Teen Camp

And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. . . After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding. (Lk 2:42­­-7)

Reading this passage from Luke’s Gospel during Teen Camp last week gave the familiar text a whole new meaning to me. When I asked how many kids in the barn were twelve years old, a sea of hands went up. The story of twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple suddenly had a face to it. Here I was, a seminarian at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, looking into the faces of dozens of little Jesuses. (Is that the plural of Jesus? Jesuss? Jeesi? #thingsWeDontLearnInSeminary) That whole “made in the image of God thing became really clear to me. It was my own little encounter with the incarnation

The beautiful thing about twelve-year-olds is that they’re in that strange and trying age where they aren’t still children, but they certainly aren’t adults. They often retain that child-like imaginativeness lost in adolescence, but have the intellectual capacity to really engage in deep conversations. Coming from a background in the theatre, I really appreciate the melding of play and intellect.

As I preached on Luke’s story of twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, I pointed out to the campers that Jesus is actively asking questions. I’ve often heard this passage referred to as “The Boy Jesus Teaching in the Temple,” but that’s not exactly what’s going on. Sure, it says that the teachers were amazed by Jesus, and they surely learned from him, but the chief verbs in the story are “listening” and “asking.” I think most adults expect a lot of listening from kids. All day long I hear things at camp like “Listen to your councilor” and “Listen up.” Obviously, listening is important, but how often are kids encouraged to question leadership? To question the most learned? Yet that’s just what Jesus, the twelve-year-old, does.

I told the campers that our faith doesn’t require us to check our brains at the door. As a professor of mine once said, “There is no virtue in blind faith—you have to ask questions and attempt to understand.” I don’t know that our kids are often asked to question authority. As a leader at the camp, I want campers to follow instructions, particularly when it pertains to their safety, but when it comes to their faith, I want them to own it and come to as full an understanding as possible.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I spent the remainder of our week together at Teen Camp fielding what felt like millions of questions: Is Jesus God? Why is there evil in the world? Why can’t I hear God speak like people in the Bible? How can I believe in my religion and study science?  I was so proud of the campers for not holding back. They asked the same questions that have frustrated and confused theologians for centuries, and they showed no shame in not having the answers. More astoundingly, even in the face of these difficult questions I found that the campers have enormous faith. Their love for one another and their love for God permeate our camp property from the waterfront, to the barn, to the edges of the Back Forty. Furthermore, when they asked these tough questions, they offered their own thoughts on what an appropriate understanding would be. More often than not, I could stay silent and listen to the campers discuss among themselves. I felt just like the teachers in the temple. Even though I’m the seminarian studying theology, I was amazed at their understanding.

I’d like to take some credit for inviting the campers to ask tough questions, but I don’t know that I can. I think there’s something about the culture of camp that has been here for generations. There’s an understanding here that all are welcome, and that means all ideas and questions are welcome. It’s a powerful thought that these campers have no fear of sounding wrong or inviting ridicule. It’s a mini glimpse at the Kingdom of Heaven where all people come together to understand, love, and serve the Lord. 

written by: Charles Lane Cowen