I’ll always remember Mandy’s question in Sunday school one Easter Sunday morning. Mandy was an eighth grader who seldom spoke. She always showed up on Sundays for class with her peers, but she appeared reluctant to engage with the lessons. At first I thought Mandy wasn’t paying attention out of self-absorbed boredom. I was wrong.
That Easter morning, the middle schoolers were reading aloud from the Bible the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mandy read Matthew, chapter 27, verses 51-53: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
Mandy paused and reread those verses silently. Then, with a quizzical look on her face, she asked, “Did that actually happen? Like that, I mean. Did that actually happen?”
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Her adult teachers were so taken aback by the question that they didn’t know what to say. They looked to me, the youth minister in his early 20s who had yet to complete seminary, for a lifeline. It seemed they had heard that awesome story all their lives, but never really asked questions about it; questions that get beyond the amazing to reach the truth. I smiled, nodded at Mandy and said, “That’s a really good question. Thank you for asking it.”
The late New Testament scholar and theologian Marcus Borg wrote, “The Bible is true, and some of it actually happened.” My memory of Mandy’s question and the point I raise now is not about whether the events of Matthew 27:51-53 transpired literally as they are recorded, but about the truth in those verses that reveals the undying love of God, and how that foundation-shaking love resonated with Mandy so deeply that she opened her mouth and asked a powerful question from the truth residing in her unmistakable life.
In what is known as his Farewell Discourse in John, chapters 14-17, Jesus promises to his followers another “Counselor” in his place that will “live with you and be in you.” That indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit is what Jesus calls the spirit of truth. It’s life-changing to realize how that divine truth dwells within each of us. I’ll always remember Mandy’s question as the truth within her coming out with power to strengthen our belief.
Another renowned theologian, Frederick Buechner, wrote, “Unbelief is as much of a choice as belief is. What makes it more appealing is that whereas to believe in something requires some measure of understanding and effort, not to believe doesn’t require much of anything at all.”
It doesn’t require much to internalize traditionally accepted doctrines, biblical interpretations and religious narratives that inform our faith; but a greater measure of understanding that faith and applying an honest effort in that pursuit yields belief that articulates the indwelling of truth placed in our one-of-a-kind life made in God’s image.
For the last nine months our church’s confirmands have been going through the rite of confirmation: attending classes and going over assignments with their adult mentors; visiting local houses of worship from different religions and Christian denominations; participating in worship leadership in our church; and writing their own statement of faith.
On Confirmation Sunday, Oct. 16, they will read from their statements publicly. It will be an act of confirming their faith, saying “yes” to their belief as they understand it at this point in their life. It is an opportunity for them to speak from the truth residing within them, articulating their belief cultivated by observations they have made and questions they have raised about the rituals, traditions, sacraments and stories that inform our faith. And in hearing their statements, all of us might be stoked toward a revitalized measure of understanding and effort in our own belief that, when left dormant, risks stagnating into unbelief shrouded in certainty.
I’ll also always remember that big Christian youth event in the early 1990s I went to at a stadium in Houston where a charismatic man in his 40s got on stage and used the microphone in his hands to tell thousands of teenagers that HIV/AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. When he spoke those words, a voice within me clearly said, “That’s a lie.” That voice was the Spirit of truth.
As faithfully as I can, and often stumbling, I have listened to that voice ever since. It has helped me see my LGBTQ+ neighbors not as issues to be worked out in our churches, but as people made in God’s image to be fully included in our shared walk with Jesus. It has helped me understand that my belief is not something for me to master with a perfect degree of certainty, but a gift meant to transform my life by God’s perfecting work of grace within me that is ongoing, gradually equipping me to love the world as I love myself, and empowering me to accept how, despite my imperfections, God’s love for me is as undying, foundation-shaking, and life-changing as it is for anyone else.
That love might look different for me than it does for you, but it’s true.