Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Questioning and Questing

So, the other day I revealed a truth about my third-grade self: I ended my Sunday School career by drawing a picture of a black Labrador and saying, "Dog spelled backwards is God!" That's why I found it a bit funny, and very spooky and daunting, that I had been approached by my current parish to be a Sunday School teacher.

I declined, politely. I think I could do it. Trouble is, I have so many other commitments (church and otherwise) that to take on dealing with kids I just thought, "No, this would be one thing too many right now."

I've been told by others that the very fact that I was a child full of questions ("Why can't I be a shepherd instead of an angel?" "Why must I be confirmed before being an acolyte?"), makes me a great adult to work with kids. The fact that I was never satisfied with "because I said so"-type answers may qualify me to work with teen-agers. That I endured some tremendous personal pain and suffering, bouts of serious depression, and struggles with my sexuality while attending a New England prep school, and lived to remember and tell the tale... also apparently is a plus for having the ability to work well with teens.

But if I ever do take on a ministry such as Sunday School, I would hope that the lesson I learned in confirmation class would inform how I work with kids.

In the early 1980s, the confirmation classes from Christ Church had to go on a weekend trip to Sign of the Dove Retreat Center in Temple, New Hampshire. I really, really, really didn't want to do this. I am an introvert, and I never felt "at home" with my peers. So, I was not looking forward to this event. The priest at the center was engaging and friendly. And he was not about to let me slip off into a corner and hide. At this time in my faith journey, I was what I would call a "punk". We had looked at the Nicene Creed in class, and I had found the phrase to use to play, "Stump the priest". And since this center director was new to me and wanted to engage me, this punk was ready to play the game. And so I asked the question:

"In the Nicene Creed, we say "Begotten, not made." So, I want to know... where'd God come from?"

I'd posed this question to my rector who had brushed it off as "not the right question". I had posed it to our curate, who tried mightily to concoct an answer and finally gave up and asked me why I asked impossible questions. Now, I awaited this man's answer. And I was totally surprised. First, he looked me in the eyes. And as he smiled, his eyes seemed to almost dance at the delight that I had asked for this explanation.

"That's a great question!" he exclaimed. "I don't know!"

What? Priests were supposed to know everything. Priests had the handy-dandy answers at their fingertips, or at the very least, the ability to always say, "Because I said so." But this guy, the one with the seminary training and the black shirt and white, round collar, was saying he didn't know?! He went on.

"I don't know. But I have faith that God does exist, even if I don't know where God came from." He went on to talk more about faith, and the meaning of having faith in something that can't be readily seen, scientifically-tested, and proven on paper. Better yet, he kept looking at me, and talking to me as if I had just posed the most important question of the day. And then he turned the question back on me:

"How about your faith? Do you have faith in God?"

A dialogue! He actually wanted to dialogue with me? And he was asking me what felt like a critical piece to this whole confirmation process.

"Um, yeah."

"Great!" And he encouraged me to keep thinking, and to keep asking the questions I was asking.

In one 15-minute conversation, this priest had turned this punk on my head, and gave me a rare moment of actually being met in a theological discussion where I was not only taken seriously, but I was seen as having asked a question worthy of a real talk. So profound was this experience that I remember it, almost thirty years later, as one of the markers in my faith journey.

And it has given me a model for how I think all adults should deal with children, especially teen-agers. No matter how flippant the question may be posed... it is still a question. If you meet the question with thoughtfulness and seriousness... and a smile... you could make some serious inroads into a teen's understanding of their faith.

Oh, yes, the priest at the retreat center was the Reverend Gene Robinson, the current bishop of New Hampshire.

'Nuff said.


frdougal said...

Thanks for posting this: it really gives an insight into ministry a a most remarkable man.

Anonymous said...

And I might add is still a remarkable man. I believe his trips to the UK have been very helpful for some over there who believe his becoming a Bishop is a blessing not a curse. He is so wonderful here in our diocese and is a very special man. He is a very close friend.