A guest post written by Lisa Brown, Director of Children’s Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA (from buildingfaith.org)
Tough Bible Passages
"And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire." Matthew 18:8-9
A fourth-grade Sunday school teacher came into my office recently. “This week’s Gospel?” he shook his head. “I’m not touching that reading with a 10 foot pole.”
It’s easy to sympathize. As Christian educators, it is our first priority to nurture young people in their relationships with an unequivocally loving God. As teachers, we may fear that challenging Bible stories will undermine this message. You know the passages: those tales in which God seems capricious and vengeful, or when Jesus speaks of gnashing of teeth, curses, or leaving behind family.
For many, the first instinct is to simply avoid these stories. Avoid anything in the Bible which is scary, disturbing, challenging, or confusing. None of us wants to frighten a child. We are unsure of how parents might respond to the introduction of difficult topics in what is perceived as a safe space. We don’t want to expose ideas that are in stark opposition to how we function in society today. Most importantly, we don’t know what to make of the stories ourselves.
Half the Picture
The tough stories, however, are exactly the ones we need to tackle with children and adults. If we insist on offering only those parts of the Bible that translate into a rosy Sunday school coloring book page, we vastly limit the potential for spiritual growth and maturity. Furthermore, when children become aware that we’ve been ignoring those dark and challenging stories, it casts the validity of the entire scripture into doubt. We send the message that we can ignore the heavy stuff.
Life is the Heavy Stuff
Children know that life can be scary, disturbing, challenging and confusing. When we engage these difficult scripture stories in Sunday school, we reinforce the idea that the Bible is relevant to our messy lives. Indeed, they provide us with a lens through which we might better approach our fears and doubts and questions.
Teachers can ask questions like "does this make you uncomfortable?” and “does this scare you?" We need to acknowledge that these stories makes adults uncomfortable, too. It’s vital that children learn that adults do not have all the answers, but are committed to finding answers. Our discomfort is an invitation to dig a little deeper and to determine what God is saying to us in these stories.
How to Do It
Let's start with what we know. We believe that the Bible reveals a God of infinite love. We proclaim the Gospel message – the good news is the love of God in Jesus Christ. These truths ground us as we approach challenging stories.
When a story makes us shake our head, try asking these questions before walking away:
• What was the context in which the story was offered?
• Who were the original listeners and what were their circumstances? For example, most scripture began as oral story telling.
• Why was the story told to them or by them?
• How can we see a God of Love active in these stories, even the ones where love seems hard to find?
• What truth can I convey to my students, am how can I do it in a developmentally appropriate way? For example, take the story of David. Young children don't need to know all about Bathsheba; they need to know that David disobeyed God, was disciplined, but never stopped loving God or being loved by God.)
• What important themes and lessons does the story offer us for our lives today?
We believe Scripture to be the Word of God. Scripture has the ability to tell a greater story than the simply the details on a page. God uses scripture to tell us the story of His love and redemption. The power of challenging Bible stories is that they give us a way to remember, explore and seek the truth of God's great story.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do this alone. There are resources to help us make better sense of these difficult stories before we share them with children.
A good study bible can be immensely helpful. A copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible might even be found in your church library!
If you are following a published curriculum, such as Living the Good News, each lesson should contain background information.
Godly Play models explorative questioning. The Complete Godly Play is a series of books that describe in detail every lesson.
A Godly Play practitioner, who will talk to you about how they lead the stories, is another resource. Becky Ramsey is one such teacher who has shared her years of work online.
Worshiping with Children offers discussion points and supplemental materials to expand and explain the weekly readings.
Textweek provides a treasure trove of analysis, sermons, images and media sorted by lectionary week, as well as specific scripture texts. Textweek is very dense and takes time to navigate: we particularly appreciate links to Working Preacher, ON Scripture, and Journey with Jesus.
Storypath links children’s literature to expand and illuminate Bible stories.
Be not afraid! With a dependable leader by their side, kids can handle challenging stories. Indeed, we all need to work through these stories to see God's work in the world.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39