As the family was returning from the annual trip to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, 12-year old Jesus decided to stay behind “losing his family.” He wasn’t lost. He knew where he was. His family, however, had no idea that he intended to stay in Jerusalem. They didn’t see him but assumed that he was somewhere among the travelers…and went a whole day’s journey before they figured out that something was amiss.
They quickly returned to Jerusalem and they searched three days before they found him, sitting in the temple among the teachers — listening and asking questions.
As a parent, I know the panic that sets in when your child goes missing. My own son decided to “visit” a neighborhood friend without telling me — rationalizing that because I once told him that I had eyes in the back of my head that I would always know where he was. Why would he need to tell me if I was already “all-seeing” with these eyes in the back of my head?!?! Believe me, I was very careful about using euphemisms around him after that…he was missing all of 4 minutes and I felt like I aged 4 years in those minutes.
My neighbor, who had the pleasure of getting this unscheduled visit from my then four-year old son, saw the panic in my eyes when I knocked on her door. What she did was pure genius: she said, “I can’t give him to you now….come in and have a cup of coffee with me.” We lived so close to one another and our children were very frequent visitors — fixture’s even — in the other’s home — but one look at me and she knew that on this particular day, I had no idea that my son had gone visiting. So, instead of turning him over, she extended her hand and calmed me down. That cup of coffee is probably the reason I am not in jail right now…
Me: David, why did you leave the house?
David: I wanted to visit — and you told me you had eyes in the back of your head. I thought you could see me.
I cannot imagine the scale of panic Joseph and Mary must have felt — they searched for Jesus for three days in Jerusalem. They had already gone a whole days journey before they figured out he was gone — so they hadn’t seen him in four days! What a picture he must have presented to his frantic parents — calmly sitting in the temple listening and asking questions.
But when I think of this episode in Jesus’ life, I am reminded of a few things beyond the panic children have a way of inflicting on parents:
1. We have children among us who have questions. A child with a question is a treasure. (I’m saying this for my own benefit because…whew! Sometimes, those questions….!!!) Even though it is not apparent, they are listening to us — and they have their own questions about what we proclaim to be true. Who is listening to them? Who is giving them a space for dialogue? Too much of our education, particularly Christian education, is bankrupt and useless. Those who are teaching — “teach at” the children. There is no room for the unscripted question, the challenging question…
2. I have come to know so many children over the years who ended up in the church because they “ran away” from home. They found a place in the church because they went missing from the home front. In other words, mom and dad (or just mom or auntie or grandma) was at home, and they found their way into the church — maybe drawn to a youth program or relationships with other friends. Parent’s weren’t supportive of them being there, gave them a hard time about being there — and certainly were not going to “lose themselves” in anybody’s church. It’s one thing when we have to fight with our children to get them into the church….in fact, that’s quite developmentally appropriate and normal. It’s a whole other matter when our children have to go missing from home — when they have to lose us adults — just to find a space in the church — to be among people who might listen and answer their questions. I was one of those kids — and thank God there were people in my “temple” who always welcomed my questions.
3. The questions that children ask when they are children — especially the questions that they ask of the faith, of church, of religion, of what they see in the world, of inequities and injustice — have a lot to do with the issues they end up grappling with as adults. When I was 12, my “temple questions” were about poverty and who protects vulnerable people?
I don’t have any proof, but I’m wondering about Jesus’ question-answer period with the temple teachers. The story ends with a declaration about his “Father’s House.” It is true that Jesus lived under constant rumor-mongering about his parentage. Joseph embraced him as son, treated him as son, loved him as son, and taught him his trade. Joseph’s acknowledgment of Jesus as his son gave Jesus access to the temple in the first place. He certainly would not have been allowed inside if Joseph had withheld that important recognition from him. But to the community, Jesus was a “mamzer.” He was still the boy of questionable parentage…Mary’s baby, Joseph’s maybe. Those “rumors” never died down…who is Jesus’ real father? When Mary and Joseph find Jesus and question him, his answer to them is — “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” His parents had no clue what he was talking about. But for me, it is significant that he didn’t answer them with something like — “I was interested in the class they were teaching, or I had questions about the scriptures that I wanted to ask the teachers…” His answer was — “I was in my Father’s house.” The community gossips about who Jesus’ father is — but Jesus here at 12 years old has settled the question with his question – “Did you not know that must be in my Father’s house?”
The prophets and writers of the scriptures before Jesus of Nazareth provide wonderful depictions of God. But it is Jesus who paints a picture born of his own experience of God as Father — the one who accepts all children.
I’m sure that if we listened to the children in our midst today — and asked questions of their experiences of God — we might get a few more beautiful pictures of how God still shows up strong in the lives of people in the way people’s souls need God the most.
A few years ago, we immersed the children in our congregation in a summer program focusing on the Psalms. They reflected on their own experiences of God — on their experiences of joy, pain, heartache, trouble…some even wrote their own psalms. Many children have experienced traumas and troubles that would break an adult’s spirit. But given room in the temple to listen and question, these children had an answer for the inevitable “who do you say that I am?”
Destroyer of Darkness
Houses of faith have to be a whole lot of things these days…but in all the things that they are, please, let them also be temples where children can still listen and question….and even answer.