Saturday, March 28, 2015

Every pro-social idea is not the good news

Here were some headlines this week: "New details of attempted school abduction released." "Babysitter accused of sexually assaulting kids with boyfriend, boasts in texts." "Teen girl found guilty of starting Cocos fire." Yep - we've got some problems. And it's only natural to want some quick solutions. But does our desperation to escape the terror-of-the-moment create misplaced trust, and cause us to celebrate prematurely? I think it does.

When we (kids of the 70s and 80s) were growing up, our parents were terrified that we'd use drugs, that we'd eat Halloween candy laced with something, or that we'd come under the influence of Satanic messages backmasked in rock music. And there were a lot of urgent solutions thrown their way. But by today's standards, they were either an overreaction, or they failed to make lasting change.

Take the D.A.R.E. program. Drug Abuse Resistance Education started in 1983 and quickly went nationwide. The theory was that if you spoke openly and honestly to kids about the dangers of drug use, they'd realize the danger and steer clear of drugs. The problem was, it didn't work. Multiple studies showed that while kids certainly learned about all kinds of controlled substances, their attitudes - and more importantly, their behavior - were unaffected. In California, by the time students reached high school, 90 percent of them had neutral or negative feelings about the D.A.R.E. program and its message.

Ask someone why it failed and you'll gain real insight into their faith in education to change behavior. Some people would contend that D.A.R.E. wasn't explicit enough - that given more truth, kids would be less likely to make a bad choice. Others would make the opposite claim - that the more aware you make kids of drugs, the more likely they are to be interested in trying them. (The same argument is used against talking about suicide.) Either one assumes that information is the key element in decisionmaking.

But we know better. We don't always act logically. We don't always act in our best interests. Or, sometimes we do, but we break rules and trample on the rights of others in doing so. Things are "slanted", if you will, away from decisions and behavior that are just (reflecting God's balanced design), and toward conduct that is unfair, unbalanced, deceitful, manipulative, and wrong.

The gospel - the good news of Jesus - is the antidote. The gospel is a supernatural salvage operation designed to rescue us from the earthquake devastation brought on by our sin. The gospel's goals are often in harmony with pro-social ideals, but not every pro-social idea is the good news. That puts Christians in a tough spot: how can someone argue against drug abuse education, or bullying prevention, or character education? Who wants to be branded pro-drugs, or pro-bullying, or anti-character?

The answer is that the gospel makes a bigger claim than any other behavior-change initiative. The gospel's claim is personal and community transformation, and less drug abuse, less suicide, less domestic violence, less bullying, and less estrangement from one another are all fruits of the gospel's work. They are not the direct objectives; they are the overflow.

Even the D.A.R.E. program, which for years denied the research that said the program wasn't working, has recognized that merely teaching about a problem and exhorting kids to change doesn't work. And they've changed their approach because of it. It takes more than information to change a person. You have to touch on motivation, family makeup, cultural forces, emotional development, and overcoming harmful patterns. In other words, everything about a person, from the inside-out. Quick fixes don't do that. And our church programs, if they aim too low, don't do it either. The goals may be commendable, and kids can nod in assent to the material that's presented, but if they fail to touch the level of real life, in the long term, nothing will change.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Meet Miki Montoya, Sunday nursery coordinator

Hello - I am Michael Ann Montoya...but most of you know me as Miki.  I recently started as the new nursery coordinator on Sunday mornings.

I grew up in a Christian home in beautiful Lake Tahoe, CA.  I gave my life to Christ when I was nine at our church in Truckee, CA.  I spent some of the best years of my childhood attending Awana, Sunday school and youth groups. I left the mountains in 2001 for the sunny beaches of San Diego.

I starting coming to NCCC with my boyfriend - now my husband - a little over 12 years ago. We were married ten years ago by the wonderful pastor, Bear. Shortly after marrying Rick we welcomed our true miracle and blessing Daniella Elise (she is now 7 going on 17!). I am also blessed with two wonderful step-sons Alex and Hunter who are the best big brothers a little girl could ever ask for.

As a family we love the outdoors: taking walks with our two dogs, camping, and rock climbing - but most of all, we love our family time at Disneyland.

I have grown up around babies. From being a younger sister, to babysitting in Junior High and High School, to nannying in college, I love the time I get to spend with the beautiful gifts that God has given so many of us here at NCCC.

I look forward to getting to know you all as you leave your little ones with me and my team in the nursery.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Meet Brittany Eason, new Nursery & 2's coordinator

My name is Brittany Eason and I am beyond excited to see what God has in store for my wonderful volunteers and I, as I start the journey being the coordinator for ages two and under Saturday nights and the two-year-olds on Sundays.

I am from Aurora, Colorado we moved to San Diego four years ago. I've been working with preschool and under since I was in high school starting in a private preschool. When we moved out to San Diego I started volunteering in Children's Ministry.

My husband and I have been married for four wonderful years and have two boys, Connor who just turned five and Carson who is two years old. We moved up to Oceanside in December and started coming to NCCC right away and I am amazed at all the wonderful things God is doing in our lives and cannot wait to see what lies ahead.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Death of a Fairy Tale

I write today to mourn the passing of an old friend, the fairy tale. She lived a long and vibrant life, but died a gradual death. The world will miss her - if it ever notices her absence.

What makes me so sure we are witnessing the last of a dying breed? Exhibit A: the new Cinderella movie from Disney, a beautifully made picture that in the end, isn't much of a fairy tale. And that's too bad. Christian families should embrace fairy tales, and here's why.

Fairy tales force us into "What If...?" thinking. Because of the presence of magic, we know that this isn't history, either recent or distant. It's make-believe. "Once upon a time..." clues us in to that. When we read them, then, we aren't looking for life lessons. But we are enticed to think "What If...?" the magic was real in our world?

And, mind you, that's not their primary purpose. Fairy tales are not stories about us and what could happen to us. They happened "a long time ago, in a kingdom far, far away" precisely to highlight their other-worldliness. If we see ourselves in a particular character, it's our own doing; these are stories about someone else, and we get to hear about the amazing thing that happened to them.

Which brings us back to Cinderella. Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. She lived with her wicked stepmother and her ugly step-sisters, and after her father's death, the stepmother regarded her as nothing more than a servant. She washed, cooked, cleaned, and did all of the dirty work (hence, "Ella of the cinders"). Then the prince throws a ball in hopes of finding a wife, and invites all of the eligible young women to come. Cinderella fixes up an old dress of her mother's, but is humiliated by her step-sisters, who ruin it. Alone and sad, Cinderella receives a visit from her Fairy Godmother, who conjures a beautiful dress for Cinderella and turns a pumpkin into a carriage that will take her to the ball. She meets the prince, who is smitten, but at midnight the spell is to end, so Cinderella races away before her true state can be known. In doing so, she leaves behind a glass slipper. The prince travels throughout the kingdom in search of the girl, and when the slipper fits Cinderella, he marries her and they live happily ever after.

It's not meant to be real, and everyone who has ever heard or seen that story knows that. Yet Disney, in the live-action remake, manages to weave character education into the story. As Cinderella's real mother lays dying, she reminds her daughter to always, "Have courage, and be kind". This mantra arises at various points of tension in the movie. Whenever Cinderella faces something dangerous or hard, she remembers to "Have courage, and be kind". That soft moralizing is obvious enough, but then, sure enough you reach the end of the movie, where the omniscient narrator assures us that what happened to Cinderella could happen to you, "With courage, kindness...and a little bit of magic."

Um, what? A little bit of magic? No - in the time-honored version, it's all magic that makes the difference for Cinderella. Yes, I'll allow that folk and fairy tales morph over time - but they remain folk and fairy tales. Disney made this story a fable. And in doing so, they robbed Cinderella of its essence.

The difference between a fable and a fairy tale is important. Fables are teaching stories. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" represents every child who exaggerates and lies, and in so doing teaches us to tell the truth and guard our integrity. "The Tortoise and the Hare" teaches us to be persistent, and perhaps that those with giftedness should not presume success. Fairy tales, on the other hand, are not overtly meant to teach. They mirror life, but they do so in a way that defies direct correlation. So the Wicked Stepmother is truly Wicked - she's evil incarnate. We will probably never meet someone as thoroughly wicked as her, but that doesn't make her characterization useless; it's a deliberate device meant to help us recognize evil. Prince Charming (in Snow White) is flawless and, well, charming. Does anyone like that really exist? No - only in fairy tales. But as the embodiment of the hero who is the dream come true, he is useful.

But the Wicked Stepmother in the new Cinderella isn't even called that, and while she's occasionally cruel, she's not intractably wicked. The step-sisters also show some redeeming qualities. It's as if Disney felt bound to make these characters as relateable as possible. Although, for a generation being raised on reality TV shows, it's probably no surprise that fictional characters in modern storytelling look more and more like us, and less like those in traditional fairy tales. Today what makes for a good story is plausibility: "It could happen to you." That's what makes reality shows work. We really believe we are watching people pretty much like ourselves - or we marvel at the stupidity and callousness of people who could be our neighbors.

Disney didn't make Cinderella pedestrian on its own. It had help. Over time, a "Cinderella story" has come to mean not something fantastical and in fact impossible, but merely something improbable. There's a big difference. We call a sports team who emerges from obscurity during the playoffs or triumphs against the odds a "Cinderella team", or a surreal, picture-perfect wedding a "Cinderella wedding". But there's no real magic. All of the difference is due to caterers and decorators and athletes and perhaps a little luck.

A little more than a year ago, Luke Epplin, writing in The Atlantic, decried the predictable tendency of every made-for-kids animated film to be about the same thing: believing in one's self and overcoming obstacles to achieve some unlikely goal. Epplin rightly points out that these films, in paying homage to the cult of self-esteem, fail to give kids a realistic picture of life. He points to the 1969 A Boy Named Charlie Brown as an example of a movie that tells the real truth, which is that life also contains failures and setbacks - but that in the midst of that, life goes on. Such a movie would never be made today, and that says a lot about our culture's misplaced trust in ourselves.

Of course, if we are the key to everything, then failure is as real a possibility as success, but by the new way of thinking, it is a failure to dream big, to believe in ourselves, and to exercise character. Thus Cinderella, had she not shown courage and kindness, may not have ended up living happily ever after with the prince.

That, however, is not the moral of the story of Cinderella. In fact, there is no moral to that story, because fairy tales don't work that way. But when believing in ourselves is the paramount element of success, then it becomes imperative that we should use every opportunity to teach kids about character and pursuing their dreams (provided, of course, that those dreams reinforce the narrative we've been peddling).

And boy have we. The latter-day Cinderella is just the latest harbinger of this trend. And unfortunately, even churches have been complicit. (See this and this and this and this.) And what happens when dreams aren't fulfilled (because not every team can win the tournament, not every kid can win the spelling bee, and not every audition lands you the leading role)? Well, at least you tried. Good intentions, apart from having actually made a difference, emerge as the real goal. This might betray something deeper: maybe all we desire for our children is that they grow up to be people who we like, who are pleasant, who don't frighten us.

This is taking "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game" to a ridiculous extreme. Of course it matters some whether you win or lose, or it would be pointless to practice and pointless for kids to learn new skills or to keep score. And it matters how you play the game, because cheating is unfair and being a sore loser won't help you improve, it'll just make you bitter.

But let me suggest also that pro-social character traits are not the most important things we can instill in them. The world is a place with great challenges, big problems that call for courageous kids to grow into courageous adults and confront those problems, not compliant kids who grow into merely kind adults who grimace at the world's troubles and then distract themselves.

So here's why you should want your kid to believe in fairy tales - the real kind, not the watered-down ones where all the power resides in a character's ability to believe in themselves. Fairy tales are about the impossible happening. They battle evil. They involve unseen forces. They call on us to believe. Whereas modern-day morality tales imply that "If it's going to be, it's up to me" and lie to kids about the real condition of the world ("Just have courage, and be kind"), fairy tales rightly subordinate the main character's virtues to the larger fantasy themes of the story.

Likewise, Bible stories are not so much stories about people overcoming obstacles and achieving great things as they are stories about God acting - sometimes through people, sometimes apart from them, sometimes in spite of them - to achieve his will in the world. The Bible is not a natural book, about things we clever humans could replicate by our own strength; it is a supernatural book, filled with miracles and under-girded by a spiritual realm that we don't fully grasp. To the degree that God uses humans, he effects their transformation - a re-creation that was not only unlikely, but wholly impossible without God acting. God does magic, and you want your kids to believe in that kind of magic. Call it "super-powers" if "magic" makes you unsettled.

The Bible is also real when it comes to evil. Cain killing Abel - endangering the very survival of the human race that God had created - was an act of treachery. So was the sale of Joseph to slave traders. And idolatry that led to child sacrifice. And David sending Uriah to the front lines so he could have Bathsheba. And the crucifixion of Jesus. Kids need to know that the genesis of evil is the Fall of mankind, not that someone got up on the wrong side of the bed, and that the antidote to evil is the triumph of the cross, not a chipper spirit and random acts of kindness.

Fairy tales, while casting characters in ways that are quite un-believeable, end up giving us a truer picture of ourselves than we want to admit. The new Cinderella movie, in an effort to relate to us, fudges the truth. Kids need exposure to the kinds of stories that depict miraculous things, or they grow up lacking the ability to imagine that the world can truly be changed.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"You can do it!" is not the good news

When I was a kid, we watched a film in school called "Free to Be You and Me." And yes, it's as '70s as that sounds. "Free to Be" was a project of the Ms. Foundation and debuted first on ABC. By the time we watched it, in the early '80s, its ideas were mainstream. The overall theme was that gender should not limit kids' dreams: you can achieve anything you set your mind to, regardless of if you're a boy or a girl. Maybe you saw it as a kid, too.

"Free to Be You and Me" contributed to a cultural ethos that still dominates American life today. The American Dream had long motivated people to be self-starters, driven by the dream of "making it" on their own. But for generations, it was out of reach of many. Racial integration, women's liberation, and the inclusion of mentally handicapped children in schools helped change that, and that's good. Racism has no place in the kingdom of God. Girls have benefited as traditionally male careers have become open to them. Kids with disabilities are visible and honored people in society.

But the belief that anyone can achieve anything also creates pressure. If I'm not successful at something, the cause must be me, right? And if I do succeed, it must also be a reflection on me. The only thing that stands in my way is belief in myself.

Therein lies the problem: how do you square confidence, self-initiative, and hard work with Jesus' demand that we lay down our lives to follow him, accepting his death as the sufficient - and only - means of reconciliation with God? It turns out that when it comes to being a Christian, inability is actually a strength. Because the first step in living a Christian life is a passive one (and by that I mean, not a work of my own): letting myself be loved by God. Day by day, I have to remind myself that I'm not the engine of my own faith - God is. That flies in the face of conventional thinking, which says that life is what you make of it.

We all want our kids to do well in life. So, we encourage them as much as possible. We get them private lessons, we rearrange our schedules to drive them to practices, we push them to get better, and we celebrate. (Although, this article suggests that the way you praise and encourage matters, a lot.)

But in the end, "You can do it!" is a pretty poor slogan for Christianity. It is not the good news. The good news is that through my weakness, in my brokenness, and in spite of my flaws, Christ shines brightly. If kids approach their Christianity the same way they approach their schoolwork, or a team tryout, or a play audition, or the SAT test, we end up with a group of strivers who will make great contributions in this lifetime, but never fully comprehend a relationship with God.

"What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" - Mark 8:36

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What's the good news?

The word "gospel" means "good news". In Christianity, we believe in, study, proclaim, and celebrate the gospel. But although it is good news, that doesn't mean the opposite is true: just because something could be considered "good news" doesn't mean it is the gospel, or related to the gospel.

That's where I think we get stuck sometimes. We assume that if it's good news for us, it must be something God wants, too - maybe that it's part of even God's will, and God's priority, and God's purpose for our lives.

For instance, it might be good news - great news - to hear that your kid got straight A's, or that you're getting a raise or promotion at work, or that your car doesn't need major repairs after all. It might be good news that it won't rain on your wedding day, or that everyone will make it to the family reunion, or that there's enough butter left in the fridge so you don't have to make a trip to the store. But none of these have much of anything to do with the "good news" that is the Christian gospel.

Last week I wrote about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is one research team's attempt to boil down the religious views of the average American teenager into one coherent set of beliefs. MTD makes this very mistake, placing people and their desires and happiness at the center of the universe and using God as a supernatural help to attain human success and comfort.

So, what is this Christian "gospel"?

1. It is the good news about Jesus Christ (see Mark 1:1).

2. It is spiritual in nature; it deals with spiritual things and spiritual relationships. Paul said he became a "father" to the Corinthians "through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15).

3. It has the force of truth, and its essence is worth contending for (Galatians 2:5).

4. It brings people who are "out", "in"; it shows no favoritism; it is for everyone (Ephesians 3:6).

5. It's the answer to a mystery: how could God bring sinners into his adopted family? (Eph. 3:6, 6:19)

6. It is tied to a mission (Philippians 1:12).

7. Because it's a shared mission, the gospel promotes and requires unity (Philippians 1:27).

8. It is the message that through the death of Jesus, God has made a way for sinful, broken people to be reconciled to himself (Colossians 1:21-23).

9. It is the overcoming and defeat of death, and the attainment of immortality (2 Timothy 1:8-11).

10. Paul was imprisoned for it (Philemon 1:10-14).

The gospel is life-changing and life-giving. And, in many ways, it is unbelievable. Which is why we have to fight for it, and not let it be diminished by all of the other "good news" we look forward to hearing. Those things might be good news, but they're not the good news. In coming weeks I'll detail some messages that get offered as substitutes for the real good news.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The New American Religion

Ben Franklin wrote, "Half the truth is often a great lie." Indeed, you can learn a lot from half-truths, both from what is included and what is left out - as long as you're aware you're only getting half the truth!

Between 2001 and 2006, the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted the largest study ever of teenagers and their religious beliefs. One of its findings was that while 85 percent of American teens said they believed in God, less than a third were active in a congregation. Before you heave a sigh of relief ("At least most of them believe in God"), consider the content of those beliefs. What the survey revealed was dismal.

The average American teenager (at least in 2005) possessed a set of beliefs that were a watered-down mixture of self-help, deism, and works righteousness. The research team said it was as if they conceived of God as part-cosmic butler, part-therapist. Taking into account all of the teens they'd surveyed and distilling their beliefs down to a prominent core, some themes emerged:

  1. A God exists who created the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
They called this "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism", and you can judge for yourself whether it's still true of teenagers today, 10 years later. But, as the teenagers who were surveyed are now in their 20s, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is surely the new American religion.

The subject came up in our Wednesday night class on why the Millennial Generation is leaving churches. Some class members noted that it's a self-focused theology - life is about me, and God's job is to be there for me - and that perhaps not until kids grow up and out of a "me first" ethic can they move past a selfish belief in God. Fair point. The trouble is, there's just enough truth in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to make it believable.

For instance, #1 is certainly true. God's existence is a bedrock belief of the Christian faith. #2 is also true - but there are a number of caveats. Us being good and nice isn't all that God wants, nor is it the central teaching of "most world religions". And, what about sin? How does that affect our ability to carry out the whole good, nice, and fair thing?

Is #3 true? While there's a certain amount of truth to the idea that being a Christian will bring you joy and feelings of peace and contentment, it does not follow that any means I might use to make myself feel good or experience joy are legitimate or part of God's plan. Endless trips to Disneyland might make me feel good. A life spared from family tragedy would make me happy. Becoming rich or famous or successful might produce feelings of accomplishment and self-worth. But that doesn't mean God is necessarily behind any of those things.

#4 reflects an attitude we're all perhaps guilty of sometimes. "God - bail me out!" means we expect God to always be faithful, even when we've been unfaithful. And 2 Timothy 2 affirms that God cannot be unfaithful, or he would be denying his character. But it betrays an attitude that says, "My life should be good. I deserve it. I should be successful, happy, and healthy. If I'm not, God ought to fix it." No theology of suffering. No learning or being shaped by trials. No "take up your cross and follow me". #4 is the credo of consumerist Christianity.

And #5 reflects the pop-religion dogma that will. not. die: Karma. It's an incredibly slippery concept that seems charitable, but really, would you want to be judged by a "good enough" standard once you die? What if what you thought all your life was good enough, wasn't?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is easy to believe. But it also easily fails. Lives are filled with hardship. God has a unique plan for solving the human predicament. But he's at the center of that plan, not you. MTD casts God as a piece within an individual's story, rather than seeing people as pieces fitting into God's story. It fits with a consumerist lifestyle that pursues personal comfort and pleasure above all things. But those are dreams uniquely fitted to our time and culture. Most of the world doesn't have the luxury of viewing God in this light. And if the self-centered gist of MTD is not universally true, to all people of all cultures, it's not true at all.

To think about: It's likely that none of the ideas of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are taught to kids overtly: "Believe this." Instead, kids absorb it from the messages they receive - from parents, friends, the culture, even the church. What are the sources that fuel these beliefs?

Monday, February 16, 2015

There are no winners and losers in church

My worst subject in school was probably PE. I was curious and liked to read, so the demands of a traditional classroom played to my strengths. But I could - and did - make all kinds of excuses why I didn't do well in PE: I was shorter than other kids, we weren't playing my favorite games (i.e., the ones I was sure I could win at), I always ended up on the weaker team, and that old childhood standby - "the other team cheated".

Truth is, I was a sore loser. And because of that, I came to dread and resent PE. But years later I came to understand the real reason I wasn't a star when it came to PE: I completely misunderstood the point of physical education itself. Turns out it's not to become a star athlete, nor to win, but to develop an appreciation for exercise and how to use your body.

To be fair, I don't think most kids understood the point of PE either, which is why it always threatened to devolve, particularly in Junior High, into a survival-of-the-fittest melee. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Our elementary PE teacher, Mr. Fritel, ran a tight ship and methodically planned games and exercises for us designed to develop hand-eye coordination, build muscle strength, gross motor skills, etc. - everything that a good physical education program should do. He taught us how to juggle, how to climb ropes, and how to jump. He started a jump rope show team that would practice before school and perform at basketball halftime shows. Some tricks were simple, and others impressive and complex, like jumping rope while belted to a pogo stick.

Still, all of this skill development, wonderful as it was, got eclipsed by competitiveness. As a result, I didn't want to play any sport that didn't come easy to me, because I might not win. Today, hyper-competitiveness also causes young athletes to drop out of sports they genuinely enjoy, just because they can't make "the cut". When a kid loves a sport, and then ends up turning away from that sport and from all sports in general, we have a problem.

Which brings us back to PE: its real purpose is not to delineate winners and losers, but to instill in kids a hopefully lifelong love of physical activity. Likewise, the real purpose of church for kids is to cultivate in them an excitement, a wonder, and a love for God. Simple as that. It's not to separate smart kids from non-smart kids, or to win attendance awards, or to be the fastest at finding Bible verses. If your church upbringing was filled with those things, let's be honest: some kids liked that stuff, but a lot of them hated it, too. And where are those adults now?

There are all kinds of reasons young adults walk away from churches. It isn't all the fault of unpleasant church experiences when they were kids. But some of it is, and some of it stems from our penchant for identifying "winners" and "losers" in church, when in fact, winning isn't the point at all. Competitiveness in church becomes a problem when it causes kids to think they aren't "good" at church, and when it whips kids into a frenzy that takes their eye far off the ball. No team or kid should get booed at church. But can we really blame kids for acting that way if we've cultivated a "just win, baby" ethic in church?

If kids grow up without exposure to physical activity, or if that activity is tainted by too much competitiveness (causing some to conclude, "I guess I'm just not good at this; it's not for me."), the habit of being active will not take root. In the same way, if church experiences aren't focused on enjoying God and the fellowship of other Christians (and discovering what there is about God that's actually enjoyable), those habits won't take root, either.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Very Best Bible for your kid

I get asked often about Bibles for kids, and I'm glad. It's an easy question - and a hard one.

Want to know the very best Bible for your kid?

It's the one they'll read.

Seriously - that's the goal. That's the cardinal rule of Bible buying. The Bible your kid is drawn to, devours, dog-ears, marks up, can't wait to read - that's the one they need to have.

Which one that will be is a harder question, and you'll only know by exposing kids to lots of different ones. I'll make some suggestions at the end of this post, but a trip to a Christian bookstore with your kid is time well-spent. Better to buy them the one they pick out than surprise them with one that ends up sitting on the shelf.

Keeping in mind cardinal rule #1, here are a couple of other guidelines:

1. Don't judge the book by its cover. I can't tell you how many flashy, cool-looking covers I've seen, for every kind of kid imaginable - rough & tumble, brainy, girly-girl, athletic, adventurous - yet you open them up and it's no different a Bible than you'd find in a typical adult church. Which doesn't make it a bad choice, but if your kid would be unlikely to read the adult Bible from church, will a cool cover make them more likely to read a similar Bible at home? It might, but consider that carefully. Bible publishers design "kid Bibles" this way because their job is to sell Bibles, and there's nothing wrong with that, but putting neat-o packaging around it and slapping the words "Kid's Bible" or "for Kids" doesn't transform it into something that will be easily understood nor readily consumed by kids. And remember, that's the goal. The goal isn't just that they have a Bible they'll proudly claim and carry around, but that they'll use that Bible. Readability plays a big role in that. Which lead us to...

2. Pay attention to translations. The NIV, which is the preferred translation in many evangelical churches, has a 7th-grade reading level. In other words, someone who has completed 7th grade should be able to read and understand it. The King James Version? 12th grade (but, the New King James, 7th). The English Standard Version is at a 10th grade reading level, while the New Living Translation registers at a 6th grade reading level. (See more here.)

Why they wouldn't make all Bibles as easy to read as possible comes down to translation philosophy: are you trying to reproduce the words from the Greek and Hebrew, even if the reading comes out difficult and stilted, or are you trying to reproduce the ideas, even if that means you employ sentence construction and phrases that are easily understood, but not "literally" a translation of the manuscript? (Here's what John 3:16 looks like when Greek words are translated directly to English, with no regard for what makes "good" English: "Thus for loved God the world that the son the only-begotten he gave (so) that all believing in him not might perish but might have life eternal.") Naturally, because of cardinal rule #1 - the best Bible is the one your kid will read - I'm in favor of the second approach when it comes to Bibles for kids, because if they're confused and find the reading too difficult, they won't read it, and then what have you gained?

The "easiest" translations to read are the New International Reader's Version (NIrV), the New Century Version (NCV), and Contemporary English Version (CEV), all at a 3rd grade reading level. To get any simpler than that, you have to resort to translations-of-translations (the NIrV is one), which take English translations and make them even simpler. Many of these were developed for non-native English speakers. Which leads us to...

3. Bibles vs. Bible story books.  Many kids' Bibles are in fact compilations of important Bible stories. Or more accurately - compilations of the accounts of important events that are recorded in the Bible. That's one weakness of Bible "storybooks", that they could give kids the impression that the Bible contains "stories" (that is, fiction). But that's easily overcome, by repeatedly emphasizing to kids that these are true stories involving people who really lived.

Another drawback is that while the stories are arranged chronologically, there's a jarring lack of continuity. Jesus might immediately follow after Daniel, despite the 600 years between them. But young kids have trouble conceptualizing vast amounts of time anyhow, and even an adult Bible omits hundreds of years - the Bible is not an comprehensive history of the human race.

Clearly, very young children will use storybook Bibles. But if you're anxious that your older child still hasn't "graduated" to a full, 66-book, chapter-and-verse Bible - don't be. Refer back to cardinal rule #1: the best Bible is the one your kid will read. The message of the Bible is what transforms us; not the particular words. When you read an English Bible, you're not getting the words, but an interpretation, communicating the meaning in the Greek and Hebrew.

And by the same token, don't stress out over Bible mechanics. Kids learn about the Bible's layout and how to navigate it as a byproduct of actually reading it. Find the one they love to read, and the rest will follow. Which leads us to...

4. Set a good example. This article stresses that a love of reading cannot be imposed on kids, but it may be contagious. Kids who read books tend to have parents who love to read. Likewise, if kids see us reading - and enjoying reading - the Bible, they might come to value it as well.

And I beg you: don't pay your kid to read the Bible. Let them develop it because it excites their imagination, satisfies their curiosity, and fills their soul. Rewards cheapen what the Bible is all about.

If you're a little lost when it comes to reading the Bible, we have a great class for you and your kid to take together once they've reached 4th grade. What's The Story? and What's This Book? are designed to promote Bible literacy and make you a good Bible reader. Look for their re-launch this spring once the new chapel opens.

A Couple of Recommendations
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name 
The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name This awesome little innovation manages to weave Jesus into every selected Old Testament and New Testament story, so that while you may be learning about Noah, you're also learning about his connection to the savior who was to come. I haven't heard from any family yet that hasn't loved this Bible.

The Action Bible 
The Action Bible Kids have been fascinated with this one for a few years now. Full-color, impressive drawings, laid out comic book style, and again with a focus on the "big picture" story of the Bible and God's hand in sovereignly saving his people.

 The Picture Bible is what the name suggests. It's very similar to the Action Bible in that it selects several characters and relates events from the life of each one, but the illustrations aren't as striking.

The Picture Bible, Hardcover

 If you want a full-text, "regular" Bible, just take your kid online or to a Christian bookstore and have them choose the cover style that suits them. Unfortunately, the easier the reading level, the fewer the choices you'll have - most "kids' Bibles" tend to be NIV.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The "Hug" of God

"I used to feel God's presence all around me," the caller said to me, "But lately I haven't felt it as much." As pastors, we get all kinds of questions; this one happened to come from someone who looked us up randomly and called (no joke), but it's a variation on something we all experience from time to time: why do we go through times that we don't feel close to God?

It was revealed a few years ago that even Mother Theresa, a beacon of faithfulness and self-sacrifice, went through a long period of questioning and doubt at mid-life, a "dark night of the soul" that didn't lift. Because of her sense of call, she soldiered on, and ultimately this perseverance led to a deeper identification with the suffering of the poor whom she served.

God's presence is a fact. Sometimes it is accompanied by a feeling. Jesus said, "Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the ages" and "Never will I leave you, nor forsake you". Numerous passages in the Psalms talk about God's omnipresence, and the fact that he goes before us and surrounds us with his presence. God is everywhere!

But we don't always feel it. So we have to trust what's true, and resist letting feelings of loneliness or despair be the measure of the strength of God's presence.

Think about a hug. A hug is a tangible expression of love and care. It reassures us, giving meaning to whatever words of adoration or appreciation accompany it. But hugs can't last forever. You can't hug your child all day long; but that doesn't mean your love ceases the moment the embrace is broken, nor that the love is stronger during the hug, nor that it wears off the longer they're away from you.

So it is with feeling God's presence. It's a nice reassurance, but its absence doesn't indicate a weakness of God's resolve. Certainly there are things we can do on our part to dull our receptiveness, and it's also God's prerogative to reveal himself however to whomever he wishes. But as we can see from the example of Mother Theresa, there is not a direct correlation between one's longing for God and their acute awareness of his presence.

As much as worship services, camps, and retreats try to push us toward them, it turns out that an authentic spiritual life is not an unbroken chain of mountaintop experiences. There are valleys, deserts, and long stretches of lonely highway.

One of the most confusing things about the Christian experience to kids is understanding what grown-ups mean when they say God talks to them or that they felt his presence. We would do well to couch the language of experience in this important caveat: it is not feeling his presence or hearing his voice that makes him real. Rather, God is real and present; and sometimes he chooses to reinforce this by making his presence especially known.