Friday, July 8, 2011

Comfort with Curiosity

David said, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” (1 Samuel 17.29)


The juxtaposition of today’s Old and New Testament readings borders on brilliance. The Old Testament passage (1 Samuel 17.17-30) sets up the famous story of David and Goliath, while the New Testament (Acts 10.34-48) concludes Peter’s celebrated epiphany of Christian inclusion. Both thrust their heroes into uncommon situations, where they do extraordinary things. How each responds to his challenge and the route each takes to accomplish it are markedly different, however. Contrasting the two is where our lesson comes to light.

The High Noon finale of the David-Goliath showdown throws the story off-kilter. Itching for the climax, we breeze by its explanation of how an underage shepherd ends up on a battlefield, as if kids are regular figures in biblical warfare. But David’s arrival in the Valley of Elah—site of the latest Israelite-Philistine skirmish—ruffles feathers. His father, Jesse, sends him to deliver rations to three older brothers (with 10 cheeses for the commander, a not-so-subtle request that the officer look out for his sons). The errand is a boon providing the youth a break from the tedium of tending sheep and, better still, a glimpse of military life. David reaches camp as Israel heads into battle. He drops his parcels and rushes to catch his brothers before the fighting begins. There will be no fighting, though, as today goes like the previous 40. Israel’s troops take the field, Goliath taunts them to send someone out to face him one-on-one, and the entire battalion hightails it back to camp.

This isn’t what David expected. Being a curious teen, he asks if King Saul’s put a price on Goliath’s head. He has—one of great wealth, marriage to his daughter (making the victor a prince), and freedom from debt and servitude for the victor’s family. Eliab, the first-born, overhears David and goes off in typical big-brother style. “Why are you here?” he rants. “Who’s looking after the sheep? You think I don’t know what you’re up to? You’re here to check out the battle!” You’ve got to love David’s reply, because it’s a classic adolescent comeback. “What have I done now?” he groans. “It was only a question.” He shrugs Eliab off and inquires again about the reward. Once it’s confirmed, David hatches a plan.

Lack of Curiosity

Peter’s story is the opposite of David’s. He receives a personal invitation from a military officer. Yet Peter must renounce lack of curiosity before he can fulfill God’s purpose for calling him there. Here’s the back-story. An Italian centurion named Cornelius stationed in Caesarea has embraced the Christian faith. As a Gentile and imperial officer, his exposure to teaching and fellowship is limited, since the Church still functions as a Jewish sect—a problem he’ll be instrumental in correcting. Based on what he sees from the disciples, Cornelius and his household devoutly imitate practices like prayer and charity. All the same, having no pastoral guidance severely stunts their spiritual growth. While praying one afternoon, an angel instructs Cornelius to send for Peter, who’s presently in Joppa (roughly 35 miles away). The centurion dispatches two servants and a soldier to invite the apostle to visit and escort him to Caesarea.

As the escort journeys to Joppa the next day, Peter too is praying. He too has a vision. But, unlike Cornelius, he resists the experience. It’s noon. While his host prepares lunch, Peter falls into a trance. A sheet falls from the sky with non-kosher animals inside it. A voice tells him to kill and eat them. Peter knows better. “Surely not, Lord!” he protests. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (Acts 10.14) The voice scolds him. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (v15) He gets a second chance, then a third, and each time it doesn’t occur to him to wonder why he should obey. He hangs onto his questions until the trance lifts, taking his answers with it.

Peter is still trying to figure things out when his escort arrives. Only when he hears Cornelius’s account of the angelic visitation does he start to understand. The centurion ends with, “So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” (v33) Aha! Peter finally gets it. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him,” he exclaims. We’ll never know who’s more astonished by this revelation—Peter or Cornelius.

God-Given Faculty

Too many of us are led to think honest curiosity mars faith and obediencethat questioning what we see and hear will only upset people and hurt us. Rubbish! Look at the difference between David and Peter. When David's baffled by what he sees, he asks questions. Though he’s essentially told to shut up and get lost, he keeps asking. Comfort with curiosity results in a thing far more spectacular than a boy felling a giant. His triumph over Goliath launches David’s destiny and resets Israel’s course for greatness. In contrast, Peter’s reluctance to question puts him in a fog. Were it not for Cornelius’s curiosity about Christ and how discipleship works, Peter’s confusion nearly costs his opportunity to establish the Church as the all-inclusive Body of Christ. As Its leader, he alone can make that happen. And he comes perilously close to missing the message.

Questions aren’t doubts; they’re tools. Curiosity is our God-given faculty to expand our understanding and vision of what God wants us to do. It separates mighty children from measly warriors, fervent followers from religious robots. Had Adam and Eve asked questions instead of believing what they were told, their story would have ended on a happier note. (And we wouldn’t be in such a mess.) Had Noah’s neighbors been comfortable with curiosity, they would have boarded the ark. Had Sodom’s death squad inquired who Lot’s visitors were, they would have escaped their gruesome fate. Failure to question facilitates failure. It’s a tale as old as time, the inevitable outcome of being afraid to appear naïve or unorthodox—when in reality, only those who are curious can reap benefits that Christ promises in Matthew 7.7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

O God of wonder, restore our comfort with curiosity. Teach us to save ourselves from failure to question so that we may live faithfully and obediently as You desire. Amen.

Curiosity is God's means of endowing us with courage to ask questions and find clarity to accomplish what we're called to do. Failure to question facilitates failure.


Sherry Peyton said...

Wow, love the new look!

Thanks for a very important lesson Tim. The quickest way to spiritual stagnation is to safely never question.

Tim said...

Sherry, I'm so glad you like the new look and enjoyed the post. Re the look: the narrow columns were driving me bonkers and I confess a lack of curiosity about fixing it for quite some time. ;-)

Re the post: how right you are. Stagnation is where never questioning leaves us. Next comes atrophy, followed by that glazed expression we see in what my pastor calls "cookie-cutter Christians." A living faith is evidenced by a lively mind; questions come with the territory.

Thanks for the thoughts! I trust you're having a wonderful summer.

Many blessings,

genevieve said...

It seems that the older I get the more questions I ask. If more people asked questions about the way our country is headed, we wouldn't be in a lot of the wars and double dealingsthat are going on. I believe that David remins us that it's okay to have and ask questions.

Tim said...

Gen, sorry for the delayed response. Blogger wasn't cooperating earlier this afternoon.

My experience mirrors yours. The more I experience of life, the less convinced I am that I've got it all figured out. I'm more alert to how little I know and how what I know doesn't always help me make sense of what's happening around me. Of course the hidden blessing in that is age steadily eases our concern about being judged. So asking questions comes more easily--at least it should.

The problem, which we're clearly seeing in magnified form on our national stage, is that many of us turn questions into weapons. "Why don't they?" "Who do they think they are?" And the most ruinous question of all: "What's in it for me?" Such questions don't reflect honest curiosity. They're meant to disparage and (presumably) reflect superiority. They're not really questions at all, which is why they can never be satisfyingly answered.

But genuine questions seeking clarity and knowledge can never be wrong--provided make beneficial use of the answers! That's what David did.

Thanks for this thought, dear sister. It's always delightful to hear from you!

Blessings always,