A long time ago youth groups started doing what we like to call fish bowls, where youth write down questions ranging from the Bible to current events and issues affecting them in their daily life, as well as a fair share of random complete nonsense just to make sure things don't get too overly serious or dramatic. But the questions are written anonymously: questions they may not want to ask out loud in front of their friends, because we still have this cultural conception that asking such things is a sign of weakness. It means you're not as smart as everybody else. Wondering about Creation or the cross or the end times means you don't have enough faith as the supposedly "true" Christians. And so that narrow-minded perspective still stops young people, and adults for that matter, from raising their hand in any learning context, because we care more about perception than starting an even deeper journey of faith with this mind-boggling, yet life-altering, God.
Now my first experience in leading this anything-can-happen fish bowl was as a camp counselor several years ago with about fifteen Confirmation students gathered around a campfire. I still remember being completely blown away by the questions from these supposed-to-be immature, not care about anything but gossip and boyfriends and girlfriends and the latest technology and fashion, children. Yes, we as a culture stereotype all junior high youth, never even giving them a chance to prove us wrong: that they just might possess an even deeper yearning to understand this God than we supposedly faith-filled adults. I remember the questions ranging from the beginning of time to the cross to their friends of different faith traditions and what's going to happen to them when they die, and it went on and on.
Now as someone who, at the time, recently decided to go into seminary to be a pastor at some point, I was under the impression it was my job not only as their camp counselor, but as a future leader in the church to answer their questions, to remove all their fears and doubts about this God and the world around them. How quickly I realized I was just as wrong about my job that night, not to mention my purpose in my eventual career as a pastor, as I was about those junior high youth. They weren't supposed to come up with any questions of any depth let alone change my perspective on ministry for the rest of my life.
I quickly found out one of the most humbling parts of these kinds of conversations, whether they be around a campfire, in a pastor's class, in Sunday school, or anywhere else for that matter. You see, when you hit the jackpot in that pivotal moment of ministry, it's not when you can give them the perfectly worded answer with the exact chapter and verse in the Bible for your support, and a historical context as background for an ego-boost. It's not about making yourself look good, that as a pastor you actually paid attention in seminary and did your homework with all those textbooks written by the brightest of scholars, and you make a church believe that you're worth every penny of your salary. That's not ministry at all.
But when you hit the jackpot, it's when you get to sit back and watch about fifteen Confirmation students with not one day of training in seminary, no idea what historical context with the Bible even means, and watch them take your soul on a faith-transcending journey through a fire of passion in the middle of the utter stillness in God's Creation. And your role as leader gets completely transformed into observing these junior high students tear down all those offensive stereotypes I had of them going in, and show you how much they care about each other, including ones they never met until only a couple days before, how much they would do anything for each other, how much the church thrives when such relationships make up the body of Christ, and how desperately we need their enthusiasm, their curiosity, and their complete unwillingness to never give up on any topic of religion, of culture, of humanity that's too difficult to solve. Because that night we didn't come away with any concrete answers, but truly I tell you, we hit the jackpot in ministry.
After all, today we heard the words of Jesus himself: "You do not know the day nor the hour," when our Lord will return. We do not fully grasp the cross. We do not have all the answers, but if we can still engage in conversations over those most difficult of questions, if we can speak in such a way that refrains from tearing others down and instead build each other up, as the church was created to do; if we can somehow stop ourselves from making people think they're not smart enough, not Christian enough, not scared enough to raise their hand, if we can ensure there's an environment of love as our Savior brought to life for all people, then we've hit the jackpot. In the end, the church was not established as an answer factory, but as a place and people to embody the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Lord, the very sacrifice that instilled hope for all people, for all ages, for all levels of curiosity and passion. Thanks be to God that we cannot stop our Risen Savior from entering into all their hearts through every question, every struggle, and every moment in between. So let it be, O God, so let it be for all of them. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Dennis Smith, Interim Pastor
Office: Tue - Fri: 9 a.m. - Noon