I am sitting in Café Blue in Weymouth having a ‘Full English’ breakfast – two eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, tomatoes, black pudding, fried bread, etc. As you have already guessed I have been let out on my own again, ostensibly to go to the bank and do some shopping for Julia (who is too busy to come in with me today). As I walk into the café, Pete (the owner) sees that I am on my own and immediately says ‘You’ll be wanting the big breakfast then?’
Julia and I have probably tried all the cafés in Weymouth over the five years we have been here, and Café Blue is definitely our favourite. It is not the cheapest but it is also not the most expensive. It serves good food and good coffee. It is situated on the seafront with great views across the beach and the bay (when there isn’t a lorry parked right outside, that is). There are tables outside if we want to sit in the sun or inside if we prefer shade from the sun (or warmth during the winter months). Pete is a very friendly happy-go-lucky guy and we always have a bit of a laugh and joke whenever we visit. There also seems to be a good number of ‘regulars’ like ourselves who frequent Café Blue … evidence that we are not the only ones who like the place.
I am tucking into my yumacious breakfast when a waitress I have not noticed before – Pete needs extra staff during the summer – comes into the café (from serving those sitting outside) and asks ‘Are there breadcrumbs in my eyebrows?’ Pete and I look at each other … and burst out laughing! Its not that the new waitress actually has lots of breadcrumbs in her eyebrows – in fact she doesn’t have any as far as either of us can see – its just that neither of us were expecting such an unusual question. Indeed I am quite sure that it is the first time in my entire life that I have actually been asked that particular question. I don’t even know the girl … and yet the first thing she ever says to me is: ‘Are there breadcrumbs in my eyebrows?’
Questions are good! Never be afraid to ask questions. When I was at Grammar School I was afraid to ask questions, especially in our Maths lessons. The Maths teacher would always say, ‘Has anyone any questions?’ but he would say it in such a way that nobody dared ask a question. I did manage to pass ‘O’ Level Maths thankfully but probably could have done so much better with a more helpful teacher. I learned from this experience, however, and when I was studying for my first degree determined that if I didn’t understand anything that the tutor was saying I would ask what he or she meant? I didn’t care if I asked a dozen questions in the course of one lecture … and really annoyed the tutor in the process … I was going to ask questions until I did understand what he or she was on about! My fellow students said to me one day, ‘We are really pleased that you ask all the questions that we are too afraid to ask ourselves in case we are thought to be stupid!’ It didn’t matter to me if the tutor thought I was stupid. I wanted answers. And, by the way, I got my degree.
Now I have been asked a number of questions over the years. These range from the ordinary: ‘How do you get to so-and-so?’ or ‘Where is such-and-such?’ to the more profound: ‘What is the meaning of life?’ This happens especially so when people discover that I am an ordained Baptist Minister. They range from the rather supercilious: ‘Do you only work on Sundays?’ to the more serious: ‘How can I find God for myself?’ Quite often these questions are asked by people I have only just met. This seems to happen to me quite a lot when I am on holiday. Whether we are camping, or staying in a gîte or hotel, or even when we are just site-seeing, people ask me questions. I suppose it is a bit like meeting a medical doctor in similar circumstances? When they find out that I am a member of the ‘clergy’ they usually say something like: ‘O good, I have lots of questions I have always wanted to ask someone like you?’ You would think that many of these questions would be cynical: ‘How can you be so deluded as to believe in the existence of God?’ or ‘How can you believe in a God of love when there is so much suffering in the world?’, and so on. In reality the questions people ask are more often than not quite personal and deep seated: ‘My life is in a mess … how can I sort it out?’, ‘Can God really forgive me?’, ‘How can I stop feeling so guilty?’, ‘Is it really possible to start all over again?’, and so on. More and more, however, I am discovering that people’s questions are becoming more outward (and less inward) looking: ‘There has to be more to life than this?’, ‘How can I discover a more meaningful purpose in life?’, ‘I would really like to make a difference … but I don’t know where to begin?’
God doesn’t mind our questions. The Psalmist is constantly questioning God. Recently, Julia and I have been studying the Minor Prophets in our own devotional times together, and we were particularly struck by the dialogue between Habakkuk and God in which the prophet constantly questions God about his actions (or perceived lack of action in most cases). At least Habakkuk (having asked his question of God) has the sense to wait on God for him to provide an answer (which he always does). In the Gospel Story Jesus does not mind Thomas questioning things … probably because he understands that Thomas is an honest doubter (who genuinely wants answers) and not a dishonest doubter (who just wants excuses for not following Christ).
The girl in the café with her question about possible breadcrumbs in her eyebrows reminds me of a story I once heard. Apparently there was a young man who, desperate for a coffee, went into a crowded café only to discover (once he got his coffee) that the only vacant seat was at a table for two. To his horror he saw that the other person sitting at the table was a clergyman … cassock, dog collar, the lot! The young man was agnostic about belief in God, and somewhat hostile towards religion in general and the clergy in particular, but he wanted his coffee and this was the only seat available, so he sat down. The clergyman’s welcoming smile was ignored as the young man got on with drinking his coffee leaving the clergyman to get on with drinking his cup of tea and reading the book he had with him. He noticed, however, that the clergyman was wearing a rather unusual lapel badge in the form of a question mark. Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he found himself asking the clergyman the question that had been forming itself in his mind for the last few minutes: ‘Excuse me … but what does that funny looking lapel badge stand for?’ ‘Why,’ replied the clergyman, ‘it stands for the most important question in the world?’ … and then, rather annoyingly, he went back to reading his book. A minute or two passed, and then the young man burst out with the obvious second question: ‘What is the most important question in the world?’ The clergyman smiled and turning the pages of his book (which just happened to be a New Testament) to Matthew 27:22, he read the words of Pontius Pilate (addressed to the crowds in Jerusalem just after the trial of Jesus), ‘What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?’ ‘That’ said the clergyman, ‘remains the most important question in the world!’ And, looking the young man straight in the eye, he continued: ‘Can I ask you what you are doing with Jesus?’
What think you of Christ? is the test
To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest,
Unless you think rightly of him.
As Jesus appears in your view,
As he is beloved or not;
So God is disposed to you,
And mercy or wrath are your lot.
Some take him a creature to be,
A man, or an angel at most;
Sure these have not feelings like me,
Nor know themselves wretched and lost:
So guilty, so helpless, am I,
I durst not confide in his blood,
Nor on his protection rely,
Unless I were sure he is God.
Some call him a Saviour, in word,
But mix their own works with his plan;
And hope he his help will afford,
When they have done all that they can:
If doings prove rather too light
(A little, they own, they may fail)
They purpose to make up full weight,
By casting his name in the scale.
Some style him the pearl of great price,
And say he’s the fountain of joys;
Yet feed upon folly and vice,
And cleave to the world and its toys:
Like Judas, the Saviour they kiss,
And, while they salute him, betray;
Ah! what will profession like this
Avail in his terrible day?
If asked what of Jesus I think?
Though still my best thoughts are but poor;
I say, he’s my meat and my drink,
My life, and my strength, and my store,
My Shepherd, my Husband, my Friend,
My Saviour from sin and from thrall;
My hope from beginning to end,
My Portion, my Lord, and my All.
~ John Newton (1725-1807)