Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Lesson 20: Saul Can't Get It Right (but David (our student) can!)

Sunday morning, we had a lesson on the myriad ways Saul screwed up. The funny thing is that, as kings go, Saul was not an especially bad one. In all the ways by which the world judges, Saul did ok. He vanquished his enemies, he took foreign kings prisoner, and he doesn't seem to have been any crueler than anyone else put in a position of such power. The trouble with Saul is that, as Tanner (Joshua's cousin, a visitor last week) put it, "Saul had half a heart for God." Saul was alright in the eyes of men, but by God's standard, he totally messed everything up. He seems almost too eager--he tries to go beyond what God tells him to do. God, speaking through Samuel, says to wait for Samuel's arrival before performing a sacrifice. Saul gets excited and he gets ahead of himself. He can't wait. Later, God tells him to kill all the Amelikites. Saul tries to go beyond that command, by enriching his people with livestock and bringing himself glory by capturing a king.

For our class, we printed pages that had seven-verse sections--the commands that God made to Saul and how Saul disobeyed them. We left half of the page empty and put some space between the verses. Unfortunately, the girls were not present, and Tanner, being only in kindergarten, didn't seem able to do the activity on his own. So, we only did two -- we gave each of the boys one. We asked them to paraphrase, one verse at a time, retelling the story in their own words.

We had tried this before, and were surprised to learn that the kids had completely no idea how to handle this kind of assignment. This time, we each did a paraphrase on our own of another piece of text that we had studied as a class. We highlighted and underlined, to show the kids how we thought as we worked--this word is important, this phrase is confusing--and then we wrote our own paraphrases to one side. We tried to emphasize to them that our paraphrases were *different*--there's not a right answer, it's just what you think the text is saying.

Joshua complained that he didn't understand what to do, but JC worked with him directly and told me later that, although Josh claimed to be lost, he wrote a great paraphrase. David kept saying he didn't understand, so I worked with him. "What don't you understand?" I asked.

He shrugged.

"Can you tell me which words are giving you trouble?" He pointed to "anxious" and "ceased." I defined the words for him. "Now do you understand?" He shook his head again. I asked him to read the verse out loud, and he did. Then I covered it with my hand and asked him what it said. He shrugged again. "You just read it--so tell me what you remember." He finally did--and he wasn't far off. He had missed a few points, but they weren't terribly important ones. "Ok," I said, "So write that." He did. We moved on to the next verse.

And the next. JC caught my attention and signed, "How's he doing?"
"Okay," I signed back. We both worry about David--he's the middle kid of five boys and his dad just joined the military. He's been a lot less friendly since his dad went to basic, and who can blame him? I told my husband the exact truth, though. He was doing okay, and no better--but no worse. Getting him to do it was like yanking a frozen car door--I knew his mind could open to it, but it didn't want to.

After we had done three verses (out of, I reiterate, seven), he said, "I'm done."

"But you have four more verses that you haven't even read yet. What if there's something important in there?"

He shrugged again.

We were almost done with class, so I helped him by pointing out that the last verse in the selection (where Samuel says, "Wait until I get there to do the sacrifice!") was very important. He paraphrased that verse too. I looked at what he had written. It was not a shabby paraphrase. He had worked really hard. He probably worked harder on that than he had on anything else in our class. He had told me earlier that he was going to write a letter to his dad this week. "You should send this with your letter to your dad," I told him. "You worked really hard on this, you didn't give up, and you ended up doing a good job. I think he'd be proud of you--paraphrasing is hard even for grownups, but it's an important thing to learn how to do." He looked at me for a long minute, and then slowly wrote, "Dad, This was really hard. Happy birthday. David," in the top margin. Then the bell rang and they left. Both the older boys looked completely exhausted, as if this was the hardest thing they had done all week. Even Josh, who had an easier time, exclaimed, "Well, that was hard!"

The fact is, David could have tried harder and done better. He would have given up if I had allowed him to. I'm trying to consciously and specifically talk about the potential I see in these kids as if it is realized. This counts as well for when I talk to their parents. I want them to believe that they can do well. They tie their own shoelaces together with their insistence that they are inadequate. David probably gets away with a lot by insisting that he isn't smart enough to do things. I know that Amanda, by insisting that she is "wild," has adults cave and cater to her. Neither of those things can be healthy. They certainly won't help these kids be successful in life, will they? Are there successful people who get through each day by shrugging and insisting that they don't know how, they can't, they won't?

I'm definitely going to insist that we do this activity at least once per month. Next time, I will bring a dictionary. I despise worksheets in a deeply intense way, but I wonder if they might have their uses. What if I broke down the activity by paraphrasing a verse by myself, but putting blanks in the paraphrase for the kids to fill in? Or I could ask questions (Whom did Samuel tell Saul he would meet? What would the people Saul would meet have with them? What should Saul do when he meets these people?), and the kids could write answers. Maybe start with the former, move toward the latter, and slowly take away training wheels until they could manage it on their own.

The trouble with most curricula, I think, is that they do have worksheet-style activities, but these activities don't teach. If they are "fill-in-the-blank" the answer is so blindingly obvious that even a six-year-old could easily find the right answer ("____ is the son of God" "On the first day ______ separated the light from the darkness"). We don't need to teach religious indoctrination so much as we need to teach very basic skills--simple things like reading comprehension. Why? Because good reading comprehension opens the Bible to solo study. It's hard to enjoy what you're reading if you don't understand it. It used to be---back in the early days of public education---that the Bible was the primary document for learning to read. Are kids dumber than they were a few hundred years ago? I really don't think so. We just have surrendered literacy education to the land of Dick and Jane and now only ask children to read tiny chunks of scripture at a time--and then we explain it to them! Sunday school should be as much about teaching literacy, math, and science as it is about teaching religion. When you immure religion within the walls of the church, failing to connect it to the world outside, what conclusion will children draw but that it is entirely irrelevant to their lives?

At work, I've been developing some materials that will be used in schools. For that, I've had to reacquaint myself with the Multiple Intelligences thing. I'm going to find out what subjects in school our students feel like they are good at--I really haven't done as much as I ought to about playing to various intellectual strengths.

Just as we were finishing, Josh's mom came to get him because she wanted him to read something for the service. Josh is, without a doubt, the best reader in the class, and he read well during the service. This was very unusual, because unbaptized children don't usually participate in the service. I was glad to see that someone (I don't know who...) has been thinking harder about involving the kids more directly. I didn't get a chance to talk to Josh afterward and see how he felt about it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lesson 19.5: Jesus Calms the Storm (and Salvation)

On Wednesday night, Ginny, the kids' midweek teacher, was out of town. She had asked us to take over and we did, although I'm not sure we accomplished what she wanted us to. At her request, we taught out of the packaged curriculum. The kids seriously didn't know what to do--they've gotten to the point where they'll play along and even have fun with our weird lessons on Sundays, but on Wednesdays...let's just say they were clamoring for their handouts (with word searches and mazes) almost immediately. Having learned from our experience teaching out of the same curriculum, we gave them the hand outs near the end of class. When we gave them out earlier, they seriously stopped paying attention.

When we went into the class, Amanda's mom was there with her. She saw us and a relieved expression flickered across her face. "I usually stay in here to help Ginny," she said. "But you guys--there are two of you-- you're ok, right?" We told her that we were, and she went to the ladies' class.
Amanda was pretty put out at her mom for leaving. "I'm wild on Wednesday nights," she told us, proudly.
"Why?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Because I've been at school all day."
"Do your teachers at school let you act up?" JC asked her.
"Yes," she said, but in a way that made me think that she was fibbing. She wasn't that much more wild on Wednesdays than on Sundays, as far as I could tell. The only major difference I saw was some serious attitude. The phrase "How rude!" spit out of her mouth frequently enough to try the patience of a saint. I wanted to tell her that my asking her to please stop fanning her six dollars and put them back in her purse was nowhere near as rude as her playing with her cash in front of everyone in the first place. I refrained, although I gave some serious thought to offing whoever keeps reruns of Full House in syndication.

I really think that kids act the way they are treated. If you treat them like dummies, they'll use that as an excuse to never do anything smart, never really try. I remember when I was very young, I overheard my mother talking with a friend (children who read, be warned, are wonderful little eavesdroppers). She was telling her friend that I was bossy. Now, in all fairness, I probably had been bossy that day. I may have been going through a phase of being especially bossy. Plus, I was a big sister; we sometimes feel the need to run the show. I don't remember the surrounding circumstances. What I remember, very specifically, was making a conscious decision that if I was going to be accused of the sin, I might as well get the fun of committing it. I know that I took every opportunity after that to be bossy and demanding. Of course, this gave my mom all the more reason to tell other people that I was, by nature, bossy, and I continued to act bossy because she kept saying that I was bossy. And on and on. Even though it became my default pattern of behavior, I definitely remembered how it started.

It wasn't until I was in college that I discovered that I'm really better at collaborating with people than at telling them what to do. Of course, I can be bossy. I can also be mean and awful and jealous and rude and conniving. Can't everyone? The important thing here is that none of those ways of being are what I truly am, nor are they what I am most of the time. How different would it have been if I had heard my mother say that I was good at making sure things got done? It's the same thing, really, as being bossy, but it's more positive. No one wants to be known as bossy, but everyone wants to be known as somebody who gets things done. That actually ended up becoming the reputation I had in college. I liked it. I never liked being bossy.

So, long story short, I think Amanda was wild because she knew adults thought that she was wild, and therefore, she thought that she could get away with it. It took a while for us to get her simmered down to her Sunday morning level (not, by any standard, a well-behaved level, but good enough). She got there, though. Nothing at all was special about Wednesday nights.

We ended up having a really interesting discussion with the kids (Amanda and Lachlan were the only ones there). We were talking about how Jesus calms a storm, and JC and I asked them if they could think of other times when God changed the laws of nature--the laws that He had designed--to help His people. Lachlan mentioned how Jesus was able to reattach the ear that Peter had sliced off of a guard. Amanda kept talking about creation things, which missed the point--I think kids their age get inundated with the Creation story, probably because it has animals in it. Creation was about making the laws, not changing them. Then JC and I argued that Jesus' death and resurrection were a case of God changing His own laws. Old Law=death (of oneself or of an animal) is the penalty for sin. New Law= a sinless person died for everyone's sin. Lachlan really seemed to get it. She was shocked to find out that, under the old law, you could get stoned to death for being awful to your parents (Leviticus 20:9). No one said the usual things about how that just wasn't fair. They were both just shocked by it.

We moved the discussion toward the concept of baptism being the gateway to salvation, representing death and rebirth. I wanted to get deeper into the symbolism of that, but I think they're pretty young for it--I don't want any of them to think they might get literally drowned when they experience a symbolic death. Maybe that's what I'll talk about with TGS next week.

Anyway, Lachlan asked a very legitimate question, one I have yet to be able to answer well, though I want to. She asked if she would go to Hell for being unbaptised, because she's a child--in our church, only adults are baptised. We gave her the standard answers: no one in the Bible was baptised as a child, you shouldn't get baptised until you really understand the nature of sin, children are protected with a special kind of grace. She seemed to get all that, but really, what does one say? I don't know the inner workings of her soul, but my educated guess is that Lachlan is not really ready for baptism. I don't think any of our kids are--and that's ok. Baptism is a life commitment. The reason our church expects people to wait until they are adults is that, although children might do things at times that are destructive, impolite, or annoying, they lack a certain kind of sin, and a certain understanding of the nature of sin. Even the brightest kids of their age lack any deep understanding about sin, and how it is about more than just actions--it's about feelings too.

(Isn't it funny, we're always having to tell each other that love is an active verb--virtue is about action as well as feeling. With sin, we have to tell each other the opposite. It's not just about action!)

I wanted to make sure that she didn't leave the class in fear for her soul. I hope I did ok. I need to come up with a better and more coherent answer for that question, because this was not the first time a child has asked it. The next day, I posted a note about salvation on the little blog we have for them.

They like the blog, by the by--they don't have the url for this one, but we have a private one for them, where we post notes on our classes, ongoing activities, and sometimes artists' renderings of the things we talked about in class.

I'm tired and still have things to do...I'll post about Sunday tomorrow, though, I promise!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

LifeWay: Trying Again

Well, I just wrote and lost a long review of the LifeWay curricula. Let's try that again..and no guarantees that this one will be as good as the last.

LifeWay has several lines, here they are one at a time:

  • Bible Teaching for Kids (Learner):
    • - first activity is a word search
    • + word search requires reading Psalm 104, which is not printed in the hand outs.
    • --- major lesson text (Genesis 1--is there any verse that is easier to find?) is printed in the hand outs.
    • -- Suggested activity to do during the week is going for a walk with the family and challenging each other to name each item in God's creation that they pass, saying, "it is good" after each one. My students would definitely think this was for babies, and they'd be right.
    • + suggested Bible readings of a verse or two for every day of the week.
  • Bible Teaching for Kids (Leader) :
    • Over all, I liked the leader guide better than the student materials.
    • ++ includes a "personal Bible study" for the teacher to read and contemplate. Said Bible study would be a good lesson for late-elementary school kids, as it contains a discussion of a Hebrew word or two, and also an "object lesson" about the infinite number of things you could do to or with a sheet of blank paper--and then imagine how God ever knew where to start with creating everything without even that much to work from.
    • + early-arriver activity is drawing beautiful things in Creation. Ok.
    • - Start up activity is making "trash sculptures" from recyclables and duct tape. It's listed as taking 5 to 10 minutes. My students would take up the whole class period on this one--and what would they learn?
    • +/- Suggests that the teacher read the Bible verses aloud, while the students take "picture notes." I think it's better to have the students read, and I don't think they'd pay much attention if they were drawing. Maybe as a post-activity, or as a summarize-on-your-own task this would work.
    • -- activity about "naming living things created by God"--basically, which team can write the most nouns the fastest. I don't see this as developing Bible knowledge in 10-year-olds!
    • ++ Story about a missionary kid in Africa. I like these Christianity as a world-wide family bits.
    • - Sloppy editing ("Sunday's" where "Sundays" would be correct). It's a little thing, but seriously, I don't expect those kinds of errors in professionally-produced materials.
    • Three possible post-Bible time activites, none of which seem to promote understanding of the Bible:
      • Make a terrarium
      • Play 20 Questions with items from Psalms 104
      • Make notecards with stamps of nature-y things
    • Suggested activites to Bible study ratio: 2 to 1. Better than some, but still not very good.
  • G-Force (Leader's Guide):
    • - seems to be a lot of emphasis on creating the environment (pitching a tent, building a pretend "campfire). I see that kind of thing for VBS, but for Sunday school? The props are not the point.
    • -- pre-activity: Some kind of fishing game. I don't really get it, but it doesn't seem to involve the Bible.
    • --- campy script for a "host" and "co-host," in which the "co-host" interrupts by asking the kinds of questions that one might imagine a child might ask, if one didn't know any children. The script is basically like a skit, and it seems to preempt the students' role in the class.
      • Example: Host: "Yada yada, Jesus yada fasting and prayer."
        Co host: "What do you mean by 'fast prayer'?"
    • + encourages major discussion of Bible story, and makes sure that students get "the main point."
    • - an activity involves some sort of mind-numbingly simple code.
    • + includes a game that quizzes kids on what they should have learned, had they been paying attention.
    • - apparently involves PowerPoint. Why? PowerPoint was the worst thing to happen to sermons, surely we don't need it in our Sunday school classes.

From the website, it looks like they might have one more line of curricula, but I keep getting 404 errors on that.

That's probably for the best, as it's past my bed time.

Good night, every body.

Nashville Skyline

This week, JC's sisters Konni and Kassi taught our class for us, because we were in Nashville, visiting Katie (aka "the third weird sister"). Thanks, guys!

Konni reports that the kids (wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles) remembered what we talked about last week. This sounds like a small thing, but I'm excited. She continued the story, teaching about Saul's anointing. "I basically hammered on the message, 'Sometimes what you think you want is not actually good for you, and if you're unlucky, God (or your parents) will give it to you to teach you a lesson,'" she told us. That's a pretty good moral--not just for a ten-year-old, but for any of us, really.

On our trip, we couchsurfed for the first time. You might think we're out of our minds for doing this, but couch surfing is a seriously Christian way to travel. It works like this: Someone, in this case Josh and Tiff, put a notice on this website that said that they welcomed random travelers. Someone else, in this case, us, searched for people in Nashville who had advertised their willingness to put us up for the weekend. I would probably not couch surf alone, but JC was with me, so I felt totally safe. Josh and Tiff are Christians ("In Nashville, people look at you weird if you're not one," Josh said), and beyond that, just good friendly people. Their home was lovely and their hospitality went beyond the call of duty. Couch surfing meant that we automatically had a friend in town, someone who could recommend a mechanic and a good pancake place. We were welcomed into someone's home, where we stayed for free in a room that was going unused anyway. The other alternative would have been to spend a few hundred dollars staying at a hotel or hostel and have a much less personal experience--but a door that locked. I'll take trusting in the goodness of humanity any day, thank you. My mom has couch surfed a few times, and she's never had a bad experience.

Nashville stunned me. We drove past houses as big as churches, and churches as big as malls. The malls, of course, where roughly the size of airports. We didn't see any airports, so the chain of similes ends there. Churches stood on every street corner; I've never been somewhere like that before. I don't know that Nashville was any more Christian than most places. Maybe it just had a lot of churches. There's certainly more money there than I had imagined. Several ladies at church had full-length fur coats (I'm not sure I've ever seen any one wear one of those!), round fur hats, and fur trim on their suits. All the females ages 3 to 35 wore Ugg boots. Several high-end cars cut us off in traffic.

As if by a crazy stroke of luck (or what Elizabeth calls "God-incidences"), Tiff and her friend Heather both work for LifeWay, which is a Christian publishing company in Nashville. They have a *giant* building downtown, with a massive cross built into it, and apparently a statue of Billy Graham on the sidewalk. Although Tiff and Heather both work in the Young Adult division, they knew a bit about the Sunday school curricula and seemed to feel pretty positive about it. I think that I'm going to put them first in my review of curricula.

That's all I have to say for now, but JC and I are teaching the 3rd and 4th graders on Wednesday, so I'm sure to have a more interesting update then. We'll be teaching out of the 21st Century Christian book, since that's what they do on Wednesday's praying for a good attitude.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lesson 19: Impromptu

I've said before that one of the major problems for a Sunday school teacher is the fact that one's students have inconsistent attendance, and if one plans a lesson with a specific kid in mind, that kid is the one who fails to show up.

Sometimes, that's ok. The kids who do show up might benefit from the lesson, too. Other times, however, it's not ok. This morning was a fine example of that. At ten o'clock, when our class was supposed to start, no students at all were present. A couple of passing adults poked their heads in the door and commented that we looked lonely. At 10:06, Joshua clomped in, sat down, and laid his head on the table.

Joshua, let the record state, is a great kid, and definitely one of the best students we're ever likely to have. He's very sweet and funny, has good reading comprehension, is incredibly polite, and treats the other kids well. I have a hard time believing him when he tells me that he doesn't do anything but play video games--but then, he's an only child, and maybe he has to play alone alot.

The lesson we had planned was one on "bad words." We planned it as a response to a previous class, where some of the kids decided that pointing out every "bad word" hidden in every other word was funny. We wanted to take the wind out of some of their sails and get them to stop giggling about it. Both of us, of course, recall being that age and finding "bad words" as titilating as any kid does. Still, I don't think either of us would have dared use that kind of language around an adult. We were going to talk about "cursing" and "swearing," what those things really are--and why certain words are not culturally acceptable, though many of them are neither cursing nor swearing, in the literal sense.

As you might have gathered, Joshua was basically the only kid who didn't need this lesson at all. During that class, when all the other kids were going nuts and getting giggly, he just ignored them. He paid better attention to his project than he probably ever had, and I think he was a bit embarrassed by or for the others. We couldn't do this lesson with just Joshua. Not only did he not need it, he also would probably have felt like we were lecturing just to him.

JC and I exchanged frantic glances, casting around for what in the world to do next, when Lachlan came in. We were glad to see her, because the times when we have only one kid in Bible class are terribly awkward. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how I look at it), Lachlan is next-best-behaved kid. Though she giggled at the kids who were underlining the "bad word" in the middle of "Manasseh," she certainly wasn't instigating it. Her dad was a preacher, and her mom worked (I think) at a Christian school. She's probably heard some variant on this lesson before--if not aimed at her, then aimed at one of her older sisters. This lesson was specifically intended for David and Amanda, who were not present. The lesson wouldn't do much good if the instigators didn't hear it.

We decided to totally wing it, and opened our Bibles to the beginning of I Samuel, which was the next section of the Bible we had intended to cover with this class. The kids read sections aloud, and we talked about the story. David came in about ten minutes late, and he had a cold, poor kid. He followed along, though, and did pretty well at participating. He just didn't seem very chatty.

The beginning of I Samuel starts by talking about Elkanah, who had two wives. We've been through the several wives thing before (Jacob), but I don't think the kids know how to handle it. Polygamy is so alien to anything they understand--or, for that matter, to anything *I* understand--that they ask about it every time. "He had two wives?" Lachlan said.
"Yes," said JC. "Some men had several wives back then. Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines."
Josh's eyes got wide. "Wow. You'd have to get married like, every day!"

We talked about Hannah's prayer and Eli's accusation that she's drunk. When Eli finally gets what's going on, he gives Hannah a blessing ("The God of Israel grant the petition which you have asked of Him") so we ended up being able to use our preparation for class at least a little bit, to talk about blessings and curses and things. None of the kids knew what a curse was, in that sense, and they only had the most vague idea of what a blessing is. We need to start doing a little "Bible vocab" section to our class, I think. The little kids aren't the only ones who need it--my teen girl class didn't know what an agnostic was, and they were surprised when I said that "disciple" basically just means "student."

The kids were all kind of appalled at the thought of a mother leaving her two- or three-year-old baby at the temple. I couldn't explain any of it to them, except to say that she was so grateful for what God had given her that she wanted to thank Him by giving Him the thing she loved the very most. I found it disturbing too, in some ways, but I didn't know how to tell them that the Bible has some disturbing things in it, and that's a good thing. The Bible is varied and disturbing because life on Earth is varied and disturbing. That's how the Bible answers our questions--by being so deeply odd that we can see our equally odd selves reflected back in it. I can't imagine what Hannah must have been thinking or feeling, leaving her little boy with his long curly hair in the care of an aging priest and his wicked sons. I love that the Bible includes that Hannah made Samuel a new robe each year, each year a little bigger, because he was a little bigger each year. I pointed that out to the kids--Hannah does love her son. He just has a great destiny to fulfill, and he can't fulfill it if she doesn't make this sacrifice. That's also like Mary, and Miriam, I guess, but I didn't think to say that in class.

JC tried to explain what a Nazarite vow was, and the kids all thought it was weird. "He couldn't drink grape juice?" Joshua asked. We tried to explain that it was a special way of showing one's dedication to God, that Samson and Paul both took similar vows, but they couldn't get past the physical impact of such a promise. "Would his hair grow all the way down to his feet?" Joshua asked. We told him that it would.
"Never let anyone tell you that long hair on boys is a bad thing," JC said. I'm dreading the parental phone calls I'll probably get over that one.

We talked about the jobs that Samuel probably had in the temple, what his life was like as he was growing up. JC asked them how they would feel if they had to live at church and hang out with David (our minister) all day, helping him with his sermons, vacuuming the auditorium, preparing the Communion trays. Though they think that David is a nice guy, none of them thought that would be much fun.

"What do you think your mom would have picked out as a job for you, before you were born, if she got to pick?" I asked. David didn't know, but Lachlan thought that her mom probably would have wanted her to become a teacher, and Joshua was pretty sure that his mom would have wanted him to have a job training "rookies" on how to use computers, like his dad does. I thought that was very sweet--Lachlan's mom used to work at a computer lab for a school, and she must have told Lachlan how much she respected the teachers there. Joshua clearly sees the admiration and love that his mom has for his dad, and thinks it has something to do with his job (and it might, I don't know).

Joshua got to read the section where Samuel hears God calling him and thinks that it's Eli. He is a good reader, and he put some serious frustration into Eli's voice on the second and third repetitions of "I did not call, my son, lie down again!" I got the feeling that maybe he's one of those kids whose parents have to send him back to bed several times in the night. The kids all thought that Samuel's mistake about who was calling him was hilarious. I agree, it is funny. I love that these kids are starting to find humor in the Bible. I love that they are starting to open to the idea that the Bible can be funny, or scary, or sad--not just boring, and not just..."holy," blasphemous as it might sound to object to that adjective. As we went through this story, reading from the actual text, with JC and me glossing some hard words, they laughed, they commented on the pain or absurdity of it. That is how I want them to read the whole Bible. I want them to look for the humanity of it. I believe that God speaks to us through the beauty, pain, and humor of tiny details--Hannah making little robes for her growing boy, Ehud's sword sticking in Eglon's fat, Jesus cooking breakfast for his friends on the beach.

JC pointed out to the kids that Samuel was almost certainly around their age when God first spoke to him. Because he is called a "boy," he must be younger than thirteen. "He was probably singing and praying in front of crowds of people," JC said. "He probably helped perform sacrifices and was a major part of the worship at the temple. Can you imagine doing that at your age?" They all shook their heads.
This was as good a time as any to talk with them about our latest idea for them. If nothing else, I was fresh out of material, and we still had ten minutes of class time left. "When JC was a little boy, only five or six years old, the little boys at his church would collect the attendance cards during the services. They would sit in the front row until the announcements--"
"Actually, it was right before the sermon," he corrected me. "So we sat up there on the front row for most of the service, without our parents or anyone. And then right after the last song before the sermon, we would walk down the aisles and collect the cards, and then we had to help a deacon sort them, figure out who were visitors, who wasn't there. It made us feel really important--we were just little guys."
I hadn't thought that this story would make much of an impression on the kids, but their eyes were wide when JC finished. "You got to do all that when you were five?" asked David, finally coming alive for the first time all morning. JC nodded.
"I get the feeling that sometimes it seems to you that church is just for grown ups, and a kid's job is to sit still and be quiet," JC continued. "That's not true, though-- I mean, it helps if you sit still and be quiet, but you also can be part of the service, you can have an important job. We've been talking to some people to see what we can do to give you jobs, like Samuel, if you want to do that."
"For example, you might be asked to help hand out bulletins and greet people at the door, or bring the Communion trays back to the supply room, or something," I said. Inwardly, I was bracing myself for a harsh reaction--I didn't realize until I said it how much like chores that sounded.
"We could really do that?" Lachlan asked. She seemed excited, as did the boys.
"Yes," I said. "We're working on that, if you think you'd like to." She would like to, certainly, as would the boys. I guess I need to keep bugging the eldership about that one, then, given the positive response. These kids are eager to be part of the Christian community, to know that it's not just about grown ups and behaving oneself. That eagerness is today's blessing, and blessing enough for my week.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Teen Girl Squad: Simony 101

It's been a good week for teaching, which probably means that Sunday will be a zoo, just to keep us from feeling cocky. In Teen Girl Squad Wednesday night, I gave them a tough, morally complex problem, and though they didnt' solve it (and I didn't expect them to--*I* haven't solved it, either), they understood its facets.

We began by talking about the scriptures in Jesus' time. When His disciples talk about scripture, they mean the Old Testament. Sometimes Jesus teaches people by quoting the Old Testament, but sometimes, He tells them these strange stories. These stories are not scriptural, in the context of Jesus' time. They also are fictional. The farmer who spreads his seeds on the rocky ground, in the thorny place, and on the good soil is not a real person, any more than farmer McGregor from Peter Rabbit. They are, however, true, despite being fictional.

Jesus tells His disciples, when they ask Him why He speaks in parables, that it's in fulfillment of a prophecy--those who are called to understand, will, and those who are not, will think He's talking about a literal farmer. The people whose hearts are open to the message will see it--whether in scripture or in a simple story. Those whose hearts are not, will not.

We then started talking about the books and movies that I had asked them to bring. I started first, with The Complete Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, selected at random from my bookshelf. Winnie the Pooh is not an overtly Christian book. I doubt that Milne wrote it by thinking, "I'm going to write a book with Christian morals splashed all over it." Regardless, the messages of the stories are consistently about accepting the hand you're dealt and being joyful with it, supporting your friends and living in community, trying to get the honey from the beehive, but understanding that, some times, it wasn't meant for you. Those are all morals that I would consider positive, and even Christian. We went around the room after that, each of the girls talking about the movie or book that she brought, and thinking about how the Christian message might appear in it. Most of them did pretty well, once they understood what I was trying to talk about. Two of the girls brought Harry Potter books, and once they had talked about the messages of friendship, determination, and bravery in the books, we talked a little bit about the controversy surrounding the series. Some of the parents at our church buy into the whole "Harry Potter is satanic" thing. Because I didn't know if any of these girls' parents were in that group, I tried to tread lightly. "You know that some people think that Harry Potter is promoting witchcraft and things," I began. "But when Hanna and Bree read these stories, they see morals that are very positive. There's even a lot of self-sacrifice, people taking pain for others, which is the epitome of the Christian story. This is a good example of what Jesus was saying earlier. Those who are looking for nothing in particular will see an innocent story. Those whose eyes are filled with the love of God will understand the love in the story. Other people, though, see hatred everywhere. There's even a group that says that Sesame Street is anti-Christian. Think about what you're seeing, before you pass judgement on it." And then we moved on (though I heard some gasps and giggles at the thought that Sesame Street could be dangerous). The last girl to talk about her movie was Katie, who had brought Pirates of the Carribean (the first one). She struggled to come up with positive messages for that one, and I didn't remember the film well enough to help her much. Finally, I said, "At the end, don't Elizabeth and Will take punishment in their friend's place?" Katie nodded. "Can you think of anyone else who did that?" She just looked at me. One of the other girls whispered to her, "Jesus!"
"Oh, right, Jesus," she said. She's long been one I've worried about. Now I worry further.

We also talked about the concept of "garbage in, garbage out." I wanted to be very clear that I was not saying that they could watch anything so long as they sifted for the positive morals. My point was only that there are positive morals in books that aren't labeled "Christian." I think they got that. They all had heard really bad "Christian" pop, where "you just take out the word 'Jesus' and put in 'baby,' and you've got a top 40 hit."

I worry that I may have given the impression that it is necessarily wrong to sell something to the "Christian" market. After all, many artists and musicians are acting from real faith, and it happens that what they have to say would be relelvant to Christians, and not to many others. I, for one, imagine that I will at some point publish something in a Christian magazine, because most non-Christians aren't that interested in, for example, teaching Sunday school. Artists and writers, like preachers, need to eat. I might try to clarify that one for my girls next time we're all together.

Then we talked about Christians as a market force. I told them about how, when Mel Gibson wanted to make The Passion (just as a disclaimer: I actually found the film offensive. For demonstration purposes in this discussion, however, it is a useful example), studio execs laughed at him, no one would give him any money. "You're going to make a film in Latin and Aramaic?" they had said. "You're nuts!" So, he got together his private funding, and the rest is history. The girls all knew that bit. The thing I told them that they hadn't previously known was that, immediately following the success of The Passion, everyone in the marketing world was talking about how this Christian market was bigger than they had thought, and how they needed to get more of these Christians' money. The girls were pretty appalled. I don't think they had never thought about it that way before. We talked about "Testamints" (mints with scriptures on the box),"WWJD" bracelets, T-shirts with a Christian slogan on them. "What are the people who create these items really selling you? Does the money go to churches or missions or the poor?" They were speechless. "They're selling you a way to advertise that you are Christian, when really, we should advertise our Christianity through the way we live and the way we treat other people. Have you ever been cut off in traffic by someone who had a Christian bumper sticker?" I asked. Most of them don't drive yet, but all of them had seen that one happen.

I remembered, though I didn't share, when I was in high school and the WWJD bracelets were "in". A girl asked me why I wasn't wearing one, and I just shrugged. I was, at the time, an agnostic, and what Jesus would or wouldn't have done didn't matter much to me. I also thought they were tacky and stupid. The girl, who must some how not have noticed my consistent absence from events like "Pray at the Flagpole," informed me that if I wasn't willing to let other people see my love for Jesus, I must not really love Him. I guess she was right there, in a sense, but even now as an adult Christian, I don't wear a cross, and the only Christian T-shirts I have are ones given to me for working at youth events. I just don't feel compelled to play to that kind of marketing.

We discussed an excercise we had done a while ago, where we looked at advertisements and talked about what they were really being sold. These ads all had messages like, "If you use this shampoo, you'll have a hot boyfriend!" and similar. They had gotten "Biblezines" at Daughters of the King this fall, and I reminded them of those. "What are Biblezines doing?" I asked.
"They're just putting the Bible in a form that appeals to girls," Hanna said.
"Do you need to be sold on the Bible?" I asked.
"No," said Amanda, "but maybe someone who wouldn't read the Bible ordinarily would pick up a Biblezine because it looks cooler."
"Ok," I challenged them, "All of you got Biblezines. Did anyone read a whole book of the New Testament--even a short epistle--or did you just flip through looking for the pictures and reading the sidebars?"
All of them admitted that they hadn't read much of the text.
Amanda had been to Daughters of the King twice, and so had received two Biblezines. "When I got the first one, I was really excited about it, and I read some of it. The words they used were easy to understand. This year, though, I looked through it, and I realized that it was just the same thing, with different pictures."
"Yes," I said, "and you are two years older than you were the first time that you went. Little kids, you have to sell things to. They're only ready for spiritual milk--something easy to digest, in an appealing form. That's why we have VeggieTales and Bible action figures. Grown-up people shouldn't need that level of salesmanship. Adults are ready for some meat--they don't need to be lured in with superficial packaging."

I pointed out that my own Bible, replete with footnotes, is definitely designed to appeal to someone who wants to feel smart (someone else bought it for me, but I left out that detail for the purposes of self-deprication). All Bibles are packaged to send a certain message, either of formality or trendiness or personalization. "I'm not telling you not to buy what ever Bible you want, or not to wear jewelry with crosses on it, or not to listen to Christian music. I just want you to think about what you're being sold. I want you to evaluate it and think for yourself." I think (or at least hope) that they understood what I was talking about.

Amanda said that her mom thinks it's really good that so many "Christian" products are on the market these days, because more people will be exposed to the message. "Like, if you have Testamints, someone might ask you about the scripture on the box."
"Who would ask you about your mint box?" Ashley countered.
Amanda conceded the point, and then said, "But I see what you're saying, too, about how it can be a bad thing."
She got the moral ambiguity, and I didn't really know what to say there. "Your mom is right, kind of. I'm just asking you to be aware of these market forces." I didn't have the heart to tell her that, in all of my pagan hippie dirt-worshiper days, I never would have seen a "Jesus is my co-pilot" bumper sticker and thought, "He should be mine, too!"

Over all, though, it was a good class, and very challenging for all of us.

Now what am I going to do with them next month?

PS, I started thinking about this whole "Christian market" thing because of this article in the New Yorker, which is a pretty good read.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

A Teen Girl Squad Moment

I asked the teen girls to bring a DVD or book--preferably one that's not Christian--for our class on Wednesday. This morning, I was reminding them. Ashley said, "So it's supposed to be Christian."
"No,"I reminded her. "It should not be Christian, at least not specifically."
"So I'm supposed to bring a bad movie?"
I paused for a moment, counting my words, figuring out how to say this without upsetting her parents. "Ashley...There's a lot of ground between The Passion of the Christ or VeggieTales without being a *bad* movie."
Ashley punched her sister in the shoulder. "See, I can bring my movie!"
Miranda (her sister) looked at me imploringly. "Please, no! It's really bad."
"We're going to be talking about them, not watching them. What move is it?"
"Dodgeball," Ashley said.
"That's fine," I told her.

The funny part? Our lesson is going to be about how not everything that is labeled "Christian" necessarily is so, and how you can find good, positive, morally edifying messages in many, many places. By cutting a clear and unambiguous line between "Christian" and "bad," Ashley basically made my point for me.

This is going to be an interesting class.

Lesson 18: Weird Stories from Judges

Sunday school this morning went really well. Astoundingly well. All through it, JC and I kept catching each other's glance, communicating with raised eyebrows--is it really going as well as I think it is?? So, that was awesome.

Here's what we did. First, we passed around a basket with the names of all the judges (except Samson, since his story takes up half the book) written on slips of paper. They each picked a name out of the basket. One by one, we looked at the names and we told them the stories. The first one was Ehud, whose story is exactly the kind of thing you want to learn about when you're ten. Unfortunately, the other ones that came up where those poor guys who get about three verses, just to say, "Lived, judged, thirty sons, thirty donkeys, died." I had hoped for another good story. Luckily, one of them was Shamgar, who killed 600 men with a pointy stick. They liked that. For those shorter ones, we had them read the verses aloud. Joshua read about Shamgar. He said, "That must have been a really long stick!" I guess he was picturing all 600 men stuck on there like shishkabob. :)

Next, we split them into teams, boys and girls, and assigned the girls Deborah (whom they had both really hoped they'd get in the random judge drawing) and the boys, Gideon. We gave them fifteen minutes to read their Bibles and tell the stories of these judges to the class. I used a timer to keep them on track; it seemed to work. Every time they started fussing with someone else's work, I would point out that the clock was still ticking, and they'd get back to work with no further argument. I'm distressed at what they must be teaching these children in schools these days--none of them could sum up the basic points of the story. They basically copied sentences, word for word, from their Bibles, picking them seemingly at random and with little or no comprehension. Lachlan included in hers the sentence about Jael creeping up to Sisera with a hammer and a tent peg...but not the dramatic next sentence, where she nails his head to the ground! When I asked her how Sisera died, she didn't know. "What did Jael do with the tent peg?" I asked. She just looked at me, confused. JC read the next sentence to her. The kids all squealed with delighted grossed-out-ness.

Still, I feel the class went well because they seemed to enjoy the activity, despite the fact that it wasn't a game or craft, and they all tried, even if they didn't get it. Next time we try something like this, I think we need to teach them to summarize first--maybe taking a story all of them know, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and retelling it in fifty words. We could also show them a passage of Biblical text that one of us has summarized, bolding the important words, the ones you'd catch if you were skimming, and writing a synopsis out to the side. I didn't realize that they would not have this skill at all. It's kind of distressing.

I liked this activity, especially since it got them really reading their Bibles, just like grown-up people. Even if they only understood a little bit, that's the first step. I think if they get to where they can do this with the Bible, they'll probably become more adept readers and do better in school, too (knock wood). What are other ways to help them become more adept Bible scholars? I need to work on this one. I know that JoEtta and Mike used to have their kids interact with the text by underlining or circling parts of it, or writing notes, or drawing pictures. What else can we do?

Also, why aren't the schools doing this? The kid who did the very best job is the youngest one.