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.