My wife and I have tried to talk to our 3 year old about Haiti since the earthquake. She brings it up sometimes, when she hears anything about a broken house or kids who need help (or any word that rhymes with Haiti). When we first talked about it, the main thing she took away was “I don’t want Earthquake to come to my house.” We’ve tried to explain that an earthquake is not, as she imagines, a person resembling Ursula from the Little Mermaid story, but just something that happens, like rain. Maybe she gets that now, I don’t know.  Anyway, we were hoping that the main thing she got out of it was that we need to help people who are having a hard time–e.g., the people there need money, so we should give them money. But I think another thing that came out of our talking about what happened was that she understood the importance of building houses well. Let me explain.

David Brooks wrote a very helpful op-ed piece in the NY Times right after the earthquake; his point was that the tragedy wasn’t a natural disaster as much as it was a poverty disaster. The problem wasn’t just the earthquake (the same scale earthquake hit San Fransisco in 1989 with only 63 deaths); the problem is poverty–bad construction, infrastructure, and services. I’ve tried to explain this to my daughter, that it wasn’t the earthquake that was so terrible but the poverty.

And she related this to the story in Matthew 7, where there are two guys building houses. One guy builds on sand and the other on rock. After a rain storm, the first guy’s house is ruined. At home, we have a good picture book with this story in it, and you see how sad the guy looks. And P’s always like, “He’s so sad.”

So when we talked about Haiti, she said, “Did they build their houses on sand?” And I said, “Yeah, pretty much.” I didn’t know what else to say.

That story in Matthew 7 definitely is a call for decision: which person are you going to be. But it can also be a call to reach out to people who are building “on sand.” That can be people who are rich but aren’t rich to God, and it can be people who are poor and are poor to God.

I talked to our elementary students about this last month at a Sunday service. I told them about San Fransisco and asked why the earthquake was so much worse in Haiti. They hit it, poverty. And we talked about Haiti’s root problems, beyond the really important needs of food and shelter and medical care. And how those problems–the fear-based religion, the hopelessness, the habits of oppression–are uniquely met by Jesus, and by us as we carry the gospel to people. There are things that only we, as people with the Holy Spirit and the gospel, can give.

I know it’s been a month since the earthquake, but it’s still in the news and relief efforts are still and will be ongoing for some time. And maybe the Illinois earthquake this morning has your kids talking about Haiti again. So if it comes up, maybe it’s a chance to talk to your kids about poverty and the spiritual strongholds within poverty–and about what the gospel can do.

Maybe you’ll end up talking about what people with the gospel have tried to do and how it’s worked (for example, William Wilburforce’s legacy) . . . or how it really hasn’t worked (for example, those missionaries in Haiti under kidnapping charges or the poverty that’s still rampant in black America). Maybe you’ll end up talking about how the world is so changeable . . . or how things don’t seem to change. Maybe the kids will feel like giving both lament and praise to God. And I guess that’s part of maturing. But I hope that our kids are learning that the gospel is powerful and that, with the gospel, they are part of something serious and exciting.

Today, three books you might want to check out.

There are children’s Bible storybooks out there that present a bunch of pretty fun, dramatic stories . . . but don’t explain the gospel. So kids read about, say, a super-strong guy named Samson and a big boat full of animals, but that guy and that boat have no relation to Jesus, and they don’t really tell the kids anything about how those stories can relate to them. And there are children’s Bible storybooks out there with pictures, but the pictures just aren’t that great. The Jesus Storybook Bible, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Jago (Zondervan, 2007), avoids both problems. It’s smart, fresh, and Jesus-focused. And Jago’s illustrations preserve that legacy of talented guys with one name (Bono, Pele, Fabio et al).

One good thing she does, right off the bat, is not to start with Genesis 1 but with Psalm 19 (“the word of God is sweeter than honey . . .”) and Hebrews 1 (“God has now spoken to us through his Son”), so she can explain what the whole Bible is about. It reflects the idea that you don’t know what chapters are really about if you don’t understand the whole book/movie/play. She writes, “No, the Bible isn’t a book about rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. . . . There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.” Nice!

I’ll give you an example of how this works in her book. It comes from the Adam sin story of Genesis 3. (By the way, not a bad chapter to look at in any Bible book you’re thinking of getting, as my friend Laura pointed out to me.) “You see, sin had come into God’s perfect world,” she explains. “And it would never leave.” After God sends Adam and Eve out of Eden, she says, “Well, in another story, it would be all over and that would have been . . . The End. But not in this Story. God loved his children too much to let the story end there. Even though he knew he would suffer, God had a plan–a magnificent dream. One day, he would get his children back. One day, he would make the world their perfect home again.”

When I showed the book to my three-year old girl, she was excited to leaf through it. We read one story together, the story of Namaan the leper. (She saw the picture of his face looking sad and she wanted to read about why it was like that–she’s into princesses and sad people. And, yes, sad princesses take the cake.) And it was a nice chance to talk about forgiveness and being nice to people who aren’t nice to us–just like Jesus is.

It should be noted that this is not an actual Bible but a collection of stories from the Bible, stories told very well. I highly recommend this book. (And, I should say, so does Pastor Brian, who’s been reading this for a little while with his kindergardener.)

So, one day last summer, I was talking with Pastors Mark and Brian about how to explain the Holy Spirit to kids. And we ended up saying, “Someone should write a systematic theology book for kids!” Well, look what came to Amazon. OK, it’s not quite what we were picturing, but Big Truths for Young Hearts (Crossway, 2009), by Bruce Ware, a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, comes close. It’s not readable for young kids, for sure, though teens could read it. Parents might really like this though, as it walks us through major topics of our faith in a way that makes sense to our kids.

If you just happen to pull out one of the, I’m sure, many systematic theology textbooks on your shelf, you’ll see that the table of contents probably goes something like: The Word of God,  God,  Man,  Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, and the future. Ware follows the same outline in this book for kids. It starts out with the way God makes himself known (“Has anyone ever kept a secret from you? . . . No matter how much you might want to know the secret, until someone tells you, you just cannot know what it is. It is this way with knowing who God is. . . . God has shared with us the secret of who he is”) and ends with the end of history as we know it (“When the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea . . . this will be the greatest thing that will happen when all things are made new”).

This book came out of conversations Dr. Ware had with his two daughters, now adults, as they grew up. It started, he says, when they were six and two. The girls were always wired right before they went to sleep, so Dr. Ware decided, in order to keep his “sanity” (his word), to use that time to teach them about Christian doctrine. And he started going through the same lessons he was teaching during the day at the seminary! I’d wonder how much of it was him wanting to capitalize on their energy or him wanting to put them to sleep, but it seems like the former was pretty genuinely in view. :)

Again, I’d give a strong recommendation of this book to parents–and really, to anybody–to get deep and important Christian doctrines presented simply and well.

The third and last book I’ll talk about was also published in 2009; it’s called Gospel-Powered Parenting, by William P. Farley (P&R Publishing), a pastor in Washington state. The title excited me, just like the introduction to Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Storybook Bible did; it’s unfortunately too rare that you see (Christian!) parenting books that talk a lot about the gospel. And Farley’s book does come through that way, overall.

His basic point, presented in the first few chapters, is that parents need to focus on their kids’ hearts, not externals like environment, as we raise them. We do that by teaching and modeling the gospel. It’s a really good point that seems like a given, but as he continues to write, it gets apparent how radical and rare gospel-driven parenting it.

Particularly cutting is his contrast between the goals of secular parenting and Christian parenting. Secular parenting tries to transfer morality, so that kids “conform to society’s expectations, such as admittance to Ivy League schools, success in business, or marriage to the ‘right’ people.” Christian parenting has “one goal during this short window of opportunity. It is to transfer the baton of faith in Christ to the next generation.”

Maybe a 70s-era Christian introduced Keith Green to you. If no one did, he's really worth checking out.

It’s like Keith Green became a parenting author. I know we wrestle with issues like this as Christians in suburbia–we did, after all, choose our neighborhoods for a reason–and I know many of our Christian parents wrestled too, as they tried to define what was best for us.  (And, for some of us, for better or worse, they’re still doing it.)

Chapters 4 and 5 are basically presentations of the gospel, which are helpful and a welcome sight.

The latter part of the book is much less helpful. Farley seems to bite off more than he can really chew as he gets into areas where he doesn’t have expertise: homosexuality, gender, and cultural opinions concerning authority.

One more thing to mention about the book, he makes a strong exhortation to fathers to lead the spiritual upbringing of children. He quotes Nancy Gibbs, a religion writer for Time, who made the interesting observation in a 1993 article that most parenting books were written for fathers, not mothers, until the 1830s. Now it seems to be the reverse. Without going into which is better, at the very least we can say that we want both involved. Fathers, I think this is something to think about. Just one question to put out there (and I don’t have an answer for it): why do you think men buy and probably read less parenting books than women?

Last month, Tiger Woods was all over the news. I don’t know if you had to talk to your kids about his situation, answering questions like “What’s an affair?” or “You can make money by playing golf?” About the former, depending on the age of your kids, some possibilities might include how it’s wrong to break your promises or to pretend that someone else who isn’t your husband or wife is. This also relates to some stories in the Bible that your child might read or hear, like the woman in John 8, David and Bathsheba, and really the whole story of Israel as told by prophets like Hosea. I’m actually not meaning to talk about it much in this post, but if there’s interest about talking to kids about adultery, you can comment and let others hear your thoughts or questions–we could definitely discuss it here.

The December 21 cover of Newsweek

What I did want to talk about relates to the celebrity-loving culture surrounding the Tiger Woods headlines. Neal Gabler wrote a really interesting cover story in Newsweek last month about it, subtitled “In defense of our Brangelina-loving, Jon and Kate-hating, Tiger-taunting tawdry tabloid culture.”

Gabler makes a couple of interesting points. One is that celebrity lives are a newer form of entertainment, competing with movies, books, and TV. As those older forms did, celebrity news provides a common experience that unifies our society. In other words, it gives us something we can all talk about at the office, school, etc. And when we as a society get more into niches and watch less of the same movies and listen to less of the same music, celebrity gives us some common ground. For a lot of men, especially, sports fills a similar role–I know that strangers and I have talked on the airplane for 30 minutes easy, brought together by a sports page in the seat pocket.

How to make friends on the airplane

How to make friends on the airplane

His other big point is that celebrity stories are popular and much discussed when, basically, they’re good stories. He explains the difference between being famous (like Queen Elizabeth) and being a celebrity (like Princess Di) is that the first is just a name but the second is a narrative, a story. And it’s the story that gets us talking.

What makes these “good” stories? Well, one thing Gabler points to is suspense. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It’s even better than movies, because movies are made up and there’s closure. With Tiger Woods, we don’t know what’s going to happen to him, so we tune in for the next episode. “Celebrity narratives,” writes Gabler, “have no final chapter.”

A famous person

So why am I talking about this? Well, I think it has something to say about our lives in a Christian community. Because we don’t need Tiger Woods; we have a crazy-interesting narrative that gives us common ground: the story of Jesus, of God reaching out to people by becoming one of us and dying on a cross. This is the story we talk about every time we meet on Sundays, in songs, prayer, creeds, sermon, and communion.

An interesting story

But not only do we have a story about events in the first century Roman Empire and Middle East, we also have a story–maybe a story within the first story–that we’re living now. It’s the story of our own following of Jesus. And we don’t know how things will work out, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next episode–there is suspense.

One problem we have, though, is that, honestly, our Christian lives are often not that exciting or suspenseful. They can be boring, and the narrative of Tiger or our workplace or our football team seems a lot more exciting. There’s probably a bunch of causes for this, but one cause, I think, is simply that we avoid excitement in our Christian lives by avoiding risk and avoiding change.

Because it’s risk, with the possibility of changes, that makes things exciting, whether it be in finding a new job, moving, or going for it on 4th and 1. And in our lives following Jesus, too, it’s when we try something different, or put ourselves out there in such a way that something great could happen . . . or something bad.

And I think this is a symptom of “affluenza,” the disease of suburbia, which can be especially acute in risk-averse 2nd generation Asian-Americans. If we were poker players, we’d never bet big, too afraid to lose much to try to gain much. And I don’t think Jesus played poker, but if he did, I don’t think that’s how he would have played. (Take a look at Matthew 25:14-30.)

Another interesting story

Our kids pick up on this–they like dramatic stories too! They sometimes might not be that excited about Jesus, because, well, Jesus as he’s been presented to them is kind of boring. They don’t see him changing lives, they don’t see people who were strangers to him becoming his friends, they don’t hear about all the things that God does all over the world, and they don’t see how, when our backs are to the wall, Jesus comes through.

How do we expose them to Jesus as he is, this exciting, all-in-betting Savior of the world? Well, a lot of answers I’m sure but how’s three? First, we can tell them our own stories–how we ourselves are so different from what we were, because of Jesus. Second, maybe we ourselves can consciously be taking risks for Jesus that they see–telling people about Jesus, having financial uncertainty because of our giving or choices for ministry, praying and expecting God to do what we asked. Third, maybe we can expose them to other people who are also taking risks for Jesus–like taking a look at our missionaries’ reports or visiting local ministries we support.

What do you think?

I know some parents are wondering about whether to let their kids read the Twilight books or watch the movies.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had, a decade ago, with a mother whom I really respect. The Twilight of the time was Harry Potter. Less teen-angsty than Twilight, but some of the same concerns for parents (dark realms, glorifying life without parents, the casting of unproven British actors . . .). She had two girls, the younger in 5th grade, the older in middle school. The 5th grader was pretty into the book. I asked her mom, “So, I guess you’re letting your kids read the book?”

This is what a lot of you parents live with

Before I tell you what she said, let me pause the flashback and think about the various ways parents might answer that question. One, possibly tempting for an ambitious immigrant, is “Of course, it’s a book! And it’s long! SATs, here we come!” Two, tempting for parents concerned about their kids’ fitting in, is “Of course, everyone’s doing it!” Three, tempting for many Christians, is “Of course not! A book written by a non-Christian about witchcraft!?” While these all actually have some legitimate concerns in mind, the mother speaking with me chose a fourth option. “We’re reading it together,” she said. “We read chapters and talk about what we’re reading. It’s been fun.”

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) issues movie ratings–G, PG, PG-13, R–to help parents decide what to allow their kids to watch. While that service is helpful, I wonder if, for Christians, every movie is rated PG, that is, requiring parental guidance.

It’s in the Bible, or at least I think it is. Specifically in Deuteronomy 6:6-7. “These words 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.”

Put into our world, it might read something like: “These words I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you watch TV, when you talk about school, when you drive to soccer practice, when you read the news, and when you say goodnight.”

What are those “words” we’re always supposed to be talking about with our kids? Well, in the New Testament, the word that is corresponds most to “word” in the Old Testament is “the gospel,” the “good news” about Jesus. That is to say, for the New Testament writers and readers, Deut 6:6-7 meant that they were supposed to be talking about the gospel, the message that brings lost people to God. And I don’t see why it wouldn’t mean the same for us. What we talk about with our kids, what we impress on them through day to day life together, is the gospel of Jesus.

So whether you decide to let your kids read Twilight or not, maybe the best advice to keep in mind is the advice from Deuteronomy: talk about the books, talk about your decision to read it or not to read it, talk about the movies, and when you talk about them, be impressing the gospel on your kids’ hearts.

(This actually applies to the Bible too, which is not really written for kids [or anyone?] to digest by themselves. The Bible would actually not make it into a lot of school libraries, I think, if librarians knew more of the stories told in the book.)

Admittedly, just going by the MPAA is easier–”my kid is 14 and the movie is PG-13, so let him watch it”–than Deut 6′s “everything is PG.” Any parent who has ever needed a childless getaway can tell you that. But that’s the way our kids grow best. And that’s how a lot of stuff that’s out there–TV, the internet, movies, music, books–can get redeemed and become instruments of growth.

This is what I live with

Practically speaking, this means to do it together and talk about it. Watch, read, listen, play with your kids; talk about what they’re watching and hearing. And the most helpful perspective you can bring to the conversation is how it relates to Jesus and the gospel. My own daughter is too young for Twilight, but we’ve tried to do this with the stuff she reads and watches. Dora the Explorer? “Swiper, no swiping!” is just like how Jesus gives us authority to stand up to and beat things that are not right. Disney Princesses? If you’re a daughter of God the King . . . guess what, kiddo, you’re a princess. So be a good princess, one who’s generous and kind. (And, fine, you can wear the heels.)

So should I let my kids read Twilight? That’s ultimately your decision, but, either way, use it to impress the gospel on your kids. If you don’t let them read it, talk about what Jesus values and modeled–independence from a herd mentality, growing our purity of thought, and willingness to let go of desirable things.

If you do, remember that most, if not all, of the stories our culture tells have a basis in truth. It’s just that usually they miss something. But Jesus has a way of revising these stories to make them his own. Let’s help our kids hear his revisions, by hearing and processing these stories with them. Who knows? Maybe a story about a teenage crush on a vampire can actually help set “the words,” the gospel of Jesus, on their hearts.

This blog is for you all. I’ll be writing some articles every month, and I hope you find them helpful, or at least diverting! Feel free to comment!

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