I was running slightly late coming out of Freedom – the great surf shop in Redhouses, Jersey – having picked up a birthday present for our oldest son, Ben. A couple of long-haired, flip-flopped surfing dudes were coming towards the shop, deep in conversation. As we passed, one of them stopped, looked me in the eye and asked me a question. There was no introduction. No ‘excuse me’ or anything like that. No explanation of why he wanted the answer. Surfing Dude 1 just asked the question. A straight question.
‘What’s the capital of Madagascar?’
It’s not what I expected. It took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to have a conversation with these two gentlemen in their mid-twenties, let alone to be quizzed on my knowledge of capital cities. Afterwards I wondered if I looked like someone who was well-travelled, or perhaps a geography teacher. But I was pleased to be asked, as I knew that I knew the answer! It was rather like one of those moments in a quiz when you’re pleased to discover that you really do know the answer – but it takes a second or so to fully form and get from your brain to your mouth.
So I replied to Surfing Dude 1:
‘Uh… it’s Antana…’ followed by a slight pause. Was the next letter an ‘m’ or ‘n’?
‘It’s Antan-a-mari…’ I said. But I knew the ‘m’ in the middle didn’t seem right. So I tried again.
‘Antananarivo’ I proudly declared. ‘That’s it. Antananarivo.’
‘I knew it!!!’ said Surfing Dude 1 to Surfing Dude 2. ‘Thanks mate. Thanks a lot’. And off they marched into Freedom.
I smiled to myself as I headed back to the van and I found myself thinking three things. First: ‘Funny question’. Second: ‘I wonder why they wanted to know?’ And third, ‘Isn’t it interesting that I knew the answer and was in the right place at the right time to answer their question?’
As I mull over that seemingly random but interesting brief encounter – which probably lasted less than 10 seconds – here’s what I think.
First, it’s good to ask questions. Since the dawn of time we humans have been asking questions. By nature we are inquisitive. We want to know. To learn. To understand. To discover. The bible is full of inquisitive people asking questions. Questions about virtually every aspect of life. Just look at the questions directed to God in the Book of Psalms. They’re never just random questions. They’re good questions that emerge out of real life. So we need to treasure the questions. And honour the questioner whatever the question. As the Alpha course says time and time again: ‘no question is too simple or hostile.’ However funny it may seem. Even if it’s about the capital of Madagascar.
Second, there’s a back-story to every question. Something’s happened in the life or experience of the questioner that’s raised a question. They saw something. Heard something. Read something. Thought something. Experienced something. And now they have a question. I never got to discover the back-story of the surfing dudes. I could speculate, but in retrospect it would’ve been good to ask. I could have thrown an unthreatening question back, like ‘why do you ask?’ Sometimes I’m good at asking questions like that, but when I’m busy or late (as on this occasion) I sometimes miss the opportunity. Maybe you’re the same. That’s why it’s best not to be in a hurry, so the opportunity can be fully realised.
Third, we sometimes find that we’re put in the right place at the right time to answer someone’s question. Maybe you’ve had that experience. It feels like you were meant to be there at that moment. Like this is a God-thing. A divine encounter. The Lord has put you together as you have the answer to their question. It could be one of those searching questions about meaning, purpose and identity where the answer is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, and your job is to tell your story and point them to him. That’s why the bible says that when people are looking for hope we should ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you’ (1 Peter 3:15). At other times it might simply be a factual question. And that’s fine too. Even if it’s about the capital of Madagascar.
Marilee Goldberg says, ‘A question not asked is a door not opened’. So let’s not be afraid to ask questions, or answer them. It’s good to question. Even if it’s about the capital of Madagascar.