I was playing catch with one of my 3rd grade kids (students) on Friday, and we ended up having a really interesting conversation. I was asking him if he and his family were doing anything for Christmas (they were, just locally, because his fam is out here), which then led to him revealing that his mom is an atheist and his dad was Jewish.
Genuinely intrigued, I replied saying that must lead to some interesting conversations. “Yeah,” was his response. Then he reiterated that his mom doesn’t believe in God. Said she used to when she was a kid, but now she doesn’t anymore.
I held back a second (calculating if anything I was about to say could get me fired, lol), then dove in.
“So what about you? Do you believe God exists?”
I was actually surprised to see the consternation crawl across his face, un-cemented thoughts conflicting with flashing loyalties in his brain. His hesitation was palpable.
“Are you not sure yet?” I used my gentlest voice. “Still trying to figure it out?”
The relief emanating from his nod brought a half grin to my lips. I always get this peculiar rush when I know I’ve connected with one of my kids in a real way. I gave my own nod.
Then he hit me with a question I wasn’t expecting.
“Is it possible not to be any religion?”
I told him OF COURSE! I was happy to explain that it was definitely possible to believe God exists, and still not belong to any religion (because nearly every religion believes in God in some form anyway). From there I quickly explained that there are people who believe God exists and don’t have a religion, people who believe God exists and do have a religion, and then people who don’t believe God exists.
He was following all of it, but was eager to fire off a much more personal query.
“What are you Mr. Josh?”
I paused for a moment, a thousand thoughts in my head, sifting my feelings between the terms “Christianity” (a classification bestowed on followers of Jesus) and “believer” (a designation the followers of Jesus used for themselves). I quickly realized who I was talking to though and elected for simplicity.
“I’m a Christian.”
“What does that mean?”
I caught the ball, rotated it in my fingers for a moment, then sent it sailing back, gliding atop the tides of my answer.
“It means I believe God exists. That Jesus is the answer to everything. And that we should love everybody.”
As he digested those words, I had a wry moment of introspection and chuckled as I gave voice to it.
“Also. I’m kiiiiiinnnnd of what you would call an ‘unorthodox Christian.'”
Of course he had no idea what that was.
Of course he asked what it meant.
I scrunched my face up towards the sky, searching for the right words, knowing I only got one shot at this.
“It means… I believe in Jesus and everything… I just don’t necessarily follow every single rule in the Bible, or believe all the rules and stuff that the church put into place.”
Immediately I was editing.
I could’ve said that better.
But he wasn’t done.
“Rules like what?”
This one was difficult, not because I didn’t know what to say, but because I didn’t wanna throw the church under the bus. Church gets enough flack as it is from people who don’t care about its history, progress, significance, or myriad of positive contributions throughout history. Sure there are problems, but no formal organization in any genre is free from that particular ailment.
“Well… if people do certain things that are bad, you’re not supposed to really associate with them. Or for people thinking differently, believing different things, loving who they love- you’re not supposed to be around them really. They’re on the outside. And I just don’t believe that.”
He mulled it over a bit and we kept tossing the ball…
Then some kid came barreling out from the main room, yelling my name, saying they had to pee. Lol
And that was that.
I was quite glad for the conversation.
Honored, in fact, that I got to have that exchange.
He trusted me with the moment.
God clearly did as well.
And I didn’t panic or pander.
I was wholly myself.
And it mattered.
Working with kids has been thus far, and will always be- no matter where my career trajectory takes me from here- one of the single most profound occurences of my life.