Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Stories of Genesis – 5 things (out of 100) your child should know BEFORE Confirmation Class

The Ark of Noah by artist He Qi
While this is the second post in what will be a series of about 20 on the foundations that a child should bring to Confirmation class as a teenager, it is the first in a long string that will relate to biblical literacy.
It is overwhelming to think of an 8th grader having mastered all of these stories. I don’t know many adults who have mastered them. But mastery is not the goal. Acquaintance with the most familiar and foundational stories and basic biblical knowledge are the goal.

Our task in Confirmation class is twofold: we look more closely at some of these stories to appreciate their beauty and pay attention to the details, and we discuss what they teach us about who God is and who we are as people who claim these stories as our own. These are the first real lessons they get in biblical interpretation.

The practice of hearing and telling these stories throughout their life helps a child and then a teenager think of them as their stories, their tradition, their history. This is a feat that cannot be achieved by reading them for the first time sitting around a table (circle of beanbag chairs) in a Confirmation class, no matter how much homework I assign them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Open Letter to Rick Riordan

Dear Mr. Riordan,

Let me start by saying thank you for the hours of glee and enjoyment you have brought to my seven-year-old son.

Two years ago when he first began his obsession with all things Egyptian, I never would have imagined that one night we would be snuggled up listening to a book on tape and he would jump up from the couch and scream, “I knew it! I knew it was the Egyptian dwarf god Bes!” I am convinced that any damage done to his psyche by having his books on Egyptian life and mummification banned from his Kindergarten has been repaired by the validation of his obsession he has found in the first two books of your Egyptian Kane Chronicles series.

While it may have been slightly unnerving to watch him and his friends paint canopic jar heads at his 6th birthday party, or to spend an afternoon playing priests of Anubis with his Egyptian Playmobil set, I am more than pleased that he has become so knowledgeable on ancient Egypt. Your tales of modern adventuring teenage Egyptian magicians have truly enriched our lives.

I wouldn’t want to neglect his love for your bestselling Greek Mythology series.(He was also asked to stop bringing books about Greek gods and monsters to share with his fellow Kindergarteners). While we have yet to be able to appropriately explain to him how these gods can have children by so many mortals, he has become a virtual lexicon of Greek mythology.

Even though you have given us so much already, I was hoping to ask you a favor. Could you find the time to create just one more series for my son?

Clearly you have a knack for taking ancient stories and making them come alive for modern children. So if you wouldn’t mind, could you try to write him some novels based on the stories of the Hebrew Bible?
Please don’t mistake this as an attempt by a Christian parent to combat the seeming pagan nature of your other works of fiction. On the contrary, I deeply value the way that your books have sustained his interest in the history and stories of Greece and Egypt. His grounding in these early cultures has already taught him more than many adults know about architecture, art and language and has given him a leg up on understanding the foundations of Western Civilization.

I just wish there was a more exciting way than the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) to teach him the great stories of the Old Testament. Certainly the tales of the first murder, child sacrifice, stealing of birthrights, mistaken brides, selling brothers into slavery, plagues, an epic journey through the wilderness, battles, spies, giants, betrayal, exile and return would fill multiple volumes of the young adult fiction that you do so well.

As you consider my request, I have a few suggestions for places that you might find a little inspiration. To encourage a sense of whimsy in the books, I would suggest reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, which retells the story of Noah and his family. You will most likely need to follow her lead and incorporate time travel into this series. To encourage you to fill in the gaps between the biblical stories, you should pick up a copy of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, which tells the stories of Rebekah, Rachel, Leah and Dinah. I know it is a little racy, but as my comment about the love lives of the Greek gods above indicates, I know you don’t shy away from the grittiness of these ancient tales. Finally, you might want to at least thumb through James Michener’s The Source. I myself have never been able to finish it, but it certainly provides inspiration for the epic scope that these ancient biblical stories demand.

I am sure that you will see the potential in this request. I look forward someday soon to snuggling up again with one of your books, and for my son to jump up from my lap and exclaim, “I knew it! I knew it was going to be his twin brother Esau!”

the mother of one of your biggest fans

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The 100 Things Your Child Should Know Before They Start Confirmation Class- Bible Basics

One of my favorite parts of my job (and one of the most time-consuming) is teaching Confirmation Class each school year for our 8th graders.

In a perfect world Confirmation is, among other things:

·         Time for students to consider their baptismal identity and “confirm” the answers to the baptismal questions that were answered on their behalf when they were babies – or even for a student who has yet to be baptized to understand what it means to be baptized and to receive the sacrament at the end of the class.

·         Time for them to explore the particulars of their Christian tradition – what does it mean to be Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, etc?

·         Time to move beyond the Bible “stories” to biblical theology, looking at themes of sin, forgiveness, grace, exile, calling, hope, resurrection, discipleship, etc.

·         Time to prepare to take on the role of an adult member of a congregation, discerning the gifts that God has given them and how they will use them to contribute to the community.
In the real world, Confirmation often is:
·         A course in the basic stories of the Bible
·         An introduction to being a Christian
·         A corrective to misunderstandings or misconceptions of church life
·         An obligation that students take on to make their parents/grandparents happy
There are a lot of ongoing conversations about how Confirmation has turned into the real-world scenario I have described and what we can do about it – improving children’s education programs, having students move through Confirmation at an older age, or better equipping parents to teach their children more basics at home.
There are also many conversations among church leaders and pastors about how busy children’s and families’ lives have become with school, sports and other extracurricular activities. Time that in the past had been set aside to participate in education at church is eaten up by other activities, and it is rare that a family spends intentional time at home reading the Bible or talking about faith together. Yet the desire for children to participate in Confirmation programs does not waver.

In my congregation we have batted around a hundred different ways to deal with these issues, and none of them seem to be a perfect solution. In an attempt to wrap my head around my disappointments with what happens in Confirmation, I have compiled a list of 100 things that I wish students knew BEFORE they stepped into my Confirmation class, and I will be sharing them here over the next few months. Click here to see the entire list.

In my own context, this may result in shifts to how and what we teach children in our Sunday school programs. Maybe it will mean that we choose to delay Confirmation until students can grasp all of these pre-requisites. Maybe it will mean that parents will need to have these conversations/teach these lessons to their children in the home.

Because this blog is oriented toward equipping parents (and other adults) to talk to their children and teach them about faith, I will move through this list (in groups of five) in that context, sharing ways that either through simple conversations or a habit of cracking that children’s Bible together at bedtime, parents can greatly improve their child’s experience of Confirmation.


Bible Basics

1. The Bible is made up of many different books with different authors.

This might seem obvious (be prepared for a lot of these to be obvious), but it is good to start with the most basic. Honestly, just sitting down for 15 minutes with a standard Bible in any translation, it is fairly easy to see that the Bible is broken down into multiple books. The problem is that we often don’t sit down with a regular Bible (not a children’s picture Bible) and look at the table of contents with our children. My son is now at the age where he is doing his first “research” project, and this afternoon it took him all of ten minutes to learn how to look something up in an index. I am pretty sure he has now mastered the skill. Teaching a child how to find something in the Bible is just as simple.

In Confirmation class this topic is taken to the next level as we talk about different types of biblical literature like Histories, Laws, Wisdom, Prophets, Letters and Poetry to name a few. In a successful class we also talk about issues of authorship and how the faith community decided to put the books that are in the Bible IN the Bible.

2. Much of the Bible comes from ancient oral tradition.
It is hard to teach a child the subtle difference between facts and truth, which is something that we try to do in Confirmation class, but it is helpful if students already understand that ancient stories in the Bible developed in ways similar to other ancient stories that they have learned in school.

When we talk about stories from the Bible with children and youth we can always remind them that we tell these stories because generations of people before us have told these stories about God, and that even before they were written down people made sure to tell the stories to one another so that they had a way to understand God together. By the way, this applies to the stories in the Gospels as well, since we know that stories about Jesus were told for at least a generation after his death before the Gospels we have in the Bible today were written down.

In Confirmation class we talk about what it means that the Bible is inspired by God and how we can understand its importance as a guiding influence for our life of faith.

3. The Old Testament is the story of the Israelite people.
Again another obvious one, but it is still clearly an important lesson. Students can be confused  because they know that Christians trace their roots through the Jewish tradition and they know that there are still Jewish people today, but they don’t make the connection that we share these stories – that they were Jewish stories before they were Christian stories. In the same way that you can sit with your child and look at how the Bible is put together, you can take your child to either a map inside a Bible or just a world map and look together at where Israel is/was. Look together at its proximity to Egypt and remind them of the stories of the Exodus.

In Confirmation we talk about the first-century Christians, some of whom were Jewish (including Jesus) and some of whom were not, and how they struggled to work out those differences.

4. The New Testament is the story of the life of Jesus and the early Christians.
Every student should know that a Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ life. I am much more forgiving when it comes to working out the Book of Acts, the Letters of Paul and all of the other New Testament literature, but the Gospels are a must.

In Confirmation we learn about the origins of the Gospels, their unique voices and how they each tell the story of Jesus’ life and teaching in slightly different ways.

5. There are many different modern translations of the Bible.
The first step is to explain to children that the Bible was written originally in Hebrew and Greek, so clearly anything they are able to read is a translation. Depending on your tradition, you may prefer to teach your child from one translation over another, or your church may prefer one over another. I can remember when the New Jerusalem Bible translation came out and my Dad bought or received a copy (I don’t remember which) and how cool it was to have a different translation in our home. I also remember finding among my parents’ books the popular 1970’s paraphrase called “The Way,” which seemed so radically different to me that it begged to be read. Introducing different translations can be a great way to motivate children to read the Bible more carefully.

In Confirmation class we talk about how different translations can serve different purposes (study, devotion, etc.) and how for those who are not able to read the Bible in the original languages, using multiple translations can help us think differently about what a passage might say by hearing it in different ways.

So, five down… 95 to go. I have a basic outline of what I expect the rest of the list to include, but I would love to hear what you think should be on the list!