Friday, December 29, 2006

New Web Resources

I just wanted to share a few new Christian blogs and websites I've been following lately. Of course, Rob is the real expert on this sort of thing--and these have nothing to do with Christian education, but just Christianity at large. Still, I thought I'd share; it's nice to link to people who are doing beautiful and good things.

First up is J-Walking, a blog by David Kuo, who used to be a high muckety-muck in the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives thing. He's a neat guy. After he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he re-evaluated the role of Christianity in the halls of power and wrote Tempting Faith, a book about the whole experience. Sad to say, I haven't read it yet, but it's very high on my read-this-soon list. His blog is neat--sometimes his own thoughts on his life and his family, other times, a look at the news of the day. Part of his thing is advocating that Christians take a two-year break from politics and devote the time and money they were spending on political advocacy and use it to help the poor. I think that's a good idea, but probably better for people who are truly hooked on politics. Maybe the emphasis should be more, taking the time and money you spend on whatever it is that you allow to control your life (be it politics or, say...being a bookaholic) and using it, instead, to help others.

Next on the docket is The Continuum, by Albion Land, who, as far as I can tell, is an Anglican clergyman. He posts sermons he enjoys, as well as thoughts on each day's focus from the Collects and things. As I come from a non-liturgical tradition, I really don't get what he's drawing from, but I love what he has to say about it. Today's entry, on Childermas, particularly gave me the shivers. This guy is amazing. Read his stuff. Pray about it.

Then there is Busted Halo, which I really want to dislike, but find myself reading almost daily. Why should I wish so fervently to dislike it? Because it's trendy-religious (Judeo-Christian, from what I can see), and there's this hip vibe that I find a serious turn off. Why can't we meet Jesus where He is, instead of demanding that He wear the clothes of our society?
The obvious question, then: why do I read it? Because, despite the hip trappings, it's got some really good content. Some of it is boring, annoying, or condescending. But some of it -- a lot of it-- is wonderful. Example: This article, about the hubbub lately regarding Keisha Castle-Hughes, the sixteen-year-old actress who plays Mary in the recent Nativity movie. Apparently alot of people think it's miraculous that she's pregnant, after playing the most famous teen mom of all time. I just like that the article provides a much-needed reality check. They also feature profiles of contemporary Christian writers, reviews of movies, music, and books (whether the original material is aimed at a Christian audience or not, they always review from a more or less Christian perspective). I also like that it's called "Busted Halo"--it's not perfect, and it's not trying to fool anyone.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Lesson 13: For Unto Us a Child Is Born

I hope everyone had a blessed Christmas. We did--we went home to visit our families in West Virginia. JC's mom gave us some kind of Bible trivia game, which was pretty cute. We'll see if the kids like it. She also suggested creating a "red bag": For her Bible class (little kids, but she says it's worked with older kids too), she has a red bag with toys in it: a donkey, a king, a baby, a tiny basket, etc. When she has a little time left over at the end of class, she lets the kids reach into the bag, and they have to come up with a story or image from the Bible that has to do with the thing. So, if they pull out the baby, it could be Jesus, or Moses, or, for that matter, the baby of King David's that he had with Uriah's wife, which died. If the kid can't come up with anything, she opens the floor to the other kids. If no one can come up with anything, she tells them a story, and maybe they remember it for next time. Among my several New Year's resolutions is to make a bag like that for our class. I think our kids would like it.

Since last Sunday was Christmas Eve, we didn't have class (the church just had an extra-long service, which was just as well, since we were in WV). The Sunday before, we did a (fairly successful) class on Messianic prophecy. How's that for the nine-year-olds? :)

I opened by asking them, "Who is Jesus?"
"Our Savior," said Joshua.
"God's son," said Amanda.
"OK," I said. "How do you know?"
They looked at me like I was the dumbest person they'd dealt with all week--including their parents. "It's in the Bible," said Amanda. She was kind enough not to add, "Duh."
"How do you know that that's true?" I pushed a little further.
"Because," said David, "it's the Bible."
They couldn't prove anything, though, of course. I probably have no right saying things like this to other people's children, but brainless faith infuriates me. The curriculum that our church recommends (and usually requires) for its Sunday schools has a whole lot about spreading the message, being brave enough to talk to others about Jesus. It doesn't say anything about why we believe. It doesn't prepare them for the day when someone--and I *was* this person in elementary school, so I know this will happen to them--demands that they offer any modicum of proof that Jesus was anything more than a philosopher, more even than a prophet. I've done penance for the children whose faith I challenged when I was a child; now I challenge other children's faith to bolster it against similar attacks. Sometimes I fear that their mothers won't see it that way.

I set out to teach them a thing or two about Biblical proof. We didn't get to deep on the archeological record--for another time, that one. We dealt only with scripture, with expectation and fulfillment.

We have a system going now where they can earn points toward an unspecified prize. They can take notes during the service and report on anything that happens that relates to what we talked about in class. They can draw a picture during the week that relates to what we talked about in class (limit 1 per week), memorize scripture (1 point/verse), or, occasionally, win a game in class. We gave them the latter opportunity during this class.

JC read out scriptures and they flipped through their Bibles to find the verses. The kid who found it first got a point in the game. The winner of the game got a class point. After that, JC laid printed copies of the scriptures on the table, and gave a point to the kid who figured out what all the scriptures had in common. In this case, it was that they were "all about Jesus," as Amanda (the winner) put it. Or, as JC refrased it for her, they were all Messianic prophecies.
"How did you know?" I asked Amanda.
"Well, that one [Micah 5:2] says it's someone who would come from Bethlehem. And that one [Isaiah 7:14] said that the virgin would have a son."
"And the others?"
She shrugged. "I just knew it."
I dropped it there.
"So, all these are about Jesus. But they are from the Old Testament, which was written before Jesus was born. Imagine if somebody seven hundred years before you were born knew where you would be born, what you would do with your life, even how you would die."
Joshua's eyes got big. "I would just stay in bed and never leave my house!"
I laughed. "If someone knew about your life seven hundred years before you were born, they probably would know that you would stay in bed your whole life too, don't you think?"
So we began to explain to them about prophecy, how the prophets of the Old Testament wrote down messages from God about the coming Messiah. They were surprised to learn that there had been false Messiahs, men claiming to be the Lord's Annointed--but that the proof of Jesus as the Messiah is that he fulfilled every bit of the prophecy, sometimes in unexpected ways, and the other men didn't.
"So how do we know that Jesus is the son of God?" I asked as we wrapped up.
"Because people were looking for him a long time before, and they knew what to expect," said David. He's a smart kid, and when he pays attention, he can be at the top of the class.
Then I asked them the question one child--Ali, who wasn't there that day, unfortunately--had asked a few weeks before, prompting us to do this class: "Did Moses celebrate Christmas?"

That was a stumper. Dead silence, turning wheels. Finally defeat, a chorus of, "I don't know!"
"Why do we celebrate Christmas?" I asked.
"Because of Jesus' birthday," they said.
"Ok, and Jesus was born after Moses died, so Moses couldn't have celebrated His birthday, right?"
"But Jesus always existed," David said.
"Yes," JC tried. "But He only existed as a human for thirty-three years or so. He had a birthday, and we know when He died. He always existed, but He walked among us as one of us for only a short period of time. He always existed, He was always--and is always--part of God, just like the Holy Spirit. He just manifested on Earth for a little time."

Thank goodness, that's when the bell rang. I think "manifested" was the point at which JC utterly lost them.

And now, we're putting off our further discussion of the Old Testament for another week. An urgent lesson on the Trinity is slated for this Sunday.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Lessons 10 and 11: The Law

We decided to spend a little time with the Law, because if you don't understand the Law, how can you understand Jesus's fulfillment of it?
Lesson 9 was all about the 10 Commandments. The kids seemed to get into that one, though they disregarded large portions of it as irrelevant ("I've never killed anyone!") or unfair (notably, "Honor thy mother and father," which my father-in-law refers to as "the only commandment with a threat: That your days may be long upon the earth!"). There were some of them, also, that made us a bit uncomfortable to talk about. "What's adultery?" asked Joshua.
"You have to be an adult to commit it, so don't worry," said JC.
Joshua persisted. He wanted to know what it was. So we told him, in a rather G-rated way...and one little girl said, sadly, "That's like what my dad did to my mom." Ouch.

We also discussed the Sermon on the Mount. Okay, so you've never killed anyone, but have you been really really angry and considered it? Jesus says that's just as bad. Kids are, by their nature, legalistic. They were pretty blown away by the concept that just thinking a certain way about somebody was as seriously bad as killing them. Jesus, they concluded, was stricter than their parents.

"Yes," we said, "but Jesus also knows that no one can live up to that standard. He just says that we should try, and He loves us and forgives us anyway, right?"

That was interesting.
Lesson 11 was even weirder. We talked about the law beyond the 10 commandments, things like dietary laws, times of cleanness and uncleanness. I printed up pictures of animals (rabbits, millipedes, camels) and had them use their Bibles to figure out whether they were clean or unclean. Then we brought it back around to the story about Peter seeing the sheet descend from heaven, and the voice saying, "Eat these animals." The kids didn't remember learning the story the first time--only David and Ali were in the class at that time, anyway. I hope they understood what I said about not being bound by the law...I'm afraid they went home and told their parents that the whole family was going to Hell over their hot ham and cheese for lunch...

Lesson 9: The Feast of Unleavened Bread

For our lesson on the Passover, we brought food. Food is a good idea. We should bring food more often. It keeps their bloodsugar normalized, keeps their mouths full, and gives them something to do with their hands. Also, these kids at least have good table manners, so they didn't pick off each other's plates or anything. In fact, they passed everything from one to the next very nicely. That was nice to see.

We brought: lamb, charoset (appley-raisin stuff), horseradish, matzoh, parsley, grape juice, and salt water. We took them through the whole Passover Seder, even having them ask the questions from the haggadah. It was a lot of fun, and they were absolutely amazed when we took them to the New Testament and read the account of Jesus' Last Supper. "Jesus had a Passover Seder?" one of them asked, surprised. It didn't take much for them to see the connection with Communion, either.
I found their curiosity about Communion fascinating. In our church, no one takes Communion until he or she is baptized, usually no younger than twelve years old. They all felt that this was unfair--why did the adults get a mid-service snack?--but, once they sampled the matzoh, they decided they weren't missing much. We told them, also, that at the Passover Seder, people drink wine rather than grape juice, but we didn't want to get in trouble with their parents. Joshua asked, "At Communion, is it wine or grape juice?" That was an intelligent question, and we told him that, in our church, it's grape juice, but at other churches, they use wine. There was even a Lutheran church I visited with a friend where they had red wine and white grape juice, and you could choose which to drink. The kids had a lot of questions about Communion, which I hadn't anticipated. They are eager to become part of the Body, though, as David says, "We can't get baptized yet, because we don't really understand it." I get the feeling that he's quoting a parent.

Say what?

“Jesus didn’t die,” David said.
“Excuse me?”
“Jesus never died.”
This was the same child who had rattled off, as though he had memorized it, that Jesus had died for his sins. He’d said it just the week before. “Why don’t you think he died, David?”
“They just put nails through his hands. That wouldn’t kill you.”
JC explained, in gorier detail than I would have done, the way one dies when one is crucified—not from the pain and blood loss of having one’s hands nailed to a piece of wood, but slow suffocation from one’s chest not being able to expand properly. “Not to mention,” he concluded, “they beat him within an inch of his life before they put him up there.”
“Then how was he able to walk around later?” David wanted to know.
“That’s the miracle,” I said.

How could someone who had attended church weekly for ten years not know that? Surely he had seen The Passion. Surely someone had told him, at some point, about Jesus dying for his sins. How can we raise children to be believers when we don't explain to them the miraculous nature of Jesus' life?

Lesson 8: Signs and Wonders

Lesson 8 is another one I don't remember well. We had the kids retell the story of Moses, which they all knew pretty well (Thank you, Prince of Egypt--and, for the record, a few of them even knew how the movie deviated from the Biblical account).
We talked about all the plagues. The kids really got into this one, in that kids-like-gross-things sort of way. They also knew most of the plagues, but not the order. We tried to point out to them the switch from Pharoah hardening his own heart to God hardening it, and also the switch from plagues that affected everyone to plagues that affected only the Egyptians. I'm not sure if they got it. Everyone was kind of fidgety--some times too much reading from the Bible and too little activity is a bit overwhelming for the kids.

Lesson 7: Suffering and Forgiveness

Again, backfilling...
It's been a long time since lesson 7, and I didn't write about it immediately afterward (bad Alisha! Badbad!). Not much from that class is sticking out in my memory, except that Ali, the kid with some sibling issues, wasn't there. This was a disappointment, because I think she totally would have gotten Joseph. I'll just skim the salient points:
* Joseph was the favorite child. Is there a favorite child in your family? How do the other kids feel about that?
* What was Egypt like at the time? We talked about different forms of worship, the Nile as life-giver, etc.
* Does Joseph work or just sit around waiting for God to help him (God helps those who help themselves--a massive lesson for little kids to get)?
* Are there other examples in the Bible of someone giving undeserved forgiveness (We were going for the whole Jesus-forgave-us thing, but none of the kids quite came up with that on their own).

We also had them use their concordances to find other examples of God talking to people through dreams and visions. We asked them if they thought God still talked to people that way. David thought so; Joshua wasn't sure.

That's really all I can recall.

Lesson 6: New Names, New Beginnings

I'm still updating and backfilling some thoughts on the lessons we did before I started this blog, so this is lesson six, which happened a while ago.

I can't really say much about Lesson 6, because JC and I went out of town and his sister and brother-in-law taught for us. I'll give you the basic outline, though, because Konni (sister) said that the kids really enjoyed it, and seemed to understand it.

First, they (Konni and Jamie) asked the kids about their names. Why were they given that name, did they know what it meant, etc? A few of the kids knew the meanings of their names, but those who didn't had fun looking them up in a baby name book. Two of the boys (David and Joshua) knew that they were named after people from the Bible. None of the kids seemed to know why their parents had given them that particular name. Jamie told them that he was named after his dad. Konni (Konstanze) told them that she was named after Mozart's wife.

"When do people change their names?" Konni asked the kids. They came up with a few examples, like when someone gives you a nickname that sticks, or when you get married. "That's right," Konni told them. "And sometimes God gives people a new name, usually when he is in the process of changing their lives in some dramatic way."

They looked at Biblical examples of people changing their names, and discussed the circumstances surrounding these changes (Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel, Saul/Paul). On our family tree, they squeezed in these extra names.

Konni reported that the kids liked the lesson a lot, but she didn't have much else to share.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Lesson 12: The Word of God, The Word of Editors/Translators/Scholars (also, a moment of teacher being a moron)

A few weeks ago, all the kids were talking about Christmas. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, as I recall, and I could have sworn someone had flipped a switch in their brains. No single kid started it, they were just all talking about it --what they wanted to get for Christmas, where they were going for Christmas, how their big sister always got more presents than they did. Since third- and fourth-graders are just on the cusp between believing in Santa and NOT believing in Santa, they had an argument about the jolly fat man's existance, too. Some of the kids insisted that he couldn't possibly exist, while others said he must. "I've seen him," said Amanda.
"It's just your parents," David told her.
Ali had the only iron-clad argument. "Of course there's a Santa Claus. Your parents wouldn't buy you presents when they didn't have to."

Ali had a question for us, too: "Did Moses celebrate Christmas?"
"No," JC said. "Moses died before Jesus was born."
"Nu-uh," said David. "Jesus always existed!"
"Uhm. Yes. But he also was born, he had a birthday."
"I don't get it," said Amanda.
"Jesus wasn't born until the beginning of the New Testament," I said.
"What's the New Testament?" asked Ali. How do they not know what the New Testament is?
"It's the last part of the Bible," JC said. "It's the part about Jesus."

We had given David a Bible, since his dog ate his, and he seemed very curious this week about why his (New King James) was different from the other kids' (New International Version). He also wanted to know what a "per-face" was, and why JC's Bible had footnotes and a different page layout than his, despite the fact that they have the same translation.

Because of all these things, JC and I decided to do a couple special classes to deal with some immediate confusion. The first of these would be a look at What is in your Bible--from the dedication page to the maps on the endpaper. The second would be a look at the prophecies about Jesus' birth. They all know that Jesus is the Son of God, but they don't know why they believe that. Because their parents told them so, I guess, but they don't ask for any proof.

Yesterday, we did the first of those special classes. We made a chart for them to fill in (basically a glorified table of contents) with the things in their own Bibles. We had divided them into "Not the Word of God" (endpaper, title page, copyright page, preface/introduction, key), "The Word of God" (further divided into Old and New Testaments, which we also divided into "Books of the Law," "Jesus' Biography and Church History," "Books of Prophecy," etc.), and then another "Not the Word of God" section (maps, concordance, dictionary).

"There are things in your Bible, whole sections of your Bible," I told them, "that are not the Word of God. Can anyone tell me which parts those would be?"
Ali eyed her thick volume skeptically. "I haven't read all of it, you know," she said.
"Okay," JC said. "What's the first thing in your Bible?"
"Genesis!" said Lakeland.
"Nope, before that."
"The per-face!" said David.
"Before that."
We talked them back and back, until they hit the endpaper. We had them add it to their charts. Then we showed them the dedication page--"This is to remind you of who gave you your Bible, and when. So, Joshua's mom and dad gave him his Bible, right? And mine was given to me by friends at my church when I was baptized. They signed it here."
They added "Dedication Page" to their charts. Things were going pretty well.
When we talked about the preface, we asked them if the Bible had always been written in English. "Yes!" they said.
"Nope," we told them. "It was written a long time before English was invented. The Old Testament was written mostly in Aramaic and Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. We have different translations because sometimes one word in Hebrew is the same as a couple of words in English. A translator has to pick which word. That's why sometimes the words in your Bible are a little different from the wods in someone else's. The preface usually tells you why they decided to do a new translation and what makes it different from other ones."
Then we got to the books of the Bible. This also went well at first. "Who knows why Genesis is called Genesis?" No one knew.
"Joshua, read the first three words of the book of Genesis."
"In the beginning," he read.
"'Genesis,'" JC said, "Is Greek for 'In the beginning.'"

And here's where the whole class collapsed. I wanted them to follow along closely with us, writing in the names of the books as we talked about them--overview of content, explanation of the name. They were hurrying ahead (David said, "I'm done!" at least five times), but I wanted them to go slowly so we could talk about each book. "Maybe we should just let them fill it in," JC said.
"But Lakeland is following along," I told him. So we stuck to our slow and steady pace, and the class spiraled rapidly out of control.

When I thought about it later, during the service, I realized that the class had gotten out of hand because I had violated one of the primary rules of my interaction with them: I had treated them like children, and they had, accordingly, begun to act like children. I hate hate hate it when people want me to follow along and do what they tell me to, at their pace. It makes me feel like a third-grader; it brings out my ornery side. I hated that when I was in third grade, too. I hated the standardized tests, where we all had to fill in our names, and then wait, and then all do the idiotic "sample" question together, and then do all the tests in timed sections. I hated waiting for everyone, for my teachers. How could I forget that and treat these kids that way? I've been so impressed with how mature and smart they all are. I don't know what got into me, that I insisted on treating them like little kids.

In my interviews with other Christians, the ones who became really excellent, spiritual people are the ones who said, "My parents treated me like an adult in church." They were people whose parents didn't bring a whole toybox for them, but only let them have maybe a pencil and a piece of paper--from as young as two years old. Their parents expected them to follow along in their Bibles, to sing the hymns with the congregation, to listen to the sermon. "I wasn't always paying attention," one of them told me, "but I had to be sitting there, quietly, facing the front, so I had the opportunity to pay attention."

I've always said that if we want children to grow up into practicing, believing Christians, people with ownership of their faith, with strong belief, we must treat them like equal partners in our community of faith.

I think I just lost my mind, or maybe my vision, last Sunday. Of course, it's nice that kids forget these things, and I know I get another chance next week. I'm still learning, still practicing, still trying to get it right...God help me.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Incredible Exhibit

Yesterday, JC and I went to Washington, DC, to get tickets for the sing-along Messiah at the Kennedy Center. We failed utterly; apparently people were camped out the night before to get them. I had no idea it was such a huge draw.

Not wanting to waste a perfectly lovely day in the city, we looked in the paper and found a few exhibits we wanted to see. One, at the Sackler Gallery, was just unbelievably cool. It was a collection of first-millenium Bibles (and Bible fragments), from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Lindesfarne Gospels. It was amazing to see these ancient strips of papyrus, to think about people valuing the word of God so highly that they painstakingly hand-wrote it, over and over. The exhibit was nicely done, too, with informative text on the walls.

One thing that surprised me (pleasantly!) was that it was packed. They had us line up in an antechamber and set us into the exhibit two at a time, and it was still crowded. Lots of people, some whose conversation revealed them to be Greek scholars, others who had no idea that the Bible had ever been in anything but the King James English, pressed into these rooms to see these ancient books. Some, designed for churches, had lots of ornamentation and jeweled covers. Others, like the ones missionaries would have taken to various parts of the world, were small and plain, the only important bits being the words.

We saw a small girl there; she couldn't have been more than six years old. She was listening to the audio tour (an extra $5, and I don't usually like those, although later I wished I had gotten it, just to find out what else they had to say). She was completely absorbed in the exhibit, and wiggled her way to the front of each crowd of adults, clustered around the ancient books. At the end, her mother said, "It's time to leave now, Hannah," and she started to whine--the only time I had heard her utter a sound, though she had preceded us through the whole exhibit--"But I'm not done yet!"

We're thinking of taking our class to see it. I don't know if they can handle it, but the only way to find out is to try.

If you can get to DC in the near future, I highly recommend this exhibit. It's only running through January 7th though, so you'll have to move fast and look sharp. More info on the Sackler Gallery website.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Temple of the Holy Spirit

In addition to the Sunday School class I teach with my husband, I teach a monthly Wednesday evening class for teenage girls. This blog is supposed to mostly be about the third and fourth graders we teach on Sunday, but I wanted to share this one, from my older girls.

We had a lesson on dating, sexuality, and purity. I try not to do these too often, because I really don't think it's a major issue for my girls--they're mostly 12 to 14 years old. The only older ones I have are very shy and haven't dated anyone yet. So, we're talking about purity, not just as it applies to sex, but also as it applies to what you put into your body, how you deal with your own physical nature.

I told them about the temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship. I told them how people had to go there, how their religion was incomplete without the temple. Then I told them about how the temple was utterly destroyed in 70 AD. "Where is the temple of God now?" I asked them. None of them knew. "Is it in...Rome?"
Ashley ventured a guess: "Yes?" I gave her a look. "No," she corrected herself. "Is it in London?"
"Ashley, can you read 1 Corinthians 6:19, please?"
She paged through her Bible. "'Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.' Wow. I had never heard that before."
"I thought you meant like, a real place," said Bree.
I told her that it was kind of a trick question. "Each and every one of you is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives inside of you. Your bodies are important because God lives in them. Don't pollute the temple."

They all were quiet with awe. How had they not ever heard this? But really, I think none of them had, and all of them were affected by the thought.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Genealogy

Our family tree for class is chaotic at best. The spelling is iffy, the lines aren't straight. It looks more like a bramble than an orderly tree. Every few weeks, we have to move it up, because we add so many new people. Right now, God through Mahalalel are on the ceiling, and Ephraim and Manasseh are touching the floor. The people in Jesus' direct line are underlined in red Sharpie, so that when we do our memory verse (Luke 3:23 to the end of the chapter), we can follow the relationships right up the line, from Amminadab (as we're only up to the time of Moses) through God. (Favorite quote from one of the kids, when he began to understand where this family tree was going: "So, Jesus was his own grandpa?"). JC and I draw the connecting lines, and the kids write the names. They take turns, and keep track of the rotation better than we do.

Through this family tree, they are beginning to make sense of Bible stories they've known since they were little. They've discovered, with some surprise, that Noah is Abraham's several-times-great-grandpa, and that a lot of the patriarchs married their cousins.
We play games with the family tree to get them to interact with it. They seem to like that. We've written people's ages, where they are given, in parentheses next to their names, so I can ask them to find the oldest person (if teaching children has taught me anything, it's to ask this question with the caveat, "not Jesus, and not God."). We ask them to tell us how many names begin with n, who has the longest name, who the shortest, who has a name that became the name of a place (Cainan, Israel). We ask them how many people there are between this person and that person, and we ask what relationship one person was to another.

It's a diagram they are helping to build, and I think they are understanding it. They're even memorizing the genealogy, which is a shock to me.

Sudden Clarification

I thought, when I started writing and thinking about the Sunday school class that my husband and I are teaching, that I was upset that children didn't understand that the Old Testament was one long story, and that Jesus was its completion.

Then, I had lunch with Rob Bland. Rob is a brilliant guy, once a Vice President of my company, and now a student at Stanford Business School. I wanted to talk with him because I've been interviewing people about their religious education. I thought that I wanted to know what people had been told about the Old Testament when they were children, and that I wanted to know at what age they reached the point where they understood a connection between the parts of the Bible.

When I was talking with Rob, though, I realized this project was much bigger. I want to change the way children are educated about their religion. I want to argue against "children's church" and for involving kids directly in the services. I want children to use their Bibles, not have the verses handed to them on preprinted sheets. I want people to be asking kids deep, difficult questions, so that they have time to think about them. I want kids to feel like church is a place where their spirits are fed and nurtured, not a place where they must sit still and wait for their parents to be done.

I want religious education to be cohesive--once the kids are (as Rob put it) "old enough to think," they need to get, not just one colorful cartoon-ready Bible story after another, but a cohesive understanding of the Bible.

I've ordered a book through ILL called The Last Christian Generation. I'll post after I read it. I read a review of it somewhere, and just the title bothers me. I do not want to be part of the last Christian generation. I'm not so much scared of being in a world without Christians (although that would be scary) as I am scared of being in a world where people don't believe anything that's demanding or complicated or sometimes inconvenient.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Lesson 5: A Willing Sacrifice

Lesson 5: The Fear of Isaac

When I was in England, I stumbled across a series of books called the Horrible Histories. They were graphic novels about English history, aimed at nine- to eleven-year-olds. In addition to the basic historical facts that the kids learned in school (“lots of people died in the Plague”), they also contained juicy, and disgusting, tidbits (“You would get awful pussing boils all over before you died”). They were wildly popular. By the time we reached Isaac, we had despaired of ever getting and maintaining our students’ attention, so we attempted a Horrible History strategy.

We told them, in unbelievable detail, about animal sacrifices.

They had heard that “the wages of sin is death,” but of course, they didn’t know what that meant.

Whenever a sin is committed, someone has to die for it. Like when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they were put out of the Garden, where they would have lived for ever, and sent out into the World, where they would one day die, as would all of their descendants. They would experience pain and torment, and then they would die. Rather than kill people every time they did something wrong, God gave them a way out. They still had to give something up—remember, people’s wealth was measured in livestock back then—but they didn’t have to give up their own lives. They could instead offer an animal (or grain) sacrifice to God. They would choose a really great animal—a nearly perfect animal—and they would sacrifice it in a certain kind of ceremony to let God know they were sorry. Something still had to die, but that something didn’t have to be a person.

So now Isaac. His father tells him, “Son, we’re going to do a sacrifice up on the mountain. I want you to come help me, and carry the wood.”

Now, let’s note a few important things here—first of all, Isaac was not a little boy in this case. He was at least a teenager, maybe an adult. He was strong enough to carry all the wood they would need for a burnt offering—and that was a lot of wood. So he’s a strong young man, and he is following his dad up the hill, and he knows how sacrifices work, so he asks his dad, “Where is the lamb?” and his dad says, “God will provide the lamb.”

They get to the top of the mountain and Abraham ties his son down. Abraham is a very old man, at least a hundred, maybe a hundred and twenty. Isaac is young and strong. He was a willing sacrifice. He could have fought his father. He didn’t have to allow himself to be bound. He trusted in God and in Abraham, and he let this all happen.

Jesus, likewise, didn’t have to go to the cross. He could have escaped; he could have made the whole mess go away. He could have refrained from preaching and teaching—but he didn’t.

At this point, we asked the kids to use their concordances to find other instances of human sacrifice in the Bible. They found references to Isaac, of course. They also found Romans 12:1, where Paul talks about believers being a living sacrifice. “How can we be a living sacrifice for God?” we asked the kids.

“Uhm. Die?”

“No, it says a living sacrifice.”

“We could live for God?”
“What would it look like to live for God?”

“We’d be good a lot. And be nice to people. Read the Bible. Pray.”

“Ok, can you each pick one of those things to do?”

Follow up poor, don’t know if they did.

I thought the kids had understood my point about Isaac’s willingness, but their Wednesday night teacher had asked them to draw a picture of the story, and I saw David’s: a stick figure Isaac, bound on a stack of wood, his father standing over him with a knife. A speech bubble protrudes from Isaac’s mouth: “What’s up?”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Lesson 4: Tracking Abraham

Lesson 4: Abraham and his Traveling Shoes

I wanted to show our students how God’s people were on the move in the Old Testament, how they went from place to place, and never quite found home. JC made maps of the Levant, simple outlines where land and water met, and we stapled tracing paper over top of them. We asked the kids to take turns reading the account of Abraham’s life. Each place that was mentioned, we stopped and put a star sticker on the tracing paper over the map. We traced his route with colored pencils. We talked about God’s promise to Abraham—it’s pretty unbelievable, God promises him over and over that he will be the father of great nations, and yet he grows older without any children. Finally, he has Ishmael, and later Isaac, who was so unlikely that God’s prophecy made Sarah laugh.

Abraham trusted God to do the basically impossible; he followed him unflagging through miles of desert. God asks us to believe something equally impossible: that our sins are forgotten, washed away with the blood of our Savior and the waters of our baptism.

The geography of the Levant surprised our students, I think. Iraq has been in the news a great deal lately. I asked them if they knew where Canaan was. None of them did. Had they heard of Iraq? They had. Iraq is basically where all these things took place, a very long time ago. Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. A little bit of Syria and Lebanon. Those places you hear about on the news, the places where we are at war—those places are the places where God spoke to men and promised them great things.”

The kids thought about that a while. Then Ali, ever the skeptic, raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously. It was a very, very long time ago.”

I don’t think they understood why we were building these maps, but later, when we added pages for Jacob and for Moses, lining up the tracing paper, seeing how town names changed, they began to get it. They could see things happening in the same places at different times, and they liked that.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Lesson 3: Many Waters

Lesson 3: God Said to Noah…

When the kids came in on the third Sunday, the first thing we did was ask them to help us fill in the family tree, from God to Noah. This took a while, as we required them to read the genealogy from Genesis 5 to deduce who came next. They also became interested in people’s ages—did they really live for nine hundred years? David got to write both “Methuselah” and “Mahalel,” which the others declared—rightly—was quite unfair. Ali also didn’t like the fact that no women other than Eve appeared on our chart. “Who were all their mothers?” she asked. It killed me to tell her that they are not remembered. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that this was because the mothers were not considered important enough to remember. From tradition, of course, we have some names—the Book of Jubilees gives us “Azura” for Seth’s wife, and “Mualeleth” for Kenan’s. These are only traditional, however, not Biblical. We can’t teach them in Sunday School for our little ones—the sources are tenuous at best, and goodness knows what their parents would think. So, instead, I must tell Ali that men only traced their family lineage through men, and the women were there, and they were important, but many of them go unnamed.

We asked the kids to tell us Noah’s story. It’s another one they’ve heard a hundred times, since they were in the cradle roll class. They overlapped, got elements of the story out of order, but together formed a fairly cohesive and accurate narrative. In past classes, I could tell, they had focused mostly on the colorful aspects of the story—the animals marching slowly, two by two, up the planks as the storm clouds gathered, the dove bringing the olive branch, the rainbow. We decided to focus on the parts of the story that tie it forward, into the Christian story.

Imagine, you are in a desert. It is hot, dry, dusty. It has not rained ever. There are no lakes or seas nearby. Your neighbor tells you he is going to build a boat. What do you say?

The kids agreed that they’d probably laugh at someone who built a boat in the desert, especially before the days when you could tow a boat down the interstate, behind your SUV. “Can you think of anyone else in the Bible who got made fun of?”



“Right. All of God’s people look strange to outsiders. If people don’t think you’re strange, you’re probably not doing as good a job of following Him as you could be.”

We had scavenged several concordances from various church members, and now we distributed them to the kids. “Is this a dictionary?” asked Joshua. We told him that he was close, and explained what a concordance is, and how to use it.

“We’re going to try out the concordances. In the story of Noah, God made the whole earth pure through water. I want to know of other times in the Bible when God purified people or things through water. So let’s try to find them with the concordances. First look up ‘water,’ then try to figure out from the little sentence context they give you, whether that verse might have something to do with purification. If you think it does, look it up in your Bible, and tell us if you were right.” Though no one was particularly enthusiastic, they did their best. The concordances weren’t all keyed to the same translations that they had, and Joshua got stuck with a severely lacking concordance. Still, they began to understand, and to make discoveries in their Bibles with this new tool.

David found the passage that ties the Old Testament to the New: “who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 3:20-21).

We finished, as the story generally does, with the rainbow. None of the kids knew what a covenant was, and we tried to explain it. “It’s partly like a promise, and partly like a legal contract. It’s a promise that is very hard to break. So, in this story, God is promising that he won’t destroy the world through water again. Another example of a covenant is a marriage vow. Baptism is a covenant too. All these covenants have one thing in common—a sign. The rainbow, a wedding ring, water. These signs are to remind us of the promises we’ve made. When I see a rainbow, I remember God’s promise. When I take off my wedding ring to avoid losing it in my bread dough, I remember the promises I made to JC. When someone in our church gets baptized, I am reminded of my own baptism, and the promises I made to God then. We’re going to be talking a lot about covenants, so I hope you remember this.”

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lesson 2: In the Beginning...

One thing we discovered while we taught nine- and ten-year-olds about the Old Testament was that some stories needed no review. The Creation was one example—light, darkness, plants, fish, birds, crawling things, Adam, Eve, Serpent, fruit, expulsion. Any child in our class could have rattled that list off without blinking, so there was little need for retelling. For our class about the Creation, we set up a still life in the center of the room and placed all the children in a circle around it. We passed out paper and colored pencils, and asked them to draw what they saw. David did a hasty scribble and then insisted that he was finished. Joshua was done not too much later. The girls—Ali and a visitor—took their time, creating careful renderings of what they saw. JC and I drew too. At the end, we compared our drawings.

“Are all of our drawings the same?” I asked. After pointing out the many differences between everyone’s drawings—JC’s was quite precise, mine had lots of color, Joshua’s was smaller than the rest—Ali finally said, “We all drew different things.” She pointed out how I had drawn the purple dolphins on the sarong we had draped over half of it, whereas she had drawn the spiraling lamp that we’d placed at the center. Joshua’s drawing showed more of the basket at the base of the group, and hardly any of the sarong. “Why do you think that is?” I asked her.

“We all sat in different places.” Eventually, with a good deal of leading questions, we got around to the idea that we had each drawn an image of the same thing, but each drawing was different, each one was incomplete.

“What does it mean that we are made in God’s image?” asked JC. “Does it mean we are just like God? And how can we all be just like God, since we’re all different? Are some of us better images?”

The kids thought about this one for a minute. Then Joshua slowly said, “No…but we’re each like a part of God. Like God drew us all from different angles.” The other kids looked at him oddly, but David nodded.

JC looked at the kids, who were just absorbing all of this, and winked at me. “Who knows where Eden is?”

“No one,” said Ali.

“That’s not true,” JC said. “The Bible tells us right where it is. Someone get a Bible and read Genesis 2:10-14.”

David did. “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.” JC showed them on a map more or less where Eden should have been. “Back in the middle ages, during the Crusades, people marked Eden on their maps—a lot of people claimed to have found it, since the Bible told them where to look.”

“Why didn’t they go back to Eden, if they knew right where it was?” Ali wanted to know.

David answered her before we could. “There’s an angel with a flaming sword, don’t you remember?” Ali insisted that it wasn’t fair for God to exclude all people from Eden just because two people messed up.

“Have any of you ever given in to temptation?” I asked. They nodded. “What kinds of things tempt kids your age?”

“Being mean to my brother.”

“Cheating on a test.”

“Ignoring my parents.”


“So we’ve all sinned, right? Sin is just giving in to temptation. But there is a way back to Eden.” The kids looked at me, puzzled. “What is Eden? It’s a special kind of place, where God walks with people, physically. They hear him coming. Have you ever heard God? It’s a place without work—you just pick your food off the trees. It’s a place of harmony and peace. Does that sound familiar to anyone?”
“It kind of sounds like heaven,” said Joshua.

JC opened his Bible and read them Romans 5:15-17. “’But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.’ What does that mean?”

“That Jesus died to make up for Adam’s sin?” said Joshua.

“Yes, and also the sins of everyone since then. If I were the only person in the history of people to have sinned, Jesus would have died to cover that sin. Or if you were, or if no one at all had sinned since Adam and Eve, Jesus would have come and died just for them. It’s because of his death that we are able to enter Heaven, which is like a new Eden,” I paused, and glanced at JC. I wasn’t sure what to say next.

“Have any of you ever taken the punishment when one of your siblings really deserved it?” he asked them. Ali looked at him with a perfectly straight face.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Lesson 1: Who are the Jews, and why should you care?

For the first lesson of the new quarter, JC and I were prepared to have to convince the kids to go along with us. They had used basically the same Sunday school curriculum for most of their religious education. It had a very simple format and a straight-forward message: Go out and preach! The handouts were covered in cute activities like word-searches and mazes. They had colorful drawings on the inside, and photographs of smiling children on the cover. We really didn’t have anything like that. Our curriculum was low-tech, not at all flashy. Word searches hadn’t even come up in our planning stages.

The fall quarter began with “Promotion Sunday,” the first Sunday of September. Glitter Boy and The Scribbler, along with the two oldest girls, moved up to the fifth and sixth grade class, where, they told us, “Miss Cathy doesn’t put up with anything.” The younger girl, Ali, stayed in our class, as did David, who liked to play with the stapler. The only child to move up from the first and second grade class was Joshua. He was also the only child to bring his Bible that first week.

We began by asking the kids if they could tell us what pairs of people had in common. “How is Shel Silverstein like Leonard da Vinci? What do Christopher Columbus and Anne Frank have in common?” We had a long list. I was surprised at the people they recognized (Levi Strauss), and at those they didn’t (Lois Lowry, a children’s author). Their answers were creative and often funny. “What is the similarity between Albert Einstein and ????? Think of more examples. Look at list. Ask JC.

When they ran out of steam, we finally told them. “They are—or in some cases, were—all Jewish.”

David looked at us with mild surprise. “Natalie Portman is a Jew?”

We nodded. “Can anyone name another famous Jew?”

Silence again. I wondered if they didn’t know, or if they just didn’t feel like saying. “How about people from the Bible?” I asked. “Can you name any famous Jews from the Bible?” The kids looked seriously confused. What did the Bible have to do with Anne Frank? “Like…Moses? King David? There are a lot of Jews in the Bible. Can you think of any more?”

Ali thought for a moment. “Was Joseph a Jew?” We nodded, and the kids seemed to catch on, calling out names of other famous figures from the Old Testament.

We asked them if any of them knew why Jesus’ parents left Him behind in Jerusalem when He was only twelve, or why we use unleavened bread for our Communion. Did they know why the religious leaders reprimanded Him for healing people on the Sabbath? Could they tell us why He had two trials before His crucifixion? Did they know why He was called the Messiah, or what that meant? “The answer to all those questions,” I said, “Is because He was Jewish. That’s what we’re going to learn about this quarter. I think it will be fun.” Our students looked dubious.

We pulled out big white pieces of construction paper and helped all of the kids find crayons. “Have you made a family tree before?” we asked. They shook their heads. We showed them how, using JC’s family because it was much neater than mine—only one divorce in several generations, and that, a childless one. My family tree looked more like a family bramble patch. Later, when we had gotten about halfway through Jesus’ family tree, I realized that God’s chosen people made my family look like a manicured garden. Maybe that’s why he chose them—so we wouldn’t feel quite so intimidated.

All of the kids’ family trees started out well enough. Here’s me. Here are my brothers and my sisters. Here are my parents. Easy. Then grandparents. Ali looked stricken. “I don’t remember if my Mimaw is my mom’s mom or my dad’s mom.”

“Does she look more like your dad, or more like your mom?” JC asked.

Ali though for a minute. “Now I remember. She’s my mom’s mom.[?]” Ali carefully wrote “Mimaw” above “Mommy.” None of the kids were able to get farther back than their grandparents. Only one was able to manage his aunts and uncles. I had forgotten how vague my knowledge of my extended family was when I was their age. Even now, as an adult, I sometimes have trouble differentiating between all five of my dad’s brothers. When I was nine, I don’t know if I could have diagrammed my family without my parents’ help. I hadn’t thought about this, but the thing that made their activity difficult gave my lesson power.

“What if you could name every person—your grandparents and your great-grandparents and your great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, all the way back to Adam?”

“Woah,” said Ali, her eyes wide. “That would be a lot of people.”

“Jesus could do that. Not just because he was God, either. A lot of people in his culture could. The list of all your ancestors is called your genealogy, and Jesus’ is written in the book of Luke. Could everyone turn to the third chapter of Luke, please?” Joshua started paging through his Bible as the others ran to pull extras off the book shelf. “JC is going to read from verse twenty-three to the end of the chapter, ok? When you hear a name you recognize, put up your hand.”

As JC read, the kids followed along, and a hand wandered into the air every few names. “Who was on that list that you know a story about?” he asked, when he was done.

“Abraham!” said Joshua.

“David!” said David.

“Why aren’t there any women in this list?” asked Ali.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

How This Started

When Leah asked my husband and me to cover her Sunday school class, we thought she just meant once. Then, as we were taking roll, Pat bustled in. “You guys are okay to teach for the rest of the summer quarter, right?” she said.

JC’s eyes slid toward mine. “The rest of the quarter?” he said, trying not to sound confused.

“It’s only five more weeks,” Pat replied. JC looked at me. I shrugged, and so did he. “Good,” said Pat, and left before we could find the words in our vocabulary that might indicate negation.

“It starts with an n,” JC said, as if he could read my mind.

“You didn’t say it either,” I told him.

“I was waiting for you to.”

We turned back to our class. One of the boys was stapling into a pencil. Another was pouring glitter across the table. The third was aggressively blacking out all the words on his colorful handout. The oldest girl giggled with her best friend, and the youngest stared sleepily at the wall. We looked at our teacher’s manuals, trying to get our bearings. The night before, we had read the lesson carefully. The children were supposed to be studying the moment in Acts when Peter sees a vision of all different kinds of food—clean and unclean—and a voice from Heaven commands him to eat it. “Do not make unclean what the Lord has made clean,” the voice tells him. It’s a simple enough story, and the curriculum even drew the parallel to the incident with Cornelius the Roman (Gentile). The children took turns reading from the excerpted story printed in their handouts. When they finished, I said, “So, what happened?” No answer. “Do you guys know what it means when it says that some of the food was clean, and some was unclean?”

“It was dirty?” asked one of the older boys.

“Not exactly…” I looked to JC for help.

He cleared his throat and paged through his Bible. “The Jews, you see, couldn’t eat certain animals, like pigs or lobster—“

“Why not?” asked the boy who was scribbling.

“Because, God commanded them not to. They also couldn’t eat certain foods together, like dairy and meat at the same time.”

“They couldn’t eat cheeseburgers?” asked the youngest girl, focusing in.

“Very good,” I told her. “They definitely couldn’t eat cheeseburgers.”

“But could they eat the cheese part, and then eat the burger later?” she asked.

“Yes. But not if they had been cooked together.”
JC jumped in. “They even had to use separate sets of pots and dishes so that meat and dairy never touched.”

“Does everyone know who the Jews are?” I asked.

The oldest boy peered out from under his ball cap. “They were God’s chosen people.”

“Okay. Can anyone name a famous Jew?”

The kids stared at me.

I tried again. “A famous Jew who was born in Bethlehem and fed thousands of people with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread and died on the cross for your sins?”

Silence. Then a look of comprehension dawned on the glitter boy’s face. He stopped glittering, looked up at me. Jesus was a Jew?”

Driving home, we were silent. I was still stunned by what the children had said. Were they just messing with us, or did they really not know that the Jews were part of the Christian story—and not just any part, but an important part? When we got home, we looked through our teacher’s manual again, this time starting at the beginning, with what they should have learned the month before. The curriculum jumped around, three lessons on Peter, then three on the Epistles, then a couple of stories from Jesus’ life. There seemed to be no logic at all. At their age—all rising fourth and fifth graders—surely the kids were ready to stop learning one random Bible story after another and instead, begin to piece together the narrative. Our church practices youth and adult baptism, and in the next class up, “Miss Cathy” begins to talk with them about this concept (she also, rumor has it, forbids staple wars and excessive glittering). How can someone understand the Crucifixion without understanding animal sacrifice, or the various covenants God has made with people? How could they experience the New Law without knowing the Old? What prophecy is fulfilled if you don’t know the Prophets?

On top of that, the kids were clearly bored. They might not have known it, but they needed a challenge. They needed to be taken seriously as Christians waiting to happen. The curriculum wasn’t helping. It suggests asking the kids to memorize the books of the Bible, but prints whatever verses they need for class in the handout. The best way to keep the order of the books fresh in one’s mind is to have to use them to navigate one’s way to a particular verse. The curriculum also contained activities that might help entertain kids for an hour, but wasn’t going to get them to ask really hard questions about their spirituality. For example, the lesson on the fruits of the spirit suggested having the kids take Sharpies and write the names of each of the spiritual fruits on an actual, physical, plant-type fruit (it also helpfully pointed out that thick-skinned fruits would be best suited to this purpose), putting them in order according to the verse…and then eating them.

When Pat asked us if we would be teaching in the fall quarter, we answered her with a “Yes, if.” We presented her with our own curriculum—a detailed study of the Pentateuch, including concordances, timelines, maps, and, yes, even looking things up in real Bibles. Pat was dubious—she felt she really had to stick to the curriculum. I would have given up right there, but my husband has a stubborn streak. As he talked to her, I could see Pat’s eyes beginning to tear up a little. “You’re the first ones the whole time I’ve been coordinating education who wanted to do anything different.”

At first, our students resisted. I think they missed their coloring sheets. Only a few weeks in, we saw a change. They argued over who got to write the long names on the family tree (thanks to the vagaries of chance, the same kid got to write both “Mahalalel” and “Methuselah”). They all wanted to be the one to read the verse. We had a class of nine- and ten-year-olds who were excited about the Bible. This was very cool.