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Once a month I get to tell a Bible story to the little ones in our church while the adults are in the worship service. The kids, four-year-olds through 2nd graders, and their teachers sit on the floor in front of me on blankets color-coded by their ages, and using the curriculum provided and what background knowledge I have, I do my best to make the passages accessible.
As a teacher who loves telling a good story, I assumed this job would be easy. I was wrong.
In full disclosure, it was late on a Saturday night a few months ago when I opened my materials to discover that the next morning I would be telling the story of Jael, the tent-stake wielding heroine who outsmarted (or protected herself against?) the cruel Canaanite general, Sisera, by giving him a comforting glass of milk, and then well, using the resources available to her, put an end to him and delivered Israel from the troops of King Jabin.
I ran through all the options in my head about how I could present this scene to children without too much emphasis on its violent resolution — or making them very afraid of their parents’ offers for milk when they can’t fall asleep at bedtime.
Trying to take solace in a Bible story finally featuring a female heroine, I eventually settled on using the cartoon video that came with the story, one that focused on the greater context, and then just casually mentioned how a tent stake was hammered through the bad guy’s temple at the end.
At the conclusion of story time, one of the college-aged volunteers, looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.” My husband checked on me between services, joking about how the church has been “scaring children for generations.”
But, the kids didn’t seem phased. Maybe they’re used to the death and destruction of the Bible served alongside their coloring pages. After all, we have children’s toys and bedspreads and wallpaper featuring a flood that destroyed all of mankind except for Noah and his family. Even the most basic of Children’s Bibles include the story of Abraham almost killing his own son at God’s direction or King Solomon threatening to slice a baby in half. And, most of our lessons eventually return to where our faith is centered — on a savior who endured a gruesome and awful crucifixion on our behalf.
Telling the story of Jael that Sunday led me to some good conversations. I talked with our youth director about the challenges of finding a solid Bible curriculum that is not overly moralistic. I talked to friends about our own memories of growing up in the church and learning the canon of Bible stories by way of felt boards and Bible Trivia. I thought back to summer camp and how during a rousing rendition of “Pharaoh, Pharaoh,” we’d all spread our arms in front of us as we’d rejoice at the exclamation that all of Pharaoh’s army did the “dead man’s float.” After sharing my experience with my friend, Elizabeth, an Episcopal priest, she was so fascinated that she did an informal poll of colleagues to ask who would include Jael’s story in their children’s programming and discovered one can access a complete Lego re-enactment of the event.
Yet, in all sincerity, my experience with Jael has made me think and struggle, even more than I had in the past, with what it means to teach my kids about the Bible. Or, as was recently asked on a forum moderated by author Sara Bessey: How can I introduce my kids to God without messing them up?
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About a year ago, I took on a new role in my school district as an Instructional Coach. My job is no longer to work directly with students each day, but instead to work alongside teachers,
thinking about what we teach, and perhaps more importantly, how we teach it.
In my day-to-day work, I preach — and work very hard to model — a posture of authenticity and a growth mindset. I am not an expert with all the answers, but hold tight to the belief we can always learn more and then teach better.
I wonder why, then, I have so much trouble transferring this same posture and mindset when it comes to my kids and teaching them about God and faith.
When I sit with my small group with adults from church, why do we make so much room for each other’s questions and uncertainty and struggle with the Bible, and yet when I’m reading to my youngest son at bedtime (he prefers the Jesus Storybook Bible on loop), I greet his questions with quick answers and certainty. Just in the last week, he has asked me, “Did God still love the snake?” He also questioned exactly how a man might die on a cross, “from bleeding?” And at the mention of an olive garden, he asked just how long that restaurant has been around.
I sit with the Bible in a room of adults and say, “I don’t know,” and then I walk into the next room with the kids and say, “You should know.”
When I stop to consider the experiences that have stuck with me most since childhood, all of them are centered around people — the Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and camp counselors who became penpals — who came beside me, who cared and made room for me and my questions.
I wonder if it’s possible to show kids that questions don’t have to crush us. And maybe that’s increasingly important as they grow from those little ones on the carpet to the uncertainty of adolescence and then to the formative years of college. I would hope our faith — and I believe our God — is strong enough to hold up to our uncertainties, our struggles.
My son’s middle school youth group leader says, “We don’t need to peddle Jesus, we just need to be like him.”
I’ll tell another Bible story again this week Sunday. I’m planning ahead this time and know I’ll be telling a story from Revelation, God’s warning to the seven churches. It again won’t be an easy one, and I won’t have all the answers. And maybe that’s okay.
Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, public domain
The open, wondering questions of children, and the free use of their imaginations with difficult stories, is welcomed and assumed in the Godly Play / Children in Worship curriculum, as it is also in the marvelous but less well-known curriculum that we use here for first-through-third graders, called Beulah Land, by Gretchen Wolf Pritchard. Give them half a chance, and they will explore those Bible stories, even the violent ones, with their questions and imaginations way beyond our pious expectations.
Thanks for suggesting Godly Play/Children in Worship. I was thinking of that as I read Dana’s post. I love that children can respond and there is no “right” answer.
A similar story is told in the Deuterocanonical book of Judith, another woman who kills another enemy general. Judith is more aggressive than Jael since she deliberately goes to the enemy camp, lies to them, dresses in her finest, and after Holofernes gets drunk in his tent, she cuts off his head. When did we get the idea that the Bible was a children’s book or that every book or every story was appropriate for children? It is about real life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ezekiel was not supposed to be read by Jews under 30 because it would be too confusing for them. And what about the “texts of terror” where women are raped and murdered and treated badly? Not suitable for a “children in worship story” with all those wondering questions. Perhaps we need to have a rating system for biblical stories like we do for movies: G, PG, PG-13, R, and even X rated stories are in there. There is a reason there is such a big market for children’s bibles like the one your son prefers. Stories like Jael and Judith are why Sunday school is not just for children and why young children leave before some scripture readings. The adults in attendance, however, should wrestle with them.