Faith at Home, Part 2: The B-I-B-L-E!

I grew up on the Bible. I was in AWANA for 10 years and could quote large swaths of Scripture at one point in my life. I’ve maintained my super church-nerdy party trick of being able to say all the books of the Bible in order… each testament in just one breath.

But in leaving the evangelical church and finding a new home in a mainline denomination, I realized that we mainliners tend to struggle with biblical literacy. 

And I get it. When I started seminary, my kids were 1, 3, and 5 years old. I had already deconstructed my theology to the point that I no longer believed every word of the Bible was inerrant and I no longer claimed to accept a literal interpretation. My new hermeneutic was that that the Bible is true and is an authority, but not that it was historically factual nor the only authority.

photo of child reading holy bible

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That presented a problem; I wasn’t sure how to teach about the Bible to my kids, whose brains were not developed enough to consider nuance and abstract concepts like “true but not fact.” I remember in my very first Bible class, full of exasperation, I said, “So what do I tell my kids?!?! How can I teach them these Bible stories as true, if they didn’t historically happen? What do I do?!?!”

And my professor, Dr. Jerry Sumney, gently replied, “You still teach them the stories. They’ll understand more as they get older, but your job isn’t to wait. Teach them Scripture now, and nuance will come later.” 

He was right. Just because I don’t believe that David factually, historically killed Goliath with one small pebble doesn’t mean we can’t learn about facing giants that seem too big to defeat.

I heard it once said (by whom, I can’t remember) that some of these Bible stories are “more-than-true.” They aren’t fairy tales or myths, but they also aren’t historical records of fact. They are more-than-true. They embody the great stories of our faith, our God, and our humanity. 

A few years ago I used Sparkhouse’s Echo the Story with the youth group I was leading, and that’s when I started to wrap my mind around this. These stories that are now in our Bible — and particularly Hebrew Scriptures (what we sometimes call the Old Testament) — were verbally passed down from generation to generation, not recorded for hundreds of years. Imagine a family sitting around a fire: a tired mom and dad from a hard day of labor, kids everywhere, and a loving grandmother who spent each night telling bedtime stories, stories of their people and their God. About giants and towers and a talking snake and a great flood. 

Ever since then, I’ve used adapted prompts from the Echo the Story material every time I approach a text, whether for sermon preparation, personal use, or with my own kids:

What does it teach us about God?
What does it teach us about ourselves, individually?
What does it teach us about humanity?
Why was it important enough to write down? 

In the previous Faith at Home post, I wrote about talking to your kids about congregational worship. But what if we took some of those same ideas and practiced them throughout the week?

When my kids learned to read, we gave them each their own Bible (not story Bible). If they can read chapter books, they can read the Bible! Maybe you could even read together as a family – either out loud in the same room, or follow the same reading plan and have one night set aside each week to talk about what you’ve read (using the questions above as a guide) over dinner. 

That said, the Bible is intimidating. It isn’t a story from start to finish; there are dozens of authors and multiple genres. So where to start?

The Gospels – Mark is the shortest and most action-packed; Luke is my favorite because of his emphasis on women. 

Genesis – Why not start at the beginning? The first 11 chapters or so are particularly interesting and full of well-known stories. 

Look up some other stories you already know and read them straight from Scripture! 1 Samuel 17 tells the story of David and Goliath. The book of Jonah (only 4 chapters) tells the whole story of the great fish. The resurrection of Tabitha/Dorcas is found in Acts 9:32-43. Want to know where to find something? Google it!

Compare the same story in different Gospels. For example, Jesus walking on water is in Matthew 14:22-34, Mark 6:45-53, and John 6:15-21. Compare and contrast how the tellings of the story are different. (For a fun activity, think of a memory in your family, of a vacation or special event. Ask everyone to write the story down without talking about it, then take turns reading them out loud. This helps explain why each author includes different details or might have had a different source about it!)

Reread the Sunday School or sermon Scripture throughout the week. No teacher or pastor can talk about everything in the text, so explore it some more as a family! 

Just for Fun… My favorite story that people have no idea is in the Bible is found in Judges 3:12-30. If you have a kid who loves “bathroom humor,” they’ll love this one…

That last one brings me to a point worth mentioning: The Bible is full of violence and vulgarity. As a parent, I am very intentional with what media my kids consume, and let me tell you, there are things in the Bible that are not G-rated! That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to talk with them about what they’ve read, and read along with them — but don’t use that as a reason to avoid Scripture altogether! As an adult, it can even be interesting to read some of the details that Sunday school material conveniently leaves out! (Read Genesis 9:18-28 and try to remember if you were taught that part of Noah and the ark as a kid…)

We can all experience the love of God through Scripture — about a Teacher who gathered children close, about a Spirit of Comfort who is more powerful than our fears, about how we always have hope.

And those are stories worth hearing, no matter our age. 

 

** My next post will be a list of children’s bibles and translations I recommend. In the meantime, I’ll say that for kids, my favorite translation is the Common English Bible!

Joanna’s Story

It’s early in the morning.

Still dark. 

selective focus photography of tree leaves

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The alarm goes off – she tiptoes around the house, gathering her things, so as to not wake the men and children. 

She pours a cup of coffee, leans against the counter, and closes her eyes, one last time as she prepares herself to face the day.  

It’s early in the morning. 

It’s still dark. 

And there’s work to do. 

She double-checks her basket for the perfumes, spices, and oils she’ll need.

She smiles to herself – she had overheard someone say that when the wise people had visited him after his birth, they had brought similar gifts. 

Her breath catches, as the macabre irony of that thought settles in…

She checks on the kids – still sleeping. She quietly leaves and sets off, toward the tomb. The streets are silent, except some crickets chirping in the distance. She walks carefully so as to not trip over a root or a rock in the road.

As she gets closer, a dread sweeps over her. 

She was hoping it was a dream, that she would wake up and everything would go back to normal, to the way it was supposed to be. 

It’s early in the morning. 

It’s still dark. 

She’s almost there when she meets them on the path: Mary, the other Mary, and some friends of theirs. Women they had met along the way of following Jesus in the past few years. They had been through so much together, and here they were together once more.

Walking in silence, side by side. 

Early in the morning.

While it was still dark. 

Sure, some told them they were foolish. Yesterday – the day after IT happened – their friends at the well had told them they’d be better off washing their hands of that man and moving on with their lives. For a moment, she wondered if they were right. 

Her heart started racing as she got closer. Her eyes welled with tears but she bore down with the grit and resiliency that this group of women all shared. They were ready to do the work. 

She began rehearsing in her mind what needed to be done – they’d need to work together to roll the stone away, then they’d each take turns with the fragrant perfumes. Head to toe. 

She wasn’t sure what would happen after that – they all had chores to do, of course, but she imagined they’d gather at one of their homes for some fresh coffee and figs before they went on with their da——

Her thoughts were interrupted. As they approached the tomb she realized that this was not how it was supposed to be — this was NOT how it was supposed to be – the stone wasn’t there but she knew they were the first ones to arrive!

Her heart raced faster, her mouth ran dry, her palms got sweaty as she entered the tomb and stared.

He wasn’t there. 

There was no body. 

Then she heard someone speak. She turned to see two men sitting there — had they rolled the stone away? —  she looked down in fear. 

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they asked. 

Then she remembered his words – those words that didn’t make sense at the time but now she understood.

He is not here – he is not here!

For he is… risen. 

———–

Luke 24:1-12: The Women Find the Empty Tomb

 

Ash Wednesday at Home

In the early days of Christianity, small groups of people met in homes to read Scripture, pray, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We invite you to remember Ash Wednesday in your homes, either in personal reflection or with your family.

Ash Wednesday is a time we reflect on our sinfulness and our need for connection with God. The 40 days of Lent mirror Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness, culminating with Eater. Traditionally ashes are made from burning the previous year’s Palm Sunday leaves. The ashes are a sign of sin’s disfigurement and of our own mortality. You are invited to make the sign of the cross on your foreheads or hands, even without the use of ashes. The following is adapted from Chalice Worship and includes a meditation by Rev. Nathan Brown, the Senior Minister at First Christian Church of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. 


CALL TO WORSHIP
Leader: The day of the Lord is coming! The day of the Lord is near!
People: The time is fulfilled! The reign of God is at hand!
Leader: O people, repent! Believe in the gospel!
People: Come, let us turn and follow the Lord!

PRAYER
Almighty and Everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that,
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
we may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect forgiveness and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
Friends in Christ, we begin a forty-day journey toward Easter.
We enter the Lenten season to prepare ourselves
to welcome the risen Christ with lives renewed by the breath of his spirit.
We assume a discipline of self-examination, confession, and penitence.
We dedicate ourselves to meditate upon the scriptures and to converse with God in prayer.
We seek to be more faithful Disciples of Christ whose lives are shaped
by the one whom we confess to be Lord and Savior of the world.
To this end let us worship God.

REFLECTION (Written by Reverend Nathan Brown)

Dust is everywhere. It is the residue of our lives. It is under the couch. It is on the television set. It lines the car dashboard. It coats the windowsill. It is evidence that life has existed somewhere. Ironically, it is evidence that death is very much present too. Isn’t that what we hear in the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…?

Which, I think, is the reason getting rid of dust is a multi-million dollar industry. As individuals, we spend hundreds of dollars every year to rid the dust of our lives, buying swiffers and brooms, vacuum machines and dust-busters. Dust is a nuisance. It gets in the way. Mostly because it reminds us of our finitude—that we are imperfect, molded from the earth. Thus, we would rather sweep it into dustpans, under the rug, and off the back porch. We don’t like this reminder. We prefer the lure of immortality.

However, each year, as we begin the Lenten Season on Ash Wednesday, Christians are asked to embrace the dust, at least for a period of timeto let it stay, to not disturb it, that it might serve as a reminder to us. Death should be very much present too. It is the only way to true life in Christ. This is the reason we receive ashes on our foreheads and hear the words, “From dust we have been made and to dust we shall return.”

What, then, in your life needs to return to dust, in order that you might live? Do you need to let die selfishness or greed? Are you being called to put to rest a prejudice or bias? Do you need to bury an anger or resentment? What about an addiction or an obsession that keeps you from living more faithfully?

The English word “dust” actually has its roots in the Hebrew word, “Adam,” which is what God calls the first human created in the garden. So, while we are made of dust physically, we are also made of dust theologically. Physical dust is what binds the molecules and atoms that make up life and theological dust is what holds together our faith. At least, this is what we will experience again in Jesus of Nazareth over the next six weeks: only in death can there be new life.

ACT OF PENITENCE AND RECONCILIATION

You are invited at this time to make the sign of the cross on your forehead as you say, “from dust we have been made and to dust we shall return,” then pray the following together:

In fear, but also in hope, we come together with ashes on our heads. The planet is dying in our hands; people turn to each other for food and strength only to be shoved away. Each day we deal in death, yet pretend that we are good. Let us take forty days to look hard at our so-called goodness and see what it covers up. Then, we will join together in taking up the cross of living in the world as it is, for there is only one earth, and, as far as we know, only one human race. Join together in prayer by responding to each spoken petition with the words, “Hear our prayer, O God.” Let us pray:

That as Disciples of Christ we might start
using our hands, feet, money, time, and energy for the good of the poor,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

That citizens everywhere may realize that care for their neighbor
consists of more than the mere giving of money,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

For the needy, that they may not have to remain despondent and alone,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

For all of us here that we may be honest enough to admit
what we are selfish about,
and what we can do to remedy our lack of love,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

For those who share Christ’s charity toward sinners,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

Merciful God, the ashes are our pledge to take up the cross of life.
We came from the earth and we will go back to it.
In the meantime, beginning these forty days,
we will try to live here and make it a better home for everybody.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

DECLARATION OF MERCY
Hear the good news of God’s reconciling love toward all, and believe:
through Christ God chose to reconcile the whole universe,
making peace through the shedding of Christ’s blood upon the cross –
to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Christ alone.

BENEDICTION
Holy God, through the discipline of these forty days,
make your spirit’s cleansing fire burn within us.
Lift us from the dying embers of our inattention.
Mark us with the sign of your holy passion.
Make us ready to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

(Not Such) A Strange Way to Save the World

A few days ago, just before Christmas, I was driving down the road listening to Christian Christmas music. I find Christian music to be hit-or-miss; some songs I love and others have theology that makes me twitch. On that day, one song in particular gave me pause:

And Joseph said,
“Why me, I’m just a simple man of trade?
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world?
Why here, inside this stable filled with hay?
Why her, she’s just an ordinary girl?
Now I’m not one to second guess what angels have to say,
But this is such a strange way to save the world…”

I’ve heard this before: We start with OUR perspective, decide what would have made sense for GOD to do, then call God’s ways “strange” when God – surprise! – doesn’t look like us.

But what if, instead of placing our beliefs about what God should have done onto God, we start from the perspective of what God did do? What if we start with God’s perspective, not ours? What if we START at the unwed peasant teenage girl, what if we start at the manger, what if we start at the scandal, what if we start with the brutal world Jesus entered?

The more I discover about God, the less I think the story of Jesus’ birth is strange and the more it just makes sense. I mean, that’s kind of the way God usually operates: through the broken, the humble, the powerless. Most people who God called tried to get out of it, because they thought others would have made better candidates. God advocated for those without power through the prophets; Jesus spent his time with kids and tax collectors.  When God’s people are doing God’s work – and by that I mean feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, praying for their enemies, going about the general business of Love – they oftentimes aren’t looked on very highly… sometimes even by people who call themselves “Christians.” If you think the manger is strange, then you haven’t been paying very close attention to God.

It seems to me that we miss the point a bit when we chalk up a dirty manger and culturally subversive acts to “strange” then move on with our lives. When I think about how Jesus spent his time on earth – from his earliest days in that barn to his dying breath – I have to wonder where Jesus would be if he were alive today. Because THOSE places? Those places might not be the cleanest or the prettiest. The people Jesus would talk to probably wouldn’t be the ones you’d see on TV.

So instead of making God look like us then calling God’s acts strange, let’s endeavor to be more like God. And if you can’t find God, start looking in the places you might not want to go… that’s where God has shown up before.

Advent for the Churchless, Week 4: Love

LasAdvent-Wreath-3t week I clicked on a link from Facebook about how “Love Actually” isn’t really a Christmas movie, though it’s now considered a classic. I skimmed through the beginning of the article, as it laid out its case that Christmas was the backdrop, but it was really more of a Valentine’s movie.

Then I realized the article was three web pages long, and I decided I didn’t really care what this person thought. I like “Love Actually,” and I – along with thousands of other people – indeed watch it every Christmas.

I can see the author’s point, though; we tend to compartmentalize our holiday cheer: Independence Day is Patriotic, Halloween is Scary, Valentine’s Day is Love, Christmas is Joy. Each holiday has specific colors, specific shapes, specific decorations. When we think of Christmas, we think of trees and bells and candy canes, not hearts. And if there’s red, there better be just as much green.

As we move through Advent, Hope, Peace, Joy? Those scream Christmas!! But if you think about it, Love really does belong at Christmas.

Because all those horrible things I’ve mentioned in the last few weeks? The torture, the loneliness, the suffering… that is the world into which Love entered.

I have always thought of Advent as the time when “every heart prepares him room…” but you know, we’re not really good at doing that. There was no room prepared when Love came into the world (I mean, literally, right? No room at the inn and all?)

But Love came anyway. You and I didn’t choose to be born, we didn’t choose the family to which we belong, we didn’t choose the country or the city or the socioeconomic status in which we found ourselves.

But Love did. And Love chose an unwed teenage girl, a peasant. A girl with no power, no voice. Love was born into scandal, in the least expected of ways. Love came into a world that had not prepared room. And through that bold act of peace into a world of hate, Love spoke Redemption.

And that’s still how Love comes today. Love comes in a hospital room. Love comes in the middle-of-the-night feedings when you haven’t slept in weeks. Love comes right after a pink slip. Love comes in war. Love comes when people who have been oppressed are told that they have inherent worth. Love comes when we stop and listen to the stories of those who are different from us, Love comes when we turn our swords into ploughshares.

Love comes in the form of casseroles and art and random acts of kindness. Love comes in the form of you; Love comes in the form of me. Just when we think we can no longer see, Love comes through the darkness.

Love enters most boldly when no room has been prepared.

So no matter how dark your world is, look for the Love, look for the Light.

Then go be that Love to others – boldly. 

Advent for the Churchless, Week 3: Joy

I remember December 14, 2012 vividly.

The kids had gone to their first movie in the movie theater earlier that fall and fell in love with all things Disney in one fell swoop. But, as princess movies go, I was happy with Brave. My little girl had spent all fall pretending to be an archer and saying things like, “I am Merida, first-born descendant of Clan Dun’Broch., and I’LL be shooting for my OWN hand!” I was raising a self-confident girl, and I couldn’t have been prouder of her.

That morning, on December 14, I took cupcakes to Sophia’s pre-kindergarten class to celebrate her birthday. We passed out treat bags and came home at lunch time, and I habitually turned NPR on the radio.

I listened in horror for about 30 seconds, looked down at my kids in the room, and turned the radio off. I opened my computer, and the news sites were all reporting the same thing: Someone had broken into a school and massacred a classroom full of first-graders. The Massacre of the Innocents.

The reports continued coming in, more and more details. But, it was still my newly-minted 5-year-old’s birthday, so I closed my computer, wiped my eyes, and we celebrated.

Her birthday gift that year was a DVD of Brave. After dinner, we cuddled on the couch as a family, and as we watched I listened to the lyrics of those inspiring songs. I was simultaneously struck with the joy that my daughter has more opportunities than I did, and the overwhelming grief that 20 other young children suddenly had none:

“I will hear their every story,

Take hold of my own dream,

Be as strong as the seas are stormy,

And proud as an eagle’s scream…”

 

“We will run and scream, You will dance with me

We’ll fulfill our dreams and we’ll be free

We will be who we are, And they’ll heal our scars

Sadness will be far away…”

 

“This love, it is a distant star

Guiding us home wherever we are…”

Advent-Wreath-3 That last one really got me, on a day, during Advent, when I was so torn between celebrating my own daughter and inescapably imagining myself in the shoes of the parents who had received devastating, heart-wrenching news. I glanced at our nativity scene and started wondering how that image might speak to the tragedy we, as a country, were experiencing.

Sometimes when we think of that little baby in the manger, we imagine a serene world, a lone stable in the midst of a beautiful landscape, with the Star of David looming overhead, “guiding us home wherever we are…”

But that’s not really accurate. Jesus was born into a world embracing its brutality, to a world that was massacring babies and toddlers. According to the Gospel of Matthew, when King Herod discovered that another king was prophesied to be born, he ordered the immediate killing of any boy under age two near Bethlehem. The Massacre is just as much a part of the Christmas Story as is the little baby in the manger. When we tell the story of the Hope that was born on Christmas, we must also tell the story of the grieving mothers, the lives that were lost.

Of course, there are many historians who doubt the historicity of this event. Whenever the historicity of an event in the Bible is in question, I find it even more interesting, because that means that there is a theological reason the text is included. Here, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew found it necessary to tell this part of the story, to include the grief that was associated with the coming child.

This week’s theme is Joy, and this is not a particularly joyful story. At all.

There is no “silver lining” to the slaughter of children. This is not a yin-yang situation; they aren’t some foil in a cosmic plot. It’s tragedy. But what I dwell on here is that Matthew gives us a model; we are reminded that, even in the great joy that is the coming Christ, we still bear grief. We still bear sorrow. Children were slaughtered at the time of Christ. Children were slaughtered on this day two years ago. And today, as you read these word, children and adults are still living and dying in tragedy and suffering.

I’ve heard it said that two emotions can occupy the same space; I could simultaneously feel joy for my daughter and grief for the kids at Sandy Hook. We do not need to be all joyful or all angry or all sad. That is even true in the story of Advent; when we look at the narrative from different perspectives, we can sense varying emotions from the different characters. Whatever you are feeling today, it is in the Christmas Story, somewhere.

I love that Hope is the first theme of Advent, because it reminds us from the beginning that part of this whole time of preparation is the acknowledgment that it isn’t here quite yet. We aren’t all joy right now… but we have hope. We have hope that there is joy, and there is more joy to come.

The Coventry Carol is a song written in the 16th century, memorializing the Massacre of the Innocents. As we sing about hope and peace and joy in our carols this season, may we also remember and name those without. May we remember that our joy is someone else’s grief, and that God is joyful – and grieving – right alongside us.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.

By, by, lully, lullay.

 

O sisters, too, how may we do,

For to preserve this day;

This poor Youngling for whom we sing,

By, by, lully, lullay.

 

Herod the King, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day;

His men of might, in his own sight,

All children young, to slay.

 

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,

And ever mourn and say;

For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Advent for the Churchless, Week 2: Peace

I didn’t write about Peace last week.

I intended to. I really did. We were in the midst of moving, so things were busy, yes.

But that isn’t the reason.

The reason was that I was having a hard time placing Peace in the world around me. My little world is just fine, but the bigger world? The one that you are a part of and the names in the headlines are a part of? There seems to be little peace in that world.

In a world in which systemic racism continues to have a stronghold on our systems, its normalcy blinding us into believing it isn’t even there – that’s not peace.

The United States systemically dehumanizing people, bodies who are loved by God, in unspeakable ways – that’s not peace.

Child homelessness skyrocketing – that’s not peace.

Tens of thousands of children coming north, looking for a better life – and not finding it – that’s not peace.

Because these issues, these headlines, these philosophical and political ideas we discuss? They’re not just issues. They’re people. People loved by God. Each of us – you, me, the man who was fed hummus through his rectum, those dying in the streets from hypothermia, starvation, or a gunshot wound – is imago dei – made in the image of God. Each person bears the image of God just as much as anyone else; when we dehumanize a person, we are denying that which God created.

As much as I would have loved for Jesus to come in and triumphantly brought peace to every corner of the world, that isn’t what happened. Jesus was born into a brutal world, and he was brutally executed three decades later. He told his disciples that he was leaving his peace with them. If we are to acknowledge the Peace that Jesus was born for, we must acknowledge that every person is as deserving of that Peace as you or I.

I have a need to have an answer, to conclude this with a nice checklist of how we can follow Jesus’ model and bring peace into our corners of the world. But it isn’t that easy. And I think that part of Advent is sitting in the storm, sitting in the chaos, sitting in our grief and our pain and our unmet expectations. We don’t gloss over the pain with our hot chocolate and sugar cookies; we read the names of those whose lives have been lost. We listen to the stories of those in pain. We acknowledge our own pain. And somehow, even in the midst of that, we hold a glimpse of hope of a peace we cannot yet see.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was no stranger to grief. Having a son wounded in the Civil War and a wife who died in a fire, he penned these words:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Till, ringing singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to men!