Stories Are Crucial for Kids (And Adults)

I’ve just finished my first listen-through of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol for this Christmas season. Yes, I said first. I have an audio version read by the incredible Tim Curry. He pours so much into the story that I still find myself tearing up at his performance of Bob Cratchett’s loss of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s regret at rejecting Belle. That story reminds me of so much that is good in humanity. It reminds me that God made us good and we need a stiff, if frightening, reminder of God’s expectation occasionally.

In some discussions lately, I feel like stories have been getting a bad rap in the church. In particular, it seems like as people grow older, the stories in the Bible seem to feel less meaningful than abstract discussion of doctrine or nuance of interpretation. While I, for one, do enjoy a good roundabout, late-night jaunt through the finer points of theology, kids aren’t really built for that.

Kids go through very specific developmental phases as they age. At each stage their thinking is defined by typical thought patterns that are generally common to that group. For example, children don’t really understand the idea that there is a perspective outside of their own until they are around 7 years old. Think about that for a second. Children typically aren’t wired to handle abstract discussions about things like faith, love, and kindness until the age of twelve – and that’s when the concepts start to make sense. And, remember, these age categories are fluid and change depending on the child. Some hit markers early, and some later.

That said, kids learn best through storytelling. The story of the Good Samaritan makes way more sense of the phrase “love your neighbor” than a discussion about the concept of kindness. Stories help make abstract concepts concrete. But stories do more than that.

Stories help make sense of our faith. Yes, we can talk about trusting God through the toughest times, but the stories of Job, Elijah, Moses, Abraham, and Mary humanize the concept and make it more real. One word that occurs regularly in the law and prophets is “remember.” Whether God is remembering His people’s plight or the people are remembering their covenant, remembering happens in the context of a story. If you were to read the entire Hebrew Bible, you’d notice how often the Exodus story is retold over and over in the prophets. You might even catch that Jesus intentionally places his act of self-sacrifice within the context of that same story. The story, the narrative that God is crafting throughout Scripture tells more about who God is than an abstract discussion. God is active in these stories and that action shows us His nature.

Just because you learned or enjoyed something as a child doesn’t mean it has no bearing on you as an adult. Sure, I grew up, but I still enjoy the foods, stories, and movies I watched as a child. In fact, I get so much more from them now that I have more experience.

So don’t give up on stories just because you grew up. Instead, live in them. Let the stories change who you are becoming. Don’t forget the power of a story to influence who you are.

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When You Realize What Went Wrong… [Sunday School Review]

This past Sunday, our kids learned about Ezra and the post-exilic community rebuilding the Temple and restoring the Temple rituals as well as Ezra’s public confession of his people’s guilt. We can see from this story that God not only knows when we seen, but sees when we’ve repented and are ready to return. In short, God sees our hearts.

The story begins by noting how the construction of the Temple begins to take place in Jerusalem. This is the Second Temple, marking the beginning of a new age – different than the First Temple period inaugurated by Solomon. It’s interesting to note that the people set up the altar first, a priority also for the Israelites when they first entered the Promised Land after wandering for forty years. In a sense, these Jews understand their history and are following a well-worn path. Tying themselves to Solomon, they also begin using the altar for worship during Sukkot (the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles/Tents) that commemorates the wandering mentioned before. These returning Jews (back from Persia) want more than anything to tie themselves to what came before – to start over fresh after the pain and silence of the exile.

When Ezra is introduced, the Bible does everything but say, “Hey, guys, this is basically Aaron and Moses wrapped up into one guy! He’s super neat, and you should probably listen to him since he knows the Law better than the back of his hand!” Seriously, though, the text goes out of its way to point out that Ezra can trace his lineage straight back to Aaron – the first high priest, meaning that Ezra is qualified to perform the duties of the high priest. The Bible points out his extensive study and work as a scribe (someone who copies and studies the Scriptures) to make the tie-in with Moses – who was the famous law-giver in Exodus.

Ezra arrives to help the exiles solidify the Temple worship and shore up the faithful exercise of authority by Zerubabbel and the priest Jeshua. Ezra notes, though, that there was something off – that the people had intermarried. Intermarriage often leads to trouble in the Biblical narrative, because it often led to compromise in faithfulness to God. The phrase, “What could it hurt to let my wife/husband offer some incense to [insert foreign deity here] every couple of days?” was probably fairly regular in those scenarios. That compromise led to more, and eventually, after a few hundred years, there are idols in the Temple and God’s having to send another foreign army to clean house and start over with another remnant. Ezra shook his head and said, “Not again.”

Ezra, acting in place of Moses, Josiah, Esther and Mordecai, Jehoshaphat, and more, tore his clothes, fasted, wept, and fell to the ground in acknowledgement of the people’s disregard for faithfulness to God, going all the way back to before the exile. Ezra prays, including himself in the plea for forgiveness, noting that his and the people’s ancestors and they themselves were guilty of violating the covenant. This right here is the function of godly leaders, placing themselves squarely in the midst of the guilt and owning the sin themselves and pleading for forgiveness on their people’s behalf. On seeing Ezra’s public show of remorse and repentance, they, too, were stricken with realization of their own wrongdoing and repented themselves.

Over the course of the biblical narrative, it almost seems like God is anxiously sitting on the edge of his chair waiting to jump up and welcome his repentant people home, to reveal Himself as a God of mercy. Over and over again he speaks with his people of consequences and forgiveness, but often times the people choose consequences over forgiveness. Here, though, God could see Ezra’s heart, and the people’s hearts as they realized, repented, and asked for forgiveness and another chance. How great is our God who gives more chances than we deserve!

When have you had a moment of realization of your own wrongdoing? How did you react? How do you model God’s discernment of heart in your family? How does your family’s system of discipline and forgiveness model that of God?

 

 

 

A Dirty, Filthy Christmas

(PHOTO: JOE ALBLAS)

It’s been pretty worn out the joke, “But it wasn’t a very Silent Night now was it?” Therefore, I’ll spare you the trite joke at a woman’s expense, especially since I’ve now watched the pregnancy and birth process first hand. It’s clear Silent Night was written by men who probably weren’t allowed in the birthing chambers.

That said, there’s so much more to the Christmas story than, again, pointing out that childbirth is a long, difficult process. Let’s start with the two ladies who God chooses to kick this thing off.

Elizabeth is visited first. The old blessing, “May you be like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel,” certainly stuck with her. Like those women of the ancient world, Elizabeth found herself unable to have children and getting up there in years. Those around her would have been asking, “What did she do to tick off God?” Or maybe asking the same about her husband. In spite of her plight and faithful suffering, God decides to bless her with a son. Suddenly, Luke kicks off with a nod to Genesis with an angel appearing to Zechariah (playing the part of Abraham) to announce the birth of a son. In a flip on the Abraham story, Zechariah is the one who doubts and receives a rebuke, while Elizabeth faithfully accepts. Luke is getting us ready for an unexpected announcement by using this familiar Jewish formula (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and others.)

And so the story continues with an angel appearing to a woman who was not only unmarried, but had never been with a man sexually. The story of the Jewish matriarch was about to be taken to the extreme as Gabriel announced to Mary. (Gabriel first appears in the book of Daniel, again harkening back to the time of silence, the coming Son of Man, and Jewish hopes!) This Matriarch wasn’t just having trouble conceiving, the very idea of it was impossible! But here God was, taken his own story and filling it full of even more meaning by having a virgin give birth! Those familiar with the Genesis and rest of the Hebrew Bible would find this story shockingly new and yet familiar at the same time!

And now onto the dirty stuff! Ok, so I’m a nerd. (Surprise, that, right?) I am one of those people who find Leviticus and Deuteronomy fascinating. I find them fascinating for what they have to say about the life of Jesus.

So, as you’re probably aware, there were taboos in the Mosaic Law – meaning things that could prevent one from entering the Temple grounds without going through a specific cleansing ritual. One of those taboos was coming into contact with blood or issuing forth blood, such as menstruating, or giving birth. Women went through a specific cleansing ritual (as well as mandatory time off during their period) in order to join the congregation in the Temple after periods or childbirth. (John Goldingay goes into a good bit of detail in his commentary on Leviticus about this topic.)

That said, consider that Jesus entered the world covered in blood. His first act was to become unclean on our behalf. He would continue through life willingly taking on the state of “unclean” or “taboo” on behalf of others. Jesus touched lepers and others with disease – taboo. He visited tombs and walked near the dead to raise them back to life – taboo. He associated with sinners and Gentiles – taboo. Why would Jesus do that?

Well, consider that one way to translate God’s “forgiveness” is for God to “carry” the transgression. Jesus is a metaphor come to life in that he “carries” our filth, uncleanness, and sin to the cross where he destroys it.

Consider in Leviticus where the blood of sacrifices is often sprinkled – not on the people (except for once a year on the Day of Atonement) but on the furniture and altar of the Temple. The sacrifices were to cleanse the Sanctuary of our taboo that we brought with us into the Temple so that God could meet with His people. Now, bring that forward to Jesus – his blood covers us, making us clean so that God can dwell among us, in us. The promise of Emmanuel, God with us, is made more complete by us becoming the place where God dwells, where God meets with His people.

So, no. The Christmas Story is not clean. It’s dirty, covered in blood and messy. And, yet, it’s reassuring.

Stop Giving Me that Look, Deuteronomy IS Exciting! [Sunday School Review]

This Sunday, our children learned about King Josiah coming to rule in Judah and his extreme reaction to finding the Law and his extreme zeal for purging the land of idolatry and returning Judah to faithfulness. It is a powerful example of how God’s Word can change us.

He was eight when they crowned him. He had good, faithful advisers and regents who lent him their aid as he grew into his kingship. God had been faithful do Josiah as the descendant of David. Josiah, though, felt uneasy for some reason, and gathered money to begin repairing the Temple that Solomon had built. Josiah had been raised on the stories of what God had done for His people, and wanted to make sure that His temple was in good shape.

During the repairs, a scroll appeared among some of the junk drawers. When the attendants and priests found the scroll and read it, the blood rushed from their faces. Shaphan, one of the scribes, ran to Josiah. “Your Highness, you need to hear this.”

“What is it, Shaphan?” asked Josiah, genuinely curious.

Shaphan proceeded to read from Deuteronomy. With each law and violation of that covenant that Josiah heard and realized, his face and posture sunk lower. Near the end, Shaphan spoke aloud the curses in store for the people when they violated the covenant and were unfaithful to God. Josiah couldn’t take it anymore and tore his clothes and wept at the unfaithfulness of his people. He realized there was no way to avoid the curses, especially since the people had willingly accepted the terms of the covenant.

“Shaphan,” said Josiah, through tears, “go see Huldah, the prophetess here in Jerusalem. Ask if there is anything we can do… We need to get started if there is.” Shaphan nodded and immediately set out.

Huldah replied, “Tell your king, that he’s right. Nothing will stop the destruction from coming. It’s in the contract. However, because of His Majesty’s repentance and genuine desire to return to God, a delay from the destruction is given. Josiah will not live to see the destruction and will be gathered to his fathers.” Shaphan thanked Huldah and returned to his master.

Upon hearing the news, Josiah acted decisively, destroying every tiny bit of idolatry in his kingdom and the areas formerly occupied by the Northern Kingdom. He cleared the Temple and restored right worship. His attitude was one of zeal, a warrior who acts in the name of his own King. Josiah was compared to David for all of his efforts. Although, ultimately, he too would die in battle with Egypt, and the land would return to unfaithfulness with the next king.

Josiah heard the Word of God and was changed. He recognized the problems in himself and his kingdom and immediately sought to set things right. His attitude, especially in the way the passage reads, indicates that his attitude was exactly what the Torah had in mind – a man who loved God and kept the covenant with all his heart, soul, and strength. He embodied the transformation that God wanted the law to affect on his people.

How has hearing the Word of God changed you? How does reading God’s Word affect your attitude? Do you find yourself thinking or acting differently from others? How does your understanding of God’s Word impact how you interact with your family? We should all strive to be people who are constantly in the Bible, and not people who are caught unaware by it.

 

If you’re looking for the clue… check for things in bold.

A Great Reason to Have a Tupperware Cabinet [Sunday School Review]

This Sunday, our children heard about how God used Elisha to care for a widow. This story shows us that God gives us what we need. It may not come how we expect, and may not come when we expect it, but God will provide for us.

Elisha, Elijah’s successor, had been spending a lot of time in conflict with the king of the Northern Kingdom. He had been frustrated at his lack of faithfulness to the Lord and found himself rubbing his temples to rid himself of the headache he had been developing. He felt a little grumpy, and wondered if having to deal with kings is what drove Elijah to being a little prickly.

A woman came to Elisha. He knew her. She was the widow of one of the men who had always listened to the prophets. They were a faithful family. Elisha appreciated that. And this woman, in particular, was busting her tail to provide for the two sons she was raising alone.

“Elisha,” she said, “I need help.”

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“We’re in a bad place. You know finding work is hard, and the boys are still learning how to take care of the farm. We’re in a lot of debt, and the creditor said the next time he comes I better have the money or he’s taking the boys. Elisha, they’re all I have left.”

“What do you have around the house?” asked Elisha, searching for a solution.

“What do I have around the – ?” she asked incredulously. She stopped, breathed, and sighed. “All I’ve got left is a jug of oil.”

“Cool,” replied Elisha, “scour your house, talk to every neighbor you can and gather as many empty pots, pans, vases, jugs, and other vessels you can. Then, go in your house, shut the door behind you and your kids and start pouring oil. Sell what’s in the vessels, pay off the debt, and live on whatever’s left over.”

The woman blinked a few times in stunned silence. However, instead of arguing, she acted immediately. She sent her sons around to the neighbors to gather the pots. Then, she closed the door and started pouring oil. Her original jug didn’t run out until they had filled every jug and pot in the house. They had enough to pay off the debt and live carefully off of after they had sold the oil.

Times get tough and life throws us curveballs. The one things we can depend on is that God gives us what we need. Again, like this story, it may not come how we expect or when, but we can trust God no matter what.

What do you have to be thankful for that God has provided for you and your family? When was a time you remember God giving you what you needed at the right time? How do you model depending on God to your kids?

This Altar’s On Fire! (a la Alicia Keys) [Sunday School Review]

This Sunday our children learned about Elijah and his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. In this dramatic meeting, God shows his power and reminds His people who their God is. We, as readers and listeners, get a reminder that God is real.

How did I get myself into another one of these messes? thought Elijah. The life of a prophet was a hard one, especially if you stuck with delivering only messages God gave you… they tended to not be incredibly favorable to those in power and often warned of coming trouble. But, Elijah remained faithful, if not troubled, about his vocation.

He looked out over the valley and wished someone had invented camera technology, because the odd dance and other less family-friendly rituals would have made some great memes. The prophets of Baal were dancing about, chanting, singing, shouting. Some were even cutting themselves in an attempt to get their god’s attention. Now, Elijah was a compassionate sort to those who truly needed help, so he shouted some encouragement.

“Maybe you should get a little louder!” shouted Elijah. “Maybe your god’s running an errand, or in a conversation. Maybe he’s on a trip. Maybe he’s on the potty!” Elijah knew the last one was going a little too far, but if he was stuck up here on Mt Carmel with these nuts he was going to enjoy himself.

The drought had been going on for a long time. The land was parched and dry, tinder, really. Elijah’s home country was one that depended on rain. There weren’t too many rivers or irrigation systems to maintain all of the farms. And the rain had not come in so long. Elijah had announced the famine… in a way as to prove Baal’s ineffectiveness. Since Baal was a storm god, and rain was supposed to be his thing, Elijah hoped that the drought would be enough to shock everyone back to reality. But… nope. Israel was known for being a stiff-necked people, after all.

Finally, it was Elijah’s turn. He had almost fallen asleep waiting for the prophets of Baal to tire themselves out. I really should have set a time limit. This is ridiciculous, he thought. He stood up, stretched, and called for some vats of water while he prepped the altar. Elijah took twelve uncut stones, stacked them in formation – one for each tribe of Israel. He arranged the wood on top for the most efficient burn, and then turned his attention to the bull. He ended the bull, quickly and with as little pain as possible, and prepared the parts to be burned on the fire. After selecting the right parts, he arranged the pieces on the altar and stood back to assess the aesthetics. He snapped, realized he had forgotten something, and dug a deep trench around the altar. This wasn’t protocol, but Elijah knew it would make God’s point better. Satisfied, he nodded, and then motioned for the water to be brought. There was a drought, so having water was a big deal, and four big vats of water were valuable – not to mention also being the element of creation closely associated with Baal.

Elijah had them pour the vats over top of the altar. And then instructed them to fill them up and do it three times. Elijah figured if Baal couldn’t light his own sacrifice, maybe he could prevent someone else from lighting theirs… Elijah shrugged.

Elijah stepped out from the crowd, but still well away from the soaked, dripping, soggy altar and sacrifice. He raised his hands and prayed aloud, “Lord! Let it be known that you are God and I am your servant. Answer me, that this people may acknowledge you!” As the last word left Elijah’s mouth, all of the air around the altar seemed to be sucked inward as a column of fire burst onto the altar. In an instant of fire, fury, deafening roar, searing heat, and breathless awe, the sacrifice, the altar, the water, and some of the ground had been obliterated. There was a moment of profound and terrified silence as the crowd looked on. There was a moment of realization where the crowd cheered for the Lord and shouted part of the Shema, “The Lord is God, the Lord alone!” They also realized they should probably do some groveling for the unfaithfulness, so they threw themselves down to the ground in worship.

After letting all of this sink in, and watching the faces of the stunned prophets of Baal fall lower and lower with each passing second, Elijah called the people of Israel to give the prophets their lawful end. And the people obliged.

This is a neat story that provides an amazing proof for the Israelites that God was indeed their God and deserved their praise and faithfulness. Today, though, we don’t often get proof like this. God is real, though. We sense God through the small things, the everyday moments when God enters our lives through a friend, a kind word, a gift at just the right time.

How do you know God is real? What moments from your own life solidify your faith? How do you share God’s reality with your family?

Foreshadowing: Wisdom, Folly, and One Heck of a Court Case

This past Sunday, our children learned about Solomon and how God gave him wisdom. God came and found Solomon, which shows us that God knows what we need.

A quick reading of this passage, 1 Kings 3, will give you the idea that Solomon was a great guy, much like his father. And you’d be right… but he also had some of his father’s more dangerous flaws.

We learn pretty quickly that Solomon has some political savvy in that he immediately looks to seal an alliance with Egypt, still a powerful player in that area of the world, through marriage. We’d think that marriage to keep the peace is an ok deal – excepting the fact that God warned against this sort of thing because sharing a life together often means sharing a faith – or a couple of faiths in this case. We should also note that Solomon already has a penchant for visiting shrines – not all of them dedicated to the one, true God. In this regard, we are shown the two things that will bring Solomon down – his lust after women (which he inherited from his dad), and his fascination with foreign gods (which he did not get from his dad.)

It was at one of these shrines where God approaches Solomon and offers to give Solomon a blank check. What will Solomon ask for, we wonder. Riches? Long Life? Power? Security?

“Wisdom,” answers Solomon. Sure, if you read the passage, he’s much more eloquent. Despite my poor paraphrase, the fact is that God is pleased with his answer and gave him wisdom, along with all the other things. The long life bit comes with a catch – that Solomon would remain faithful as David did. Again, for all of David’s mistakes, being unfaithful to worshiping the one God was not one of them.

After this vision, Solomon jumped up and sprinted back to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Ark. Seems as though Solomon figured out where his loyalty needed to lie pretty quickly.

The rest of the chapter deals with Solomon’s effective, but troubling method of solving a court case involving two women. The world was a much more brutal place historically speaking.

God saw that Solomon needed wisdom and approached him. God often does that with us. Now, we may not always recognize what we need, but God does know what we need. Paul writes that the Spirit speaks for us in groans that words can’t express. In a way, that’s very comforting to know that my deepest needs are constantly being communicated to the Father.

When has God met your needs lately? How have you been surprised by God meeting your needs? Take some time and share around the dinner table times when God met your family’s needs.