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

Photo by nappy on Pexels.com

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!

Faith at Home, Part 1: Talking about Worship

In this Faith at Home series, I will be sharing some of the ways Jonathan and I have intentionally parented our kids (currently ages 7, 9, and 11) in a way that centers our Christian faith and faith-based values. My philosophy of pastoring and parenting is “That church would be an integral part of the life of the children, and that children would be an integral part of the life of the church.” Each article will focus on one way we strive to embody that philosophy.

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 3.49.12 PMI grew up as a pastor’s kid in a family with ritual Sunday dinner: Once everyone washome from church, we would gather at the table with pot roast, potatoes, biscuits, gravy, and all of our stories from the morning to share. I learned life-long lessons around that table, about the flow of worship, about how to handle unexpected things gone wrong while on the platform, about dynamics of church people and church leadership. I learned that I was a participant in church, not a spectator, even from a young age.

While the ritual in our family looks different, we have similar conversations with our own kids, so it is no surprise that they are actively engaged with worship. As a pastor’s family, we discuss openly the ins-and-outs of church life, particularly around the worship service itself. And, when we visit other churches, we do the same thing: we talk about the service and sermon extensively — the things we appreciate… and the things we don’t. (Lest you think we only critique other sermons, my kids are quite quick to tell me if they disagree with something I’ve said!) This also helps the transition out of children’s church into “big church” (more on that in the future!). 

One of the reasons we do this is because, when our kids grow up and leave the house, we want them to be able to visit a church and have the tools to discern whether it is a good fit, based on more than just whether they “liked” it! We would not send our kids out in the world without teaching them how to operate a stove or a washing machine; we would not expect them to ace college statistics without having fourth-grade math to build on. And yet, sometimes that’s what families seem to expect our kids to do with their faith communities: we hope they’ve absorbed what’s important over the years, but we never really check in to see what’s sinking in and how they experience it. Talking about what happens at church on Sunday morning offers our kids a lens to participate in a faith community throughout their lives. 

How do Jonathan and I talk to our kids about church? Here are some practical conversation-starters in our family, that you can use or adapt to integrate into your own family. It’s never too late to start! And though it might seem awkward at first, the more you return to these questions, the more freely the conversation will flow. I’ve also found that, when the kids know they’ll be talking about it later, they engage with the service as it is happening. 

  • Ask open-ended questions about worship. Instead of asking “Did you like it?,” ask “What was one thing that surprised you?” “Was there anything that confused you or you didn’t understand?” “What did you feel when the pastor said _____?” “What did you feel during the special music/anthem?” “What did you learn or hear about God today?” Then — here is the most important part — really listen to their answers! They might surprise you with some of the things they come up with! **
  • Ask them to tell you their Sunday School or Children’s Church Bible story. There is no better way to learn than to teach, so asking them to re-tell you the story they learned is a fantastic way to cement it in their minds… and to open doors to talk about things they might have misheard or misunderstood (like when one of my kids said they needed to get an idol, because the people in their Bible lesson had idols…) .
  • Ask other questions about the morning. These might be the same questions you’d ask after school or other activities:  “What was your favorite song we sang?” “Who did you talk to or play with today?” “What excites you about next week?”
  • Share your own thoughts and experiences! Kids model what we do. Integrating faith into our families is not one-sided; we never have it all figured out and need to share what we learn! Church is a community, where people of all ages are equally important. You might say something like: “You know, when the pastor said ____ I thought/felt/observed that ____.” “I connected with this sermon because ___ has been going on at work recently, and I could see that situation in a different way.” “I disagreed when the pastor said ____” (yes, that’s okay too!). “During communion I wondered about ___.” “I’ve never thought about ____ in that way until this morning.”
  • Connect your own faith story. For example, if you sang a song that you remember from your childhood, share why that song was meaningful for you. If the sermon text was a Scripture that comforted you in a difficult time, tell your kids about that! Do your kids know why your faith matters to you? This is a natural, wonderful way to talk about it.


What other ideas do you have? What are some of the ways your family discusses and decompresses your Sunday morning worship experiences? Share in the comments! 

 

** The thumbnail photo in this post is a notes-taking sheet for worship services I created – it is suitable for kids but not for kids only! I’m happy to email a .pdf of it to you; leave a message here or email me at revsaranavefisher (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll pass it along! 

Decoding Discrimination (or: How to Discover What Your Church Really Believes)

I’ve spent my life in church.

I’m a bit of a church nerd, actually. I love business meetings and conferences; ecclesiastical conversations are my FAVORITE conversations; and, well, I use words like “ecclesiastical” on a regular basis (ecclesiastical = churchy stuff). 

I care deeply about church — and I care deeply about churches being honest. Which is why the very-public nature of the Chris Pratt/ Ellen Page/ Hillsong Church conversation lately has deeply disturbed me, though not at all surprised me.

arco + KEVINSee, I often read websites of churches and other Christian organizations, and am keyed in to the coded language that clouds reality. Some churches are very upfront about what they believe – and I really appreciate that, even when I disagree with their conclusions.

But I have a huge problem with churches who hide their theology in the fine print, apparently so those who disagree still fill their pews — and their offering plates. 

If people would leave your church if they read the fine print, then you probably need to rethink your theology, your congregation, or both. 

I’ve heard people say that they think their church doesn’t discriminate because “all are welcome!” — but there is a huge difference between not turning people away at the door, and inviting people into all aspects of church life (from membership to ordination, and everything in between) regardless of their gender, orientation, or identity.  

A friend of mine once served a church that welcomed a lesbian couple with open arms – and because they were so welcoming, that couple invited their friends. Within a few months, there were several queer couples attending worship there, and the congregation was kind and loving to them, never mean or judgmental. Some of the visitors had been hurt at previous churches and were so glad to find a place where they could worship, without being shamed every time they entered the doors. 

Until, of course, that first couple wanted to join the church and teach Sunday School, at which point they were notified by the pastor that the church actually believed they were living in sin because of their unrepentant same-sex relationship, and they were not welcome into membership. All of these queer people then realized that the church that had been “welcoming” to them saw their identity as a sin to overcome, not a part of their wholly, perfectly, created selves. Their straight friends who attended with them never had any idea that the church wasn’t affirming, because, well, they never needed to ask and just assumed, because again, they were all really nice. 

And this reveals the privilege of people who are cisgender and heterosexual. There’s never a *need* to find out, to seek clarity. When the system works for us, we have no need to question it.

I’ve known so many people who are personally affirming — they advocate equal rights and equal protections for everyone… and yet, they go to churches that are not. But what’s sad to me — and what the Hillsong conversation reveals — is that often, churches who hold that leadership is reserved for men, and deny equality to people who are LGBTQ+ — do so with a veneer of acceptance, without really being honest. 

Thankfully, Church Clarity is helpful in discerning where churches stand, but according to their own website, they are backlogged right now – and even then, not every church in the country is on their list. 

So, if you attend a church and you aren’t sure what they really think, let my years of church nerdiness and ability to speak coded church language help. 

First, a caveat. I am not saying that what follows is a test that a church “passes” or “does not pass.” There are reasons why faithful pastors and congregations do not have written policies on inclusion — but since discrimination often masquerades as silence, we cannot let silence be interpreted as affirmation. And, really, that’s the whole point of this list: Because so few churches say explicitly what they believe and practice, we must be more diligent to seek out answers. Maybe you’ll discover that, while your church has never made a statement of inclusion, they are working toward it and actively seeking justice; maybe you’ll discover that while your church seems like they treat everyone equally, no woman has ever stood behind a pulpit. Maybe you’ll discover you’re exactly where you need to be; maybe you won’t. 

Also, I have never known of any church that welcomes gay men into leadership, but not straight women. If you know of one, I’d love to hear about it. And often trendy churches are just as avoidant of their discrimination against women as they are their discrimination against people who are LGBTQ+, so I’m including women into this discernment list. 

Go to your church’s website. Don’t rely on what you think you know about the church, because as we’ve seen time and time again, often the people in the pews have no idea how discriminatory actual policies and theology are. If you can’t find the information on the website, ask the pastor for clarification; don’t assume that because you have a gay couple in the pews, or the pastor just seems really cool, that they treat LGBTQ+ people – and women – equal to straight cis men. 

~ Who are the pastors? Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? Have there been in the past? 

~ Who makes decisions? In many churches, these are elders, deacons, trustees, board members, session members, or something similar. Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? If no, why not? 

~ Do they use heavy masculine language for God? (He/Him/His, Father, etc) I hesitated including this question; there are a lot of reasons faithful Christians use masculine language. However, in my experience, often churches that rely exclusively on masculine language about God and humanity tend to be less inclusive in other ways as well. 

~ Look at the statement of faith/ “What We Believe” (often found in the “About Us” section of a website), policy papers, and the church’s constitution. Does it include anything about gender, orientation, gender identity, or marriage? (Look for words like “biology,” “God-given gender,” “natural,” and “biblical marriage.”)

~ Where the constitution speaks to leadership (pastoral or lay), does it specify that those positions are reserved for men? 

~ Will the church ordain women and/or people who are openly LGBTQ+ (without requiring celibacy)? 

~ Will the church marry people who are LGBTQ+? 

~ Will the church preclude people who are women and/or LGBTQ+ from any ministry role? 

~ Will this church celebrate the identity of people of all genders and gender identities? Some churches are open to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, but not people who are trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer.

These questions aren’t exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start, and should, at the very least, invite some honest conversation about why your church believes and practices what it does.

Now for church leaders who want to be fully affirming:

~ Would people who are seeking a safe place to worship (without being viewed as sinners due to their identity) be able to find confirmation of that on your website? 

~ If you see yourself as egalitarian but don’t have any women in decision-making leadership, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of women?

~ If you see yourself as affirming people who are LGBTQ+, but the congregation has not done the work to make that explicit, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of all orientations and gender identities? 

I’m not saying you should immediately leave churches that aren’t fully affirming. Each of us has different things we’re comfortable with, different things that are dealbreakers, different experiences and convictions. But what I am saying is that, if equality is important to you personally, don’t give your church a pass just because they say “all are welcome.” 

Because until “all” really does mean all, it’s up to us to press toward the goal.

 

 

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

In memory of Oscar Romero (1917–1980)

A Future Not Our Own

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, in El Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a small chapel in a cancer hospital where he lived. He had always been close to his people, preached a prophetic gospel, denouncing the injustice in his country and supporting the development of popular and mass organizations. He became the voice of the Salvadoran people when all other channels of expression had been crushed by the repression.

This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included it in a reflection titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.

http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Ken_Untener_A_Future_Not_Our_Own.shtml