How to fear God and love children

Does it really matter what children do in Sunday School?

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This week we’re celebrating 500 years since the Reformation in Europe – a time when big changes occurred in the church in order to get vernacular Bibles into the hands of people who’d never understood the Bible before.  They’d been going to church all their lives without understanding a word of what was said, and they’d hoped they were good enough because they’d tried to follow the rules the church had set out for them, and they’d picked up on some Bible themes from the stained glass windows.  Their actions gave them a Christian appearance, regardless of any understanding of the gospel.  This is a very brief and inadequate description but this isn’t actually a post about the Reformation.

I’ve been thinking about children’s work in churches (although most of what I will write also applies to teaching our children at home).  I’ve noticed that sometimes the way children’s work is done bears some resemblance to this pre-Reformation religion.  Sometimes children’s work is done more for appearances than for any actual spiritual benefit.  Children hear a story and/or do an activity, and probably come away with tangible evidence, e.g. a craft.  But this is mostly done to show others that the children are participating in the church service, and they’re learning Christian stuff.

These children come out of creche or Sunday school with a lovely craft, but with no relationship with God.  They have learnt some Christian morals, but they have no knowledge of the Word of God.  They have been shown role models, but they haven’t encountered the gracious God of the Bible.  (I think the role model topic might be another blog post in itself.)

Why does this happen? Maybe it’s because it’s the easy option.  But I can also think of two beliefs behind this way of doing things:

  1. Christian children are nice and well behaved.  Therefore, it’s good if children come to church every week, because we all want nice and well behaved children in our community, don’t we?
  2. Children can’t really get to know the living God who’s revealed himself to us through his Word.  After all, they’re only little.  They can’t even tie their shoelaces!  How can they be expected to understand doctrine? Let’s be realistic.

I guess there are many ways I could argue against these two points.  As usual, I’ll come back to Deuteronomy 6.  You need to read the whole chapter really but here’s one extract:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 

The Lord has always commanded his people to teach their children about him, so that they’ll know who they are and what the Lord has done for his people.  For us New Covenant believers, we don’t just need to teach them about a rescue from slavery in Egypt, but also (and ultimately) about our rescue from slavery to sin, through our Saviour Jesus Christ.  And a Saviour is what we all need:

“And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.” (Deut 6 v25)

Like the Israelites, we are unable to keep the law, and so we need a righteousness from God that is by faith from first to last. (Romans 1:17).  We desperately need Christ’s righteousness, and to stop trying to rely on our own good behaviour.  So why on earth would we think that what children really need most is to be well behaved?

And why would we think that they can’t have a relationship with the Lord?  In order to think that, you need to ignore all of the commands God gives to teach children his word (e.g. Psalm 74:5-6) plus what Jesus commanded about letting children come to him, plus just common sense.  Does a child know his/her mum and dad?  Do they know their siblings, their grandma, their neighbour?  Do they know their Sunday school teacher?  So why can’t they know Jesus?  Is he not real? Knowing the Lord is what they were made for.  Of course I know that their understanding of things will be different to ours (although don’t forget Jesus told us to learn from them (Matthew 18:3), but teach a group of children for a period of time and you’ll see some of them relating to their God.  Hopefully this relationship will lead to good behaviour (that’s certainly what I’m praying for my children!), but good behaviour without a changed heart is just a veneer.  Let our creche not be a Pharisee factory, because I’m quite sure Jesus wasn’t impressed by the Pharisees.

If you’re teaching creche or Sunday School, your responsibility is not to churn out well-mannered children who can tell you who Moses and Jonah are: it’s to faithfully teach God’s word to them, and to pray for their souls.  Don’t underestimate that responsibility.  These people are made in God’s image, and their precious.  If we fear God, we should teach his word with reverence to him.  And if your church isn’t doing this, then I would urge you to remedy that, even if it means you have to take charge of it (I know, as if you haven’t got enough to do).

Can I just say that I help run the creche in my church, and we do want the children to behave well, plus they do crafts, so I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying those things aren’t good.  But they’re really not the point of us all being there.  If we really believe in the power of God to speak to us by his Spirit through His word, regarding his Son our Saviour, then we’ll believe that for our children, too.  I hope you can see how this links to what I wrote at the top about the Reformation. Let’s do children’s work the great Reformers would be pleased to see.  We have the Bible in their language, so let’s not just show the kids some pictures and send them away thinking that all they need to do is try their best to be good.

And if you read this and feel encouraged that the children’s work in your church is good, maybe you could encourage the leaders this week, and thank them for faithfully doing the Lord’s work.

 

This reminds me of a post I wrote a long time ago called Hearts Not Garments.  

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5.1.

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought this, but I find it susprising that after reminding people that they are free, Paul’s instruction to them is to stand firm.  Not, “run around, then, and do a dance of freedom.”  Sometimes that is totally appropriate, of course, but Paul is writing to people who are being told that if they really want eternal life they need to be circumcised.  So in the face of that, the Galatian believers needed to stand firm in the freedom they’d been given in Christ.

As I wrote last week, I am so grateful for the likes of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, who put God’s word into English so that common folk like me could read it for ourselves.  And the best thing about this is that it means we can know the true gospel, straight from God’s word.  I want to celebrate the Reformation with my children because if it weren’t for those brave men and women, many of whom gave their lives or their livelihoods, we would still be relying on priests and icons to tell us about God.

The Bible in my tongue means true freedom, the gospel of grace that has saved me from hell and brought me into a relationship with the Mighty God, my Heavenly Father.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.” Ephesians 2.8-9.

It is by grace, through faith in Christ, to God’s glory.

I don’t need to confess my sins to a priest, because Jesus is my Great High Priest. (1 Timothy 2.5).

I don’t need to do good works in order to be saved, because Jesus has done all the work for me. (See Ephesians 2.8-9 above.).

I don’t need to pray for the dead, because the Lord is just and will judge everyone fairly (Hebrews 9.27-28.), and Jesus paid the price in full for those who trust in him.

It’s not just that I don’t need to do these things, but that by doing them I take away from Christ, as if he didn’t do enough: “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” 1 Peter 3.18

I can’t be saved by baptism, or pilgrimage, or charity, or taking communion – only by faith in Christ. (Romans 1.17 and Galatians 3.11 are just two examples.)

So in light of all that, I thought I’d let you know what we’ll be doing to celebrate.  I’m using the book pictured above, which – as the title suggests – has a different character from church history for each letter of the alphabet.  I’ve chosen six of these*, and between now and Monday we will look at one per day (we’ll just read their page from the book and thank God for them). We’ll do Luther last because I have a separate book about him (the little lights one) and it means we can dress up and pretend to nail something to the door, plus eat worm sweets and learn about his trial at Worms.


I drew a map (I’m not good at drawing but who cares really?), so that when we learn about a reformer we can cut out their head (so to speak) and stick it on the map.  This will hopefully make it more fun and help the children remember it.

At some point, probably Sunday or Monday (31st is officially Reformation Day), we will do this craft to help them learn the “five solas” which are five phrases that help to sum up the Reformation.  (I don’t think I’d heard of these before, thanks Rebecca Croft!). Here is a picture of the craft.  If only I were good with technology I could let you download it, but if you have a compass and protractor you could make it yourself.  A photocopier may help, depending on the size of your brood.  (I will see if I can upload it but am away now until Saturday so it may be too late by then, sorry.)


So the children will colour it in and then put one on top of the other, stick butterfly pin in the middle and hey presto:

Imagine it coloured in, with a butterfly pin, and not wonky.

So there you have it, I hope this is helpful and has inspired you to get excited about the Reformation (not just Ian Dury and the Blockheads).
*we’ll be looking at Lady Jane Gray, Zwingli, Ridley, Knox, Calvin and Luther.

Reasons to be Cheerful (about the Reformation): Part 2

IMG_0102.JPGI recently read a book called Radiant about “fifty remarkable women in church history.”  I realised reading this that many people have suffered greatly in the UK and Europe (as well as elsewhere of course) in order to reach people with the true gospel of grace.  Here is an extract from the chapter about Katharine Hamilton, the sister of James Hamilton.  They were Scottish aristocracy in the 16th Century.  James read the New Testament as well as some of the writings of Martin Luther, and began telling people about the forgiveness Jesus offers to sinners.  In this extract, James is explaining to his sister what he has learnt:

“But can it be that simple?” Katharine asked.  “All I need to do is trust in Jesus, and all my sins are forgiven and I inherit heaven?”
“As I have been showing you from Scripture,” Patrick said, lifting up his English New Testament, “we sinners can find peace with God only by believing in Christ.  He that lacks faith cannot please God.”
“But the priests and friars have always taught us,” she said, “that the way to heaven is through obedience to the church and good works.”
“Whoever believes or thinks that he can be saved by his own works,” he told her, “denies that Christ is his Saviour and that Christ died for him.  For how is He your Saviour if you can save yourself by your own works?”
“Are you saying that all my acts of penance and alms for the poor and pilgrimages to holy shrines – that none of that wins God’s favour?”
“Faith in Christ alone makes a sinner right with God,” he answered.  “Look to Jesus who did it all for you on the cross.  Forsake your trust in religious acts and come to Christ.”

If I were to underline the important bits, I’d have to underline the lot.  I’m so thankful that our gracious God allowed people, especially influential people, to unearth the true gospel and preach it to rich and poor alike.  Whoop, whoop!  If that ain’t worth baking a cake for, I don’t know what is.

Reasons to be Cheerful (about the Reformation): Part 1

img_0101It might seem strange to celebrate a big bust up that has lasted centuries and led to much suffering.  I would love to explain to you why I think the Reformation is worth celebrating with my children.  First I’d like to let Hilary Mantel do some of the explaining on my behalf.  I don’t know if you have read or watched Wolf Hall.  I loved the book but the first episode of the TV series made me sob so I gave up, however I intend to try again at some point.

Here is a quote from the book about the difference it makes to have the Bible in your own language, compared to relying on church traditions and on priests telling you what to do:

There is an obdurate winter ahead.  But [Cromwell] feels a force ready to break, as spring breaks from the dead tree.  As the word of God spreads, the people’s eyes are opened to new truths.  Until now, like Helen Barre, they knew Noah and the Flood, but not St Paul.  They could count over the sorrows of our Blessed Mother, and say how the damned are carried down to Hell.  But they did not know the manifold miracles and sayings of Christ, nor the words and deeds of the apostles, simple men who, like the poor of London, pursued simple wordless trades.  The story is much bigger than they ever thought it was.  He says to his nephew Richard, you cannot tell people just part of the tale and then stop, or just tell them the parts you choose.  They have seen their religion painted on the walls of churches, or carved in stone, but now God’s pen is poised, and he is ready to write his words in the books of their hearts.

Since the Reformation in Europe, common people like me have been able to read the Bible for themselves in a language they understand.  We’ve been able to learn the whole story, not just the bits chosen for stained-glass windows.  Praise God.