image by Michael Parzuchowski from Unsplash
...or in your life, for that matter.
Qualifier: I speak from the perspective of a young single adult who has no young siblings or children living with me, (unless you count two guinea pigs!) but who has been teaching Sunday School for several years, and also spends the rest of my week teaching children of assorted ages! These are just some thoughts I have developed, watching how adults interact with children--myself included--and seeing what has been helpful (and not!) for the children in a spiritual context.
1. Help them develop a love for reading the Bible. Help them see the excitement and fascination in the stories, the beauty of how the Old and New Testament reinforce and reflect and complement each other, the person of Christ as unfolded across both books as Messiah, King, Healer, Friend, Saviour. Help them to see the human, personal, side of the characters, to go beyond what may seem to them as stiff and formal words, to feel for them. I remember how a major change in Sunday School Bible reading happened when I started to unpack the Bible passages, not just as static factual events with a moralistic ending, but as stories which featured people very much like us, with feelings and thoughts and weaknesses and strengths like us. How God worked in their lives and spoke to them, just as He does to us. How they struggled to serve Him, how they made mistakes, how they learned to love Him--through joy, grief, shame, repentance, as we did. The children used to go through the motions of reading, sounding bored (especially those who had already read the story before) yet when I asked them to summarize what they had just read, they couldn't. I realized right then and there that just because they could read the verses aloud without physical difficulty didn't mean they actually understood or benefited from it from the content itself. So every few verses I would stop to summarize what happened, taking pains to help them imagine and relate to the characters, the situations, the conflicts/tensions, the ironies (I suppose my lit degree came in handy here.) To help them appreciate and engage with the passage.
Often, when they relate to the stories, when they start to feel and respond together with the characters, they grasp a lot of the spiritual truths on their own, instinctively; without needing me to hammer it in "ok now this is the interpretation, the take-away lesson." Often, they voluntarily give me examples of similar situations in their own experience, drawing parallels between the Bible stories and their own lives, so that the "application part" comes naturally. I'll always remember how, after we discussed what it meant to not have any idols, one little girl said suddenly with an enlightened face, "It's like my korkor (older brother) with his hair!"
And that's how they truly remember what they learned. Once they've engaged with the Bible, not just as a fun story, but reflecting truths that apply and can be seen in their own everyday lives, even within the limited circle of their short life experience.
And if you're not a parent or a Sunday School teacher and you're wondering how on earth this relates to you--you could always ask them about the Bible stories they've read, who's their favourite character and why; tell them about your own, what part of the Bible you enjoyed reading this week... Heck, be creative.
2. Encourage them to pray often, to feel comfortable and safe and loved talking to God, to share their fears and thoughts sincerely and naturally with Him. Give them opportunities to sincerely and simply pray, without making them self-conscious or overly aware of formalities; don't insist they close with "in Jesus's precious name" or tell them they "can't" pray for their pet hamster. Children learn quickly. They watch how you pray, they remember what you impress on them when it comes to how or what to pray about. They develop their own idea of what prayer means, and that reflects their idea of God, how they relate to Him.
From how you pray, does it come across as a duty, as a formal speech, as a ritual...as talking with a beloved Father and Friend?
3. Show them by your own example what the love of Christ means. Children are basically humans at the stage where they are the most receptive to love, and the lack of love. I mean, I think I'm pretty receptive to affection too, but in the nursery class I'm teaching now, the kids in the front row will start kissing my knees and trying to sit on my lap when it's storytime. !!!
Often, they are the most sensitive and appreciative of love, and as a Christian, you have the opportunity to show them through your example the gentleness, long-suffering, forgiveness, and self-sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated for us. So that when you tell them about Christ, they can imagine from their experience what such a love means.
Be kind. Take time to play with them, to listen to them, to talk to them.
4. Treat them seriously--purposefully avoid hypocrisy.
All right, this is a very big and complicated topic. I think I didn't manage to articulate it very well but I hope the main jist of it gets across anyway, because I feel it's very significant.
Listen to them, with respect for what they are trying to say, even when they're not good at articulating their thoughts yet. You'd be surprised how many insightful or unexpectedly probing, important questions/thoughts are going on inside that little head, once you sit down and take the patience to listen to the stammering, the pauses, the garbled syntax and confused references.
And don't talk down to them. I have realized, from watching others interact with children, and then changing how I interact with them--that there is a fine line between being playful/having fun and talking down. (If I manage to come up with a litmus test for that I'll add that to this post.) It's surprising how differently the same child will speak, act, and relate to you once they know that you take them seriously, that you don't see them as a cute stuff toy or kitten that only knows how to play and be teased (and some of them then go on to milk that to their advantage, manipulating adults and "acting cute" shamelessly. Unhealthy much? Go figure.)
This sounds weird, but really there is so much unconscious hypocrisy and insincerity--taken for granted even--in the way grownups interact with children. Children appreciate sincerity and humility a lot more than we give them credit for. You might think they're particularly gullible, but on the flipside, doesn't that show how much more they value and expect sincerity/honesty?
Whenever I share about my failures, or from my personal experience, I can really see them respond--they are responding to the fact that you're putting yourself on the same level as them, not playing the adult-talking-condescendingly-to-little-kids-that-I-clearly-see-as-inferior-to-myself card, or adult-ostenstatiously-dumbed-down. Which is a long title, but pretty much sums up a lot of adult-child interaction I have seen and experienced myself. There is something very damaging in encouraging the idea that adults are always 'better', and having reached some supernatural realm of perfection (which already comes quite naturally to children in their propensity to adore and admire and emulate; they are actually more used to humility than most of us) especially since the very way we define 'perfection', by implication, is often problematic.
One of them asked me if I cried when my pet died and I told them frankly, yes. They were surprised, and quiet for a while. "But you're an adult already," one of them pointed out finally, and I realized that to them, being an adult meant you were invincible, invulnerable, all capable. Oh darlings, who are we kidding?
Likewise, if you take this together with the many instances of hypocrisy, insincerity, and even falsehood with which many adults treat children (think promising rewards/telling scary stories/manipulative love--"If you're a naughty boy Mommy won't love you anymore..." and all the times we let them get away with stuff because they're cute)--well, it's depressing. What kind of security are we teaching them to have? What kind of standards are we depicting?
I remember, even as an older child, how damaging it was when another child got away with destroying/breaking one of my belongings, simply because his mom refused to make him apologize. She dismissed it with a flippant "oh dear, but he's just a kid, never mind lah, huh? You're the jiejie (older sister), you just don't mind it ok?"
I remember looking at that child, listening to what his mom was saying, and the expression on his face as he absorbed the fact that he could get away with something he obviously knew was wrong, as long as he played his cards right.
Again, having a friend refuse to let go of my stuff toy dog when it was time to go home, because he liked it. His mom, instead of telling him off, asked me to give it to him; "it's just a toy, you've still got others". I didn't want to, and I thought it was very rude and greedy of him--I expected his mom to make him return it, and when instead she asked me to give it to him, I felt a very strong, if confused, sense of injustice and betrayal. But because it was An Adult asking me I didn't dare to say no. I cried myself to sleep that night, even though it was "just a stuff toy", and I had "so many others!"
No. NO. Take them seriously.
Teach them to be honest, sincere, fair, and reliable by your own example. Don't dumb down for them. Don't have lesser moral standards for them just because they're kids. Don't dismiss their feelings or thoughts just because they may seem less important, or may not be well articulated. Don't underestimate the impact that you have in how they see themselves, and how they learn to interact with others.
5. Teach them to desire a relationship with Christ, and be aware that your Christian witness affects how they define what it means to be a Christian.
Help them to see, even as there is so much for them to learn--Bible stories, Scripture memory, worksheets to complete, catechisms to learn--that the most important thing is for them to believe in Jesus. The Gospel, in its most beautiful and most simple essence, should never be missing from the mass of Sunday School lessons and sermons and quiet bedtime talks. Its preeminent place should never be uncertain.
Ask yourself--calling myself a Christian, what kind of impression, on what it means to be a Christian, would a child who knows me get from my life? I know many dear older Christians who have helped me in many ways, but I especially appreciate those who showed me that being a Christian didn't mean having to constantly keep up to a specific image. Or always be on the lookout for reasons to disapprove of something. Or being unable to enjoy the simpler things in life. Or relate to people who didn't agree with your worldview. Come on, before I was converted I had the idea that after being baptized you couldn't be playful and make jokes because somehow it meant you weren't properly saved. How messed up was that, and yet that was the unspoken impression I'd received and formed.
6. Be comfortable with talking about spiritual things with them, and encourage them to ask you questions on what they're unsure of. I'm not sure how much of an issue this is with you. Most of us feel rather awkward discussing spiritual things with other adults. It could be worse, or easier, to do so with a child, depending on you. But most people don't bother to, because they assume that children can't understand/appreciate such thoughts. Don't mentally shelve them on the Jesus Loves Me This I Know level of theology! Be open to, and encourage them to ask questions about spiritual things. Be forewarned though; that probably means some very probing questions you'll have to think over and even study up on before you can answer. I remember when I was seeking, how it felt so unnatural and difficult to ask questions, even though I so badly needed answers, because I had never been in the habit of talking about these things with the older Christians in my life. Whereas this would be notoriously challenging to start with teenagers, it's different with children, who often have less expectations on what is "normal/awkward," less inhibitions, and much more trust/honesty in expressing their curiosity or questions. If they ask you questions about faith, about the Bible, encourage them, don't make them feel stupid or heretical; share from your own experience. The first time one little girl in my class asked me--she wasn't from a Christian background, so she didn't feel as much inhibition--"How do we know God is real?" I was struck by the reaction she got from the others, all from Christian homes and upbringing. They stared at her in shock and one of them nudged her to indicate she'd asked a taboo question, something akin to heresy. No, no, NO. I asked them one by one how they knew God was real, and they all gave pat textbook answers that rang hollow. I probed deeper and sure enough, they eventually acknowledged that they weren't really sure why those were the answers, they weren't very convinced, though they felt bad for doubting or feeling this way. That meant having to abandon the current lesson plan for a How Do We Know God is Real series, but it was worth it. We made some real connections that day, had some serious and insightful discussions. I hope they learnt not to be afraid to ask questions, to study the Bible, and get help when they needed it without feeling ashamed or guilty.
They're not children for very long. Treasure this chapter of life when they're at this stage. There are many blessings and opportunities in it, both for you and them.
image by Tevei Renvoye from Unsplash
The Johnsons are some of the most down-to-earth, courageous, and inspiring missionaries I have had the honour to know, and I've had the privilege of knowing many. Trevor and Teresa Johnson and their family have been serving in Papua, Indonesia, for years. We had them over at my home many years ago during one of their stopovers in Singapore and they certainly made an impact on me. To start with, little Noah was running around happily without shoes and catching lizards (or chichaks) with wild abandon, an eye-opener to us tame city kids, but certainly looking a lot happier than we were in our strap sandals!
In fact, we still have a homemade awl/axe--a stone head bound onto the handle with rattan, from Papua which they somehow managed to bring over as a present for us (talk about sensational gifts! Fruits, flowers, cakes are passe.) Still one of the most valued gifts we've received from the many diverse guests we've had the honour of having over the years.
It's been years since then but I regularly get email updates from the Johnsons, and I always look forward to it. For someone in my situation, living comfortable upper middle class lives in first world Singapore with all the expectations and priorities of first-world living standards, it's good to get some perspective. Sometimes after reading the updates I sit back and feel myself coming back to earth with a tangible bump! Truly an eye-opener. Sometimes, a sobering one. And we need it, we need a good wake-me-up from our increasingly narrow-minded--passive--complacent--entitled-- indifferent--discontented "lives of unmitigated selfishness" to use an Elizabeth Elliot quote.
Do check out the Johnsons's blog. I find myself invariably encouraged, as well as challenged--even by the most depressing and sobering updates; being reminded that God's people are serving in real, sacrificial ways, doing something about the many needs and wounds of the world.
And consider how, if God so moves you, you could do something to help them--whether by praying, some form of financial help (and there are so many needs in their many ministries) or even by going over and helping them in person for short-term trips, as has been happening recently.
May God continue to raise up people in all parts of the world, gifting them with courage, strength, and endurance--but most importantly, His love.
image by Aaron Burden from Unsplash
Psalm 51, in my Bible, is the only page that has a special fawn book tab sticker to mark it out. Partially because the moment I stuck it on I regretted it big time--I didn't realize how thin my Bible pages were, and they tore around the sticker edges if I wasn't careful turning the page. AbortMissionAbortMission--
But that's just standard characteristically bad decision making; Psalm 51is the psalm that became meaningful to me when I was seeking to be saved. Perhaps the first time that the Bible really 'spoke' to me, to use a trite phrase. When the aptness and timing almost frightened me. When I realized for the first time why reading the Bible is not like reading War and Peace or any other old thick book with tiny text.
I still remember a particularly low point, struggling with feeling depressed and hopeless because I was forced to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make it through a single day without regret, without realizing I had acted selfishly or proudly; without anger and impatience--and the list goes on. During this time, crushed by the appalling proof of the limits of my self-control, of just how useless "trying harder" was, I found myself drawn more and more--not to the deep theological discussions and records of Jesus's life in the New Testament, or the multi-faceted stories of the Old Testament that I had always enjoyed as a child, but to the Psalms--that unassuming book somewhere in the middle which I had always passed by. David's intimately personal "I" and the honest, vulnerable expressions of his emotions--his frank, child-like joy in God, or his most wretched moments of guilt and self-doubt--were something that drew my own restless, unhappy heart.
David had always been one of my favourite characters. I tried my best to forget about that horrid incident in and as a result the preface to Psalm 51--"To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba"--kind of put me off the rest of the Psalm. For the first time, however, I remember looking past the shadow of that incident and feeling verse one hit me in the pit of the stomach; "Have mercy upon me, O God..."
In the 21st century vocabulary we don't speak like that. This was what my heart had been groaning wordlessly, and it felt almost like relief, hearing it articulated so honestly and simply for me. Yes. Mercy. Simply mercy--I had no excuses, no reasons, only a wracking yearning need to be lifted out of this swampy morass of guilt and self-doubt, even self-loathing, that I could see no way out of. With a small sighing sob I felt the smart of tears, and looked through them at the rest of the psalm, blinking.
Empathy. Catharsis. Comfort. Guidance.
But more importantly, hope.
I found those as I made my way slowly through the rest of Psalm 51. And each time I reread it, I find more things to carry away, to store up, picking up pearls that only add to the beauty and significance this particular psalm has for me.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Guilt, ever-present, forcing us to realize that something is wrong with us, something is wrong with this world, that we have a gaping hole, a desperate need of Someone greater than ourselves...
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight--
That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
And blameless when You judge.
This always caught me unexpected--a reminder to see our sin in its full scope; as primarily an act of rebellion and rejection against God Himself.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
This is not the problem of isolated acts, isolated "bad decisions," moments of weakness, as we'd like to think--because we want to think that we can manage it, we are basically good despite these small flaws.
This is something intrinsic to our human condition, from our very conception; something that underlies our whole world.
And to change--to fix it--we need likewise a transformative change. Not a quick fix or a coverup, but from the inside, from our "inward parts". You need to change us. You need to plant truth and wisdom in the very core of our being, to transform us from the inside out. Our hearts, not just our external actions, need to be changed.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
The self-aware, cringing consciousness of guilt, of impurity--washed away. Cleansed, as thoroughly and simply and effectively as physical cleansing. The satisfaction of watching the dirt being blasted away, watching the cleanliness being restored. Free!
Free, and joyful.
No longer trapped inside the swampy morass, even though we might have broken a few bones in our fierce struggle to get out. Wounded and weak and still vulnerable, still raw from the struggle, perhaps; but rejoicing.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
And here you have the new convert's earnest prayer--for sanctification, for perseverance. With a vivid awareness of how much, how intensely you need God's presence. The power and guidance of the Spirit. In order to have a "clean heart"--to persevere--to have joy. And even--I found this point especially enlightening--to spread the Gospel. David prays, not simply to evangelize as a duty, but for God's abundant mercy and joy on him, which overflows into the most powerful and effective--and sincere--evangelism. Evangelism akin to praise.
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart--
These, O God, You will not despise.
And to balance that, David acknowledges that yet, all these things, all the things he promises to DO for God, they are not what is actually important. They do not earn him merit. That's not why he does them.
As John Piper said in Desiring God, our desire to be like God, to be righteous like God, should be our motivation--arising from our deep love and joy in Him; like a boy to whom the most intense, direct enjoyment of football would be to play the game himself, rather than simply watch others play.
Instead, how do we please Him?
With humility. With repentance. With faith in Him, not in ourselves.
18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
With that as our foundation, we are empowered to truly serve in the more common, concrete action-oriented understanding of the word. To change lives for the better, to nurture and bless and build up our communities and the people around us. To build the walls of our own Jerusalems, not because God is depending on us to get it done, but because we see ourselves as the instruments of His good pleasure, of His power. Without the pride, self-reliance, anxiety, and doubt that characterizes human achievements. With humility and purity in our personal lives as the foundation for these "sacrifices".
Those are the sacrifices of righteousness, the sacrifices that please You.
image by Milan Popovic from Unsplash
"Therefore we also pray always for you that...the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ..."
2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
While doing Search the Scriptures for 2 Thessalonians, I took some extra time to reflect on Paul's prayers for himself and for the Thessalonians, especially when they were under difficult circumstances. Trials. Persecution, as in this case.
Of course, there were the things we'd usually expect--justice (v.6,) peace (v.7,)...
But interestingly, also for God's glory.
Paul's long prayer closes with his exhortation to them of their primary goal, regardlesss of what they were going through--to glorify the name of Christ, and to seek their own glory only in Him.
Compared to what I usually pray for myself or others when going through a tough time, this was a new thought:
"Take it away!"
"If I have to go through this, give me more strength/wisdom etc to accept it"
"Where are you, God?"
"Please do something about this, please help!"
Which are not necessarily the wrong responses; but when I compare these with Paul's, I see how much greater his perspective was, in seeing God's overarching purpose and plan for allowing such things to happen. In not losing sight of the ultimate priorities working through our present concerns.
Paul's absolute conviction of the worthiness and greatness of God's glorification allowed him to see beyond, to see everything towards that end. To be so heaven-minded. To have such a love and faith in God that we truly desire our lives to glorify Him; even when it doesn't come easily, even at times when we are most tempted to be self-centred, even through the painful experience of injustice and suffering.
Perhaps this sounds even sadistic (if that's not too strong a word) at first. But I have seen people who lived this out, who showed me, in the raw, gory valley of real pain and real suffering, what it means to let the name of Jesus Christ be glorified in our suffering, and us in Him. I have seen their strength and peace and unfailing love and trust, when everything seems to be falling apart. I have watched, and wondered. And I caught a glimpse of Christ's love in a staggering and poignant form, in them. When I I silently marveled, at them.
"...the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ..."
In contrast, so much of self still taints the way I see things that happen to me. I assess experiences and events by how they make me feel, how they benefit or disadvantage me--forgetting that even my standards and basis for these judgments are constantly changing, on their own. I focus on what I can do to solve the problem, to get rid of what I don't like, so that I can continue pursuing an earth-bound definition of happiness.
Learning to see the end of the story, even as we are in the middle of discovering how it gets there...
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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