It’s Getting Hot in Here… [Sunday School Review]

This past Sunday our children experienced the story from the book of Daniel describing the boldness of three young Jewish men in the face of a king’s wrath. We learned that God helps us stand strong. With God on our side, we can face nearly anything.

So our story begins with a severe act of arrogance and humorous self-service on the part of King Nebuchadnezzar, whom I will from now on call “Nebby,” because of a certain vegetable retelling and because the other is tedious to type out. He builds a gigantic 3-story tall statue and demands everyone to worship it. Now, the Jewish Study Bible points out that the lists of officials and musical instruments may be a humorous addition, especially when read allowed. (I did this on Sunday, and the tediousness of the lists did start to become funny as I read the passages out loud to the kids,)

In the midst of all the music and bowing, a few people noticed that three men, in particular, weren’t bowing: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (Daniel is conspicuously absent from this story, if you’ve noticed. Maybe he’s on a diplomatic journey? Maybe this was a later addition to the book?) And so these jealous officials who probably wanted the job the Jewish young men had snitched. Can we just say that snitching and gossip is probably the most damaging, petty activity we all participate in? Consider that an angry king is likely to kill more than just the ones irritating him – so these snitches are also selfishly risking their own lives.

Anyway, the king, angry as can be, calls up the three young men and gives them another chance. These young men, though, have an answer prepared. I stand by my statement I made in a class recently, the Jewish people have some A-grade smack talkers, and these three are near the top of the class with David and Elijah.

“We don’t even need time to consider, King,” they said. “Our God can save us. And even if He wouldn’t, we still refuse to worship your statue.” Check that for a second. They have faith that God can save them, but might not. They still stood by their decision. These aren’t fair-weather followers of God, these are die-hard, bad mamma-jammas that stake their very lives on Who they trust.

So, angrier than ever before, Nebby has the fires stoked even hotter, enough to kill the guards who throw in the young men, still wearing all of their clothes. I would have liked to have seen Nebby’s face at this point, expecting the choked screams of young men, instead to hear nothing but the fire’s roar, and maybe some nervously happy laughter in the furnace. He looks in and sees not three, but four guys and one is considerably different.

The men are brought out and must stand for inspection. No smoke smell. No burns. No singes. Not even one stray, crispy hair. Nebby is impressed and makes a decree threatening death and destruction to anyone who speaks a word against the God of the Jews.

This story is impressive, not least because it shows God’s tremendous power to save, even at the last possible moment. Our three protagonists had no idea that God would wait until they were actually in the most danger before acting, but I’m sure they were grateful that their faith had been recognized and blessed.

We face challenges every day. We face moments where we need to stand strong. We face the temptation to gossip and spread rumors, or lies. We stare down certain ridicule for standing up for someone being unfairly mocked or accused. We face flashes of anger where hateful words or actions flare up. We face moments of weakness where our secrets and addictions threaten to take over. These are moments when we have to make a choice to stand strong. for our own sake, and for others.

How do you model standing strong in the face of challenges? Do you risk being mocked instead of staying silent? Do you starve an addiction instead of giving in? Do you risk angering someone by telling them to mind their own business? What do your children see from your behavior? How do they see you standing strong with God’s help?

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Before You Read “Teaching Your Children Healthy Sexuality” by Jim Burns [Book Review]

I’ve recently been working to provide more resources for parents in our children’s ministry. We recently received the Parenting Your ___________ series by Kristin Ivy from Orange. One of the other available titles was Teaching Your Children Healthy Sexuality by Jim Burns, PhD. I got it, reviewed it, and had some mixed feelings about it.

First, the book hasn’t been updated in a decade. The copy I received from Orange was copyrighted 2008. It shows. There are references to MySpace, MTV as a music video hub, and some others that painfully date this work. Also, recent events and shifts in culture are not addressed either, which can be jarring.

Second, the book has a nasty habit of saying “studies show” or “research tells us” and then not footnoting the study in question. I find myself incredibly suspicious when authors do this, because it can indicate a lack of faith in the study by the author himself. If an author is going to quote a study, we, as readers, have a right to know which one, so that we can go and look it up ourselves to interpret the data.

Third, the book takes some problematic turns when it comes to girls. As much as it is trying to change the dynamic of blaming women for every sexual problem and temptation, it falls into some traditional ways of thinking that still feel very negative toward women. For example, the author, in one anecdote, takes it upon himself to have a discussion with a group of young ladies on a youth trip about how men think and view them to help them reevaluate their attire choices. In fairness, he does so in the presence of his wife, and the situation did merit a discussion… but why not let the adult woman in the room tackle the issue?

All that said, there is some good material to help you think through conversations concerning sexuality. Dr. Burns pulls few punches and will cause you to really consider how you speak to your children about sex. There are helpful outlines about age-appropriate conversations and the time windows in which to have them. He even challenges parents to evaluate their own lives in light of being pure. I do appreciate his definition of purity, which goes much deeper than “don’t have sex or you’ll be dirty.” His definition includes honoring God, honoring family, honoring self, and respecting the opposite sex. It’s a more holistic approach that I appreciate.

Depending on how you lean, this book could be exactly what you want, or could be a use what you can situation. Either way, I think it is ultimately worth a read, but, as always, take what you read with a grain of salt and filter it through whats best for your family.

When the Stick Makes Sense [Sunday School Review Psalm 23/Jeremiah]

Over the past two weeks, our children have explored Psalm 23 and Jeremiah 1 to better understand that God watches over us and God knows who we really are. Psalm 23 is one of the greatest poetic works in the entire ancient world that continues to have a lasting comforting influence on people even today. Jeremiah 1 is the ordination, if you will, of one of the youngest prophets into a lifetime of pain, solitude, and final hope.

Psalm 23’s poetic language presented by David brings us an image of God as loving, ever-present, and willing to take on the role of guiding us through the darker times into hope. David’s hope of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever should strike us as unique – since only the priests could enter the tabernacle, and the high priest alone could enter the Holy of Holies once a year. The Holy of Holies was considered the place where heaven and earth met, so, in effect, the high priest would enter God’s realm and presence once per year to offer sacrifice for himself and the people. But David claims a dwelling place there. David’s poetry tells of a deeper hope of dwelling with God himself in perfect peace at last, even as goodness and mercy follow him. The word translated “mercy” here is a complex word meaning covenantal faithfulness, love, mercy, and much more. The complexity, says author Carolyn Custis James, is difficult to relate in a single word.

Jeremiah has gotten a bad rap over the years. We have a word “jeremiad” which means “a poetic complaint or lament,” which seems like a cheap legacy for what Jeremiah lived through. His calling involved a series of visions where God called Jeremiah to service as a prophet, touching his mouth and commissioning it to speak His words in response to the protest that Jeremiah was young and not a good speaker. [This is only the beginning of the comparisons to Moses, which surprised me how many there were.]

The second vision involved God showing Jeremiah an almond branch. “Yes, Lord, I see an almond branch.”

“Good,” replied God, “I’m watching Israel.” Ok… what? Talk about a non sequitur. Actually, we miss some pretty good Hebrew/Aramaic wordplay here. The word for “branch” sounds like the word for “watch” in the original language. If God were to pull this one today, he might show an Apple Watch to make his pun. But God was indeed watching Israel. The third vision involved boiling water being poured out on Judah from the North – from Babylon. This would be the beginning of Jeremiah’s challenges. But God again encouraged Jeremiah, telling him that God would make him like a city with walls, hard as bronze and iron, able to stand against kings and priests.

And Jeremiah would. He would go on to live, unmarried, to symbolize the uselessness of marrying and having children when destruction was coming. He would repeatedly challenge the power structures of Judah to the point of being persecuted and thrown in a pit. He would, along with many in Judah, be carried away to Babylon to finish out his prophetic journey with messages of hope, repentance, and return. God would command Jeremiah to purchase land before he left for Babylon as a symbol that the people would return.

God chose Jeremiah because he knew Jeremiah, had crafted him uniquely, and had planned for his vocation from before his birth. God knew Jeremiah would have the courage and fortitude to hold out against a kingdom and priesthood unlikely to listen to his message. And God knows us, too. He has crafted us in a similar way, with gifts and talents in order to further His kingdom in some way. We may not be called as specifically as Jeremiah, but God encourages us to use our talents to do big things, regardless of our age.

We can live with boldness and courage knowing that God is watching us and that He knows us. How do you model God’s call on your life to your children? How do your choices and interactions with them teach them these qualities about God?

Empty

During our Christmas family service, I had put a small manger on the stage to serve as a decorative reminder of why we were there that morning. I also put a small treasure chest, and bottles of frankincense and myrrh as well, because I have them, that’s why. In our worship center, we also have a stained glass cross above our baptistry. Looking at both I had a strange sensation and realization: every man made object we’ve built to hold God is empty.

Think about it. After the Babylonian exile and final destruction in AD 70 of the Temple, the glory of God had departed the Temple and had long departed the Tabernacle. After years of silence, we built a manger, but he grew out of that. We built houses, but he never stayed for long. We built a cross and hung him there, but he was taken down. We built a tomb to hold him there, but it is empty.

Even now we build things to try and hold God. We build political parties, but does God dwell there? Probably not if the spirit of the people involved is any indication. We build groups seeking our own ends within the church, and is God there? Again, the spirit is often a hint. We continue to build buildings, build systems, and build alliances to contain God, as if we were arrogant enough to think we could contain Him in all of His majesty.

So where is he? Well, wherever the spirit dwells. He dwells in the gathering of His people, in hands that serve food to the poor, in feet that carry water to the thirsty, in words that carry comfort and hope to the imprisoned and oppressed. Then again, humans didn’t make any of those, did they?’

God fashioned the world, fashioned humans, fashioned the church. He dwells in among what He has made, and we are his creations. May we look with anticipation on the day when He dwells with His people in His fullness!

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

The Patience of… well… Job [Sunday School Review

This past Sunday, our children learned about Job and how God doesn’t always take away the sad times. We all have tough days and even tough years, but Job’s trust in God and God’s response shows us that God is bigger than our sadness and pain and we can trust God no matter what.

 

If Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof had gotten his wish granted, he would’ve looked much like Job, who is, in fact, a rich man. Job, however, is not an Israelite. He was “a man from the east.” In other words, that clues us into the fact that this story is going to explore God’s relationships outside of the bounds of the particular Covenant with Israel.

 

So Job’s rich. The first chapter spells it out in numbers of children and animals and servants. But then a surprising character shows up – the Satan. In this story, he acts less like a tempter, and more like a rogue, overzealous prosecutor in the heavenly court – which he has access to. If that surprises you, it’s about to get weirder. Satan gives a report to the King, God, from his various travels. God suggests taking a gander at Job, “Isn’t he faithful?” asks God.

 

“Yeah, but take away his stuff and he’ll be as whiny and entitled as anybody else,” Satan replies.

 

“We’ll see. You can try. I don’t think it’ll work, though. Don’t touch him, though,” says God with a subtle warning.

 

“Of course,” says Satan, eagerly trotting out to get to work.

 

[Consider that this scene reminds me strongly of Jesus’ warning to Peter. “Satan has asked to sift you like wheat.” Jesus encourages Peter, maybe even hoping Peter will stay strong like Job. Job and Peter both face tests, but Job is rebuked, but praised and rewarded for his response (questions and all) while Peter is seen negatively, but is still reinstated later.]

 

In a scene very reminiscent of Robin of Locksley’s return from the Crusade in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Job receives a barrage of bad news delivered by messengers who begin as another is still speaking. In one fell swoop, Job’s animals, servants, and even children are taken from him. Job is crushed. He tears his robe and shaves his head in mourning. And… he falls to the ground and worships.

 

“Born naked and dying naked, the Lord gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,” says Job through tears.

 

Again, Satan is reporting from his travels in the heavenly court.

 

“What about Job?” asks God.

 

“Yeah,” replies Satan, rolling his eyes, “what about him? Sure, he still praised you on the last one, but take away his health and he’ll curse you to your face.”

 

“Just don’t kill him,” God warns.

 

As if all of that wasn’t enough, now Job has boils from the bottom of his foot to the top of his head. He pours ashes on his head, sits in the dirt, and scrapes himself with broken pottery. It’s a pitiful sight. Job’s friends, who had come to see him, catch sight of him and immediately start weeping. They sit in silence with him for seven days. (This is where the Jewish tradition of “sitting Shiva” comes from, sitting in silent mourning for seven days for a loved one.) Instead of peace, though, they immediately begin blasting him for some sin he must have done. Job defends himself and calls on God to clear him of suspicion, finally asking for an audience with God .

 

And God shows up… in a big way. Instead of Job asking the questions, God flips the script, asking Job if he can control the weather, or create the universe, or make powerful monsters. Job is, rightly, humbled by this line of questioning. Job also never learns why he suffered. God’s response to Job’s “Why?” is simply, “Trust that I’ve got this.” The other trick is, we never learn why, either. Sure, we know the inciting cause, but God’s thought process behind this whole ordeal is never explained.

 

Job gets a happy-ish ending. He receives animals, servants, and a new crop of kids. But the memories of the suffering are still with him. He is changed, different, having been answered by God.

 

This book flips so much of our understanding on its head. It flips the idea that if we’re just good enough everything will go our way – it didn’t for Job, did it? It flips the idea that we can understand, even in hindsight why something happened – I mean, Job never learns, and neither do we. Sometimes bad things happen, and we will not understand them. But, knowing that God is powerful and loving can give us the hope we need to hang on. God doesn’t always make stuff easier, he just promises to be with us through it all. Job challenges us to live in light of the pain and suffering of the world knowing that God has a plan and is working even now to set things right. We should look for the beauty, look where God’s work is being done.

 

When have you faced sadness or pain? How did God help you through it? How did you process your pain while leading your family? What lessons do your kids learn from the way you handle challenges, suffering, or loss?

 

 

Open Carry in the Workplace [Sunday School Review]

On Sunday, our kids learned the story of Nehemiah leading the returning Jews to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem under the blessing of Artaxerxes of Persia and the protection of God. Despite the daunting task and the harassment of surrounding political figures, Nehemiah encourages the people to work with all their heart and strength. This story helps us to understand that God is stronger than those who are against us.

Nehemiah’s story is an odd one. He goes from a fairly cozy life in the palace of the Persian king Artaxerxes straight into a foreman on a construction site directing the rebuilding of a city’s walls. To say this switch would have given someone whiplash is an understatement, especially given the working conditions Nehemiah had to deal with. See, previously, the Jews were allowed to return from Babylonian exile in order to rebuild the Temple and resume the worship outlined in the Torah. Meanwhile, Jerusalem was still being harassed by regional leaders who liked having an undefended town to boss around and bully – and raid, and pillage, and extort. And that’s not even going into details like the economic crisis or the intermarriage with non-Jews issues.

So Nehemiah gets everyone, and I mean everyone, on board. Chapter 3 and 4 of Nehemiah are basically a list of who worked on which part of the wall. Men, women, young, old, everyone had a task and did it with as much focus as they could. God truly blessed their efforts, since the entire project only took 52 days to complete – a massive sign that God was in it from the get-go. To be fair, though, that was with a considerable handicap.

See, two of the main offenders in trying to upset this quick-moving apple cart were Sanballat and Tobiah, a couple of regional bullies looking for an easy win. They were miffed that their cash cow would now have a wall to climb over before milking so they did what they could to upend the construction effort. They tried the usual methods, threats (That’s a nice wall, you got there. Shame if somethin happened to it.), bribes, etc. They even paid off a few prophets to try and convince Nehemiah to break some of the Temple laws to discredit his leadership. Finally, though, they wrote an open letter to insinuate that Nehemiah’s real goal was to name himself King and rebel against the very king who had been so generous to him. Nehemiah was quick to put the kibosh on both of these attempts. And, because of all the threats, Nehemiah split the people into shifts, one shift to stand guard, and the other to build. The builders wore their swords at their waist while working, and the material transport people carried with one hand, and hefted weapons in the other.

God protected his people. It’s interesting to me that the further into the biblical story we go the less the text specifically says that God does. Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah imply God’s action and seem to call God to action, but we don’t see the “hand of God” as much. That’s how God tends to work in our own lives. Something Rabbi Sacks tends to say a lot is, “Life is lived looking ahead, but can only be understood looking behind.” We tend to see God act as we look back and reflect, rather than as we look ahead and plan. But, as we look ahead or at our current situation, we can hear God’s words to Joshua, “Take heart, be strong and courageous. I am the Lord your God, and I will be with you wherever you go.” We can face today and tomorrow because we know that God is stronger than those who are against us.

As you discuss with your kids, think about these questions:

What do you learn about God from this story? What do you learn about how you should live? What challenged you?

As you think about your own journey, can you think of a time when you saw God’s acting in hindsight? What was it? What challenges are you facing today? How does Nehemiah’s attitude and bravery encourage you to face your challenges?

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.