A good question can make all the difference

I am sure you have heard about the wise and respected rabbi whose student once asked, “Rabbi, why is it that you answer all of our questions with a question?” The rabbi replied: “What’s wrong with answering your questions with a question?”

There have been times in my life when the right question has made all the difference. Years ago, I was invited to a conference for church leaders sponsored by the Lily Endowment. About thirty of us gathered in Chicago for three days of seminars and conversation. I remember a question I was asked over dinner the last night we were there. The fellow who asked the question was one of the speakers: a wiry, intense, and crusty older man who had spent most of his career as a negotiator for the United Auto Worker’s Union. He told stories about the rough and tumble of union politics, about marathon negotiating sessions, and about Lee Iacocca. He was funny and wise, and I sat close to him at dinner so that I could hear more.

Not long into dinner, however, he turned to me and said, “Reverend Sayles, whenever I sat across the table from Lee Iacocca, I knew what his bottom line was: return on investment for Chrysler’s shareholders. That was thing he was most committed to. Reverend Sayles, in your ministry, what’s your bottom line?”

I remember another important question. In St. Louis, after Sunday evening worship, I went with some friends to a little Chinese restaurant for dinner. I had just started on my hot and sour soup, when one of them asked me, “If you could be guaranteed that, adjusted for inflation, you would have your current income for the rest of your life, what would you do?”

And, I will never forget the time a friend brought me up short with this probing question: “When you get where you are going in such a hurry, will you be glad you got there?”

In John’s Gospel, the first words Jesus speaks are a question. John the Baptist saw Jesus walking by and declared, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” Two of John’s disciples, one named Andrew and the other unnamed, fell into step behind Jesus. Jesus turned and asked them, “What are you looking for?” It’s the same question he asks you and me: “What are you looking for? What do you want?”

Writer Raymond Carver struggled his way to freedom from alcoholism and, not long after, discovered that he was suffering from cancer. As his life was ebbing away from him, he wrote this poem which he called “Late Fragment”:

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

I think Raymond Carver knew what we all want: to know ourselves beloved—to feel love in the marrow of our bones, coursing through our veins, filling our lungs, gentling our fears, inspiring our hopes, and shaping our dreams. More than anything else, love is what we are looking for.