Edited and re-posted from my congregational newsletter.
My jaw dropped.
On one of our recent “Living Faith” gatherings of the Confirmation Class – a Sunday night event that includes dinner and hands-on faith activities – we began with a game of questions. To play this game, the person who will answer a question has a choice – to sit in one of three chairs. If you sit in the small, hard, uncomfortable chair you get an “easy” questions. If you sit in the normal but otherwise unexciting chair, you get a “medium” question. If you sit in the comfortable, high-back, cushioned chair, you get a “difficult” question.
The comfort of the chair is inversely related to the difficulty of the question.
So when one of my youth sat in the comfortable chair – which will likely invite a less-than-comfortable question – I pulled a card from the deck of questions and asked, “How do you feel about euthanasia?” He paused for a moment to think and then responded, “Well, if someone is in pain and suffering, and wants to end their life, I guess that’s their choice. But really, we should help them so they don’t get in that situation in the first place.”
My jaw dropped. His answer was much more profound and nuanced than most of us would ever expect from a middle school youth.
A few minutes later, another youth climbed into the same chair, and received a similarly difficult question: “Should a teenager’s parents be punished for their child’s alcohol or drug use?” Again, after pausing for a moment, he responded, “Well, no, but clearly there’s a problem in that house. That family needs some help.”
Jaw dropped. Again.
Both of these kids refused totake the bait, to latch onto simple black or white answers to difficult moral issues – mercy killings and teenage substance abuse. Instead, and without much time to think about it, they articulated that these moral dilemmas are symptoms of deeper problems that deserve our attention.
It is too easy to debate the morality of euthanasia or the merits of punishing parents for their children’s substance abuse. Moreover, debating these issues ultimately fails to get at the real problems. The real problems are bigger than any yes/no question can answer. And our kids know it.
In a culture that likes to put advocates for opposing sides of an issue on a split-screen and let them argue until they’re blue in the face, we don’t often do nuance very well.
We inhabit an online world where we can click “like” on Facebook to signal our approval of something. But that world doesn’t give us much room to signal mixed feelings, and a failure to press “like” is read by some to mean “dislike.” On Twitter,140 characters limits our response, again reducing our conversation to simple quips of Yes or No but leaving little room for much else.
Yet despite this cultural tendency to push us into simple Yes or No answers, and despite the way the questions in our game were worded, our youth that night provided much more thoughtful and caring responses than most people would have offered if given the chance.
When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, the boy hesitated, saying, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” God said to him, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8).
Our youth are not “only” youth, but they are insightful, funny, talented, passionate and gifted children of God. They write poetry and play sports, make computer animation videos and play musical instruments, help their neighbors and work hard at school. God works wonders through them. Our youth have so much to offer the church and world. Is the church able to accept what they have to give?
I certainly hope so. Every congregation wrestles with how to include their youth into the fuller life of the congregation. We have centuries-old traditions of age-specific rites of passage, yet these rites were developed in ages very different than our own. We hold onto these rites for good reason, and we have been wise to change some of their age parameters. Nonetheless, the general notion that our youth are not “old enough” persists, and that is too bad.
Because what I’ve learned by spending lots of time with these kids is that they think deeply and feel passionately about many of the same things that our Lord Jesus himself was passionate – life, love, justice, care for the suffering. Sure, youth have much to learn. But so do adults.
In fact, Jesus spent his time teaching adults and blessing children (an insight I first read from Rich Melheim, of Faith Inkubators). Today, the church has largely inverted our Lord's model, choosing to teach the children and bless the adults. What do you think the church would look if it spent less time teaching our young and more time blessing them? And what would the church look and feel like if it taught its adults – not just the small group committed to the adult forum or midweek Bible study, but the overwhelming majority of its adults? How might this approach to blessing and teaching change the church?
I think I know a few youth who could teach us adults. They gather at church on many Sunday evenings, sharing a meal and a few laughs, playing and praying together, and working out the stuff of faith together. If you come, prepare to have your jaw drop. God is doing something pretty special in and through these kids.
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”