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My youngest son is the king of questions. His ten-year-old brain and his mouth seem to spin from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning until the half-minute it takes him to fall asleep at bedtime.
Last week, he took the opportunity during a swim in his grandma’s pool, to ask me, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done and not told Grandma?” Both he and my mother waited attentively for an answer.
Then, on the way back home, after several wonderings about the smattering of political signs we passed along the roadside, he asked me something I’ve been pondering ever since: “Mom, what is something you believe that maybe you could be wrong about?”
The question stopped me in my tracks. I hemmed and hawed as I tried to think of a belief I hold that wavers, something I would be willing to admit I could possibly be uncertain about. I debated grabbing for some low-hanging fruit, something to get me off the hook: like the claim that The Office is the best show to ever air on Network TV or that tacos are the perfect food. I would love to say I modeled vulnerability and openness in that moment, but the reality is that I stuttered and stammered as I tried to think of a doubt safe enough to share with my young son, fully aware that whatever answer I gave would lead to dozens more questions.
Later that night, during a gathering of friends that turned into more of a processing session around the Christian Reformed Church’s Synod actions earlier in the week, a friend grabbed a copy of Peter Enns’s new book, The Sin of Certainty, and read aloud this passage: “Preoccupation with correct thinking. That’s the deeper problem…It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet.”
Enns has got me thinking: what banquet, what joy and discovery, am I missing out on when I fail to welcome my son’s questions? What opportunities do I miss when I fall into the habit of packaging upright answers to give him rather than engaging him in dialogue? Although just a decade old, he doesn’t sound unlike other young people I’ve taught or spent time around — a young generation not interested in pat, black-and-white, Sunday School answers, but looking for adults willing to engage in authentic and messy dialogue. Delegate Heidi Sytsema addressed this at Synod when she said, “Our young people are not asking for clarity. They are asking for belonging.”
How strange that one of the most common responses to the past several years of uncertainty has been to double down on certainty. Rather than allow space for pain and fear, we witness a stubborn entrenchment into the mire of our own thinking and understanding. Rather than admitting that maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do — whether it be about the Bible, the forecast, or the future — we dig in our heels and turn our backs in resoluteness. We turn to the Bible for answers, instead lament, curiosity, openness, and wonder. We do this even as we claim to love and follow a man who responded to most questions, especially those from religious leaders, with stories and additional questions.
Over and over my mind returns to the time I was practicing yoga and I complained to the instructor, asking her to give me a pass from a hard pose: “Does it hurt or is it uncomfortable?” she asked.
Discomfort is no fun. Real dialogue — the kind that requires listening to understand rather than respond — isn’t often our natural tendency. And more often than not, I’ll admit I have to push myself to wade in the murkiness of my son’s questions. It’s tempting to turn up the radio and hope he’ll be quiet.
And yet, I wonder if I — if we, as a group of people who claim to be Reformed and always Reforming — need to stop gathering and promoting right answers. Maybe we need to give up on upholding the weight of supposedly high standards and instead spend that energy increasing our collective capacity for sitting in discomfort, for allowing space for the actual concept of faith, which hinges on allowing room for uncertainty. As Richard Rohr writes, “How strange that the very word ‘faith’ has come to mean its exact opposite.”
So, what is something you believe that you could possibly be wrong about? Mull it over with me — and together, let’s exercise enough faith to sit in our discomfort and avoid any easy answers.
Boy thinking outdoors photo by Sander Weeteling on Unsplash
Blank paper photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Boy with a Bible photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash
Thank you Dana. I can see where your son gets his questioning mind. The older I get the more I don’t know for certain. And I’m thankful for the hard questions—my children are all in their 50’s and make me think often about what I believe and why.
Good words, Joyce.
Thank you for this. My mother-in-law often said, “The older I get, the more I recall how little I knew when I knew it all.” My wife and I often talk about and then ponder the wisdom in those few words. She remained open to the wonder of life to the end of her days, ready to question what didn’t seem as compelling as it once did … all this as she reacted to life as it unfolded. We try to walk in her steps.
Well said Dana!
History illustrates how we have used/misused the Bible to create comfort and conformity zones for ourselves! And asserting truth from a position of power is even more dangerous. One does not make something certain by declaring it to be certain because they NEED it to be certain.
Your thoughtful post, Dana, put me in mind of the disciples. Jesus called them and accepted them by grace even though so many things they were “certain” about were wrong and surely Jesus knew this. They were wrong about the nature of the Messiah, and this belief persisted 40 days after Easter. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Then even post-Pentecost they were wrong on Gentiles needing to become observant Jews first in order to follow Christ. And even after being corrected on this score by God himself Peter acted wrongly when the heat was on and he and Paul had a pretty good donnybrook about it. Yes, there were things they were certain enough about to die for, and most of them did die rather than deny Christ as Lord of all. But Jesus came to undo so many past “certainties” and did not abandon his disciples cum apostles when the things they were certain about at various points were also in the end wrong. Maybe this is why Peter seemed to get more humble as he grew in faith.
Thanks, Scott. That’s helpful and insightful. Please blog part II of this one!
Oh my goodness, Dana! I love this so much! When our church held listening circles about the HSR, one of my comments was about our Children’s Worship program and how we encouraged children to question and wonder and sit quietly with our mysterious awe. I much prefer this to the Sunday school I grew up with, where you didn’t speak up unless you had the “correct” answer. We adults have much to learn from children. And much to learn about discomfort and uncertainty. 💜
Thanks, Sara. I’m so glad it resonated with you. The Reformed Journal podcast with Meredith Anne Miller (from last July) has had me thinking for a year on the way we teach kids about God in our homes and in our churches. I highly recommend it!
Agreed, Sara! Wondering is the element in Children and Worship that continually stretches my heart and keeps leaders involved year after year. Wondering gives space to wrestle and respond. Wondering with children is fresh and humbling.
Oh Dana, now I look forward to our time together on Monday all the more. You are an exceptional writer, how you weave the earth and the spirit, how you so gently face what’s fierce, how you remind us that what’s called dailiness is usually profoundly spiritual, how you say everything in a voice that is comforting. As you know, I love living by not knowing. See ya Monday!
You are too good to me, Jack. See you SOON!
I love everything about the above exchange. And yes, you are excellent, friend. Thank you.
So much vulnerability with this article! Hoping that you answer your son’s question. And – so honored that one of my children had you as a teacher.
Dana really is a marvel. It must be so relieving be able to fully entrust your child with her.
I’m so glad I had her in class, too, Randy. The classroom can be a magical space. Jack taught me that!
Dana, thank you for this, it was definitely a blessing for my day. And wow! I would love to meet your son. Our church did together a devotional booklet for Lent. This is a quote I carried around in my calendar for quite a while: “In all the gospels, Jesus loves questions far more than answers. After all, questions begin conversation; answers end it. Questions start new journeys: answers often stop them. If Jesus doesn’t answer your questions quickly, don’t be offended. He’d rather start a journey with you then end it.”
If you are uncertain about so much what are you left with to teach? Who is to distinguish Truth? It begins to feel like a whole lot of discussion about what I am not certain of. What am I missing?