Monday, October 17, 2011

reading the Bible with kids - even the hard bits

The first chapter of Ezekiel (let’s be honest) is some kind of weird. A wind drives an immense storm cloud from the north; four glowing creatures emerge from the cloud, each with four different faces, with two wings covering their bodies and two spread out, darting to and fro with a sound like roaring waters; wheels within wheels, one for each creature, their rims covered in eyes, move in a straight line wherever the four creatures go; and above the creatures’ wings is an expanse like crystal, surmounted by a sapphire throne on which sits a human figure, glowing like metal in a furnace.

It’s a vivid, startling passage, and the kids’ faces are rapt. Mine too. We read Revelation a year or so ago, and the echoes and allusions are clearer than I’ve ever seen them, so much so that we all pick them up, even our eight year old.

It’s at times like this that I understand why the Puritans called the home a ‘little church’. As we sit here, the four kids and I, listening to my husband Steve read the Bible, it all falls into place. It’s completely casual, and I reckon just about anyone could do it, because all you have to do is to open a Bible, read a passage, and talk about it.

We use the same method my parents used with my brother and me after dinner, back in the day when their Presbyterian church, faithful to its Puritan heritage, taught them that it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach their kids about God. Here’s how we do it:

  • We take it in turns to read a book of the Bible, which leads to some pretty random choices, most recently Revelation, 1 and 2 Samuel, Acts and Ezekiel.
  • We read a chapter a night (the nights when we do it, that is). Mostly the adults read, but sometimes the older children.
  • Each member of the family gets to choose whether to ask or answer a question, even our five year old, whose questions tend to be simple multiple choice: ‘Did Ezekiel see: a. a cloud, b. a mountain, c. a goose?’. If they ask a question, the rest of the family gets to answer it.
  • We pray about what we read.1

See? I told you it was easy. So easy that it doesn't matter who's at our dinner table: we can invite them to join in.2 So easy - and yet so challenging - that it suits our whole family, with ages ranging from five to thirteen to forty-four.3

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. When it comes to Ezekiel, it helps that Steve wrote some Bible studies on it a few years ago. When we’re confused, we ask him to explain, and he does, not in a preachy way, but just because we’re interested in what it all means. If this takes a little preparation, why shouldn’t parents put this kind of effort into teaching their children; or perhaps open a commentary and find the answers together? But mostly there’s no preparation, just us and the Bible.

We don’t read the Bible together every night. But it happens often enough for our kids to begin to realize that they can read and understand the Bible for themselves. Thomas, who’s eight, started out not really listening or concentrating (his questions were limited to the last verse of the passage or to the fascinating topic of death and destruction - ‘Why did so-and-so die/kill/maim so-and-so?’). These days, he takes in most of the passage and asks or answers intelligent questions.

As we chat about Ezekiel's vision, we nut out some of the weird imagery:

  • the eyes - God sees everything
  • the wheels, like the wheels of a chariot, moving in all directions - God can go anywhere
  • the four faces, each ruler of a different sphere (the man over the creatures, the lion over wild animals, the ox over tame animals, and the eagle over the sky) - God rules everything

  • the 'expanse' - eleven-year-old Ben chips in here and says it means ‘God is above them and better’ and his Dad says, ‘Yep’
  • the glowing figure on the throne - eight-year-old Thomas exclaims, ‘It’s Jesus!’ (see, I told you we've been reading Revelation)4

Now we’re all getting it.

When Ezekiel sees this vision, he's with the exiles in Babylon. We know what that means, because we’re all familiar with the Boney M. song River of Babylon, one of the songs on the retro playlists Steve inflicts on us in the car. He asks what the vision means, and Ben answers, ‘That God is there and that he loves them.’ Spot on!5. God is all-powerful, he sees everything, and he's everywhere, even with the exiles in Babylon. What seemed a bizarre and unsettling vision is now full of comfort.

Steve sums it up with words that haunt me for days: ‘God is there even in the bad things.’

I go away more encouraged than after many church meetings I’ve been to. No, scrap that. This is a church meeting, a gathering of God's people – one that any family or bunch of people can have in their home. All you need is a Bible, and a willingness to open it and ask questions. As you do this, especially if you don't skip the hard bits, you realize that, yes, the Bible is understandable, and anyone can read it. You begin to see how it all fits together. You learn that it's exciting and life-changing. Best of all, you get to know Jesus.

Any family or household can do that!

1. If this method doesn't appeal to you, you'll find some excellent ideas and resources in Sandy Grant's article Bible reading with kids.
2. Although we don't necessarily ask our visitors to jump straight into Ezekiel: when our neighbours shared a meal the other day, we asked if they would mind joining in our after-dinner Bible reading, and read half a chapter of Mark with them. We didn't make them ask or answer questions, although their son volunteered better answers than ours did!
3. That said, our five year old is more in the learning-to-concentrate rather than the taking-everything-in category, so we read a children's Bible with the little ones at bedtime while the older kids and adults do their own Bible notes: not everything is age-transferable!
4. Actually, it's 'the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD' (Ezekiel 1:28); what Thomas is picking up on is how the description of Jesus in Revelation 1:12-16 draws on Old Testament visions of God's glory, such as Ezekiel chapters 1, 9 and 43 and Daniel chapters 7 and 10.
5. Although we're about to learn that God's presence in exile has as much to do with judgement as salvation as we read the first half of Ezekiel, something we could have guessed from the lightning cloud; we'll get to God's salvation in the second half of the book.

This post first appeared in The Briefing last Friday.

image is a detail of Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel ceiling


Fiona McLean said...

Dear Jean, I read your post with delight!! We too read through the whole Bible with our children - even the strange, boring, challenging, confronting bits. (The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles were a little tedious - but still conveyed some important biblical truths: for example, that the Bible is about real people, set in a real historial context; that God knows people by name; and that it is important who you belong to.) We are currently reading through Numbers. One of the blessings for me is how much I learn and am encouraged through our family Bible readings. We have used different strategies at different times, and are currently (at least some of the time!) using a similar question method that you describe. (Some evenings we just read the passage, and don't even comment on it.) Thanks for the encouragement of someone else who is committed to reading the Bible with her children!

Fiona McLean

Julie said...

This was good to read Jean.

My husband reads from the Bible each night after dinner, and we share prayer points. Our kids are only 3, 2 and 10 months and, as you mentioned about your 5 year-old, there is a lot of just learning to listen (or really just learning to be quiet). We read much shorter passages at this stage (only a maximum of 10 verses), and then my husband shares a main point.

I must say, there are times I feel we are wasting our time, as our 2-year-old wants to sing during the reading, and our 3-year-old fidgets and looks around, or our 10-month-old is crying. I know that God's Word has an impact even in ways we don't recognise. Sometimes my pragmatic side wants to throw in the towel because I can't see how God is using this time, apart from a lesson in patience for me!

It is lovely to hear how you have seen the changes in how your kids engage with the Bible over the years and an encouragement to keep going...

Jean said...

So glad you were encouraged, Fiona and Julie, and it's good to hear about your faithfulness.