When I was a kid we were always adopting stray dogs. It was nothing for dogs to just show up, we'd feed them, and they'd stay. I remember a coydog that we had once. It just showed up and stuck around for a while. I remember others that did the same. But then there was Sheba. I don't remember how she got there, or even when. But she was a pretty dog. Probably a mix of at least 2 or 3 breeds, they usually were. She was a very friendly dog and made herself right at home. I have to say that I don't remember what happened to her, probably the highway, if I had to guess. But what I remember most about her was her name.
Sheba was short for "Queen of Sheba." I had never heard of that before and didn't realize it was a real person from a real place in history. As I got a little older, I realized who she was, and more importantly, what she did. Actually, now that I've matured a little more, her story impresses me not so much for what she did, but for a realization that I have finally come to about myself.
Her story can be found in 1 Kings 10, and 2 Chronicles 9, almost word for word in each. She had heard of Solomon's wealth and wisdom so she felt the need to check it out for herself. When she came to visit Solomon she brought with her unbelievable amounts of spices, gold, and precious stones. And she did this so that she could pick his brain. You know what I'm talking about. She had some questions that she wanted to put to Solomon's wisdom.
Scripture says "Solomon answered all her questions. Nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her." Well, isn't that nice?
I have found that this is just not the case with me, and it's been a tough lesson to learn. I have dealt with issues already in my career that I never thought, or at the very least, hoped I would never have to deal with. I have buried children. I have watched a church self destruct from the inside. I have ministered with the homeless and hungry, knowing that in God's creation, there is enough...if we take care of each other. I have sat with folks while the doctor says "There is nothing else we can do." And during all of that, folks have looked to me with their questions.
One of the hardest things I had to learn how to do as a pastor is to look at someone and say, "I don't know." I usually follow that with, "But, I'll be glad to sit down and we can work on it together." 5 years of seminary, nearly $40,000 worth of education, and there are still more times than not when I have to say, "I don't know." It used to bother me more than it does now. Now, I've realized that I can do much more harm by trying to come up with an answer than I can by being honest, because there are a lot of things we just don't have answers for.
Never is that more obvious than at the visition for a victim of an untimely death. I have stood beside families while very well meaning folks worked through the line and said things like, "Well, God must have needed another flower for his garden." Or, "Well, God must have known that there was something much worse waiting later in their life." Or, my personal favorite, "Well, God must have needed them more than we did."
I have learned that sometimes the best answer is no answer at all. Especially in times like that. We do much more good when we hold our tongue and extend our arms. I think Solomon might even agree.
It has taken me a long time to get to the place where I finally feel like I don't have to have an answer for every question. I mean, I am after all, the resident theologian, or at least that's what I was told in seminary. I also realize that part of my responsibility is to handle faith questions, and I take that responsibility very seriously. But I have found that a bad answer is much, much, more damaging than no answer and some time spent studying together.
So, now when someone comes to me and says, "I have a question..." I don't tense up like I used to because I'm not groping around in the recesses of my mind trying to find an answer. I can sit down with them and honestly say, "I don't know for sure, let's look."
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