For years, one of my high school students wrestled with the story of Jonah.
She knew it well – at least the Sunday school version of it. She’d grown up hearing about how Jonah disobeyed God and got swallowed by a big fish. While inside the fish, Jonah had a change of heart. So the fish spit him out and he went and did what he should have done to begin with: Preach to the people of Nineveh.
As a child, this student accepted the story of Jonah at face value (like most of us do). But by the time she got to high school, there were a lot of things that troubled this teen about Jonah.
Why would a good God cause such a bad storm?
How could God abandon his servant, Jonah, in the belly of a fish?
Was the time inside the fish God’s way of punishing Jonah?
Since Jonah eventually ended up doing the thing he didn’t want to do, does that mean he didn’t really have a choice in the matter? Did Jonah really have free will?
Throughout her years in high school, this girl wrestled earnestly with the story of Jonah, which in a lot of ways, seemed to be her Biblical nemesis. Eventually, she even used the story of Jonah to lead a discussion about fate vs. free will for our high school ministry.
Even so, her questions remained.
I lost track of how often we’d talk about her questions together. In many ways, I became this student’s co-doubter. I created a safe space for this girl to raise her questions and occasionally helped guide her to some answers.
Despite this, I felt like this was a situation where we’d take two steps forward and one-step back – something that I think is so often true of faith in general and youth ministry in particular.
Eventually, this student took her questions with her to college, where she continued wrestling with them.
Last weekend, this girl came home for Easter.
In my congregation, each year on the day before Easter we gather for the Easter Vigil – a service in which we creatively tell the Old Testament stories of our faith that lead up to Jesus.
Jonah is one of the stories told at the Easter Vigil.
This year, my student agreed to be the storyteller for Jonah. When I heard this, I was elated. Since she’d spent so long wrestling with this story, I suspected her rendition of it would be particularly good.
It did not disappoint.
This girl told the story from God’s perspective. She spoke of God’s relentless pursuit of us. Of God’s patience. Of God’s love and mercy in sending a fish to protect Jonah when he was thrown overboard. Of God’s will and of our participation in God’s story. Her words contained the answers to the questions that had, for so long, plagued her. I heard in them the resolution of years of having wrestled with this story. In this girl’s words, I heard the story of her faith.
It brought me to tears.
So often, we try to measure the success of youth ministry with numbers. We expect to see immediate fruit from our labor.
But that’s seldom how youth ministry works.
Often, faith formation takes time. Our job is to help students wrestle with their questions and guide them to a deeper faith in whatever time they grace our ministries. A lot of times, we send our teens out into the world without a fully formed faith, trusting that God’s work isn’t limited to our youth ministries; that God will continue to work in their lives long after they leave our ministries.
When we least expect it, God – in his mercy – sometimes gives us a glimpse of the ongoing work he’s doing in the lives of our teens. God allows us to see the resolution of an unfinished story – like I did at Saturday’s Easter Vigil.
Such moments always fill me with gratitude…
- For a job in which I get to play a part – however small – in the faith formation of young people.
- For the way in which God shows up in the middle of our doubts – sometimes immediately and sometimes after years of living with questions.
- And for a God who continues to work in the lives of our young people long after they leave our ministries.