Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wisdom of the Old Testament: 5 (out of 100) Things Your Child Should Know before Confirmation Class

 It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I am mindful of this truism every time I sing a limp version of The Byrds 1960’s classic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to try to convince a class of Confirmation students that they know a piece of scripture from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. It never works.

I don’t think it has anything to do with my singing (though I do find it to be a difficult song to pull off a cappella). They are just one too many generations removed from the 1960’s for the song to ring any bells. As depressing as that is, what is even more discouraging is that when I read the passage to them directly from the Bible, it is just as unfamiliar to them.

In this ongoing conversation about the things that can help your child get the most out of their Confirmation experience, I have included five examples of texts from the Old Testament wisdom/prophetic literature that should be a part of a student’s biblical psyche before the start Confirmation Class. You can read here the previous posts I have written in this series.

In Confirmation Class we give special attention to the varieties of types of literature contained in the Bible, including wisdom literature and prophetic literature. Ideally, students would come to class able to recognize passages like those listed below; they can learn in class how to categorize them into different styles.

The passages below cannot be experienced through a children’s Bible – mainly because children’s Bibles notoriously omit anything that is not narrative. We most frequently encounter them in worship settings, whether it be a Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service or a Funeral or Memorial Service. These are the passages of scripture that are known to make grown men cry whenserving at liturgist on a Sunday morning (something that happened just a few weeks ago in our congregation). When I try to really push students on the Ecclesiastes passage (or even Psalm 23), I say something like, “Certainly you have heard this at a funeral.” And then they tell me they have never been to a funeral. That warrants an entirely separate post.

Before I walk through the things that these passages can help us explore in a Confirmation Class, I would like to recommend an incredibly helpful resource that will facilitate reading beyond the narrative portions of scripture with children.

Making Time for God, has been out for many years, and continues to be the only resource I have found that gives parents an easy way to read and discuss things like the Proverbs, the Psalms and the Prophets with children, in addition to many other scriptures from the Old and New Testaments. Please consider checking it out.

Below, I will include the full text for each passage (in the New Revised Standard Version) and then describe the conversations these can lead us to.

31. Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;  3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.  4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.  5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
Psalm 23 serves two primary purposes for me in teaching Confirmation Class. First, it is a wonderful example of how we can use scripture in prayer and in times of sorrow or anxiety. Inevitably, when my students write year-end statements of faith, they talk about the Bible as something that they can turn to for comfort and help when they are in need. I am never exactly sure how they live that out, but Psalm 23, and the Psalms more generally, can provide a wonderful lesson on how the Bible addresses so many of our personal emotions and experiences. I try to share with my students that for me the Psalms provide comfort in knowing that thousands of years before me another person felt the same things.

Additionally, Psalm 23 is my go-to passage for helping students understand what a Bible paraphrase is. Operating under the assumption that the words of Psalm 23 are very familiar, I have the class read them together, and then I read them the version in Eugene Peterson’s The Message to illustrate how a paraphrase takes the intentions of the text and puts them in modern language. This exercise is much less effective if they are not already familiar with the Psalm.

32. Proverbs

So obviously I have not provided a specific text here for the Proverbs, but would instead simply want students to come to class knowing that there is a book of Proverbs in the Bible. As an older child I was always fascinated by the Proverbs – their bluntness and practicality, their harshness and wisdom. Plus they were way easier to read than a book like Leviticus.

If students are already aware of this quirky book of Confucian-style wisdom, in Confirmation class they can have their understanding of Proverbs and wisdom opened up even further by reading together from the first three chapters of Proverbs and talking about the personification of wisdom as a woman. What might it mean that the Bible talks about wisdom in the feminine? What does it mean when she speaks of being present at the moment of creation? This is just the kind of envelope-pushing stuff that can really open a student’s mind to the complexities of the Bible.

33. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;  3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;  4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;  5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;  6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;  7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;  8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
When looking together at this passage from Ecclesiastes, we can talk about how the Bible contains ancient reflections on the human condition and God’s part in that condition. Does being a Christian mean that there is no suffering or that life is always perfect? How do we as people of faith, people who believe in God, weather the ups and downs of life? We can talk about how this passage still speaks truth about what it means to be a person in the world, even though it is thousands of years old. We can talk about how not all scriptures are as relatable as this one; sometimes there are so many culturally specific elements to a story that it is hard to understand how it relates to us today, but then there are some like this one that could have been written by a modern poet or songwriter.

34. Isaiah 9:2-7 & 11:1-9

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
When we talk about the prophets in class we can talk about the political and religious role of the prophet, and how the prophet sometimes speaks to God, sometimes hears a message from God, and sometimes is called upon to speak that message to a people who are not all that interested in hearing it.

When students are familiar with the two passages above we can talk further about the Jewish understanding of the Messiah that they reflect and its relationship to our Christian understanding of Jesus. Why do we read these passages on Christmas Eve? How do they reflect who we understand Jesus Christ to be? How can we be properly mindful of the context in which they were originally written and the concerns they addressed whether war or exile or the promise of a return to the Promised Land. We can even ask the question about which of these prophecies we still await to be fulfilled. With all of the violence and war in the Old Testament, how do we understand the prophets’ visions of peace and justice?

35. Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  2 "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words."  3 So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel.  4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.  5 Then the word of the LORD came to me:  6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,  8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.  9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,  10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.  11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
This is the most obscure passage of the five, but it is a passage that I have come to use frequently in Confirmation Class. It is a lovely passage to use to talk about the prophet Jeremiah and to help students understand that there are a host of distinct prophetic voices in the Old Testament. It encourages exploring more creative imagery for God beyond God as a Father or Creator. What if we understood God as an artist who shapes and molds the world for a purpose? Pottery is actually a pretty muscle-y art form. In this text God is not a painter or a musician, but a strong potter who pushes and pulls at the clay and even scraps a project that doesn’t work out. How does this challenge the ways that we like to talk about God? What does it mean to honor a covenant with God – as Israel was supposed to do? How does this passage describe the punishment that the people of Israel would have experienced when they were removed from the Promise Land?

I would love to hear more from others about the important pieces from the wisdom books and the prophets that you think children and youth should be familiar with, and the ways that you have found to introduce these foundational pieces of scripture.

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