Come, Holy One, Breathe in us your spirit-spark. Rest on us like a gentle wind. Transform our ways of being from muted grays to radiant rainbows, that we might find in you and in one another and in all creation the gifts of hope, healing, and liberation. Amen.
It’s been two months now since Maggie died following a sudden-to-us decline from cancer. Her death was a hard blow, partly due to our feelings about how the end “happened” but also simply because of how integral she was to our lives and household.
Portions of this post were previously shared in Madison Mennonite’s March 2022 newsletter.
It’s been two months now since Maggie died following a sudden-to-us decline from cancer. Her death was a hard blow, partly due to our feelings about how the end “happened” but also simply because of how integral she was to our lives and household.
In recent years, I have found my attitudes and beliefs about other-than-human animals shifting and softening. Growing up, my pets were relegated to living outdoors–a part of the pack but clearly inferior as well. Other animals were either sources of food or simply “wild.” We had no sense of relation to any of them; they were Other, they were Lesser.
About the time that Justin and I welcomed our first dog, Darby, into our home, the movie Up was released. The film transformed our relationship with Darby (and other dogs since), largely due to the special collars the dogs wear in the movie. No longer was Darby’s inner monologue a hidden secret—all her actions were roughly (“ruff-ly”) translatable into English (or so we liked to think). This epiphany continued when Maggie joined our household; and if anything, it just kept blossoming. Some days, a quarter of the conversation between me and Justin would be based on what Maggie was “saying.” Like the movie, it was often hilarious (to us), and I do think it tuned us in more to Maggie’s sentience and personality.
Western Christianity historically has demoted animals and other living beings as a way of promoting the primacy of humans, based, in part, on anthropocentric interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis. Yet there are strands of Christianity that resist these interpretations, for which I am grateful, such as Christian Animism, which posits that the Spirit of God imbues all things with life and connection to the Divine.
Recently, I’ve been reading through A Native American Theology by Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George E. Tinker who argue that in many traditional indigenous theologies, animals, along with all living things (including water, rocks, mountains, etc.) are “persons” of equal inherent value. They write,
“In American Indian cultures human beings are not so privileged in the scheme of things; neither are humans considered external to the rest of the world and its functions…We do have particular responsibilities in the created realm, but then, so do all our other relatives in the created realm: from bears and squirrels to eagles and sparrows, trees, ants, rocks, and mountains. In fact, many elders in Indian communities are quick to add that of all the createds, of all our relations, we Two-Leggeds alone seem to be confused as to our responsibility toward the whole.” (Kidwell et al, 38-39.)
Maybe the idea that our pets and all creation do speak isn’t such a crazy proposition, after all. Perhaps humans like me have unnecessarily created a linguistic divide that does not exist naturally. Putting “translation” collars on our pets might just be the best thing to do to retrain us to hear them and their stories as we humans find our proper place in the circle of “all our relations.”
As we continue to grieve Maggie’s absence, I am also trying to open myself more to the “createds.” On walks, I have begun to practice envisioning a circle of warm, peaceful light surrounding me as I approach turkeys, squirrels, robins, and the like. I extend this non-threatening intention toward them as my attempt to build connection and honor their dignity.
I have no idea if this is “working,” but it is changing me, opening me more to the immanence of the Divine in and all around me. And I’d like to think that Maggie was my guide onto this path, patiently drawing me into a deeper awareness of the Sacred Mystery and Love.
In the winter edition of the Leader Magazine, an article titled “10 Trends for the Post-Pandemic Church” observed that the U.S. church—alongside society at large—is experiencing significant change.
The article, though it does not explicitly say so, seems to reflect trends of the mainstream church, and perhaps primarily white U.S. Christianity.
At the lived level, the church where I pastor, having reflected together on the article in a Christian Education session, agreed that some of the shifts resonate with what we are noticing in our local context. Meanwhile, other “new” trends appear similar to how we already operate. This mix was unsurprising; as an urban, mainstream-adjacent, highly educated, and predominantly white congregation, we regularly encounter the “edge” of the Church, while also being deeply committed to historic Anabaptist philosophies.
From a birds’ eye view of the trends, where their specificities begin to blur, broader trends emerge. The first is simply the trend of post-modernity, in which the church is finally and officially being asked—or forced—to address its real and present context in which the Church, broadly speaking, does not claim the central societal role of yesteryear.
One outgrowth of this is diminishing predictability with which a person or household offers their unwavering loyalty to a particular institution, which was a lingering vestige of modernity (and pre-modernity). We have noticed a diluting, if you will, of attention, commitment, and financial support across many aspects of our society as the make-up of personal and social identities complexifies and expands. The church is not immune to this trend, though the church, being fundamentally based on relationships, has up until the pandemic largely been protected from it.
Three of the article’s trends fall easily into this category. They are, with my paraphrase of their definitions:
“Attendance —> Engagement” — Broadening the understanding of membership beyond those who attend communal worship to include those who are involved in myriad ways across church life
“Adoption —> Fostering” — From a monogamous approach to membership to a more open relationship, where individual participation ebbs and flows, based on the individual’s needs and preferences
“Duty-driven giving —> Mission-driven giving” — Younger generations, especially, want to give out of a sense of connection and meaning, rather than an expectation or tradition
As attendance at communal worship gatherings diminishes (which research has shown is for a variety of reasons), the metrics and definitions of “who is a member” may also need to change. This is shown in the trends toward ‘Engagement’ and ‘Fostering’. In my role as Pastor, I can see the benefits of understanding who “we” are by taking a broader, more holistic, and flexible view of church membership. During the pandemic, in particular, this approach has been necessary for our congregation. Over the last two years, I have consistently seen that while many still attend our Sunday evening worship gatherings, others don’t…but do remain connected in other aspects of community life.
For example, in an effort to meet many needs brought about by the pandemic, we developed a worship routine where small, set groups gathered for worship (during our normal worship time) twice a month either in-person or online, based on households’ risk tolerances. The other two to three Sundays, we had “whole church” worship, where all were invited to gather (mostly via Zoom). Some members only attended the “whole church” gatherings; others only attended the small groups. (Many, it must be said, attended both.) But it begged the question: who are we? Ultimately, our response is: we are those who call Madison Mennonite home, in whatever form or fashion that takes.
There is also, I think, a distinct challenge to this trend: the ambiguity about the status of relationships. A certain percentage of congregants simply prefer the periphery, and again, for a variety of reasons. For those who flourish in stable, committed relationships, it is hard to feel connected to persons whose allegiance to the group feels non-committal. For those at the “center,” this can feel both personally and institutionally disappointing, at a minimum–or worse.
Meanwhile, several of the trends lean helpfully away from paternalistic, colonial, and patriarchal aspects of modernity and into trends brought about through feminism, womanism, and collectivism. Again, these are listed below with my paraphrases.*
“Competition—> Collaboration” — The benefit to multiple faith communities when resources are shared across organizations.
“Church Administrator —> Ministers of Communication” — (Finally) recognizing the incredible value of the often overlooked, behind-the-scenes efforts of those who keep us connected through communication.
“Traditional sermons —> Community testimony” — Noting the prevalence and availability of “better traditional sermons” via the web/podcasts (presumably, “better” than the average local pastor/preacher a church has called) and the communal benefit of hearing testimonies and stories from those in the local church.
“Pastor as leader, shepherd, and sage —> Pastor as spiritual friend, coach, cheerleader” — The pastoral role is perhaps trending more toward one who “accompanies and journeys with the congregation in self-discovery and spiritual discovery.”
“Stratified age-based ministry —> Intergenerational ministry” — A trend brought about by decreasing Sunday attendance.
In most of these trends, there is a visible attempt to reduce the historic “power of the elite” — power attained through education or financial resources—and to balance it with the “power of the people.” This perhaps is most blatant in the shift in a pastor’s role** and sermon shifts.
The trends toward (1) collaboration and (2) the public (e.g., worship) and invisible (e.g., administration) ministry of lay members and non-clergy staff together emphasize the “one Body, many members” metaphor of the Apostle Paul, as well as the “priesthood of all believers” in 1 Peter. In a church like mine, these do not feel like new trends; rather, as Anabaptists, there has long been the theological conviction that all have spiritual gifts, and all have access to the Spirit’s wisdom.
The thing I think we have yet to grapple with—and here, “we” is your average Mennonite Church USA community—is the paternalistic and colonial nature of our age-based ministries, specifically those ministries geared toward children. Where some churches are turning to “intergenerational ministry” out of necessity, I have been suspicious of Sunday School and the like for some time. It does not reflect our theology of being a church of voluntary believers, nor does it account for the connection with God/Sacred Mystery/Divine that–I believe–we are naturally born with. Age-specific ministries for children, much like the mission schools for Indigenous peoples of the last centuries, reflect a well-intentioned (usually) but colonizing approach to our children’s spirits.
Is there a role for religious education in the church?
Is there a role for religious education in the church? Possibly, but I don’t think it looks like Sunday School. Living life intergenerationally, on the other hand, reflects how societies have evolved for millennia; children are a part of a community’s traditions, rituals, and ceremonies and often learn from observation or feeling safe to ask questions out of their curiosity. There is more to be said on this. For now, it simply falls in the post-modern sub-category of “rejecting patriarchy.”
Regardless, the church is being drawn into change and transformation. As a member of my church put it after our discussion on the article, “Perhaps the Spirit is rubbing his/her/its hands in glee, recognizing an opening for renewed and re-imagined life as Jesus followers in our time and place.”
I pray it be so.
*The two additional trends from the article that I do not mention are “Program-focused ministry—>Relationship-focused ministry” and “Listening to the voice from on high—>Listening to the still, small voice.” Both could easily fall within the second broad trend listed above, but were eliminated from discussion due to space.
**I find this trend to be strongly influenced by the rise of individualization, a subtrend of post-modernity. A pastor as “leader, shepherd, sage” is a pastor for a community; a pastor as a “spiritual friend, coach, cheerleader” is much more individualistic and seems more attentive to a parishioner’s personal journey of “self-discovery.” My personal approach to pastoring is that both are necessary and both require a high self-awareness of pastoral power.
And so it goes: The pup and I ended up leaving a half-day early for our Christmas sojourn to the east. In a journey mirroring the Wise Ones’ trip from the East, Maggie and I found the inn under garishly bright blue lights, its sign advertising a low rate surely impossible to sustain life.
The halls reek of cigarette and pot smoke. Maggie is so anxious she paces our room, alert to every door opening and shutting and every footfall outside our door. The door to my room barely closes; each time I go in and out, I have to lift up, using my whole body weight to get the heavy door to open on its hinges. The floor is littered with an assortment of debris, and there is a used bath towel hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Atop the bed is a blanket so threadbare that I will later sleep under my coat. Just outside, vehicles on the interstate race by, pilgrims seeking a different inn for this night.
And yet it is Christmas Eve.
Settling into my room, I take a homemade muffin made for this journey and bite into it: this is the body of Life. And I open my water bottle, pour some of the fresh coolness into Maggie’s dish and then some into my mouth: this is the cup of Love.
It could not be more real than this—the strange alone-ness of this night, in a place far from home, with smells and sounds that are foreign to my body.
I retrieve a little candle and matches from my bag, ready to welcome the Christ-child into this holy night.
The Ignatian Imagination Prayer is a sensory, engaging spiritual practice that encourages one’s imagination to run free with the Spirit through scripture. Teresa A. Blythe writes in her book, 50 Ways to Pray, that the intent of this practice is “to imagine that you are physically present” in a particular scripture, “and to allow that scene to become a prayer for you.” (p 100)
Especially for passages that we know (or think we know) well, this spiritual exercise invites us to look, listen, and feel again. To be open to an awareness of words and emotions we hadn’t noticed before. To let the scripture speak to us in our present experience.
This practice can be used by individuals or in a group. To use it on your own, simply read slowly through the passage and the questions, taking the time you want to enter into each portion. Allow about twenty minutes to go through the following scripture. Jot down your experience in a journal, if you like, and any insights that dwelling in the word brought you.
For use in a group, read through the passage and questions, allowing more time than you think might be necessary. (As one who has received guided meditation before, I often feel rushed in my imaginings!) You may want to invite shared reflection at the end. A pdf version of this reflection is available here.
Prayer of preparation
Spirit of New Life, I/we ask for grace: that all my/our intentions, my/our actions, and my/our imaginings will be used for the service and praise of the Divine. Amen.
Ignatian Imagination Prayer
Within a few days [of the angel Gabriel’s visit to her], Mary set out and hurried to the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.
Take a moment to imagine yourself in this scene, not necessarily taking on the character of Mary or Elizabeth (or Zechariah). Simply be an observer for now.
What do you notice about Mary as she hurries down the roads of Judah? Does her face tell you anything about how she’s feeling?
What time of year is it in in Judah? What do you smell?
What does Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house look like? As Mary nears the house, when does she call out to Elizabeth? What does she say? Where is Elizabeth when she hears Mary call her name?
As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
In your mind’s eye, notice how Mary and Elizabeth meet face-to-face.
What does it look like as the Holy Spirit settles on Elizabeth? Is there a visible change, or do you feel a shift in your surroundings?
Imagine Mary notices you, and calls out to you, too, to join their delighted embrace. Does anything move in you—does your heart beat quicker or your stomach do little flip flops? Stay there, in the scene, as a full participant in the story.
In a loud voice, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why am I so favored, that the mother of the Messiah should come to me? The moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished.”
What is the energy like in the room as Elizabeth shouts this blessing? After her long journey, how does Mary react to Elizabeth’s words? Does anyone or anything else in the area also join the scene, drawn in by Elizabeth’s excitement?
Do you eagerly join in the blessing, or do you hold back?
Mary said: “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed. For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me and holy is your Name.
What does Mary’s song sound like? Is it in a major key or minor key; a rapid tempo or meandering pace? Does she start out tentatively or boldly? How is she moving her body?
Do you feel an impulse to sing or sway along? What is Elizabeth doing?
You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.
What emotions cross Mary’s face as she describes God’s actions? Are there hints of rage, hope, frustration, or joy? How does the tune and volume of her singing shift in these stanzas?
As you hear her revolutionary words, sung there in your presence, do you feel nervous…or comforted?
You have come to the aid of Israel your servant, mindful of your mercy— the promise you made to our ancestors— to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever.”
As Mary’s song ends, survey the scene again. Look all around you. What do you notice? Has anything changed between Mary’s arrival and now?
Notice your body in the scene—emotions, sensations, tension.
What do Elizabeth and Mary do following this greeting, blessing, and song?
Let your full imagination run free now. Allow the scene to change in any way you feel inspired. Linger and interact with the characters there. What are you doing? Do you go off to tell someone about your experience? How do you describe what happened?
Either in a journal or in a group discussion, take time to reflect on the experience. What does it mean to make ready for the birth of the Divine within us? Consider how Mary and Elizabeth prepared.
What does this mean to you? What part of the story helps you lean into a welcoming spirit? What part of the story disturbs you most? What insight does this imaginative exercise provide?
Close by offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God or pray a version of the Prayer Jesus Taught.
I don’t often post my sermons here, for a variety of theological and practical reasons. Yesterday’s sermon on jubilee economics felt a bit of a mix of personal story, exegesis, and community-informed–perhaps how all sermons should be–and “translates” a bit better into this space.
Two years ago, Justin and I were negotiating a contract on our soon-to-be new-to-us house on Berwyn Drive in Madison. When we were here in Sept. ’19 for my candidating weekend, we spent several days touring houses and settled on one property in particular with its “blank canvas” of a front yard, the gorgeous oak tree out back, and with ideas that we could do some remodeling inside to achieve what we were looking for in a home…namely, a space that could hold lots of people for extended evenings and dinner parties and committee meetings where we would plot out paths of justice and agendas of peace.
Even at our closing, we never met the previous owners. We heard snippets about them from their realtor and a few neighbors. We occasionally still get mail for “Laura” and “Brian”. They weren’t the original owners—they had only lived there for a couple years. Our neighbor, Kelly, who has lived in her house for nearly 30 years, mentioned that we were probably the 5th or 6th owners since she’s lived next door.
Of course, we also know that this land hasn’t always been “owned” but is a 112′ x 83′ portion of a much larger story of colonization and imperialist expansion.
In late October of 2019, Justin, Maggie, and I moved into that larger story—aware of the Doctrine of Discovery and European colonization of this “nation”, but in some ways, too excited or distracted to reckon with that history.
And, of course, it wasn’t the first time that as a white, European woman, I found a home in a place once—and still—inhabited by people who have lived here much longer than my people. But Wisconsin was foreign territory to me, a land I had no connection to prior to summer of 2019; I didn’t know this land’s story. I hadn’t needed to. But there was something good here that I wanted to be a part of. And so we landed and put down roots.
Which is not too far off from the experience of the Hebrew people in Leviticus 25, as they lingered on the borders of the promised land.
As I read through the passage from Leviticus, I was struck by a common thread that runs through our scriptures these past three weeks. Yes, of course, they all revolve around Sabbath and why and how Sabbath is celebrated. Meanwhile, there’s another thread connecting these passages.
The early verses of Leviticus 25 offer their hint, “When you enter the land that I am giving you, …” “When you enter” implies that the Israelites are still wandering in the desert. The instructions from God about Sabbath, about Jubilee, are all given prior to entering the promised land. On this side of the story, the ordinances sound like a blueprint for living in the way of God. A blueprint which is intended for the Israelites’ flourishing, beginning with a 7-day cycle that culminates in rest and expanding to a 7-year cycle of renewal and finally, Jubilee, following the 49th year.
When we read the story from the vantage point of the Hebrew people, or how the authors of the text “imagined” that part of their history, Sabbath is a gift, clearly meant for a people who don’t have it all together. A people who have not yet arrived. And the concept of a Jubilee—for the land and for Israelites—beautifully imagines how good things will be and will stay in the promised land.
But what happens when that promised land is already inhabited? How does Jubilee work then?
Sarah Augustine, a Tewa descendant and Mennonite, writes in her book, The Land Is Not Empty, of her perspective of the Hebrew exodus story of the Old Testament. When she hears the 10 commandments of Deuteronomy 5 that we heard two weeks ago, she cannot help but remember that the land that the Israelites were “promised” was already inhabited. And the instructions God gives in Deut. 7 and beyond are for the elimination of the original inhabitants.
“The exodus story” Augustine writes, continues a cycle of “genocide” (124). She goes on, “[I]n my cosmology as a woman indigenous to North America, I am one of them invaded by the people presumed to be chosen of God.” (119-120) As an Indigenous Person, Augustine identifies most closely with the Canaanites. Her interpretation of these pre-promise land Sabbath texts is sobering to a white woman like me.
The challenge is holding both my story and Sarah Augustine’s story. For here I am, already settled in a promised land, and could easily live oblivious to the impact my presence has here. And as there is no evidence that Jubilee was ever truly practiced by our Israelite ancestors, it seems possible to imagine that those of the dominant society—of any dominant society—could live oblivious to the deeper truth and justice that Leviticus 25 so clearly outlines.
For starters, we today might question applying anything that comes out of Leviticus. That makes sense—there are significant portions of Leviticus that, when held in the light of the biblical story and the life of Jesus, fall far outside of the cosmic arc, or the “grain of the universe”, as Denny would say.
Leviticus 25 is a curious chapter and dips its toes into themes that permeate the New Testament — themes of healing, redemption, salvation (communal/cosmic sense), liberation, renewal, right relationship. In a nutshell, Leviticus 25 precedes and reflects the Gospel idea we’re so familiar with: the kin[g]dom of God being realized on earth. Granted, Leviticus 25 accounts for that realization in full every 50 years…a little less frequently than we believe is possible in Christ.
The portion of the chapter we heard focuses largely on land and land as property; the rest of the chapter expands into relationships between humans — debts canceled, manumission for those enslaved. Jubilee, that 50th year of extended Sabbath, is intended as a system that embeds economic justice into a society’s rhythms. Jubilee makes inequality temporary. This Great Reset is integral to the heart of Sabbath-keeping.
In the Jubilee system, land is not owned by any one person or household in perpetuity; rather, the setup more closely resembles a lease, where, during the Jubilee year, the land is returned to the “original” inhabitant (though “original” here is always assumed to mean the original Israelite). It’s a radical idea that, I imagine, would shape a community’s sense of mutuality—with one another, surely, and also with the generations that would come after, as well as the land itself. The Year of Jubilee, the Great Reset, is the reign of God experienced on earth.
But Sarah Augustine’s interpretation remains: The reign of God for whom? What of those displaced? Will the land ever return to them? Does economic justice have limits?
In the May 2021 issue of The Atlantic magazine, Dan Treuer wrote an article titled, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” in which Treuer argues that land stolen from Indigenous Peoples of North America —now national park property—should be returned to Indigenous Peoples as restitution. He proposes,
”All 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States. … The total acreage would not quite make up for the General Allotment Act, which robbed us of 90 million acres, but it would ensure that we have unfettered access to our tribal homelands. And it would restore dignity that was rightfully ours. To be entrusted with the stewardship of America’s most precious landscapes would be a deeply meaningful form of restitution.”
Treuer is proposing a year of Jubilee.
Reparations of this scale have been successful in some places, including Australia, New Zealand, and between the US and Panama. Yet they are infrequent, often partial and tenuous.
Like buying our home on Berwyn Drive, the idea of reparations asks a lot of those in the dominant society who tend to feel entitled to what one privately owns.
It’s been longer than 50 years since white colonizers stole the land through trickery, manipulation, and military aggression. That could be an excuse to let Jubilee principles recede into myth. But when, in Luke 4, Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter to him if it’s been 500 years or 5 minutes. Oppression, slavery, captivity are called out for what they are and sent packing.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” …which is to say, for those who walk in the way of Jesus, to participate in Jubilee economics is an everyday action. Through Christ, Jubilee is a communal action that embeds economic justice into a society’s rhythms. Into a church’s rhythms.
In the Jewish calendar and according to Leviticus 25, Jubilee was to begin on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Friends, a year and one day from today—Oct. 4, 2022—is Yom Kippur. Over the next 366 days, I want to imagine with you, with this community, how we participate in the Great Reset. I want to imagine how we hold our diverse stories and stories like Sarah Augustine’s together: dismantling systems of oppression and fostering systems of economic justice. Will you join me? Will you let me join you?
In our backyard, a gorgeous, expansive oak hovers with a regal grandeur, providing shade and scurrying space for the squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, and goldfinches. The last few weeks, the oak has been dropping thousands of acorns, which plummet to the earth with a powerful velocity. (One does not want to be sitting under her branches when there is any wind, lest an acorn drops with forceful precision on an exposed head…) It’s clear that autumn is arriving as the boughs sigh with relief as they lighten with each released acorn.
Tomorrow marks the autumn equinox here in the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth. In Madison, the weather has subtly shifted with the days still (mostly) bright and warm, and the nights cool and breezy. In this threshold between seasons, the earth reminds me to prepare for the winter ahead. The annuals and perennials alike are shifting their focus, nudging me, too, to let go of those things that were wonderful for a season, but now need to be put to rest…perhaps until next spring, or perhaps for good.
O Spirit of Change, prepare my heart for the winter ahead, but not before I have celebrated the fruit of summer. In this Great Transition Time, as the earth continues in its path, may I sense, like the Mother Oak, a lightening in my body, as the gifts of the long summer days drop to their earthen womb below. Amen.
At times I miss the wild spaces:
the cacophony and chaos
of bird songs, brambles, and entangled pines. In the racket of ravens
and the inquisitive gaze of the fawn,
I find my spirit’s home–
home, a quiet heart
renewed hope– home is where the heron lands.
How do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves?
A family member with young children recently shared that their children had asked why they, as a family, don’t read the Bible. A recent experience at a church summer camp seemed to spur the children’s question, and the adult family member wasn’t sure how to respond. The family actively attends a faith community, participating in a wide variety of church activities and weekly worship. Yet, the children perceived a gap between themselves and others and were curious about it.
One evening a few weeks later, the adults of the family were sitting in our living room and raised this question: How do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves?
After talking around this for a while, I turned the question back to the parent. I asked, “Why would you read the Bible?” — asked not in a rhetorical way, but with an intent to draw out a positive Bible-reading ethic, if they felt they could.
In the progressive-leaning faith communities I’ve been a part of, attitudes toward the Bible have been mixed. There’s a desire that our children are exposed to the Bible, but we don’t want to gloss over that scripture is complex. We’re not interested in passing on the old legalism we were raised with, but we also think there’s a fair amount of wisdom in Jesus’ teachings. We’ve lost our naïveté that God’s a big guy up in the sky, but we’re captivated by a sense that there’s Something More.
And each time we do crack the book to begin reading, we come with an awareness that these texts weren’t written for us 21st-century readers. The Bible was written in many times and places, by many people shaped by their particular cultures. It spans multiple genres, is written in multiple languages (not English!), and includes no extended information on the authors or their motivations.
It’s a lot to hold.
Teaching the Bible from a place of uncertainty is really hard, especially when we’re trying to teach it to children. So, what is our responsibility, as adults in a faith tradition that values voluntary membership? (Here “adults” includes both a child’s parents and other adults in the faith community.)
I offer three main suggestions:
First, let children direct you. Follow what they’re interested in learning about. Equip them to ask questions and create a safe environment for them to ask. Ask other adults to help. Help other adults when they ask. Exploring the Bible can be playful, imaginative, and mysterious.
And second, following the wisdom of Celtic Christianity, allow the natural world — the “big book of scripture” — to shape your understanding of the Divine, of justice, of compassion. An awareness of the natural world is vital to understanding the written word of scripture, regardless of one’s age.
Meanwhile, within the Anabaptist tradition, rigid indoctrination of the young actually violates our core value of being a believers’ church.* That’s not to say that we should shield our faith from the next generations; rather, it is an invitation to live with integrity. Children (and youth especially) can sense when we find something is important, often through the way our words and actions align.
So, how do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves? We can allow—or even encourage—our children to explore sacred texts they’re interested in and to provide the tools they need to do so. We can notice and point out the ways that our everyday lives are deeply spiritual, as even some of our most mundane decisions are informed by faith, ethics, and/or our understanding of the Divine. And we can foster a sense of wonder about the good news we encounter in the very world around us.
All of this is centered in trust. Our relationship with a sacred text, like any relationship, is marked by seasons of distance and intimacy, of discernment and questioning…and we trust that the text can handle this. We also find trust in the Anabaptist practice of reading and interpreting the Bible in community, in which there is safety, accountability, and support. And perhaps it’s an opportunity to trust that our children will discover and discern on their own why they might (or might not) want to read the Bible.
*This is why I’m generally wary of things like Sunday School, especially for children.