Snakes, Spiders and Bible Fear
Reflections on Teaching the Scriptures
“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Deuteronomy 6:7
I only cried once on Christmas day, and whether it was from joy or sorrow I am still not certain.
After sunset, Neil and I found ourselves standing in the yard outside our daughter’s living room window, looking in on a scene that somehow managed to be both mundane and exquisite. It was our traditional Christmas night family carol sing. Covid restrictions meant that earlier in the day we had transferred most of our traditions outdoors, despite the cold. We hung stockings from the trellis on the deck. We inaugurated a fire pit for opening presents. But gathering around the piano has to be done indoors, and our varied Covid exposures made it impossible for us to join the rest of the family.
So they opened the windows and put our two chairs on the lawn just outside. This year two more cousins shared the piano bench with Uncle Jon. There was a violin, and at least one ukulele. Three of the children had been to Israel. They could picture Nazareth and Bethlehem. Several of the children had completed the challenge of reading through their whole Action Bible and are planning their traditional celebratory Five Guys feast to mark the accomplishment.
Neil and I watched, and we sang along happily enough. At the end there were at least two little girls dancing, celebrating, with arms in the air. Suddenly I had a moment of seeing it all differently. I was no longer a participant but solely an observer from afar. Hebrews 12:1 came to mind: Christians are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses in heaven. We were witnessing a scene we had helped to set in motion through many years, but which was now largely in other hands, rolling through time without our active participation, hopefully gathering strength and power. These are perhaps the typical reflections of those who, however vigorous, are unarguably in the last quarter of life!
It was a strange and deeply bittersweet moment . . . observing your own family life while no longer actively participating in it, at least in that hour. There was a little sorrow I suppose, things suddenly seeming so fleeting. But the enormous deposit of that moment, a visitation of grace almost, was of seeing the faithfulness of God and the profound effect of the Bible, his living Word, upon our lives.
I have a vivid memory of hearing a speaker address a group of college students years ago. He said, “If I knew I was going to leave this world and could only leave behind one thing for my family and friends, it would be this: The Bible. It would be the Bible. I would teach them to love the Word. If I knew they would cling to God’s Word, I would know that nothing would ever ultimately defeat them.” It was the power of God’s Word and his faithfulness to keep it that bowled me over on Christmas night.
But let’s face it, the Bible can be scary.
The Bible ranks right up there with snakes and spiders and public speaking for most Christians. Statistically, fear of exposing their biblical ignorance is the number one reason adults stay away from Bible studies and adult education programs. Christian parents are deeply anxious about needing to root their kids in the Scriptures but they feel inadequate to do so, and put enormous pressure on Sunday school teachers and youth ministers to do it for them. Most adults who do study the Bible stay in the parts they are pretty sure they’ll understand. This can be a narrow selection after a while.
Our modus operandi for teaching the Bible at home could have been summed up by Chesterton’s exhortation, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Seriously. Most parents need to throw out any idea of doing it well, and just keep doing it. The same principle applies to our own study.
When teaching little ones, sometimes our only texts were pictures from children’s Bible story books. ‘What is happening in this picture? How do you think they felt in that storm? Would you have stepped over the side of the boat?’ Sometimes the kids took parts, and did walk-throughs, silently miming the stories while we read. Learning to step in and identify with the people in the Scriptures is a critical and fruitful skill for life.
When the kids were older we all read Proverbs and kept track of the words we felt applied to us. Those were long lists!
At another stage it became deeply helpful to us to try to understand the narrative unfolding, the one-storyness, of the Bible. This continues to be life changing for us all. It is stunning to see the consistent threads of theme emerge, stretching end to end. One of my daughters now carries a stack of children’s Bible story books into her classroom and puts them down in a heap, asking if anyone can put them in order. Very few can but it’s a great exercise!
The InterVarsity website has some great suggestions for just talking over Bible stories with friends (https://intervarsity.org/bible-study). Check out GIGs, which stands for Groups Investigating God (https://intervarsity.org/online/library/online-gigs-groups-investigating-god). GIGs would also work well for family conversation with older kids. And that would be the critical word . . . conversation. God’s command to teach his words in Deuteronomy is all about conversation (Deuteronomy 6:7-9). Non-stop, no boundaries, conversation about the Scriptures. What are you reading? How does it apply? Where does it encourage you? Where does it convict you? Anything confuse you? What blows you away? What can we do to help you obey what you hear? This is carpool and kitchen conversation, not just reserved for focused devotional times, as helpful as those can be.
No one can follow you in a path you’re not traveling yourself. Start (again) somewhere. Don’t be afraid to ‘do it badly.’ It actually took me many years to read the Bible straight through with a ‘Bible in a year’ plan, but it was so rich by the end! Don’t worry about it, maybe skip the genealogies or whatever really loses you, and just keep reading!
This is the last of my Fine Fire reflections for passing on the faith. They germinated in our family life, but they apply to all of us as we seek to obey Jesus in making disciples of children and adults alike. Obviously, every situation is different and there’s so much we can’t control. Teaching the Scriptures, however, stands out as God’s greatest gift and most powerful tool. Over and over our family experienced God breathing on some part of his Word and applying it to something one of us was walking through. We experienced the power of God’s Word and his faithfulness to keep it. When I eventually face looking on, not from the lawn but from the ‘cloud of witnesses,’ knowing that my loved ones love God’s Word will be my deepest consolation.