I’ve said before that I’m drawn to teaching August scripture from the perspective of the The Jesus Storybook Bible, which so beautifully offers the Bible as a bigger story: one of God coming to rescue the world in the sacrifice of Jesus. I long for August to encounter scripture as the good story of God’s great love for us, as opposed to the way I learned to apply scripture in my childhood Sunday School classes: well-meant but unfortunate morality lessons. When we read the story of Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the lesson was always summed up in what we were supposed to change about ourselves: give what you have to Jesus (do better!). That’s a wonderful idea until you realize that you’re constantly a failure at giving what you have. And if you haven’t been taught to see Jesus as the miracle worker who takes the little you have and makes it miraculous, you live your life never being enough for Jesus to use.
So, Sunday, when August came home from church with a little worksheet on the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis 27, I was caught off guard to see the “assignment” the preschoolers been given after story time, to go through the pictures on the paper and circle the “most important.” Their options?
Row 1: boy playing with a toy airplane vs boy praying by his bed with his father
Row 2: Bible vs a bowl of cereal
Row 3: boy on a computer vs girl praying piously in church
Row 4: boy helping his friend in a wheelchair vs boy pushing another boy
Look, I’m all for morality. Jesus said we would be known as his followers by how we love. Of course I want August to learn that the boy who helps his friend in a wheelchair is making a better choice than the boy who pushes. And I completely understand that it’s difficult to teach scripture, with all of its layers and complexities, to children without making it a morality lesson, but I didn’t feel comfortable with what I saw on August’s story booklet. I didn’t feel comfortable at all. Is playing with your toy plane less important to God than praying before bed at night? Is reading the Bible a better choice than eating breakfast? Is super pious-face heaven gazer doing something more important than the boy on the computer?
That worksheet wanted to draw a line between spiritual and physical things, asking my boy to judge which are worthwhile and which are not. The answer is not only much more complicated than it appears, it’s also damaging. If it’s true that only the spiritual things are good, are worthwhile, then we have to look honestly at every thing we do. How can we justify time spent reading a novel, cooking a meal, going for a run? We believe that God didn’t just dream us up; he created us. And I have to believe that he delights in our entering into His creation, fully participating in it–whether that means building a model plane or eating cereal or working on the computer.
I’m a recovering “good Christian girl” who knew just how to put that pious face on when I prayed in church. Of course reading the Bible was more important than feeding my body! Of course prayer was a better choice than play! I took all those well-meaning “do better” childhood Sunday School stories and shaped them into a theology of trying, striving, and failing, time and again.
It wasn’t until adulthood when the burden of carrying around the pile of what I’d left undone was too much. I saw everything in my life that wasn’t spiritual as a weakness. I lived with great guilt for choosing to study writing instead of going to Kenya and running an orphanage as I’d always planned. It took depression and therapy to open me up to the possibility that I didn’t understand the gospel. I’d missed the entire thing. It has taken years to believe that God’s love for me is not dependent on how spiritually impressive my life looks.
And so, maybe you understand that I didn’t like the message that worksheet was sending my 3-year-old. I don’t believe God loves the act of prayer more than he loves the child playing with his toy plane. God loves creation. God loves for us to enjoy creation, not as a second best way to use our time, but because creation is good. God delights in seeing my son play with his airplane and his cars and his dinosaurs, not simply because those things bring August joy, but because God loves play. August is a delight to the heart of God when he runs through the backyard, Lightning McQueen in hand, vrooming. He is being who God has made him to be.
I believe God made our bodies and our minds and our hearts and he loves when they line up into the beautiful all-encompassing story of redemption. The gospel is the story of Jesus rescuing us from all that we fail to do, all that we fail to be. I will never pray enough; but I am rescued. I will never show enough compassion; but I am given compassion in spite of my failure. I will never understand the depth of need in this world; but Jesus has rescued me in the midst of my ignorance. The gospel is the story of our brokenness and a love that is making us who we really are, not who our failures say we are. Only the gospel allows me to recognize what is good in this world.
After August showed me his worksheet, I had a little worry moment. What would I say to him about what he circled? I prepared myself for a talk about God loving play and prayer, God loving when we eat all our cereal because food is a gift from God. But it turned out, I didn’t really need to have carried that concern. Usually, children understand at a much deeper level what matters in this life and what doesn’t.
Once I actually took the time to look at what his 3-year-old fingers had circled with the orange crayon in Sunday School class, I realized his answers were perfectly true. He didn’t choose between the less important and more important. (And thankfully, his dear teachers did not make him choose.) He had simply circled everything he knew was good, no matter which row it was on. So, the boy with the plane was circled beside the boy in prayer, the cereal was circled and the boy who helped his friend. There was only one picture crossed out. It was the boy who pushed. (Pious heaven gazer was left blank. Seriously, what’s her deal?)
Nope. No need for that talk. We learn what’s good by what we see lived out, don’t we? And little boys always know that toy planes matter to God.