Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Wondrous Love is This?

I am reposting this reflection from 2012 on how we talk about the death of Christ with our children. As we move through this Holy Week, may it serve as an encouragement for all of us who will sit in a pew next to a child this Friday.
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I can’t tell you how many times I have been forwarded the following joke:

Little Timmy was struggling with his math schoolwork, to the point that his parents had enlisted tutors and taken other extreme measures. Their final decision was to enroll him in a Catholic school to see if greater discipline might help the situation.
Timmy came home from school the first day vowing to redouble his efforts in math from now on. When his parents asked him what happened at school to change his attitude, he told them that after seeing that guy nailed to the plus sign at the school, he knew that he needed to take math more seriously.
While this could actually turn into a reflection on sending your child to a religious school with absolutely no background on the basics of Christianity, instead it provides a helpful starting point for my own inner wrestling with how we have discussions with our children (at different ages and stages in their faith development) about the death of Jesus.
Jesus’ death on the cross, while probably part of our children’s religious consciousness (unlike little Timmy’s), is actually pretty disconnected from their experiences in the world. If we consider Jesus’ crucifixion to be at its most historic an act of capital punishment, it almost seems strange that we give our children multiple books, including the Bible, that in one way or another recount his death. Looking through the “religious” section on my son’s book shelves, I easily found at least five picture books that depicted Jesus’ crucifixion.
Why Jesus died is a very reasonable question for children to ask, and one that I have found they especially like to save to ask their parents in some of the most intimate of moments.
I know that when my son first asked me why Jesus died, I answered very simply, telling him that he died because he loves us. That seemed like a pretty reasonable answer, but one that I knew would not be enough forever.
My son is now eight years old, and it has been a few years since he first asked me about Jesus’ death. I asked him this evening if he could tell me why Jesus died. He told me that Jesus died because people thought he was lying about God. People didn’t like the things he was saying, and they thought he was lying about being God’s son.
I asked him what it means to us that Jesus died on the cross, and he told me that it means that Jesus saved us. Then he turned and looked at me and said - how? Saved us from what?
This is when the questions are not so easily answered. My son’s simple question, “How” has been answered in so many different ways over so many hundreds of years that it overwhelms even me to think about the very best way to try to describe it to him. So instead I sent him to bed so I could collect my thoughts.
I could tell him that because of our sinfulness as human beings, we needed someone like Jesus to come and atone for our sins. But what does an eight year old really know of sin?
I could tell him that as human beings we are separated from God and need a way to bridge that gap and reconcile us to God. But as a child he feels very much connected to God. Do I really tell him that in fact there is a chasm of separation between him and God no matter how close God might feel to him?
I could tell him that as sinful human beings God was obligated to punish us, but that Jesus took our place and took our punishment on our behalf (the punishment that scared little Timmy into math submission). But how does that connect to a God that we have described to him as loving and forgiving?
I could tell him that Jesus came as a mighty warrior to defeat the powers of evil in the world, and through his death waged a cosmic battle with the devil. But how is that connected to the Jesus of peace, love and nonviolence that we have taught him about so far?
I will admit to wrestling myself with how I understand Jesus’ death as it is related to my own faith. I bristle at the idea that God would demand a blood sacrifice in order to be willing to forgive our sins. I sympathize with those who experience the death of Jesus as divine child abuse. I contemplate the sovereignty of a God who could not act to save the life of his own son.
I have found comfort personally in words found in my own Presbyterian tradition that speak to our Christian faith as a whole and to the limits of our human understanding of Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross. The Confession of 1967, a statement of faith written at a moment when our world seemed to be at a peak of dysfunction and disconnection, gives me words to describe the indescribable:
God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work. 

In reflecting more on these words today, I think that I have come to a better understanding of  how I will describe the “how” and the “why” and the “from what” questions that my son has about Jesus’ death and our salvation - the image of a shepherd’s life give for his sheep.

In the morning I will explain to him that the world is full of pain, of people treating each other badly, of people disappointing each other and disappointing God. Unfortunately, I think he will probably be able to understand this all too well.

But then I will tell him that Jesus came to teach us how to act better, how to treat each other better, how to love God better, how to be better. And to help us do that, he has stood between us and the world. He has stood up to the wolves that have come to threaten his flock. As God’s own son…as God on earth…he has shown us what we are to do for those that we love. We give our lives for them. We take the hit. We bear the burden.

So I guess my answer for him has not changed all that much from when he was in preschool. Jesus died because he loves us.

Even though I came back to the same answer, I believe there is value in the wrestling with what all of this means to me. Some day he will not simply take my word for it, but will want to seriously wrestle with this himself, and I want to be part of those conversations as well.

I am looking forward to the insights and the questions that he will bring to this life-long conversation when he is a precocious 13 year old, a rebellious 18 year old, an idealistic 23 year old, and eventually a parent himself. I want to hear how he will answer his own child someday. It is just a guess, but I am pretty sure love, and not punishment, will be at the heart of his answer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Is a Children’s Picture Bible Really a Bible?

A couple of years ago as I was reading a popular religion/faith blog I came across comments from several parents who were so frustrated with their church or THE church that they had decided to take a break from church for a while and were using The Jesus Storybook Bible as a substitute for Sunday School. 

The full title of this children’s Bible is The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name. The “his” in the title refers to Jesus, and for each story, especially those from the Old Testament, there is a paragraph on how this story relates to Jesus Christ. I purchased it recently and found reading it a little like sitting through an extended children’s sermon where the children think the answer to every question asked is Jesus.

While there are many favorable reviews on Amazon for this children’s Bible, there are plenty of scathing reviews that mostly boil down to “this is not a Bible.” 

I totally agree. It is not a Bible. It is a children’s picture Bible. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Iconic Stories of the Gospels: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

Samaritan Woman at the Well - He Qi
When I was just past Confirmation “age,” I attended a large national youth convention. It was memorable for me for two reasons. One, because, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was when I first sensed a call to ministry in the church. Two, because, even more importantly, it was the first time a story from the Bible really came alive for me and significantly impacted my faith. 

In all of the posts in this series, I hope that I have been able to convey the ability of a fruitful confirmation experience to help students experience the Bible and the church in a new way not just for that one year, but for the rest of their lives. Yes, as children and younger youth, we teach them the stories and we help build on their own personal experience of the church, but in Confirmation they are able to ask questions of the Bible, apply the Bible to their own experience, and even gain an appreciation for the beauty that is in scripture and be moved by it. 

All five of these iconic stories from the Gospels are moving and meaningful in their own way, and in Confirmation class we can dig deeper into them to reveal a beauty that goes beyond a Sunday school version of the story. 

It was the story of the Samaritan woman, or “the woman at the well” (#67 in this list) that I experienced and understood in a radically new way at that conference. The story was told through liturgical dance (something that if done well can be very moving), and I for the first time could see myself in the scripture as though it was me who was experiencing this good news of Christ’s living water. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

12 Developmental Steps for Children & Youth in the Life of a Congregation

I usually write about the things that our children and youth should know and how we can teach it to them at home and at church. But I have been thinking more recently about all of the things that we need to teach our children to be able to do as they grow in maturity as a member of a community of faith. 

So I thought through the ways that children develop in their capabilities as members of the community and came up with twelve markers (based on age and area of competency) to help us all think about how we are nurturing and encouraging children in their role as members of the church. 

This is not intended as a critique of children who have not yet taken these steps, but as an aid to examining how we share our expectations with children and youth and the opportunities we give them to meet or exceed those expectations.

In my experience, children and youth are ready for many of these things much earlier than we would think. They are simply waiting to be asked to rise to the occasion. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The World Religions: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know Before Confirmation Class

I have written a few times before about being part of a family that is “inter-religious.” You can find these posts here, here, and here. Obviously, we are motivated to talk in our home about what it means to be a part of a religion that is not Christian. 
prayer beads from my brother

Of all the conversations that we have together with our son, these are the ones that seem to repeat most often. For example, no matter how many times we explain what it means to be Jewish, he will ask the same question again a month or so later.

Interestingly, he hardly ever asks about being a Buddhist. He only knows one, and I think he just trusts that his uncle knows what he is doing, so he doesn’t worry about it. 

When I work with students in a middle school, high school or Confirmation class, I instinctively want to teach them to respect and even appreciate other faith traditions. And yet, most youth these days have a decidedly post-modern perspective on the world, which means that they are already comfortable with differences and differences of opinion. They don’t usually need me to teach them respect...they need to hear from me why is I have chosen and why they may choose to be a Christian in the midst of a diverse religious landscape. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Last Temptation of Christ or Why Church is Sometimes All Joy and No Fun

Every first week of Lent, as we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation for 40 days in the wilderness, I can’t help but recall the way that Martin Scorsese depicted this scene in his controversial interpretation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

As Jesus prepares himself for this time of trial, he draws a circle in the sand out of which he will not move. Scorsese films it from above, and from the arial vantage point we can see that it is not just any circle but rather a perfect circle which could never be drawn by a human hand, only by the divine. That always impressed teenagers when I showed the scene in class.

The controversy surrounding the film, of course, was not the depiction of Jesus’ temptation in the desert but rather a final temptation offered to him as he hangs on the cross. I remember as a child hearing adults around me talk about the movie and the people who were planning to protest showings of it around the country. Many too easily criticized the film because it it shows Jesus having intimate relations with a woman (or rather, a few women). Sex, then, is what we think the film is about--this is the “last temptation” that Jesus has to face. 

Kazantzakis’s book, though, is not really about sex at all. He uses the story of Jesus of Nazareth to explore the theme of the flesh verses the spirit. His Jesus wrestles with this nagging sense of divinity that is growing within him, with the pain that will come with submitting to its call, and with the apartness that it makes him feel from his fellow human beings. 

When Jesus succumbs to this last temptation, it is about being normal again, about having a family, about lifting the burden of so many expectations from his shoulders. 

To be honest, the movie ruined Willem Dafoe for me forever. His Jesus is just so angst-ridden, so troubled by his inner struggle, so frustrated by the misunderstandings of those around him. Dafoe’s (Scorsese’s/Kazantzakis’) Jesus may find divine joy in life, but he is not having any human fun in the living. This is his final temptation. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Miracles of Jesus: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know BEFORE Confirmation.

The other day, while walking home from church, my son asked me if I ever wonder whether or not the things in the Bible actually happened. 

He said, “...like the story of the bush that was on fire and didn’t burn. That just can’t happen.” 

I told him that yes, there are some things in the Bible that are hard to explain and hard to understand AND which seem impossible to us. But the Bible is not just a story of what is possible for us, but there are also parts that tell us about things that are only possible for God to do. 

He wasn’t all that satisfied with this response...so I tried again.

I told him that I can’t really understand everything that happened in the Bible, but what I know is true and I know is real is that these stories were important to the people who came before us. They told these stories to teach each other about God, and this means that we continue to teach them and hear them, and they should still be important for us today. 

This, for some reason, made him feel much better. He could understand the real people who told these miraculous stories even when the miracles themselves were too hard to understand. 

Often when we teach the stories of the miraculous works of Jesus Christ from the gospels, both teachers and students get caught up in the plausibility or the probability of each one. We try to figure out how you fillet a fish into that many parts rather than trying to find the meaning behind a story of abundance. 

Confirmation is the perfect time to really wrestle with the miraculous moments in scripture - especially those done at the hands (and feet) of Jesus. When students have been taught the stories of Jesus’ miracles as younger children, they have had time to integrate the details into their understanding of who Jesus was. In Confirmation they can then wrestle with their faith in Jesus as a miracle worker and the question of what they can do when the miracles seem too hard to believe.