Monthly Archives: June 2010
To understand this story you first must know two things about me: first, I love trees. Some people have pet animals; I have pet trees. I have been known to go outside during tornadoes and ice storms to lay hands on my trees and pray for them. We’ve never lost a branch in a storm!
Secondly, I was raised in the country, miles from our nearest neighbor. Moving to Nashville, Tennessee, was traumatic for me, and living in such a large city was almost unbearable to me until we found the house we live in now. We have a back yard, small, but full of trees, and best of all, there was a 10-foot-high hedge enclosing it on two sides. A beautiful hemlock fir grew in the corner where the two sides met. I could sit in my back yard and the hedge would block out all the other houses and the streets. I could almost pretend I was in the country again. My hedge played a big part in my adjustment to city life.
We were friendly with the neighbors whose property backed ours, and sometimes we visited through the hedge. I knew they had moved away, but the hedge prevented me from noticing that new neighbors had already moved in–until one day, I came home to find my hedge was gone! I ran to the back yard and gazed in horror at the little stumps, cut off at the ground. I fell to my knees and wept aloud.
At that moment, my new neighbors walked up, gathering up the last mangled limbs of my hedge. “Oh,” the woman said, “was that your hedge?” The man just laughed and said, “Don’t make such a fuss. It’ll grow back.” I was sobbing too hard to say a word to them, and I decided to let my husband deal with the situation. I was only thankful they had not also decided to cut down my hemlock tree in the corner. Of all the trees in my yard, it was my favorite.
Four years later, I watched over my pathetic, twelve-inch hedge as the bush-whacking neighbors moved out. Soon I saw through my kitchen window that a new couple was moving in. My children and I were all sick with walking pneumonia and I decided to wait until I was better and then I would bake some bread and welcome the new couple to the neighborhood.
But before I was fully recovered, the new neighbor paid a visit to me. She came over on a Sunday evening to tell me that she and her husband were putting up a fence in the morning and that, by the way, their property map put their property line four feet over into our yard. I didn’t know what to say. Our yard is beautiful, but very small. Removing a four-foot strip from the back would take sizeable chunk out of it. Worse, it would put my barely recovering hedge and my precious hemlock tree on the wrong side of the fence. I told her I would dig out our own property map and would talk to my husband and we would be over in the morning to discuss the matter. “Come early, then,” she advised. “The fence installers will be here at 9 a.m.”
In a daze, I woke up my husband so he could get ready for work. He is a police officer and works the third shift, so he starts his day at 8:30 in the evening. As he dressed, I told him about the neighbor’s visit. He was furious that they had waited until the evening before the work was to be done to tell us of their plans, making it impossible for us to do anything about it. He started talking about lawyers and courts and surveyors. I could envision a legal tangle stretching out over years, and no matter who won, hard feelings between us and our neighbors for as long as we both lived here. It was a nightmare.
I got my husband off to work and the kids all into bed, and then I was alone with God. “Lord, what shall we do?” I asked.
“Remember Isaac and his wells,” God said.
I said, “No, really, what do we do?”
“Remember Isaac and his wells,” was the only answer I received. My ladies’ Bible Study had recently gone through Genesis, and so this story in Genesis 26:18-25 was fairly fresh in my mind. Rather than fight with his neighbors over the precious, life-giving wells of water he had dug in his desert home, Isaac chose to let them have the wells and move to another location. He did this several times before he found a place where he could live in peace. But I had other passages of scripture running through my head!
“What about that verse in Leviticus about not moving your neighbor’s boundary posts?” I asked.
God said, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
“But you told Joshua to go to war over land,” I reminded Him. I was actually trying to argue with God by using His own word!
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace,” (Romans 14:19) He said.
I got the point. Living in peace with my neighbors was more important than keeping my property. I said, “All right, I can give up the land. I can even give up that pitiful hedge. But, God, I just can’t give up my tree. You know how much I love that tree. You might as well ask me to give up one of my kids!”
“Isaiah 55,” I could almost hear Him sigh. I looked up that chapter, which is full of God’s promises of blessing to His people, many of which will not be fulfilled until the Millennium. One of the promises is an abundance of trees. God told me gently, “You will have all the trees you can possibly love–later. This tree in Mine. I put it there for a purpose.”
For the first time, I considered the possibility that God’s purpose for that tree might not actually include me! Might God have had a purpose for the hedge, as well? I asked Him, and He simply said, “Who was your neighbor?”
I went cold, because I didn’t know the answer to that question. For four years, my previous neighbors had lived behind me and I never even knew their names. In fact, I never spoke to them after the day they destroyed my hedge. If I had to refer to them at all, I simply called them “The Hedge Killers”. It was easy not to speak to them, as they were also avoiding me. I had not realized how much bitterness I had held for them. They had cut down a hedge, but I had built up a great wall between us. I might have shown them what Christ is really like, forgiving and loving; but instead I showed them what I am really like. Now God was showing me what I am really like, too.
“Don’t do it again,” God said. It was too late to be a witness for Him to the previous neighbors, but I had a chance with the new ones. I had a choice. I could go to them with the attitude of protecting my property and my rights at all costs; or I could go to them with the attitude of reaching out to them for Christ, whatever the cost. Would I let this fence they were building become a wall between us, or would I use it as an opportunity? God was showing me that their eternal souls were more important than a hemlock tree, a hedge, a piece of property–or my own rights.
I began to pray that my husband would come to the same conclusions so that we could approach the neighbors with a united sense of purpose. The next morning, when Rich came home, almost the first thing he said to me was, “Do you remember the story about Isaac and his wells?” That night as he had patrolled, God had shown him all the same scriptures that He had shown to me.
We went to our new neighbors that morning and we were able to talk to them about Christ. And, incidentally, they apparently concluded on their own that we were right about the boundary line and they put their fence up just where we would have wanted them to, if they had asked us–which they didn’t! We never even discussed it. We were too busy talking about more important things.
I thought I had surrendered everything I had to Christ: my house, my money, my car, my time. Yet when it came to something that was really important to me, I found I was still claiming ownership. This incident forced me to concede that everything belongs to God: all my stuff, all my property, my privacy, my comfort, my kids. Everything is His. He’s just letting me use His stuff for a while. The minute I gave up ownership over my tree, I felt a great burden roll from me. Since He owns everything, it’s up to Him to take care of it. Since He’s taking care of everything, I have nothing to worry about. I had known this in my head, but this knowledge needed to enter my soul until I could truly believe it. The only thing I am responsible for in this world is being obedient to Him.
“Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-40
There’s a plethora of interesting things one can bring out from the story of Moses. I hardly know where to begin, or when to stop! I’ll just offer whatever springs to mind and let the reader grocery shop through.
The first thing that strikes me as I read these passages is that this is the first time God entrusts anyone with His name. Until this time, He is known as Elohim, the Almighty One, not a name but a title or description. He is also known as Adonai, or Lord, also a title. But here He gives Moses His own name, the name He uses to refer to Himself: Yahweh, I AM. What an incredible privilege, for Moses to hear the personal name of God spoken by God’s own mouth. It gives me chills to think of it. The Jews considered this name to be so precious that they wouldn’t pronounce it or write it down, and we continue that tradition. Every time you see LORD spelled out in all caps in the scriptures, it was actually the name “Yahweh” in the original script. I remember when I was about ten or eleven years when I first heard the name “Yahweh”. I felt sad, even cheated, because I’d been a believer since I was five years old and had never before heard the true name of the God I worshiped. Children need to hear God’s real name.
I have taught from a number of different curricula over the years, and most of the leave a lot of Moses’ story out. The lessons might mention that Moses left Egypt but not explain why. They might explain that Moses became a shepherd, but not tell how such a turn of events came about. Most don’t even mention that Moses got married in Midian and had two sons, which would be of interest to children, I think. Why are the writers of children’s lessons afraid to tell them the truth? Moses was raised a spoiled rich brat. Moses was a murderer. Moses was a coward. Moses was used by God to perform a monumental task that changed the world. Doesn’t this give us hope? Shouldn’t this be encouraging to children who fear they aren’t good enough, strong enough, brave enough to serve God?
Most lessons do brings out the fact that Moses was terrified by the imposing task God had given him, but don’t give the reasons for his fear. Other than the natural fear of failure, Moses had a lot to be nervous about. He had not left Egypt under the best of circumstances. He had come upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and had killed the Egyptian. The next day he came upon a couple of Hebrews duking it out with each other and when he tried to break them up, they sarcastically asked if he meant to kill them too! As a result of his actions, he lost all respect of his own people; and when Pharaoh heard of the murder, he tried to kill Moses and Moses had to flee for his life. One of the things God had to tell him was to reassure him: “all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” Don’t be afraid of letting the children know the truth: Moses was wrong to kill the Egyptian, even though it may have been for an admirable reason. He may have been trying to save the Hebrew slaves’ life, but the fact that the other Hebrews did not seem thankful for his actions, but rather disdainful, suggests otherwise. But God forgave Moses and used the forty years Moses spent in the wilderness as a shepherd to teach him patience and gentleness with both sheep and people.
However, the reason Moses himself gives for his reluctance to go to Pharaoh is that he is “slow of speech and tongue.” In fact, it is an ancient Jewish tradition that Moses had a pronounced stammer. The fact that God could, and in fact insisted upon, using someone with this handicap as His spokesman is very indicative of God’s nature. In Deuteronomy we read that Moses was “the most humble man who ever lived”. How could he not be humble when he was so very aware that every word that fell freely and eloquently from his lips was directly from God, every clear sound he made a miracle. God in His kindness allowed Moses to take his brother Aaron with him to speak for him, but he does not seem to make much use of him! Why do we not emphasize Moses’ handicap to children, who could be so encouraged by this story? Why do we cover this fact up as if we were ashamed of it?
Children’s Bible stories tend to make Bible characters into some kind of super heroes, setting a standard no one could ever obtain. Rather than encouraging children to excel, these types of stories can make a child feel as if he could never measure; he could never be a Moses or a Joshua or a Joseph. God did not give us the stories of these people in order to make us all feel inferior! He tells us all about these guys, warts and all, to let us know that He can use anyone to work His will. We need to make sure we don’t leave out the warts when we teach the Bible to our kids.
God had a wonderful plan for Moses’ life. He planned for Moses to lead His people out of slavery and take them to the Promised Land, back to the land Abraham had been promised. He planned for Moses to write the first five books of the Bible. Moses was so important to God’s plan that Satan wanted to kill him. Why was Pharaoh suddenly afraid that the Hebrews would outnumber the Egyptians just at the time of Moses’ birth? The Hebrews didn’t grow to over a million people overnight–they had been in Egypt for almost 400 years. Why did Pharaoh give up his campaign of killing all the baby boys born to the Hebrews after only a few months? Obviously, once Moses was safely ensconced in the Pharaoh’s own household, Satan gave up on his insidious plan to murder him. Instead, he tried to corrupt Moses and make him ineffective by tempting him to kill. The older children should also be told that Moses’ life is a picture of Jesus, since Satan also tried to kill Jesus when He was born.
I propose that Jochabed, Moses’ mother, was the first to practice Civil Disobedience. Pharaoh had ordered all the baby boys born to the Hebrews to be put into the river. Although she tried to hide Moses for three months, Jochabed ended up doing just what Pharaoh had ordered! She just added a little ingenuity to it. Notice that God does not save Moses until after Jochabed chose to obey the laws of the land. If she had continued to simply try to hide Moses, he would have been discovered eventually and killed. In obeying Pharaoh, she saved her son from Pharaoh’s hand. The irony is just too delicious!
Please note that Moses was allowed to stay in his mother’s home until he was weaned, which would at that time be about three years. Everything he needed to know to give him a firm foundation of faith was taught to him in that time! These preschool years are so important! Encourage the children to learn about God just like Moses did. You’re never too young!
One way to keep the interest of even the youngest child when teaching the Bible is to keep the stories character-driven. It’s important to make certain you know the truth about the character you are teaching, however. You may or may not use all the information you glean about a person from the Bible, but the more you know, the better you understand that person’s motives and personality and can more easily convey this information to the children. I will use Moses as an example and present a character sketch of him.
Moses is a man of many firsts–a man blessed by being used of God in many mighty ways. He is considered Israel’s greatest prophet. Moses was the first to proclaim God’s Word to whole nations rather than just to his own family or individuals. While Abraham is the father of the faith, he did not prophesy. While Joseph led the nation of Egypt and of Israel, he was a secular ruler, not a prophet. Moses is the first to declare God’s Word to both Israel and Egypt as nations.
Moses was the first leader of the new nation of Israel. When the children of Israel entered Egypt, they were not a nation, just a very large family. They were considered part of the nation of Egypt until Moses lead them into freedom.
Moses was the first law-giver to Israel. God choose to entrust His Law to Moses to be declared to the people.
Moses was the first man entrusted with putting God’s Word into writing, inscribing the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
Moses was the first human used by God to do miracles. God had previously performed miracles independently of man, but chose to perform His miracles at this time through Moses.
There are many parallels between the life of Moses and that of Messiah:
Satan tried to kill Moses at birth by moving Pharaoh to kill all the baby boys in Goshen.
Satan tried to kill Messiah at birth by moving Herod to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem.
Moses had to leave a life of ease and great privilege in order to save his people.
Messiah had to leave the right hand of the Father in order to save His people.
Moses saved his people from slavery to Egypt.
Messiah saved His people from slavery to sin.
Moses was a shepherd for 40 years in preparation for shepherding his people.
Messiah is the Great Shepherd of His people.
Moses gave the Law to his people so they would know how to live to please God.
Messiah gives us the Holy Spirit so we will know how to live to please God.
Moses set God’s Word down in writing for all generations to come.
Messiah is God’s Word, showing us God’s message for all time to come.
Aside from parallels between Moses’ life and Christ’s, there are many types of Christ which God reveals through Moses’ ministry. The first and most obvious one is God’s Word itself.
All of the sacrifices made in the tabernacle are types of Christ.
Everything in the tabernacle and even the materials the tabernacle is made of are pictures of Christ.
The manna, the bread of heaven sent to feed the Israelites, is a picture of Christ which He Himself mentions in the Gospel of John chapter 6. If Jesus felt it important enough to preach a sermon on, we must certainly take it seriously and teach it to our children.
The rock Moses strikes in the wilderness to bring water is a picture of Christ–water is always a symbol of the Holy Spirit and we received the Spirit from Christ. Moses is told to bring water from a rock twice during his 40 years of wilderness wandering. The first time he is told to strike the rock–a picture of Christ being stricken by God for our sins. The second time he is told only to speak to the rock. Christ was only stricken once; after that, we need only ask to receive from His the living water. Moses disobeyed and struck the rock a second time, and for that act of disobedience he is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. The fact that the punishment for this seemingly small infraction is so severe tells me how seriously God takes His pictures. Moses had no idea in the world that he was creating pictures of a future Messiah and yet was held accountable for messing one of the pictures up. How much more accountable will we be held if we don’t teach about God’s pictures which we have the privilege of knowing about. We must be faithful to teach our children about these pictures of Jesus in the Old Testament.
How then should we teach the Scriptures to children? We must remember why God gave them to us in the first place. Rather than consistently focusing on the child, we must return to focusing on God. Too many children’s Bible stories are obviously written with the end goal in mind, “how can this story help the child live a good, Christian life?” These stories perpetuate the mistake of Robert Raikes. I am not saying that applicability is not important, but it is of secondary importance. God gave us the Scriptures primarily so that we can know Who He is. In particular, the Old Testament reveals to us the heart of God the Father and Creator, and His Messiah Jesus Christ, most vividly and as completely as mere mortals are able to comprehend.
Here, then, are the guidelines I would propose in teaching Scripture to children, and in particular, teaching the Old Testament:
First, please don’t make the mistake of thinking of this precious time you have with the children as baby-sitting time. We are not just trying to keep the children occupied while the adults take part in the “real” ministry. Humans learn best before the age of six. After that, their learning patterns are fairly well set. I don’t want to say that it’s too late to teach people after they reach adulthood, but adults have a much more difficult time learning new things. Why wait? We have them in our classrooms NOW! Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to make a difference in these children’s lives. I suggest that the “real” ministry is going on in the children’s classrooms, and the adult teachers or ministers are just keeping the grown-ups occupied until the children are finished.
Second, begin by making certain they understand that the Bible is ONE book, ONE story; the story of God dealing with His people. It begins at creation and ends after the early church is established (actually, it ends at the end of time!). Yet the ONE STORY still goes on, and we as God’s people are a part of that vast, overreaching history. Make the child feel part of the story and events recorded in the Bible will seem that much more relevant to them.
Third, make certain the children understand that the WHOLE Bible, Old and New Testaments, are about Jesus. He is right there in the first chapter of Genesis, and He is there throughout, on every page. The Old Testament Scriptures are the story of God preparing the world for the coming of His Messiah. He spent thousands of years preparing for this all-important, culminating event. Do we dare deprive our children of this preparatory process? There are plenty of resources available to help you “find” Jesus in the Old Testament, but once you are accustomed to thinking this way you won’t be able to help seeing Him everywhere on your own. The Bible is HIS story, and that is the primary reason for studying it.
In this area, I imagine my proposition will receive the most objections. Christ appears in the Old Testament most often in types, or pictures as I prefer to call them when teaching children. It is conventional wisdom that children cannot understand abstract ideas until they reach their teens; that typology and symbology are beyond their comprehension. This is nonsense. The same experts who claim that children cannot grasp symbology will strongly advocate teaching infants the alphabet and telling them the names of objects in order to give them a good start on vocabulary. What are letters or words but symbols of sounds or objects or ideas? There is nothing intrinsically “A-like” about the three lines we put together and to which we ascribe the sounds we call “A”. People in other countries may put three lines together in the same way and ascribe different sounds to it. “A” means “A” because we say it does. That is symbology. It is the same with words. An English-speaking mother will tell her child “eye”; a Spanish-speaking mother will say to her child “ojo”. Both mothers will point to the same object as they say these two different words in the instinctive understanding that they are speaking a symbol and that the object of that symbol must be pointed out to the child for understanding to be accomplished. Mothers also know instinctively that this process is not immediate. For symbols and their objects
to become part of the child’s thinking, it is necessary to repeat the alphabet and the words many times. Repetition and usage are the keys to any kind of learning. It is the same with Scripture. Repeatedly saying the symbol, or type, and pointing to the object of its meaning will make these concepts such a part of the child’s thinking that it will seem to him as if he’d always known them, just as it seems he has always know that “A is for Apple”. This aptitude for absorbing language and symbols is greatest when the child is an infant and grows less as he grows older. It becomes more and more difficult for them to learn these concepts as they approach their teens. Start them young or they will always be at a disadvantage! Take the words of linguist J.R.R. Tolkien to heart: “Therefore do not write down to the Children or to anybody. Not even in language. . . . an honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context. A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group. It comes from reading books above one.” The same is true of Spiritual concepts: Don’t teach down to the children. Use the correct words for spiritual concepts, explaining as you go, and let their minds expand.
Fourth, make connections week by week, so the children understand that they are not learning a new story from the Bible each week but a small part of the continuing saga. This is, of course, much easier to do if you teach them the Scriptures in order, but not strictly necessary if you have a good time line to aid you. Here again, repetition will aid in the children’s process of learning. Don’t just review last week’s lesson, go back many weeks and connect each to each before beginning each new lesson. Ask the children what they can remember, for hearing the stories from each other is even more helpful than hearing them from you.
Fifth, do not try to force application where there is none. Remember, Scripture is not about the child but all about God. I have seen this done in ways which actually twist Scripture into meaning the opposite of what was intended! Which brings me to my last point:
Sixth, be completely honest with the children. I don’t mean that you have to go into detail: just admitting that David took something that didn’t belong to him is enough for a two-year-old. That David killed a man so he could marry his wife is graphic enough for a five-year-old. Include the facts that David was sorry for his sins, was forgiven, but yet had to suffer the consequences of his actions. Emphasize that God brought His Messiah, Jesus, through David’s family as a way of honoring David’s faithfulness. Don’t try to clean up Bible characters. Kids need to know that they were real people with real problems, just like them. It is not helpful to give them super-heroes to emulate; they know they can’t be perfect and this will just discourage them.
Additionally, don’t make the mistake of teaching a Bible story only in order to teach other skills: my biggest pet peeve is the “story of Joseph and the coat of many colors”. Yes, it’s a great way of teaching pre-schoolers their colors. Yes, it makes a beautiful picture in a story book. By all means, tell them that Jacob gave Joseph this wonderful coat, but tell them the truth about it. Every child knows instinctively that there’s something wrong in this story. Every child knows that Jacob should not have shown preference to one of his children at the expense of the others. And what reason do we give them for this shocking display of favoritism by Jacob? I have seen too many of these stories end with the touching moral: “Jacob loved Joseph just like God loves you!” If God is like Jacob, how unfair He must be! What child has not had the fear that Mom or Dad will love one of his siblings more than they love him? No, be honest with the children–Jacob was deliberately disobeying God by conferring the birthright on Joseph instead of on Judah. Children deserve to have their discomfort with this story acknowledged rather than brushed under the rug.
Being honest with the children often means reconsidering what you might have thought about age-appropriate material. Teachers (and parents) often try to protect children from unpleasant or frightening truths by simply not teaching them these things. This is, in fact, the opposite of protecting them. Knowledge is power; ignorance is dangerous. We cannot protect our children from sexual predators, for example, by keeping them ignorant of such dangers. Yes, it’s not a fun topic and it’s a little scary; but it will be a whole lot scarier for a child to be confronted with a situation for which he has not been prepared. I bring this up because there are two topics which the Bible discusses a great deal but which tend to be ignored in order to protect children from being frightened. First, Scripture deals with sex and uses sexual imagery extensively. Just as there are ways to protect a child from potential molesters without being too graphic, there are ways to teach the Proverbs and other such scriptures without being too graphic. Small children can understand that it’s wrong for two people to pretend they are married when they are not, for example. They don’t have to know the specifics of the situation. Second, Scripture gives us a great deal of information concerning the devil and his angels. I have known teachers who feel that teaching about demons might overly frighten the children, but keeping children in ignorance of demonology actually makes them easy prey for the evil ones. I was confronted by a demon myself at age 7, and having had no teaching on such things, I didn’t know what to do. I have taught children for 15 years now, and have met many children, some as young as 5, who have had demonic experiences. I’m talking about children who are raised in loving, Christian homes. The devil wants our children, and we must teach them what to do to avoid his snares. The best weapon we can give them is knowledge. The best weapon they can wield themselves is prayer and the assurance that they can come to an adult with such matters and be both believed and supported. The best way I have found for teaching children about demons is to compare them with germs. Both are out to get us, both can be dangerous; but there’s an easy way to avoid germs–wash your hands! And there’s an easy way to avoid demons, as well–pray!
One of the worst trends in teaching children Scripture in the past several decades has been teaching about God’s great love for them without the balance of teaching them of God’s judgment. Adults seem to be afraid to introduce this subject with children, but it’s exactly what children like to hear about. Kids love to hear about the bad guys getting what they deserve. Adults don’t like to hear about God’s judgment because it makes them feel condemned, but kids almost never identify themselves with those being judged. Tell them the truth about Noah’s flood: yes, eight people were saved, but hundreds of thousands died. This story is not about a lot of smiling animals on a big, cute boat. It’s about cataclysmic judgment over the entire earth–valleys were carved, mountains raised up, the weather was changed forever. The animals, and the people, on the ark were, no doubt, terrified by the ferocity of the storm and the waves. The kids will invariably identify with Noah’s family and the animals, feeling relieved at their rescue and gratified that the bad guys went down. Where do adults today get the idea that a loving God would never send anyone to hell? They got that idea in Sunday School! Teach children while they are young that God cannot let sin go unpunished. Otherwise, Christ’s death makes no sense.
Two examples on this last point: I was once teaching a group of five-year-olds about Jesus cleansing the temple. To illustrate this story, I had been provided with coloring pages depicting animals running out of the temple. My kids were horrified! “Jesus didn’t hit the animals, did He Mrs. MariLynn? He just hit the bad guys, right?” I painted them a picture of Jesus the Mighty Hero driving all the evil bad guys out of the house of God. They loved it! I understand that whoever prepared those coloring pages did not want to depict the loving Son of God whipping people, but that’s what happened and that’s exactly what children want to see! They need to see Jesus as He really is–the Conquering Hero! Better than Superman! They need to know that God can beat the bad guys. It makes them feel safe and secure in His hands.
One year later, I was teaching six-year-olds the Book of Acts. As we approached the story of Ananias and Sapphira, I grew nervous about how to present this story. Would the kids think that God was going to zap them the next time they told a lie? I was still fairly inexperienced or I would never have thought this. The children listened to the story and all nodded wisely. It was then that I realized that children are much closer to God in the area of judgment than adults are. Adults expect mercy and are surprised and dismayed by judgment–even resentful of it. Children, on the other hand, expect judgment and are surprised by mercy. They take the “wages of sin” being death very seriously. Why take this wonderful quality away from them? Yes, they can seem mercenary and even blood-thirsty in the joy they take in the bad guy “getting his”, but that is easily dealt with by gently steering this just impulse towards empathy rather than trying to mold them into adults who take mercy for granted and thus miss the whole meaning of the cross.
One last point: I have a suspicion that God added in the gory details of battles and such just for the interest He knew little boys and girls would have in them. Don’t deprive them of this! I once tried to steer around the graphic, nasty details of Herod’s death by simply stating that “God said Herod must die for his pride, so he did.” My kids did not let me get away with that! They had read the text for themselves (and they were seven and eight years old!) “Tell us about the worms, Mrs. MariLynn! We want to hear about the worms!” Give ‘em the worms! Let them have the whole truth of the Bible, pretty or not. If God thought it was important enough to include in His Holy Word, who are we to say, “eeewww!”
Deuteronomy 11:18-19. “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” When God commanded that His words be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch. How far we have diverted ourselves from this simple command of teaching God’s word in its entirety, “boring” parts and all.
Up until about 240 years ago, the Bible was taught to children in the same way it was taught to adults: it was read to them. Most children in English-speaking nations, in general, learned to read by reading the Bible. Families were all together in church services–children heard the same sermons as the adults, and the parents would talk to them about the message afterward. I’m not advocating going back to that way of teaching, and we have many more resources available to us which we should take advantage of. But it served human-kind well enough for thousands of years, and I am not sure that adults of today who learned under modern methods of teaching are better educated than those who came before.
Along came the Industrial Revolution. In the 1780’s an upper-class gentleman in England, Robert Raikes, noticed that children of the poorer classes were no longer attending school or church, but were being forced to work in factories to help support their families. He became concerned about what kind of adults this generation of uneducated children would grow up to be, and so conceived of a “Sunday School” to be held on the only day the children had off of work. This was the beginning of the concept of Sunday School that we have today. Unfortunately, it was Raikes’ primary goal to teach the underprivileged to read and to be good, moral citizens of Great Britain. Their spiritual enlightenment was secondary in his mind. Therefore, he chose to teach the children only those Bible stories which he could adapt to his agenda of moral values, leaving out any details that might detract from his goals. For example, he might teach them about the patriarch Jacob by expounding on his faithfulness and how he was blessed by God, leaving out the parts where Jacob lied, deceived people, and ran away like a coward. The Bible stories were presented as isolated tales rather than as part of a vast history, so that anyone attending his schools would come away with the impression that the Bible was like Aesop’s Fables: a book of unrelated moral tales with unreal, perfect characters.
As the years passed, printing in color became easier and cheaper, and colored story books for children became all the rage among the wealthier Victorians in the mid- to late-1800’s. Bible stories, with beautifully colored wood-cuts, were popular presents for Christmas and birthdays. Naturally, the stories in these books were chosen for their illustrative qualities, and the narratives themselves were often questionable. When the wealthy Victorians got wind of the Sunday School movement among the poor, they grabbed onto the concept with their own twist–illustrated Sunday School cards and papers. Again, these stories were presented as isolated, moral tales and chosen for their illustrative qualities. The Bible was cleaned up and disinfected so that the children would never know that David committed murder and adultery; that every living thing on earth, except those in the ark, died in Noah’s flood; that when Ehud stabbed Eglon, Eglon’s fat stomach closed over the hilt of the knife. In other words, the Bible began to be unreal and unhistorical, and those whose only knowledge of the Bible came from Sunday School grew to have a warped and one-dimensional idea of what the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is all about. A warped view of the Bible means a warped view of God, and there was a great falling away from the faith as the children taught in this way grew to adulthood.
Darwinism took hold, and the Bible began to be seen by many, even by Christians, as unscientific, even mythological. By the 1950’s and 60’s, the Bible was being taught more and more as a lot of unrelated, moral fables rather than historical truth–as a way of teaching children how to behave rather than teaching them to know their Creator and Savior. Even those churches which remained fundamental in doctrine often used inferior Sunday School material which failed to emphasize the historical accuracy of the Bible. Lessons were still chosen for the cute crafts and pretty coloring pages that could be created to enhance the stories, and so the less “pretty” stories were ignored. Think of the vast amount of material which is never presented in Sunday School, or in other venues of children’s education: most of the Judges, most of the Kings, most of the prophets. Fascinating, enlightening stories which children would love, which never-the-less would be difficult to illustrate tastefully or to create appropriate hand-work for. The adults raised in these Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools thought they knew what was in the Old Testament and so never bothered to read it for themselves. The Old Testament began to be seen as irrelevant to adults, to be set aside with books of fairy tales.
Many of us who now attempt to teach the Scriptures to children today received our earliest Bible instruction in the 1960’s style Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools. You might argue that they were better than nothing and that no other curriculum was available to be taught at that time, and that is certainly true. But the tragedy remains. Ask any adult of our generation a question about the Old Testament and see if they can answer it. Look it up and make sure YOU know the right answer yourself! How many adults today are fully literate in Old Testament theology? I have known many intelligent, well-educated Christians who are very knowledgeable in the New Testament Scriptures but have only the most rudimentary grasp of the Old. I have even heard arguments for abandoning the study of the Old Testament Scriptures since they have been “replaced” by the New! I sincerely believe that this attitude comes from a Sunday School mentality of Old Testament study. Since people are being taught the Old Testament as a collection of isolated morality tales, they can’t understand how they can be relevant to adults. They don’t understand what they are missing, because they have never really been taught Scripture as a serious, historical document.
How then should we teach the Scriptures to children? I’ll share my ideas on this tomorrow.