each other. We are dependent on God. It's a mystery. It is the answer.
Sharon J. Rader The Protestant Hour