Children May Tell Bible Stories with a Fresh Twist

A great way to check our effectiveness as communicators is to ask children what they heard after we tell them Bible stories.

Ten years ago our friend, Pastor Ken Kennedy, then an active pastor in Ontario, sent me samples of what some children had remembered after one year of Bible stories in junior church.

About Creation, one child wrote, In the beginning, which occurred near the start, there was nothing but God, darkness and some gas.

Another wrote: The Bible says ‘The Lord thy God is one,’ But I think he must be a lot older than that. Anyway, God said, ‘Give me a light!’ and someone did. Then God made the world.

How about the following child’s imaginative retelling of the story of Adam and Eve?

God split the Adam and made Eve. Adam and Eve were naked but they weren’t embarrassed because mirrors hadn’t been invented yet. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating one bad apple, so they were driven from the Garden of Eden. Not sure what they were driven in though because they didn’t have cars.

Or how about this child’s mixing up of words that sound the same but have different meanings: Adam and Eve had a son, Cain, who hated his brother as long as he was Abel.

And here’s a thoughtful boy’s reflection: After Joshua came David. He got to be king by killing a giant with a slingshot. He had a son named Solomon who had about three hundred wives and 500 porcupines. My teacher says he was wise but that doesn’t sound very wise to me.

I chuckle, as you do. Little children so often give us a fresh view of the sacred and an unexpected surprise over how what we say has come through to them.

But I see promise in the efforts of these congregations to teach children the Bible and the effort these children put forth to understand and retell what they learned.

Then I grow solemn. I honor this grand Book – centuries old, the world’s best seller for generation after generation, a collection of divinely revealed laws, gathered human wisdom and ancient history.

Particularly in this beloved book we have the story of God’s self-revelation, unveiled in the coming to earth of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

The Bible must be central to our understanding of what we teach about God and about human life, whether we are children or adults. The quirks children may add in early stages can be corrected as the children grow older.

Let us breathe a prayer for the saving influence of the Christian Scriptures on children our lives touch, whether at church on a Sunday morning, in our homes during the week, or even when we pass little children on the street.

Re-post: The Scourge of Injustice

During our prayers this morning Kathleen and I discussed the subject of injustice — what happens when the lawful rights of a person or a group are violated by those in power who have unlawful goals. Injustice can deaden a marriage, divide a home, rend a state, or even taint a church.

Christians around the world these days are reading about injustice — the story of a whole series of towering legal offenses committed against our Lord which led to his brutal death on a Roman cross.

The Gospels tell the story.

The religious authorities — the chief priests, elders and other religious leaders — agreed among themselves that Jesus had to be arrested. The high priest, Caiaphas, went a step further: he suggested he must die. But it all had to be planned and carried out by stealth, without stirring up the crowds streaming into Jerusalem for Passover.

From that point on, the religious leaders ignored their laws because their intentions were sinister. Even Pilate, the Roman governor, saw through their plots. He knew that justice was not their issue; he knew they were motivated by sheer “envy.”

Judas, the traitor, helped them, and the temple guards arrested and bound Jesus in Gethsemane, outside the city. They and their accomplices had come armed with weapons in case they had to subdue him, or torches if he should hide and they had to search for him. They marched him to the high priest’s palace and there the nation’s highest religious leaders began breaking Jewish laws with abandon.

William Barclay lists some of the laws they broke — laws which should have protected an innocent man.

1. Criminal cases had to be tried during daylight hours and on the final day must be completed before darkness fell.

2. Criminal cases may not be tried during Passover.

3. Only if the verdict is “not guilty” may a case be completed during the same day it begins. Otherwise, a night must elapse before the verdict is decided, to give mercy time to arise.

4. A judgment by the Sanhedrin, the ruling court of Jerusalem, must not be rendered unless the body is convened in its normal place of meeting – the Hall of Hewn Stone in the precincts of the temple. (There was to be no “offhand curbside justice.”)

5. All evidence must be given by at least two witnesses who are permitted no contact with each other and who are examined separately.

6. In capital cases, the giving of false witness may be punishable by death.

Between the middle of that night before the high Priest and Sanhedrin and the forenoon of the next day when Jesus was nailed to his cross, every one of these laws was broken. Our Lord not only was falsely accused, he was then struck and spit upon by members of the court.

These hasty and lawless procedures amounted to one of the most glaring abuses of law on human record. It was a travesty of justice and it all led to the brutal killing of an innocent man — the world’s Redeemer.

Jesus subjected himself to this injustice for a reason. When Peter attempted to protect him with a clumsy swing of his sword, Jesus said to Peter, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matt. 26:53). But he did not call. He made himself vulnerable to the worst injustice in order to fulfill the Scriptures.

We have to immerse ourselves in the story again and again, detail after detail, to awaken our dull hearts to the price paid for our salvation. The undeserved physical abuse was horrific at the hands of evil men. And the spiritual anguish even worse which made him cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). He was indeed “led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7b).

As the truth sinks in and our sense of gratitude is awakened afresh, we also ask that God make us alert to injustice in our world or even in our marriages or families or church, helping us to avoid the indifference to injustice that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day showed.

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Re-post: Renewing Fatherhood on Father’s Day

As both a calling and a developed skill, has fatherhood lost its nobility in society generally? Or is fatherhood doing reasonably well and complaints to the contrary are contradicted by the facts? The answer is somewhere between, but leaning toward the gloomier side.

Consider this prophetic statement by David Blankenhorn, in his book Fatherless America (1995): “The good news, largely ignored in today’s script, is that married fatherhood is a man’s most important pathway to happiness.” Blankenhorn makes this claim even though in his book he portrays an American culture in which fatherhood is not seen as a widespread blessing.

He writes that over the past two hundred years, fatherhood has lost, in full or in part, each of its four traditional roles:

1. Irreplaceable caregiver. 2. Moral educator. 3. Head of family, and, 4. Family breadwinner (with the understanding that sometimes this role has to be shared or reversed).

Blankenhorn writes, “In 1990 more than 30 percent of all children [in the United States] were living apart from their fathers – more than double the rate of 1960.” He goes on to say, “Scholars estimate that before they reach age eighteen, more than half of all children in the nation will live apart from their fathers for at least a significant portion of their childhood.”

But that is only one side of the picture. The late esteemed newsman, Tim Russert, wrote a warm, affirming book about his father. It so moved his readership that it brought Russert nearly 60,000 letters and e-mails. Day after day he read them to the very last one and out of them came his second book, Wisdom Of Our Fathers, Lessons and Letters From Daughters and Sons.

The missives he received were overwhelmingly, though not entirely, positive. They described fathers who had been there for their children, had taken time for a bedside story, turned up at a spelling bee, played catch with them in the yard, and at times of need had given them good counsel.

They were not super-dads. The letters from grown children, according to Russert, admit there were flaws. But the commitment of which the children wrote was such that it has left an enduring imprint on their children’s memories.

Now a new e-book, The Demise of Guys, available on Amazon.com, addresses the picture more darkly. It speaks with insight of the malaise among the general population of young men today. The book notes quite broadly a lack of energy among young men to make full preparation for a full life, the lack of interest in developing long-term relationships with women, certainly lack of motivation to get out on their own and make their own way in life. This phenomenon is obvious enough that it keeps coming up in other social opinions spoken or printed.

The author of The Demise of Guys traces the causes that he believes have contributed to this state of affairs – such as excessive time spent during developing days on the internet, video games and especially the hurtful, pervasive influence of pornography. He explains the effect these addictions have on the brain to deaden the pleasure zones and motivations for a fulfilling life.

The celebration of Father’s Day this June 17 brings this conflicted issue of fatherhood back into focus. It would be a good Sunday on which to look at the two contrasted above pictures of fatherhood.

It would be a good Sunday for Christians everywhere to gather and pray unitedly for the fathers in their connections. And it could be made a time for fathers themselves to ask their HEAVENLY FATHER to father them afresh, giving grace to embrace their four assignments — Irreplaceable caregiver, moral educator, head of family, and family breadwinner (noting that this role must sometimes be shared or reversed) — with divinely endowed courage.

Photo credit: JeffS (via flickr.com)

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Re-post: Is Our Problem Pride or Low Self-Esteem?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna)This month a teacher told her students that if they planned to give out Valentine cards, the cards must meet these rules: every card must be the same; every classmate must get one; and nothing must be written on them. She wanted to save any child from damaged self-esteem.

But recently Professor Baumeister at Florida State University studied levels of self-esteem among different groups of adults. He found the highest levels in … prison inmates! And the violent offenders had the highest perceived levels of them all.

Self-esteem is critically important. We are God’s creatures, bearing his image. Therefore it is right that we should carry ourselves with dignity and should be careful to honor the dignity and worth of our fellows.

But the Scriptures make clear that damaged self-esteem is not our greatest problem. According to the Bible we are the offspring of Adam and, although we bear the image of God, that image is marred; we are by nature sinners.

One consequence of that sin is that we have a proud desire to be independent from God — on our own in his universe. That was the error of the builders of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

The Genesis passage says the people moving eastward found a beautiful plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and decided to settle there, build a city, and erect a tower that would reach to the heavens. The up-reaching tower was a symbol of man’s thrust for autonomy.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, and he discerned the people’s intent to seek complete autonomy rather than living under his mandate to settle the earth he had given them. So he confused their language and “scattered them over all the earth” (Genesis 11:8).

We see this impulse toward autonomy early in children. One of our grandsons, at the age of only four, said to his mother in a commanding way, “Mommie, I want you and Daddie to let me and my sister do whatever we want to do.” It was given as a first cry of the heart for absolute autonomy — “Don’t fence me in.”

Theologians have followed the Scriptures in noting this impulse to pride which at its center resists the rule of God and his son, Jesus Christ. St. Augustine called human pride, “the love of one’s own excellence.” John Calvin defined it as an “innate self love by which we are all blinded.” John Wesley wrote: “The first advice I would give those who have been saved is to watch continually against pride.”

To be graciously delivered from pride by God is a worthy request because, as Charles Spurgeon said, “Humility is the secret of fellowship, and pride, the secret of division.” It is true that wherever there is unresolved conflict, whether in home, family, community or church, secondary causes might be teased to the surface. But at the base, this pride will be found to lurk.

Heart pride is divisive. It erects barriers. On the other hand, where there is heart humility there is joy and good fellowship among the people whether in family, community, or church.

Which makes the words of the Apostle Paul to the young church in the imperial city of Rome my favorite instruction to any church on this issue: “For by the grace given me I say to everyone of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).

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Did You Know Companionship Enriches Love Like Nothing Else?

He was well into his 90s and had a girlfriend. He told me with quiet pleasure about their closeness. He was sure God had brought them together.

The attraction had not been created by youthful beauty, or erotic passion. It was something even more substantial — a shared need to give and receive companionship.

That is, each had a need for someone with whom to share life at the deeper levels. It was a human yearning experienced to a greater or lesser degree by us all.

The word, companionship, comes from a French compound word meaning to partake of bread together. Human companionship is an interpersonal relationship that’s like sitting down together for an intimate exchange of interests, goals or even just long chats. Both parties are enriched thereby.

But intimacy is not enough. Undergirding this kind of sharing there must be trust, honesty, loyalty, and sometimes gentle candor. It can be man-to-woman as with my friend, or woman-to-woman or man-to-man.

Take the case of Jonathan and David in the Bible. Jonathan was King Saul’s son and David was King Saul’s servant. Jonathan and David had a deep, binding friendship, but Jonathan’s father was jealous of David and had impulses to hurt him.

Jonathan saw David’s life as under threat. So why didn’t Jonathan side with his father anyway? Isn’t “blood thicker than water?” For Jonathan, justice for David was a higher value than facilitating his father’s murderous jealousy.

The Book of Proverbs says: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17) Real companionship includes amazing loyalty “at all times,” even when a crisis might threaten a relationship.

The Book of Proverbs also says: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24).

That is, if we embrace all offered friendships without discrimination, we may discover when a special need surfaces that many of those friends are only “fair weather companions.”

But, there is such a thing as enduring, storm-tested companionship, but it must be sought out and nurtured with care. Real companions, the Proverbs seem to caution, are one in a thousand.

The elderly gentleman who told me of his wonderful discovery had certainly found companionship. The two exchanged glances, shared resources at lunch, and participated together deeply in their common faith.

It’s good to ask ourselves from time to time: do I experience the companionship that nurtures health and enriches my life. And does it at the same time add enrichment to the life of someone else, reflecting my capacity to be loyal and truthful?

We should all be working on this because, whether in a friendship or a marriage, companionship undergirds love like nothing else. Without real companionship even marital love may wear a bit ragged.

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Photo credit: Jake Guild (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Mending Fences

In 1956, when I was a young pastor in the Pacific Northwest Conference, the late Reverend C. W. Burbank was my conference superintendent. I had been appointed to the New Westminster church on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and Kathleen and I had crossed the continent from Kentucky immediately after my graduation from Asbury Seminary. Our personal belongings and four little children were packed into our turquoise colored Plymouth and a large spring-less trailer joggled along behind us every mile of the way.

Before Superintendent Burbank entered the ministry he was a logger. He had an outdoors ruggedness about him. He was not a seminary trained man; back then, seminary training for ministers was less common and more difficult to attain than now. Many pastors of earlier eras got whatever theological training they received by means of serious correspondence courses they were expected to wade through.

But he was an urgent preacher, well respected by his peers, and a man of down-to-earth common sense, something he learned or polished, as I understand, while in the logging business in the Okanagan Valley of Washington State.

During one of my first conversations with him he shared a bit of wisdom. He explained that some ministers are more skilled at mending their fences than others. He meant that when a misunderstanding or even an unintended interpersonal rift developed, such pastors seem to have a knack for restoring trusting relationships.

Others, he went on, leave the gap unaddressed and allow it to take on a certain permanence. If this happens with another family, and then another, Rev. Burbank explained, the misunderstandings accumulate sufficiently to destroy the trust of the congregation as a whole. A wall develops and the minister loses the trust of the congregation and he must move on.

Rev. Burbank didn’t say exactly how to recover healthy relationships. Nor did he mention what to do if a pastor’s efforts to keep fences mended are rejected. That is another aspect of the issue, and there are such situations. To take his counsel a step further, here are a couple more suggestions.

First, the greatest hindrance to correcting wounded relationships is pride – that dangerous quality within us that makes us tend to over-rate our worth or abilities. Pride is a point of vulnerability with all of us, Christian or not. When something is said or done from either side that injures our self esteem the rift is in danger of opening. Before repair can even be attempted pride must be acknowledged and brought to heel.

Second, once a rift happens, anger tends to follow and it invariably only clouds issues. So, no correction should be attempted until anger has been faced and dissipated. Most of us have learned this lesson by unhappy experience. In the face of breakdown of relationship and accompanying anger, only the indwelling Spirit of Christ can save us from further anger-prompted division.

Third, wise pastors will know that once in awhile, a relationship may grow cool or may even seem beyond repair. This may be due to disagreement on a particular issue. Or it may arise when a parishioner seems to have a fixed point of view about some circumstance. In these sorts of cases, when honest efforts have been made to restore relationship and fellowship—without success—ministers should labor on. As all pastors learn, in a busy growing pastorate there will be those who do not agree with the minister on issues. After honest efforts have been made to seek corrected and restored fellowship — without success — ministers should go on with their work diligently, all the while treating objectors with civility and grace. Only humility can keep the door open to the other person permanently. And it can only be hoped that the minister’s continued faithful service to the congregation will bear fruit and that eventually hearts will melt and be reconciled.

Ministers are much more likely to stay afloat in troubled waters and navigate through rocky relationships if they remember that their ultimate accountability for their efforts is to God. Their hope is that God may be pleased, since it is to him they will finally answer. Just remembering this makes them more careful to avoid missteps.

Mending fences is not only a challenge to ministers. Broken relationships are a universal peril in our fallen world. It would be hard to find someone of mature years who does not have a measure of pain over damaged relationships and even unresolved relationship issues at this point. So ministers and laymen alike need strength and grace help in the arduous task of living openly and charitably — insofar as possible — with all. Praying for increased sensitivity to the needs of others for Christ’s sake is the starting point.

Many years after our conversation, Rev. Burbank died in the pulpit while doing what he loved — preaching the gospel. I am just one of many who profited from his ministerial leadership and wise counsel. His insight regarding mending fences was a lifelong gift, not always exercised to the greatest effectiveness, but always treasured.

Photo credit: Josh Liba (via flickr.com)

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In Secular Times Can Weddings Be Clearly Christian?

In one sense we can call any wedding “Christian” if it is conducted in a Christian church or guided by Christian ritual: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

On the other hand, it could be argued that a fully Christian wedding requires that the bride and groom be confessing Christians and the event be witnessed by at least a few believers.

Since the Enlightenment, which began in late 17th or early 18th century, the secular has been invading the precincts of the sacred, creating conflict.

I have seen this trend even in the short span, relatively speaking, of my 91 years. Early in my pastoral work, young people raised in evangelical churches tended to be sympathetic to the idea that their weddings be “Christ-honoring,” and were usually open to help in having their understanding deepened as to what this meant.

However, as the years passed, the desire to honor Christ as a primary focus seemed to fade somewhat for some young people who had grown up in a Christian congregation and sung its choruses and hymns and heard Scripture read. Standards were loosening and thoroughly Christian rituals were not always wanted.

I was on occasion asked to incorporate a song into a wedding that was itself sentimental but had no trace of Christian thought — a song perhaps more suited to the reception to follow. I was on occasion presented with a proposed wedding ritual written by bride or groom, and lacking the theological grasp required for a Christian wedding.

For purposes of guidance, the central feature of a Christian wedding should be its ritual, not its decor or its symbols, though the latter can assist in creating atmosphere. As I see it now, a couple contemplating marriage might benefit by being asked to read the proposed ritual for the service several times before becoming immersed in the complex planning of the event.

Why not sharpen the meaning of the upcoming wedding with such questions as: What does the ritual say about the origin of marriage? What is the extent of the vows it sets forth? What does it say about the irreversibility of our vows? A Christian wedding is not only a “rite of passage;” it is also a distinctly Christian event.

The purpose and content of the reception that follows the wedding are different. But a reception should also be Christ honoring — a time for rejoicing, for sharing good stories about the wedding couple, for speeches that elevate, for words of welcome or words of thanks from family to family, or music to add to the festive spirit. It is an event at which Christ is to be equally present and in that atmosphere family bondings can be strengthened. If the tone is not set in advance, a Christian reception can sometimes be diminished by off-color humor, or even drunkenness.

During increasingly secular times such as ours it is good to be a part of a congregation, whether large or small, that not only sounds the gospel clearly from its pulpit but also whose church board takes the trouble to spell out the implications of that gospel for the weddings it hosts.

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Photo credit: Ian D. Keating (via flickr.com)