There’s a story that you may have heard, about a boy who spent a weekend visiting a friend, a friend whose Sunday morning culture included Sunday School. The visiting boy wasn’t too sure about that, he had never been to Sunday School, didn’t know what happened there, wouldn’t know any of the answers. His wise friend sought to reassure him, “Oh, it’s not so bad, often they have snacks there, and if they ask you a question, the answer is probably God or Jesus.”
I’ve spent time in that Sunday School class.
There may have been a time, though I can’t remember it, when my goal would have been to come up with the “right” answer, as well. As a child, and as a youth, and to a degree, as an adult, I was almost cripplingly shy. Attention focused on me was always a frightening and sweaty thing. Some of that remains. And so if the expected answer was “God” or “Jesus,” then I would offer that, because it was less stressful than risking the attention of being wrong.
Despite that aversion to drawing public attention, and of having to be coherent in front of people, my desperation to offer the expected answer has, to a large degree, been left behind.
It was left behind in part back when I was still that quite young boy. There was another characteristic developing within me, a characteristic that was in tension with a quest for easy and obvious answers. That characteristic had more to do with pushing limits, looking beyond the obvious for new angles, exploring new possibilities. That characteristic had much to do with contrariness.
Two memories remind me of that development.
One is of a Sunday School teacher, possibly the same one that the two little boys were discussing in the story earlier. This person, at least through my all-knowing teen-age eyes, was getting on in years, and there seemed to be little urgency on her part to explore new ground. Faith issues were reduced to simple platitudes, obvious questions where answers were either right or wrong, and a passing mark could probably have been guaranteed by answering all questions with “God” or “Jesus.”
In my somewhat impetuous immaturity, and to make a statement that seemed important at the time, I often answered questions with exactly the opposite answer to the one expected, and then to back that up with a passionate argument to prove my point.
What was proven, mostly, was that the teacher was much more patient, mature, and gracious than I, and as much as I allowed her to, continued to offer me encouragement in my faith walk.
Amazingly, that support continued well into adulthood.
The second memory is about 25 years ago, when I was well into my “mature” years, on assignment with Mennonite Disaster Service in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands. Hurricane Hugo had blown the roofs from many of the buildings on the island, and we worked at rebuilding them. The team was housed in a church, and attended church there on Sundays.
We encountered a Sunday School teacher, actually the pastor, who taught with tremendous enthusiasm and energy. And yet, his questions, his ways of involving the people, seemed empty to me. Questions had to do with names, dates, places, who was in that party, where did they stay, how long were they there, things that might be relevant in a history class, but didn’t seem very significant in my spiritual search.
I remember my frustration and confusion as others from the team marveled at the leader’s skill and knowledge, “could we ever use a teacher like that at home,” when I was feeling totally disconnected from faith questions.
“When do people actually get to talk to each other, or listen to each other?” “When does personal experience become relevant?” “How can faith be reduced to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions?”
It seemed that life experience had no place in this type of Sunday School.
Matthew, writing in the New Testament, quotes Jesus asking, “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question that is at the centre of Christian experience and transformation to this day.
It is also a question that calls for a response out of the richness and colour and variety of life. It is a question that calls for conversation, for listening, for affirming. It is a question that requires stories of lives well lived, stories that are as comfortable with laughter as with tears.
These stories are often shaded with myth and exaggeration. A central component for those stories to point at a good answer to the holy question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ is a healthy dollop of humility.
I currently work in a delightful setting where conversation is often wildly profane. Good people surround me, people who offer care, people who accept care.
I note that Matthew quotes Jesus as telling his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
Perhaps there are better ways of offering and receiving glimpses of God.