Monday, January 29, 2007

Lesson 17: Friendship in the book of Ruth

I would like to say that we talked about the book of Ruth on Sunday, but that would be not quite true.

The ten-minute intro activity we had planned ended up taking about half an hour. Amanda was pretty wound up again this week, and she just seemed unable to focus on anything. Lachlan was the only other kid in the class, and she fed off of that energy. It got really out of hand.

The activity was to do a timeline of one's life, listing one's best friends during one's life and a few qualities that one liked about that person. If you're only nine, it shouldn't take that long, right? Well, no, unless you start over four times and stop and look at your neighbor's timeline and say, "Who's that? What does that mean?" instead of doing your own work. The girls also extended their lines into the future, predicting that they would be "friends" with Zac Efron. Of course, stupid me, I made the mistake of asking who that was, which slowed the process down even further. Amanda also did things that I think of as really little-kid behaviors, like reaching for the colored pencils and banging her hand on the table and grunting, instead of asking Lachlan to pass them to her.

Due to all the chaos, the actual Bible lesson was incredible: The Book of Ruth, in five minutes. Thank goodness the story isn't very complicated. I felt like I was in the Reduced Shakespeare Company...I've modified the teen girl class to be more Bible than random activity, despite the fact that the curriculum I've been using does the opposite. We were pretty good at making sure the 3rd and 4th grade class was mostly Bible...but this week!

Amanda used to be a really well-behaved kid, but the past few weeks, she's just been nuts. Yesterday, we had to ask her four times--in succession--to sit down and be quiet. I don't know what happened, because we used to have no trouble at all with her. It's possible that she's just getting to where she feels comfortable with us, so she doesn't think she needs to behave well. I also know that her family is going through some weird stuff right now; her parents are either divorced or in that process, and it's not going well for the kids. Maybe she's just going crazy in reaction to the craziness in her own life. When my parents were going through their separation and subsequent divorce, I know that my brother got pretty crazy. I was older and could just not be home as much, but he was stuck--he was about Amanda's age, too, come to think of it. Neither of us were getting much discipline at that time, either. I started hanging out with JC and his family, who have a pretty high standard of behavior. His mother had no more qualms about letting me know when she was "very disappointed in [me]" than if I were one of her own children. She was my discipline during that time. My brother, on the other hand, really enjoyed not having anyone tell him what to do. Maybe Amanda needs a little structure.

Or maybe she just has been shy with us until now. Maybe before, she wasn't being well-behaved, she was being frightened. Maybe she really doesn't know how one ought to behave during Sunday school, and was just behaving well by accident!

I'm concerned, too, that it will affect her relationships with the other kids. The boys already just roll their eyes when she starts to act up. Lachlan will giggle at first, but she definitely sees that this behavior is not conducive to a good Bible class, and after a while, she gets sick of it too. When the kids stop having friends at church, the families leave. I don't want to see that happen here. Amanda needs the church, maybe more than any of them.

After Sunday evening services, I talked with Leah, who is a mom of four (three boys, one girl), and who taught the third and fourth grade class before we took over. "I don't know what to do," I said. "I was hoping you might have some ideas." Leah was great--she always helps me see the world a little more clearly. She reminded me of some really basic things that I was forgetting--like, it's possible that Amanda doesn't know how to act. She also agreed with me that Amanda's mom has too much going on to be bothered about this unless it becomes a serious problem. Leah asked me if I thought Amanda was trying to anger me, or if she's just not good with the self control thing. That took me a minute--but I've seen other kids (David is a good example!) act up just to get me mad. Those kids I can handle--I don't get mad at them. Easy. They get bored. I can see in their eyes that that is what they are trying to do. Amanda isn't doing that. She seems to act from impulses that she doesn't understand. Her behavior is not malicious, it's just uncontrolled. Leah suggested making a poster with a few basic rules for our class and hanging it where the kids can see it. These wouldn't be new rules, they would just be the rules that one would expect would be understood. Things like--Don't interrupt other people. Stay in your seat unless your teacher asks you to get out of it. Ask for things nicely. Then we can remind her of the rules more directly.

I also think I'm going to bring in an egg timer and say, "This is a ten-minute activity." I'll warn them at two minutes, and at one. Maybe the very concrete time limit will be a help to the concentration.

The whole thing really is easier with more kids, too, maybe because they feel more like this is class and less like, it's hang-out time.

JC's older sister, Konni, told us that Amanda reminded her a lot of herself when she was that age, so when JC called his mom last night, he asked how Konni's teachers had handled her. Apparently, Konni was always pretty well-behaved at church; she had been brought up with a strong set of expectations for how one acts in church, and had internalized them by the time she was ten. Also, as JC pointed out, one of Konni's early Sunday school teachers was her grandmother--a lady who doesn't take any flack from anyone. Ever. She probably got a very good education in how one ought to behave at about five years old.

JC's mom also pointed out that we are rather young to be teaching this age group--people our age really should be teaching very little kids, or high school. The seven-to-twelve age range is the most challenging, in her experience. I imagine she's probably right. We might try switching to the very little kids at some point--they're cute as all get out, and they're young enough to still be impressed by the idea that they get to go to class, just like the big kids. At our church, the teen class switches teachers almost weekly, and the topic of discussion is set by the youth minister. I really like the relative autonomy we have teaching the 3rd and 4th graders, and I like seeing them every week, so that we don't have to get used to each other all over again. It's also (not surprisingingly!) really difficult to find teachers for this age group. And I've taught our teens before--they're not a whole lot better. Fewer discipline problems, maybe, but no more focus.

Kids this age are very vulnerable, too. It's a crucial age in terms of their development--we focus so much on baptism for kids who are closer to that age, but most studies show that if kids don't have a personal religious imperative by the time they are ten, they're unlikely to ever develop one. In my job, I've recently discovered that my passion and my calling must have something to do with serving children who are vulnerable, underserved, and ignored. I can't say a whole lot more about my job, due to a nondisclosure agreement I signed, but let's just say, I've been doing some development recently on a product that would help kids who are seriously struggling, and I've never loved my job more. I've never had that feeling of, "YES, this is what I need to be doing," more than I have while working on that project. My heroes, growing up, were Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, Raffi, and Jim Henson. Jim Henson was the first person whose death really affected me; I remember my parents telling me about that. I was seven. Not long ago, I was thinking about these heroes, and I realized that the thing they all have in common is that they used their amazing talents to serve children. Dr. Seuss was resposible for killing the Dick-and-Jane brainless readers that American children had suffered with for years--and it was a mercy killing if there ever was one. Disney practically invented children's entertainment. Raffi respected kids enough to give them some real music--music their parents wouldn't mind listening to. And Henson? Sesame Street now educates children in 120 countries around the world. In some of those countries, it's the only education those children will ever get.

I want to be like my heroes. This project at work is part of it, but so is teaching Sunday school, teaching a grade that no one really wants to teach. I can't say JC and I succeed every week, but we try every week, and surely that counts for something. If he decides to go teach the teens, that's ok. I can do this on my own--though I like having him with me! He seems to be called more and more lately to work with the teens, and that's great. I think he's going to volunteer to teach the boys on the nights when I teach the girls--see how he likes it... :) He thinks the 3rd and 4th graders are a piece of work...but he hasn't spent much time yet with the teen boys!

JC's mom is right. This is a rough age group to teach. But I've been prepared for this--when I worked for AmeriCorps, doing literacy education, I worked with this age group. Those kids make our Sunday school class look like angels. To get into this program, the kids had to be in one of several risk groups--LD, BD, ADHD, low-income, ESL. One of them actually put me in the hospital (it was an accident...but still...)! And yet, I felt like I was really making a difference. When I was there in the trenches, working with them every day, I thought I was getting nowhere. But when I came up for air, after the whole thing was over, I realized how much progress I had made. The kid who put me in the hospital came in with the lowest literacy skills I thought possible for a fifth-grader. He was literally on a first-grade level. He hated journal time, but I made him do it, just like everyone else. One day, I asked the kids to write about their pets, and he wrote about a dog that had died a few months before. After that, he loved journal time--and every day, he wrote something different about this dog! Other kids improved a whole grade level in only six weeks. I ran into one of them almost a year later at a grocery store, and she remembered me. It's little things, but this week, when both Amanda and Lachlan remembered from two weeks ago how many books of the Bible are named after women, and which ones those were...that felt neat. And Lachlan was really excited about getting the maps out this week, even though we didn't draw on them at all, we just used them to talk about Naomi's journey from Judah to Moab and back. That was really cool.

I never knew what Brandi was talking about when she said she received her call, until now. Some days (mostly Sunday afternoons), I wish it could have been something a little easier....

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Last Christian Generation: A brief review

Well, so it's not a very good book. I hate to say it that way, but that's the truth. It is stylistically very similar to many other Christian advice-ish books. The prose has the same jaunty feel, the anecdotes all seem to have happened in the same, vaguely unreal, middle-American neighborhood. Also, the copy editing is awful, and he keeps using "disciple" as a verb, meaning "to teach," as in, "I tried to disciple him in the true Law of Christ." Of course, a disciple is a learner, so if you wanted to make it a verb, maybe it should be a verb that means "to learn." Just saying.

Anyway, snarkiness aside, it's a pretty scary book. He gives a lot of statistics that support the notion that moral relativism is a big deal for teens. In one anecdote, he talks about asking a group of students why the Bible is true. None of them can answer. The next morning, one of them comes up to him and tells him that he's figured out why the Bible is true--"Because I believe in it."

The idea that something is true because you believe in it is pretty wonky, but apparently wide-spread.

Other wonky but wide-spread ideas: over half of the churched youth surveyed didn't believe that Jesus rose from the dead. It's one thing not to believe that if you're Jewish, but how can you be a practicing Christian without that one? Almost seventy percent don't believe that the Holy Spirit is a real entity. ???? These are kids who self-identify as Christians, not the general population.

Only about a third of kids who go to church for their whole lives will continue to go to church when they leave home. I think that's a high estimate, actually, based on the population at my college, but maybe I'm a pessimist.

He also gives some interesting numbers that show that there's basically no difference between the moral behavior of Christian and non-Christian teens--they were equally likely to have lied to a parent or cheated on a test in the past year. Part of his argument is that these kids aren't really Christians because they aren't acting any better than anyone else. I suppose that's true, in that "by their fruits you shall know them" kind of way, but I really wish that they had asked the kids if they had done that thing (lying, cheating) again. Part of Christianity is contrition, and a real effort to behave better in the same situation next time. It's not about being perfect--it's about trying.

I'm also curious how these numbers line up with our congregation. I might do a survey, based on the numbers he's got in this book, and find out.

The other thing was that I hoped McDowell would give some serious ideas about how to help kids understand active Christianity, and help them develop a personal and direct relationship with God. His response, basically, is that we need to tell them about God, and about Jesus and how He died for our sins. We need to tell them that God wants to have a relationship with them.


Everyone in youth ministry does that all the time. It's not really working. Any more ideas?

Why yes--the last ten pages or so are filled with advertisements for McDowell's other books, one of which might have some practical advice.

I shouldn't fault him, though, because I don't know the answer either. I'm not sure anyone does. We're each struggling along in our own little way--and what we're doing is not working. More and more kids are leaving the church. More and more kids think of Christianity like .. I don't know, Yahtzee, something you only do with your parents, and only when no one is watching. No real answers here.

As one little thumbs up, I did like the things he had to say about intergenerational ministry, bringing parents and older folk in to the kid's classes. We've talked about doing that with our 3rd and 4th grade students. It's a nice idea.

But I had already thought of that.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

100 hits

Wow. The ol' blog has reached 100 hits. That's cool. Who's reading anyway? And why? 100 hits and only a few comments (from one visitor. Hi Hannah! Are you visiting my blog a dozen times a day and driving my hit counter up?). Uhm. Not that I'm complaining. I'm really quite pleased that someone (anyone) is reading this at all. All those hits could, in fact, be from just my husband (Hi JC! How's it going over there, across the living room?).

I haven't updated much of late. We were visiting my mom last week, and so we didn't teach Sunday school then. Because of that, there hasn't been much to write. On Wednesday evening, I saw Ginny, who teaches them on Wednesdays and also subbed for us on Sunday. "You guys sure have your hands full on Sunday mornings, don't you?" she said. She was dead serious. I laughed, and told her that, yes, they could be a handful, but they're good kids, and we have fun. She just shook her head. Her comment made me wonder what the difference between Sunday morning and Wednesday evening is, exactly. JC suggested that the kids are tired from school on Wednesdays, and lack the energy to act crazy. That might be the case, but I think a different set of kids shows up on Wednesdays--a smaller group, and the ones whose parents think church is worth showing up on Wednesday nights.

An update on the long list of ideas I posted a few days ago: I mentioned the rally idea to JC. He asked me if I was out of my mind. "Can you imagine our class...times fifty...for the whole day?" I argued that no events for kids that age exist. He replied that there was probably a good reason for that. Hm. Good point. Also, the idea of doing a blog for them--probably not going to happen. I talked to one of the moms about it, and she said that her family doesn't have a computer at home. I don't want one kid to feel left out.

That book I've been talking about, The Last Christian Generation, finally came from Amazon. I'm going to start it tonight, and I'll post some thoughts about it when I get a chance. It's kind of funny, starting a blog with a title that responds to a book I haven't read yet...but, as most of my friends, relatives, and cohorts will tell you, that's the kind of thing I do.

One funny thing--parents just crack me up. I'm not a parent yet, so maybe I'll understand this when I have kids, but they freak out over their kids so much. No wonder kids are all a bit neurotic. Example: My friend Amy has two daughters. The older one just turned three, and for about eight months, she's insisted on wearing pink rubber boots a lot. She doesn't wear them all the time, but she wears them alot, and often with outfits that don't match the boots. She's not one of those kids who insists on wearing only the pink boots, but she definitely likes them. Around Christmas, she came to church in a red plaid dress, red stockings and...the boots! She actually got new ones for Christmas--I guess she was outgrowing the others. I told her (the daughter) that I liked those boots. When Amy overheard me, she started making excuses--the little girl had spent the night at a friend's house and they had forgotten to pack alternate footwear, etc. I'm an adult, and I'm not the kid's mother, so I know--as does everyone else on the planet--that three-year-olds just do that. They are experimenting with their style, and most of them will figure out what is an appropriate way to dress by the time they are six. They'll promptly forget it at sixteen, but that is neither here nor there. I don't think it reflects badly on Amy's parenting or on her daughter. I think it's cute. The kicker is, Amy thinks it's cute when other people's kids do that.

A few weeks ago, I was working in the nursery. The other woman who was in there with me has a son who is about a year and a half old, and he was in there too. Of all the kids in the nursery, he was the only one who got put in time out--though the other kids weren't being perfect angels. That might have something to do with one's discomfort in disciplining other people's children, I guess. Still.

And where this ties in to Sunday school is with Josh. More specifically, it's with Josh's mother. We've decided that we're going to do the class on bad language--what is or isn't ok to say, and, more importantly, why--but we feel like we should talk with all the parents first. So I started with Josh's mom. I like her, and anyway, Josh was not the problem in our class two weeks ago. I started by telling her, "You'll probably think this is funny..."
Her immediate response: "I bet I won't."
So I started telling her about this session we had, where the kids were laughing about bad words and how we felt we needed to do a class on how what comes out of our mouths is important. I really think she didn't hear half of what I said. She just kept saying, "Josh wasn't doing that, was he? Josh wasn't laughing at that, right?" I kept assuring her that no, Josh was fine. If anything, he was better than usual (and he's always good), because he was trying to ignore the other kids and work on his map. We just need to make sure she was ok with him having a class on this, because the other kids needed it, and Josh would be there. She just couldn't get away from the idea that we might think that she wasn't a good parent, or that Josh wasn't a good kid.

The same thing happens with us as teachers--we're always a little afraid how our message will get garbled when the parents ask what we talked about in Sunday school. I guess I can understand this anxiety in parents. It makes them awfully hard to talk to, though!! Even if I intend to praise their kids, the parents hardly seem able to believe it. Maybe they're used to teachers using that old tactic of starting with a positive comment, to soften the blow of a negative one. Every parent we've talked to has offered to discipline her child for his behavior in class--even when that is definitely not what we want to talk to the parent about. "If Josh was laughing about that stuff, I need to know, because he'll be in trouble," his mother said.
"No," I insisted. "Josh was fine. Seriously. He was really good. He just rolled his eyes and ignored them."
"Well, that sounds like him," she said, but I don't think she was convinced.

I'm a bit concerned about what I'm going to say to the parents whose kids were instigating that rather annoying

Tomorrow: Ruth. That will be good--the girls like stories about women, and there are rather few in the Bible over all. Ruth is an odd story, though. Why doesn't anyone ever question the bit about her curling up at Boaz's feet in his bed? It sounds like the kind of thing a lot of people in the church might find questionable.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Anne Robertson (if you're not listening to her podcasts, you should be) says in one of her sermons that there's a big difference between knowing all about someone--his likes and dislikes, his social security number, the make and model of his car--and knowing him, the way his wife does, the way his best friend does, the way his father does. You can know all the facts, but still not know someone. It's like that with God.

JC told me that, when he was a kid, he knew the Bible inside and out. He seriously had God's dossier. It wasn't until later that he started to deal with the relationship side, the less tangible side, of his Christian walk. I'm much the same way. So are a lot of my friends in the church. Even knowing that my own intellectual cynicism is a stumbling block, I still fall over it all the time. These nice bright brains that God gave us can get in the way!

The kids in our class don't really know that much about God. They don't know the Bible well at all. I would say, though, that they have a strong sense of faith. Not knowing the Bible is not keeping them from knowing God. I used to think that wasn't possible, but I've met too many people whose relationship with God is the kind I would aspire to. Alot of them can't quote the Bible, don't know the stories, haven't even read all of it.

The dossier is what keeps you in touch when the relationship is in a low point. This happens in all relationships. It happens to most people in their relationship with God. At least, I suppose it does. If not, my friends and I are in a poor state, where our Christianity is concerned. The relationship, though-- that love and warmth and interaction--is what keeps you reaching out.

I would argue that we need the dossier and the real knowledge. I don't even think one is worth more than the other. I just think that they are each incomplete, individually.

And what does this have to do with Sunday school? Glad you asked. The Sunday school curricula I've looked at so far (which is by no means comprehensive) works on neither of these things. What these curricula are designed to do is to get kids to say they have a great relationship with Jesus. They aren't very good at the dossier part (actual Bible knowledge). They also fail in helping kids develop real faith. They don't ask any hard questions. Some questions can't be answered by "talking church." Those are the really good questions. We need more of those in Sunday school--specifically in our Sunday school. We've been slacking in the tough questions department. But then, we're not a company taking millions of dollars annually for providing educational materials to churches. We've got some leeway there.

No Sunday School today, but tons of ideas

JC and I were visiting with my mom this weekend, so we asked Ginny, the kids' Wednesday-night teacher to take over for us. I think she just expanded the Wednesday lesson (packaged curriculum) for either the week before or the week after. That is one major problem with teaching Sunday school--our families live four hours away. We can't go see them without getting a sub for our class. We might take the summer quarter off, because we really missed our families this past several months. At Christmas, I realized I hadn't been to my dad's house in a year, and hadn't seen him since July. We call each other alot, so I was surprised it had been so long, but still. JC hadn't seen his grandparents since our wedding in May. We hadn't been to his parents' house or my mom's house since May, though we had spent time with both of them in other places.

It's one of those things--I feel guilty for not seeing my family, and I feel guilty for not teaching. Sigh. You can't win 'em all.

We' ve started to talk about a few ideas, though, ones that could help our kids feel more like they are part of the church. Earth Day falls on a Sunday this year, and we've been talking about doing a creation care devo that afternoon, maybe having the kids design it. They could choose verses and hymns, lead prayers, and maybe give a short lesson. We could invite the congregation--not just the kids, but everyone. JC and I were joking that this might be a tough assignment for our kids because they don't know any hymns (did I mention that they refuse to sing?), but, as Bethany pointed out, they'd have to learn some for this project. Who knows, maybe being somewhat in charge would make them eager to learn.

We're also thinking about asking if they would like to do a Bible bowl in Parkersburg, WV, this fall. JC's mom is the secretary at Camden Avenue Church of Christ, where they do a pretty serious Bible bowl for elementary through high school students. I'm kind of concerned about this idea. I'm not personally into learning for competition's sake, but JC says that it was a major motivator for Bible study among his friends when he was in elementary school. Maybe a Bible bowl would form good habits in our students, as it did in JC and his friends. I'm also scared that they would be thoroughly womped. They're good kids, and smart, but they aren't great at applying themselves. Maybe they lack the right motivator; maybe they generally lack motivation.

Another idea I've been thinking about is to do a rally with them--similar to the teen rallies our church sponsors. It would just be a one-day thing, not an overnight thing, and only for 3rd through 5th graders. Our church really doesn't do much for this age group at all, and I would like to change that.

More and more churches are using the internet to connect with teens. We could easily set up a blog for our class, where we could post things that were relevant to what we had studied the previous Sunday or would study the next Sunday. We could even post our classnotes--sometimes I worry about what the kids tell their parents about our class. They could see exactly what we're trying to do. We could link to it from the church's website--maybe potential members would be interested in bizarro Sunday school.

I'm becoming unbelievably -- to me, and also to my friends and family -- passionate about this Sunday school. I think about it alot, and write and talk about it more than I should. I'm probably destined to be one of those annoying parents who insists on telling people every cute thing her kids do.

This evening, church was cancelled because of the snow (it was only about 1/2 an inch, but no one knew this morning how bad (or not) it was going to be). Not going to church at all on a Sunday felt weird, particularly since we missed Wednesday because JC was really sick. I asked JC if we could do Communion this evening anyway--we had grape juice and matzoh, and after all, we Church of Christ folk are much less concerned about the building than about people being gathered together to worship--even if it's just the two of us.

JC thought that was a good idea, and so we prayed together and took communion with the big matzoh and a tumbler of grape juice. The whole time, I kept thinking about how blessed I am that I can share this with him--I was always afraid we'd never be that married couple who truly have God at the center of their relationship. We were both always so private about our faith. Now, not even eight months later, we have that, and it's better than I ever imagined. I also would never, never before have been able to talk in a public forum like this about my faith. Sharing my relationship with God with my husband has given me a lot of courage I never expected I would have.

On JC's twenty-fifth birthday, a few weeks ago, after I had teased him about being an old fart (he's a year older than I am), I told him that I had always been in love with the man I could see him growing into. We've been friends since I was thirteen, and I think that's really always been a big part of what I was in love with--I could see where he was going, even when he was only a ninth-grader, insecure and showing off to hide it. Now, he's mostly there, mostly what I saw in him when he was so young--and I'm still in love with where he's going.

This blog is supposed to be about our Sunday school, and I'm getting there. The point is, I'm also in love with that potential in our students. I see them, at nine and ten, as even further from their grown-up selves than my JC was when we were in high school. I see the way they still can change direction or shift focus. I see the impact, positive and negative, that the world has on them. Mostly, I see their unbelievable potential--their intelligence, their humor, their devotion to their faith. I want them to realize the power they have. I want them to be, truly, the next Christian generation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

USA: 2075

I've been saying for a long time that I want Josh McDowell to be wrong. His book The Last Christian Generation has as its premise that Christian education is failing, and if we're not careful, there won't be any Christians at all left in the US. (disclaimer: this is just back-of-the-book-jacket info; I've only just ordered my copy from Amazon, as the library here won't ILL it for me... Anyway, I could be wrong in my understanding of his point, but this is how his people are pitching it).

I've said many times that I simply cannot let that happen. The idea is kind of scary. What's even scarier, though--and, in my opinion, equally likely--is a world, or even a nation, where no one believes in much of anything. While I'm partial to Christianity, as religions go, I'm not blind to the powerful societal impact of people who have strong, demanding faith. I'm not talking about people who are "culturally" Jewish, or ex-Catholics who go to church only for funerals. The people I am thinking of are those whose faith shapes every moment of their lives. Those are people without whom a society can't exist for long. People who believe in something only when they need comfort or ceremony are not people of faith. People who believe in something, even when that believe is decidedly inconvenient, are.

I work for a technology company that was founded by Mennonites (yes, I know that sounds weird, and no, we don't have a hitching post in the parking lot). When I first started working there, about a year and a half ago, the founding family still owned the company. Most of the people who worked there were Mennonites, to the extent that people assumed I was one, simply because I worked there. One of the first things I fell in love with about that company was the overwhelming devotion to a life of faith, practiced by almost everyone. I worked with people who were not just Christians, but who were exemplary Christians, the kind of Christian I wanted to be. Going to work and spending time with these Christians was inspirational.

Many of my co-workers were not Mennonite. Some were Jewish, some were Ba'hai, some were Hindu. The wonderful people at my office were not all Christian, but they were people of deep and abiding faith, people whose love and faith guided them.

One day, in a break from a long meeting, one of my Jewish coworkers asked some of us to listen to the talk he was going to give at his synagogue for Yom Kippur. He talked about the story of Jonah, and how when he decides to stop running, the word used means essentially, "returned to himself." It was beautiful, and afterward a number of the Christians in the room talked with him about the prodigal son, who "returns to himself," as well. I'm sure if any of us thought about it, our Jewish friend probably, in a theological sense, must regard us as heretics, while we Christians have to feel that he's missing something major--but that's not what was going on in that room, only loving diaogue.

In the intervening year and a half, the company has grown, hiring almost one person per day in 2006. There's a lot of money flowing through the place, the original family sold the business to some venture capitalists, and every few weeks, we have to reshuffle our desks to make room for new hires. Being part of a business that is growing too fast and making too much money is exciting--but it can also be frustrating and disappointing. Many of my friends from those earlier days, the ones whose faith I admired so greatly, are still around. They're just diluted in a sea of people--who are good people, who are smart and hardworking and loving and funny--who don't believe in much of anything. If they are members of one religion or another, it's not something they share with anyone else. They do their jobs quite well--as co-workers, I can find very little fault with them. However, there is a certain quality that they lack, and I'm convinced that it's a quality that people of deep faith have.

Working with people whose faith is practically non-existant is disorienting. Recently I discovered that someone who has been acting weird around me for months was convinced that I was still mad at her for something that happened in July. I had forgotten about it entirely. My co-worker, though, lacked any serious understanding of forgiveness; she simply couldn't imagine that I had forgiven her so thoroughly that I had not even thought about the incident in months.

Most religions have a mandate that says that we should be good to each other, even when we don't feel like it (Christianity goes that little bit further and says that we should even be good to each other inside our own minds, which is rough). People who live this way are just easier to be around, and they inspire this kind of behavior in others. I'm ashamed to admit that, with those faithful people making up a smaller and smaller percentage of my colleagues, I'm doing less and less well being a loving Christian at work. I'm working on that, I'm aware of it. I'm just not sure I'm getting anywhere.

This is what I am afraid of for the future: a country where no one believes in much of anything, except the cult of Apple. I have experienced for myself what it is like to live in the kind of world that Jesus had in mind for us. It's really good. I want my children to have that. At the present rate, though, I half-way agree with Josh McDowell. He doesn't go far enough. It's not Christianity that's at stake. It's the underpinnings of a good and decent society.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Preparing for baptism

Last night, JC and I had an interesting conversation about one of the things that we're trying to do with our Sunday school kids, which is to prepare them to become adult members of our Christian community. In our church, we practice adult baptism, but that "adult" is pretty liberally interpretted. I've seen children as young as six get baptized; the normal age is between twelve and fifteen. I was eighteen, but wasn't raised in the church, so no one thought anything of that. A friend who was raised in the church, but who chose to wait until she was eighteen or nineteen caught a lot of flack from other members of the congregation. JC was twelve, the early end of normal.

We were talking about how, in the next Sunday school class up from ours, Ms. Cathy begins talking really intensely with the kids (5th and 6th graders) about baptism. I think that's great, but I also think that it's not enough to explain the necessity of baptism to them. They also need to have some internal understanding of the nature of sin.

In my teen girl class, even, I'm not sure there's much understanding of sin, as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. The girls all seem to think that they're good people, so why should they be concerned about sin? They definitely are good people, as are the younger children we teach, and most of the people at our church. There's a lot of sweetness and kindness in the air. Still, sin is about being human. Sin is about the dark, awful questions in the recesses of one's own mind. Surely everyone has those. Surely, I'm not the only sinner in my church. And if I am, what am I doing shaping young minds?

A few years ago, I attended a youth rally at our church. We had guests from elsewhere, and the guest preacher, Michael, was amazing. On the last day, he gave a long talk about sin that ended with, "Anyone here who's sinned in the past week, stand up!" So I did. So did about six other people. This was in a room full of seventy teenagers. Then Michael asked each of the people who stood to confess the sin that they were thinking about, before the group. This was not at all what I had expected. I honestly believed that everyone would stand, because all have sinned. Right?

The next day at church, several of our elders and deacons approached me, saying that they had heard that I had "come forward" at the youth rally, and offering their prayers. I thanked them, of course, but I was also a bit embarrassed. I explained the context of the situation to Mike, one of our elders. "Yes," he smiled, "We have the cleanest bunch of teenagers on God's green earth. Uhm. I would ask you to sit with us, but we can't have any sinners in our row." Since he had a sense of humor about it, I was able to as well, but I still was bothered.

JC told me that when he experienced serious sin for the first time--in thought, not word or deed--he felt that he was broken. He was baptized a Christian. He shouldn't feel these things, not ever. Right? Someone had failed to explain to him that Christians sin all the time, it's just that our repentance and Christ's sacrifice mean that we don't die with those sins on our heads. It shook his world up, to realize the kind of sin he--and every other person ever--was capable of. I had a similar experience, though it was before I was baptized. I was blessed in that I really knew what my baptism was giving me, because I also knew the sins I was capable of.

I want to give that understanding to the kids in our class. I want them to comprehend that, just because you've never killed anyone, that doesn't mean you're not a sinner. This isn't a punative impulse in me. It's a desire for them to go to their baptisms with a real understanding of what it means that "Jesus died for my sins"--a phrase all of them can rattle off, but none of them understand at all. Baptism is a gift, and without understanding, it's an empty one, or one with an unpleasant awakening lurking at the other end of it.

JC feels that people don't confront that kind of awareness of what sin is, exactly, until their late teens, at the earliest. I think he's probably right, but just as most experts agree that it's never too early to start talking with your kids about sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, it's probably also never too early to start preparing them for the fact that they will, one day, discover that they are as sinful as anyone else. Maybe if they're prepared, it won't leave them gasping and helpless, as it did to me, and to my husband.

I don't even know what to say to prepare them.

Lesson 16: Dividing the Promised Land

Yesterday, in our class, we got out all the maps and added a piece of tracing paper to each one. Amanda and Lachlan are newer editions to our class, so we had to start new maps for them. The boys (David and Joshua) knew the drill, but we had to explain it all to the girls from scratch. "Why are we writing on tracing paper instead of on our maps?" they all asked. We explained that it was so they could have a lot of different information about the same area, and they could see how things fit together. "Like, on this map of where Abraham went, if we overlay it with Jacob's travels, we see that they lived in the same places sometimes, and that this city's name changed," JC showed her.

We showed them how to put all twelve tribes on their maps (writing so small is tough for nine-year-olds!), along with a few of the surrounding peoples (Philistines, Moabites, etc.). We also added to our family tree. "Does anyone remember the name of the woman who rescued Joshua's spies?" I asked, as they were all clamoring to be the person who would write the next name. None of them remembered, despite the fact that we had studied Rahab only the week before. Lachlan and Joshua both ran for their Bibles when we told them that they could look it up if they wanted to. They both at least remembered the book that we had been studying last week, and JC gave them a hint, saying that the story was pretty early in the book. Lachlan found the name, and so she got to add it to the family tree.

That's really all we did in our class this week. We had planned to go into the story of Ruth, but the map and family tree updates took us longer than I had expected. That's ok, we'll catch Ruth next time around.

We've taken to quizzing the kids about random Bible things, some of which they would know if they had paid attention in previous classes, and others they would know if they had paid attention in church or their previous years of Sunday school. This week, it was, "How many books of the Bible are named after women?" The guesses were wild, and when they finally settled on two, I asked them to name them. Ruth was easy, as we had just written her name on the family tree. Esther was harder for them to come up with. Lachlan was the one who got it. Of all the kids, she's the one who knows the Bible best; she's also the least likely to volunteer an answer.

It was a pretty odd Sunday for us, in that they were a hyper bunch. Usually they're pretty zombified. Yesterday, Amanda was in a hyper mood and being pretty loud, and the other kids just picked it up. The room has no carpet, and it's awfully echoey, so when only one kid is being loud, it sounds like there are five loud kids in there with us. That loudness only escalates, because the kids who aren't being loud initially feel like they need to compete, and before long, my ears are ringing. I need to come up with some activity that I can pull out when they're being like that, something that will just chill everyone out a notch. I don't know anything like that, though. I tried to get them to pray with us. Amanda asked if we could do the kind of prayer where you go around the circle and each person prays for something, and I said that would be fine. "What if you don't want to pray?" David said.
"Just tap the next person on the shoulder, gently," I said. So we started the prayer, and when it got to David, he shouted, "SKIP!" just as you would shout "FORE!" on a golf course. Of course, lots of giggles. Joshua was the only kid left to pray after him, and he did his best, but it was difficult to focus with all the giggles. Maybe prayer, with its inherent solemnity, is not the best thing to try at those times. Also, I hate the idea of using religion as a tool to make children behave, which I guess is what asking them to pray so that we could get a bit of quieter time is.

In addition to being hyper, they were all obsessed with "bad words" this week, for some reason. JC was telling them the tribes and where to put them on the map (utterly failed Bible trivia quesiton of the week: "How many sons did Jacob have?"), and when he read out, "Dan," Amanda said, "Awwwwww, you said a bad word!" So JC wrote it on the board. Then he went on to elaborate that "dam" is ok, it's a word for an object that holds back water, like the Hoover Dam. And then he shared that, when used in context, "damn" is not a bad word either, as in, "In the day of Judgement, some will be saved and some will be damned." Let's just say, they weren't exactly following this argument.

We moved on, from South to North, filling in the tribes and talking a little about them. Then we got to "Manasseh." Yeah, you saw that one coming. Amanda said, "There's a bad word in that, see?" and she got up and underlined the relevant letters where I had written them on the board. JC was, I think, getting kind of annoyed by this point, and tried again to explain that it's more about context than the words themselves.

JC wants us to do a class on what "bad words" are, the reasons, both societal and Biblical, that they are considered "bad," and the reason that you could read in your Bible about Samson killing a bunch of people with the jawbone of an ass, and that's ok. I think he's right, that these kids should understand this stuff, rather than just the transgressive power of "bad words." That said, this comes down again to what we can or cannot say to other people's children. The kids only hear about forty percent of what we tell them, and I'm always concerned about them reporting our comments to their parents without context. When we did our lesson about clean and unclean foods, I'm sure that none of them were paying attention by the time we got to the part about how this legalism is not relevant to Christianity. I had strange visions of them telling their mothers that they were all going to Hell because they had eaten bacon with their pancakes that morning. No irate mothers called me, so I guess that turned out alright. If we were going to do such a class, we would need to talk with all of the parents first, and explain what we were planning.

Le sigh. Fourth graders are weird. However, despite their hyper and giggly energy, I think they got what we were talking about in class and followed along well, so I would actually call this a pretty good class.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Lesson 15: And the Walls Come A-Crumblin' Down

Today, our class went really well. The kids seemed a bit tired, but they were well-behaved, in that they participated in the class discussion, read when asked to, and didn't just stand up and wander around the room. I guess JC was right about the weird holiday energy being part of the issue the past few weeks. We decided to do the Book of Joshua, in one session. It's a pretty basic story, especially if you skip the nineteen repetitions of the land allocations (which we're going to do with maps next week anyway, before we get into Ruth).

We began the lesson by doing a clapping game. JC clapped a rhythm, and the rest of us clapped it back to him. After a few rounds of that, when everyone seemed to be following along pretty well, he asked Joshua to lead. Joshua was really bashful at first. "I can't think of anything!" he groaned. When he finally clapped a little rhythm for us, it was a bit fast, and the other kids weren't really ready, so no one got it right. "Do you want to do another one?" I asked him. Again, the bashful face, the creeping down in his chair. "It's hard to be the leader all of a sudden, isn't it?" He nodded. "That's how Joshua in the Bible felt, when Moses died and he had to lead the children of Israel."

We talked about Joshua's miraculously dry Jordan crossing, and told the story about Rahab, which none of them had heard (I guess little kids' classes avoid words like "harlot"). Lachlan and Amanda seemed relieved that there was finally a story about a woman--it's been a while since we've discussed any of the Bible's heroines. The kids' eyes grew wide when we explained exactly what it meant to live in a walled city. I think they must have previously imagined garden walls or something. When they learned that these were walls so big that Rahab lived in them, they could hardly believe it.

"And Joshua knocked those big walls down?" Lachlan asked.
"With God's help," JC said.

We didn't discuss the things adult classes often do, as far as Rahab was concerned. We left alone the question of whether she was a prostitute or an innkeeper, and none of them read carefully enough to ask us what a prostitute is, assuming they didn't know--thank God for that, as I didn't feel like explaining. We also didn't talk about how Rahab lied, which is the big moral dilemma in adult classes. Instead, we talked about how she was clever, how she had tricked the spies' persuers. We also pointed out the amazing power of God, even at this early point in the story. Rahab told the spies that everyone in town was freaked out because God was getting a reputation. Also, God lead them to the one person in town who would hide them, give them the information they needed, and help them escape.

The kids knew the rest of the story, where the walls actually fall down. It's been made into a Veggie Tales episode, after all.

I did totally blow their minds with the whole Joshua=Yeshua=Jesus thing, though. It's tough to explain, how "Jesus" is the English pronunciation of the Latin translation of our Savior's Hebrew name. Once they got that, JC added that Joshua of the Old Testament actually had another name. "'Hoshea' was what his parents named him. It means 'salvation.' Moses gave him a different name, 'Yeshua,' which means, 'the LORD saves,' which is why Jesus has that name." Joshua (our student) whined, "I don't want three names!" We told him that was okay, because he just had one, the one his parents gave him.

After the name discussion, there was sort of a slow denoument, which I can't spell. We would have started with the maps, as we had that kind of time at the end of class, but some of our students are newer, and I had forgotten that they didn't have maps started already. We need to make copies for them before next week. Instead, we talked with the kids for a while. We told them about how we thought that the Book of Joshua would make a great video game--lots of action--and then we actually found a (very old, for the original NES) video game of it. They all thought that was really funny.

Amanda said, apropos of nothing, "How was the earth made? I asked my teacher at school, and he didn't know." The bell rang right then, so JC told her we would talk about it next time.
We told them we would put together a question box, so they could ask things as they thought of them, and we would try to address all their questions. They also seemed to like that idea. All in all, a very sucessful class period.

Saturday, January 6, 2007


I just wanted to make a list of the things I think make teaching Sunday school difficult. Maybe if I lay them all out here, I can come up with ways to dig around them.

  1. Inconsistent attendance. It's hard to string together a narrative, or create a lesson you think will really speak to one specific kid (see also, Ali and the Joseph story) when you have no idea how many kids will be there, and which ones they will be, on a given Sunday.
  2. Church is a chore. It raises my hackles to see parents who come to church because they feel like they have to. They don't sing, they look at their watches alot, and they bring their children candy with noisy wrappers. When my brother-in-law was a kid, so he says, he used to groan when his parents woke him up on Sundays: "Do I have to go to church?" "No!" his dad would say. "You get to go!" I'd like to see more of that.
  3. Video games. Seriously, a lot of my students never read when they don't have to. This is a trait which, in ordinary human beings, always makes me suspect that a person is not a very interesting individual. In my students, it just complicates things, because they can read a passage, or hear something read, and not have any comprehension at all of what it might mean. I blame cable TV, video games, and those stupid DVD players in minivans (I know, everyone says that when I'm a parent, I'll want one of those. I'll believe that when I see it.) for their combined lack of literacy and attention span.
  4. Dearth of materials. See previous post.
  5. Complications involving what, exactly, one can say to someone else's kids, especially as regards sex (so, what was Potiphar's wife up to? Oh, and we're teaching Rahab this week too.), discipline (yeah? Well you're not my mom! Good point, kid.), and God (how much can I challenge their faith?).
I'm sure there are more, but I'm low on steam. I really wish we could get them to sing. The Churches of Christ used to have such a strong vocal music tradition--like the Mennonites do now. Some churches have maintained it, and many individuals in the Church have. It's a good tradition. Singing together binds us as community. None of these kids are interested. It's just for little kids, they think. Wait until they go to their first youth rally--nothing at all but singing for hours and hours. Maybe they'll change their minds then.

Curriculum Review

After working with my husband to develop our curriculum for the next few weeks (Judges through Samuel), I began to think, what if there really is some half-way decent curriculum out there that JC and I aren't aware of? Anne Robertson, whose "Spirit Walker" podcasts absolutely changed my feelings about "Godcasting" (though I still cringe at the term), emailed to tell me that one of her previous churches had a curriculum that was the best she'd seen--immersive, interactive, and engaging. The kids loved it.

I've decided to conduct a review of various Sunday School curricula. As I stated earlier, I'm really NOT a fan of Twenty-First-Century Christian, which my church uses. It's dry and uninteresting, not to mention there's basically no logical progression from one lesson to the next.
Can anyone out there tell me what curriculum your church uses/used? I didn't go through Sunday School at all, not having been raised a Christian, so I don't even know the names of any other ones.

Also, it's important to keep in mind the exact age that I'm trying to look at here. I'd say it's probably ages 8 through 12, give or take. Too old for little-kid stuff, not yet old enough for teen issues. Some of the online curricula I've seen are great for preschool through first- or even second-grade, but when I imagine trying to do them with my bigger kids, I shudder. They are at this weird age where they won't even sing. I don't mean VBS little-kid songs ("Father Abraham," "I'm in the Lord's Army," "God Is Bigger Than the Boogie Man"). A few weeks ago, JC and I tried to teach them a hymn, a grown-up real hymn that they have heard nine hundred times. We wanted them to be able to participate in the church service like grown-ups. We thought it would help them be less bored. Every single one of them refused. Is it some kind of developmental thing? Do pre-adolescents just not sing? I sang all the time at that age, but I was in choir. These kids aren't.

Here's what the ideal Bible curriculum would have, in my book:

  • Something hands on for every lesson. This doesn't necessarily entail a craft (and if there were a craft, it would have to be REALLY tied to the lesson, not like making Bible verses out of macaroni or something). Kids need to move around a bit. They like getting their hands dirty. They like doing.
  • A logical flow from one lesson to the next. Our invented curriculum happens to have a chronological flow, governed by our family tree and the beautiful timeline book that Pat lent us. My ideal curriculum does not necessarily have to have this specific kind of flow, but every lesson must have some logical build on the lesson before.
  • None of the following: crosswords, word finds, coloring pages, mazes. These belong on Denny's kids' menus, not my Sunday school lesson plan.
  • A sincere effort to teach the kids things they might not know. Our students were surprised to learn that Enoch didn't exactly die. Tomorrow we're going to blow their minds by telling them that Joshua (who knocked down Jericho and led God's people to the Promised Land) had the same name as Jesus (who also broke down some barriers and led another iteration of God's people to another sort of Promised Land). Sidebars that explain this kind of thing would be really good. Fun facts, strange vocabulary that they have in even the most mundane translations, any of that would help.
  • A joy in the fact that the Bible is a very weird document. My ideal Bible curriculum wouldn't avoid the weird stories, the parts we can't really explain or synthesize. It's all there for a reason. Should we cover, in explicit detail, the Song of Songs with our ten-year-old charges? Uhm. No. But so help me, what kid wouldn't get a kick out of the story of Eglon (king so fat that his assassin couldn't retrieve his sword)? We need to just chill out. The Bible isn't so proper as all that. It's human. I get terribly annoyed when Sunday schools only tell the "nice" stories, because there are only about fifteen of them, and the kids get bored with hearing them over and over.
  • NO preprinted Bible verses. Let the kids look them up for themselves. How else will they learn where things are?
  • LOTS of maps, timelines, visual explainations. LOTS of illustration--not campy junk illustration, but quality stuff. Example: an architectural rendering (guesswork, but educated guesswork) of Solomon's temple. Preferably accompanied by maps showing where the materials would have come from.
Let's see if that's out there, shall we?

Monday, January 1, 2007

Doesn't this matter?

Just a quick post, because I've spent way more time than I like messing around on the internet, but I have to ask--why isn't anyone talking about this?

I've spent the past hour trying to find one--one--other blog dedicated to children's relgious education. I have failed. I've looked at homeschooling moms' blogs--nothing. Tons of blogs on teen ministry. Pages and pages and pages about adult religious education. Nothing, nothing, nothing about teaching children between the ages of six and twelve.

I'm not an expert. I don't have any kids. I like kids, I like the kids I teach, but I've never raised anything more complicated than a cat. I don't like to tell parents their business, because they have every right to tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about.

So why am I, a twenty-three-year-old newlywed, the only person on the internet trying to deal with this question? It doesn't make any sense to me. Everyone is upset about children turning away from God and all the corrupting influence of the world. We're trying (unsuccessfully) to address that in the teen years--when it's really too late.

My friend Cari, who is a librarian, told me that there really aren't any new books coming out on the subject of religious education as a whole concept--not counting Sunday School curricula, which, as far as I can tell, has been recycling the same material for fifty years, in addition to cribbing from Highlights.

I started this blog in the hope that someone would answer me and say, "Here's the book you need to read, to know how to teach your Sunday school in a way that will help the lessons shape the children's relationship with God."

That hasn't happened, and from what I've seen of the dismal blogosphere, I can't imagine that it's going to.

Lesson 14: One God, Three Persons

As I may have said last time, our students were a bit confused about Jesus' existance as a person, as opposed to his existance as a deity. A little further questioning showed that they had practically never heard of the Holy Spirit. I guess that's what you miss, not coming from a church with a strong liturgy--in a church where you say, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," at least once in each service, you'd eventually ask what that meant, wouldn't you? In the Churches of Christ, however, we talk mostly about God the Father and Jesus. The Holy Spirit gets short shrift.

First of all, teaching about "the Trinity" is complicated by the fact that it's a later concept, a later way of talking about something that appears throughout the Bible. The word "trinity" doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible.

But, of course, we tried. Fools that we are...And I think the kids kind of got it. We started by writing a wordmap on the whiteboard. We put "God" in the middle, and, as satellites, wrote "The Father," "Holy Spirit," and "The Son (Jesus)." Then we asked the kids to go up to the board and write things that we think of each aspect as doing. Under "The Father," they wrote, "Created the world. Created the Law. Sent punishment (plagues, floods)." Under "The Son," they wrote, "Was Crucified. Did miracles. Washes away our sins." JC added to their list, "was born," and I added, "human." We also talked to them about how the Apostles performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit. David said, "I wish I could do that." We had to explain that the Holy Spirit is still with us today, but does not act in the same kinds of ways. "The Holy Spirit is still our guide and our teacher," we told him. "He gives us inspiration. You know how sometimes you need to talk to someone and you suddenly know exactly what to say? That's the Holy Spirit at work in you."

Then we asked them if they could think of anything else that exists in three different states, but is still the same thing. They couldn't. I erased our white board and wrote a new wordmap. I put "H2O" in the center, and asked them to give me the forms of water, which I wrote as satellites. "Is liquid water ice?" I asked them. They shook their heads. "Is steam ice?" Again, no. "Ok, but they're still all forms of water, right?" They nodded. "The Trinity is like that. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all different, but they are made out of the same substance."

We had brought our new waffle iron into class, and it was heating up in a corner. We drew them over to it. I got some water from the sink and said, "What's in my hand?"
"Water," they said.
I sprinkled it on the waffle iron. "What is it now?"
"Steam," they said.
JC put an ice cube on the waffle iron. As it melted, we could see all three distinct forms of water present. We asked Lachlin to read Matthew 3:13-17, where Jesus is baptized. "How many forms, or persons, of God are present in that passage?"
Lachlin though for a minute. "Two."
"Ok, which ones?"
"Jesus, and the dove."
"Who's the voice?"
"Oh. God. The Father."

I think they got it, really. That's cool. It's a difficult thing for even adults to understand. Next week, we're getting back into our study of the Old Testament, starting with Joshua. I hope kids like learning about the people they're named after, as we have a Joshua and a David in our class.

I also hope that the end of the holidays will bring some normalcy to our class. The energy in there, since the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when everyone was suddenly talking about Santa Claus, has been just weird. They're all coming in tired, fidgety, and distracted. If they aren't better next week, JC and I have agreed that we're going to take them aside and tell them why we expect more of them. Example: "You're the oldest one in class, everyone looks to you." Or "You used to be the best student, what's up?" That latter could apply to any of them. They each have had times when they were definitely the best kid in there.