by Cory Peacock
There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, written and drawn by the comic genius Bill Watterson, in which the precocious six-year-old Calvin has a nice father-son talk about things scientific. Calvin asks, “Where does the sun go when it sets?”
Calvin’s dad responds, “The sun sets in the West. In Arizona actually. Near Flagstaff.”
It’s funny because it’s true. Wait…no. It’s funny because Calvin’s dad is playing on that intersection found in younger kids where the depth of their inquisitiveness is matched only by the trust they place in someone, usually their parents. Calvin’s credulity is due, in part, to his age, but it is no less due to the relationship he has with his father.
The fact that Calvin believes his dad is evidenced by his facial expressions throughout the strip and the comment he makes to his mother when she puts him to bed for the night. He says, “I hope someday I’m as smart as Dad is.”
This poor kid just wants to know where the sun goes when he can’t see it and believes the stories his dad tells him about that which he can, at that moment, only take on faith. Calvin’s dad means no harm, but he should have known better. If you’ve ever read the strip, you know that Calvin has an active imagination that needs no fuel for the fire. This, though, is one of the recurring themes of the comic strip. Calvin approaches his dad with sincere questions and is told the most fanciful stories, perhaps because it’s fun or perhaps because it’s a small way of messing with his own kid’s mind as payback for all the questions.
Calvin’s dad is actually a good dad, overall. He really wants to build character in his son as is seen in numerous strips, but he just seems unable to deal with Calvin’s inquisitiveness in a straightforward way. Calvin’s dad is just having fun, but he’s missed an opportunity here.
It seems that while the inquisitiveness of some kids never abates, the trustfulness does. It seems that way, but it’s not entirely true. When I was a teen, there was that kid who just asked every question that came to his mind. The filter that was supposed to reside between his brain and mouth was thin—or sometimes nonexistent.
To the uninitiated of that group, and frankly some of the long-term participants of the group, it appeared that this kid didn’t trust anything anybody said. If the Sunday school teacher claimed X, he argued for Y. If the youth pastor said Z, he said, but that implies A, B, and C. Seriously, couldn’t this kid just trust what they were saying? Why did he have to pick at every answer? Did he think that he was smarter than the leaders? Was he just trying to make trouble? The answers were: he did, genetics, no, and no. How can I be so sure of those answers? I was that kid.
I trusted my youth pastor, my senior pastor, the leaders of my Sunday school class, and other leaders. In fact, my trust of those important individuals in my life and my relationships with them were the very reasons I felt I could ask those questions of them. I was told later that several of those leaders did not feel like I trusted them. They really thought at times I was trying to ruin their lesson plans or co-opt the class, but I really wasn’t. Okay, once in a while I was; but the majority of the time, it was because they would raise a question or issue that just compelled me to ask a question.
A force greater than myself whispered something in my ear then stood behind me pushing on my back until I spoke up and…(sigh) there he goes again. I really wasn’t trying to make trouble. I won’t lie and say that I didn’t appreciate being on the opposite side of what I perceived to be everybody else in the room. Those me-against-the-world type moments were exhilarating, but they were generated by genuine questions. I would not have wanted everyone against me if I had nothing in my six-shooter of questions or answers.
And to answer one more of the questions above: No, I didn’t think I was smarter than my leaders. But I did wonder why some of their lessons or answers were so pat and had what I thought were so many obvious holes or exceptions. I really wanted a genuine conversation. I didn’t want simple answers boiled down to tasteless gruel.
The question that I most want to answer here, though, is the one about why I did it. Bart Simpson once said, “I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why I enjoyed it. I don’t know why I’ll do it again.” Or something like that.
But I do. For one, I’m inquisitive. Two, I loved to think through the implications of a statement and see how far and which direction those implications would go. But most importantly, I did it because of something my dad said to me. He said, “If God is God, he can stand the questions.” That was so freeing. Dad conveyed to me that any question I had, or any answer I came up with, did not change the reality of God. God is God. My little questions and answers do not change that.
God Can Take It
Sometimes, I think we fear that certain questions should be off limits because of what it does to the youth group, the church, or the reality of the world, the heavens, and even God himself—as if God could not handle the questions of some curious teenager. What my dad really did in saying that to me was to free me from the constraints of answers that did not sit well with me theologically so that I might chase down answers that did.
That is not to say I had free reign. Don’t forget the first part of his quote: “If God is God…” Dad’s implication, of course, is that God IS God. So, I couldn’t simply develop my own theological understandings based on my own developing ideas. Rather, as an Arminian, I had to think through things theologically by examining the Bible, by consulting my spiritual tradition, by dialoguing with my community of faith, and through prayerful consideration of my life and reason. What my dad hoped for was that the Spirit would draw me to God by means that made sense to me, that spoke to me.
Since I’ve “grown up,” I’ve been involved in several youth groups, and each one has that kid. Turn about is fair play, eh? As you might imagine, I have a little bit of patience for those kids. I allow them to ask the questions they have as frequently as I can.
I don’t let them co-opt the entire time together, because that’s not fair to the other young adults who have different interests and questions. But I don’t just shut them down. I usually either engage them in that setting or validate their inquisitiveness and ask if we can stay on the particular path we’re currently on, but that I’d be happy to pursue this with them later over a hot beverage of their choice.
It doesn’t always work. It’s frequently annoying. It certainly takes more time and effort. But I have to remember that the question was raised because there was something in this setting that said to that kid, “It’s okay to ask your questions here.” I want to honor that. Maybe I’ll be there as some kid figures out how God IS God when I take the time to engage their questions.
Now, if only I could get my two-year-old daughter to stop asking, “Why?” every four seconds. Does that undermine everything I’ve just written?
This is an excerpt from the CYMT resource “It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry.
Cory Peacock currently spends most of his days playing with his two daughters and/or writing his dissertation. He has written for youth ministry magazines, is a volunteer youth leader, and is married to the prettiest professor of youth ministry ever. And he loves baseball (especially the San Francisco Giants), the ukulele, and board games.
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