School is back; and so are SRE, Sunday School and Youth Group. And as sure as there is a swimming carnival in February, if you talk to children about Jesus you will be asked big questions in the weeks ahead. I love BIG questions: they’re inconvenient and complicated, they need time and patience and courage (all of which may be in short supply!) … but, they mean that someone is thinking, and that should never be discouraged.
In a world of soundbites and echo chambers, getting to the truth about life’s big questions can seem almost too hard. But today I would like to encourage you to grab those questions with both hands. When a big question lands at my feet, I imagine a toad. Yes, a toad. Toads are often ugly, seemingly unpleasant creatures (a bit like a tough question in the middle of a Sunday school lesson) but they are important in the ecosystem and they give an indication of the health of the environment (again, a bit like a tough question). My toad has a name, allow me to introduce: A. C. TOAD.
First, positively ACKNOWLEDGE the question. Sometimes a question might need to be reframed in order to be a useful, but that’s OK. Encouraging children to ask questions is the point here, helping them to form good questions is our job.
Next, CONSIDER. Consider whether you will answer the question. Several reasons, such as timing, location, appropriate relationships and the level of understanding of the asker, might mean you choose to defer or not to answer it. If you decide to defer the answer, make sure you do follow it up. For example, it is my experience as a parent, that it is best to ‘park’ a question on same-sex marriage if it is asked on a crowded bus, but we have had some very fruitful conversations on that topic when driving in our car.
If you ought not answer the question, be honest: acknowledge it, be clear that you will not answer it and encourage them to talk to an appropriate person. If you need more guidance on dealing with these sorts of situations talk to your SRE co-ordinator or your minister. If you’re a parent … everything’s on the table!
- and C. are two things you need to do before you launch into any sort of answer. When it comes to giving an answer however, TOAD is your friend.
T is first and foremost: TRUTH MATTERS. You will not be able to say everything: time, attention span and the music from the Mr Whippy van are against you. But think of this process as a building: you want to lay the slab properly as the rest of the building will develop over time.
Many years ago, I was talking with a young woman about Jesus. She had been reading the Bible and thought that what it said about Jesus was true. So, I asked her what was stopping her from becoming a Christian. She said that she was a lesbian and she had asked a Catholic priest and a Uniting Church minister what that meant for her before God. What she had heard from the Catholic priest was that there was nothing that could be done for her, her sin excluded her forever. What she heard from the Uniting minister was that it totally didn’t matter, she could be in a same-sex relationship and God wouldn’t care. To her full credit, she had read her Bible, and she knew both those things didn’t match up with what God said. But she was stuck and confused because people had messed with the truth. Truth matters.
O stands for ONLY ANSWER THE QUESTION. Resist the temptation to import your own questions and doubts into the questions asked by a child. Answer the question they’ve asked and then… stop talking. Obviously open questions need longer answers, but if you work through them in sentence steps, it allows the child to process and direct the conversation. Let them make the connections and ask the next logical question when they are ready for it.
As an example, our family has had a very simple four-part answer to the question ‘Who can you marry?’ since our eldest was 3 years old: God says (authority, see below) you can marry:
(1) someone of the opposite sex;
(2) who is not related to you;
(3) only one person; and
(4) if you follow Jesus, then you should marry someone else who follows Jesus too. Recently, we have talked about how and why (1) has now changed under the law of the land but not under God’s law. Number (4) has helped us have conversations about who you might choose to date and why (when the time comes …). We have also in recent years discussed why some of the examples of marriage in the Bible don’t seem to fit, for example King Solomon. It’s a simple answer that has been coloured in over time.
A reminds me to ACKNOWLEDGE MY AUTHORITY. Is this an answer that comes straight from God’s word (if so, show them) or is it an answer that is ‘drawn from God’s word’ or is it my opinion?
Finally, D stands for DIVERSITY OF VIEWS. For the sake of teaching respect and maintaining integrity we need to help children understand that people have different views; even within the family of God. Acknowledging that people disagree also helps children understand the world they live in, especially when they prefer black/white, good/bad, and friend/foe.
Above all, remember that the sovereignty of God is a great comfort: the questioning tween is wrestling with things that need to be wrestled with, not necessarily walking away from a child-like faith; the rogue in youth group might be playing devil’s advocate but there are answers to questions even when they’re antagonistically asked; the pre-schooler is ordering his world and dinosaurs are important. God knows each of them, his word is for every one of them and his gospel is mighty to save. May we pray earnestly that our fumbling attempts at answering life’s biggest questions be used by our Father for the glory of his Son and the salvation of those who seek answers.