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.