Before I was baptized, the most important question I had was how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I memorized it in the back of my mother’s black Volvo staring up at the stars as we drove through the country, coming home from a visit to my grandfather who hat sat me on his knee and asked me about my decision to follow God.
I’ve changed a lot since I was eight years old swimming through the baptismal waters because I was too short to walk, and now more than ever do I question my religion. I’m going to be a pastor when I grow up, yet it’s a good day when I can worship and not once think about how we’re still praying to a man who died thousands of years ago for my sins, the ones I’m committing in my day-to-day life right now.
But is that wrong? Is it wrong to question faith? We all question everything else, so why not? Or are we all just too afraid?
When I was very young, Claire Pelligrin and I ran away from our parents after Big Church and hid in one of the younger children’s Sunday school rooms. We could hear our parents calling for us, so we dodged between rooms giggling to ourselves. After a while though, I started to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and demanded we go back. I honestly don’t think I’ve been in so much trouble. I was grounded for the longest time I’ve ever been grounded, and I was about six years old.
When Jesus ran away from his family, it wasn’t just an “oh-ha-ha-lets-freak-out-our-parents!” situation. He had questions that needed to be answered. He had gone to Jerusalem with his family for Passover, but as they were leaving, he ran away from the caravan they were travelling in and ran to the temple where the teachers were. He had a goal, a purpose, and he wasn’t going to get scared like I did and run back into his parents arms, although I’m very sure that many times in his life he wished he could have. Instead, he ran into the circle of rabbis and teachers in search of answers, for where else would he go to find them? When his parents finally find him after three days, he asks them that question, where else would he be, but in the temple?
I know that I as a child would never have run to my teachers. I wouldn’t have run to anyone except my stuffed animals in my room with a slam of the door, and flung myself into angry scribbles inside a pink composition book with ‘Do not read!’ written carefully all over it.
Parents see all the negative traits that come out in their children when no one else is around. They witness the shouting, the hissy fits, the rebellion. But they also see the good little things that kids won’t even admit to themselves. Parents are sometimes the safest people to ask our questions. However, sometimes, and more often than not, it takes people outside the nuclear family to see the outstanding qualities in a child and call them out on it. Those teachers who Jesus ran to saw the outstanding qualities in Jesus from his questions. They took time and listened to him. They answered his questions, and accepted his answers for their questions. Why don’t we talk to each other like that anymore? ‘Cause that’s worth a lot to a person, especially young people. We all have so many questions. We doubt practically everything. We are at our most insecure time once we hit puberty. Being listened to encourages us, and even scares us a little. We are almost afraid of ourselves. We are afraid of hearing an answer we don’t wish to know, or being told to be quiet. We are embarrassed to ask for help because so many people already doubt us just because of our age and we want to be strong, even though we’re not. It’s okay for little kids to ask questions, because they’re adorable, and because they don’t have to know anything yet. I’m fifteen years old and I’m making decisions that will change my future forever. I’m driving a car, I’m already looking at colleges, and preparing for the ACT and the SAT. I’m supposed to have answers, not questions. I’m supposed to know what I’m doing, but I don’t.
People tell me whatever I believe now, I won’t believe in ten years. They might be right, they probably are. But I spend too much of my time stressing over how I’m going to get a job in ten years to also be stressing about what I’m going to believe then if I don’t even know what I believe now. If I don’t get answers, I’ll just be asking the same questions when I’m older; kinda seems like a waste of time. So why do we make it so hard to ask questions?
Mary was already planning Jesus’ future before he was even born. In her Magnificat, she sings of how her son will be the one to lift up the lowly and turn away the rich, leaving them hungry. I don’t know what my parents were expecting or hoping for, but I know for sure they weren’t expecting a midnight call from their daughter while she was on a church retreat to say that she was going to be a pastor. I wasn’t expecting it. But Jesus actually leaves his parents to seek his own faith when he’s twelve years old. He has such an innocent curiosity. He just wants to know. I think we all just want to know. Who is God? Are we doing what he is asking us to do? How should we worship? Are we good people?
"We’re a bit grumpy, a lot stressed out, and very hormonal when it comes to our faith."
The truth is, we’re all faith teenagers. We’re a bit grumpy, a lot stressed out, and very hormonal when it comes to our faith. Some Sundays we leap up ready to go to church, others we call in sick and sleep an extra two hours just because we feel like it. And, we are all afraid to ask questions about religion. We want to appear strong for those who are weak, and especially to ourselves. We want to look like we’ve got everything under control when, really, we’re falling apart at the seams. And we’re also afraid of conflict. We don’t want to start an argument.
And that’s okay! It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to question. How else will we learn? I would have failed the chemistry test I stayed up all night studying for if I hadn’t asked questions. I wouldn’t have met one of my best friends if I hadn’t turned to her and asked her what her name was and freaked her out a little. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t asked myself, why not? Why shouldn’t I be who I am?
There is no right way to be Christian. We’re all figuring it out together. We have too many questions to disregard each other and ourselves when it comes to faith. Answers come from the strangest places, from the people standing in the places we never look. But they will never give their answers if we don’t ask in the first place.
No matter how old we are or where we’re from or what we’ve done in the past, we all have the same need to understand. We are all trying to figure out who we are in God and how to show that in our day-to-day lives. We often feel insignificant and tiny; I know I do. I wake up in the morning and look at all the books in my room and think, how will I ever be able to compare to these authors who have words that have changed so many lives? How will I ever become who I think I should be? Some days I feel very, very small. Some of those days it’s just because I’m playing a basketball game against people twice my size, but others, others it’s because I do not trust myself to be great.
Now, a mustard seed is about one to two millimeters in diameter. Jesus used the seeming insignificance of its size to encourage his family of faith after they failed to perform a miracle. “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains,” he told them. But Jesus didn’t use ‘oh ye of little faith’ as an insult. He used it as an encouragement. I think he meant it like, ‘oh, ye of little faith, you’ll get there one day.” Do you know how big a mustard seed can grow? Nine feet tall. That’s a lot of potential in one millimeter of a seed. Now, admittedly, I think we all recognize some potential in each other. We all know that we all have the capacity to do great things. I just think that we doubt each other, we doubt ourselves, and, even though we don’t like to admit it, we doubt God. And while that is okay, it is not okay to say that one person has less potential than another just because of our own doubt. We all can move mountains, if we work together.
Many days we feel as insignificant as a mustard seed. Our questions are almost too large for us. We like to put them in boxes, or shove them to the back of the clutter. We compartmentalize, like Scarlett O’Hara saying she’ll think about it tomorrow. We have more important things to think about, more pressing matters at hand than an existential question about the fundamentals of Christianity. But, if we ask questions and think and talk to each other and listen to those who have all the potential of a mustard seed, together we can grow nine feet tall.
When it comes to faith, we are all afraid to be wrong. But no one is alone here; no one is completely isolated. We share questions, if not answers, beliefs, and faith. We share many of these questions with the whole world. I know how it feels to think we are alone with our questions. Jesus felt that too. He ran away from where he felt safest with his parents to a place where he was vulnerable and insignificant, just so he could ask his questions. And all the teachers were amazed. So let’s stop feeling alone and start learning, together, how we can be the best we can be together and ask questions that have the power to change the world, but more importantly, the power to change ourselves and each other. For what else would you do, should you do, besides ask questions?
Emmaline Rogers is a member of The First Baptist Church of Memphis, Tennessee. This post is the text of her sermon, delivered to the church on Youth Sunday, September 18, 2016.