There is a monster under my bed!

monster under bedIt was storming outside as we ate dinner with friends. Their young son was frightened by the storm and called out for his dad. As father and son talked in the bedroom, a large clap of thunder sounded, and we all jumped. When our friend returned to the meal, I off handedly said something like “we all want our parents when we are scared.” And my friend’s response caught my attention. “There are many things my son will be frightened of in his life,” he said, “and it is important that he learns to whom he can turn to when he is scared. I will not always be there, and I want him to learn that our heavenly Father is.”

As children, we are easily scared in the dark. Loud noises make us jump. The thought of being alone in a dark bedroom frightens us when we are used to having someone close by. And then there is the imagined…but oh so very real to a child….monster under the bed. In our rational, lights-on world, these things are silly to be scared of – really, there is nothing there! But for the child, they are both overpowering and real, and just the thought of them can leave a child paralyzed and frightened.

Now let’s be honest. There are many things adults are scared of as well. For some of us, it might be heights, public speaking, or snakes. For others, it can be the fear of failure, loosing a job, or lack of money. The fear of abandonment, a medical diagnosis, or an uncertain future can be just as frightening for an adult as a storm is for a child. These fears lurk as monsters under our beds. And in the middle of the night, when the lights are out and we hear them making noises, our hearts start crying out “What will I do? How is this ever going to work out? What if this happens?”

A few weeks ago, our pastor began a sermon series that focuses on the life of Caleb. This past week, we looked at Numbers 13-14 when Moses sent twelve men to explore Canaan. They all came back speaking of a beautiful, fruitful land, but ten men focused on the giants in the land and spoke in fear. The other two, Caleb and Joshua, recognized those challenges, yet their focus was on God. They confidently reminded the Israelites that “the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:9b, NIV) In Joshua 14, we see the result of this faith when Caleb receives both the inheritance of the land promised by God as well as a blessing from Joshua.

Countless times, the Bible tells us to not be afraid or be frightened. This does not mean there isn’t a threat of danger. Usually, from a human perspective, there is! There is something in our life that we are afraid of! God tells us not to be frightened because, like a father talking to his child who is afraid of a thunderstorm, God is reminding us that he is with us and understands the storms of life better than we do. In Isaiah 41:10, our Abba Father lovingly reminds us:

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous hand. (Isaiah 41:10 NIV)

Whether imagined or real, our fears signal to us that we feel a threat of danger. So when faced with these feelings of danger, who do I call out to? Do I respond more like the frightened ten, paralyzed in fear thinking only about the giants in the land? Or, do I call out to my heavenly Father, placing my trust and future in him, who truly is bigger and more powerful than any monster under my bed?

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

It was the same story again.  I have heard it many times before, but I must admit, I never tire of it.

Yesterday, our pastor, once again, told the story of how, in the 1920’s, our church began on the losing end of a poker game. Yep, you read that right. Our church started with a losing hand of poker. Not only that, the man had bet his wife. Yep, your read that right too. He had bet his wife…and lost. And that crazy incident was part of the way God began our church. (You can read more about this amazing story here.)

I love that my church tells and retells this almost unbelievable story because it reveals something in terms of what we believe about God and ourselves. As the story unfolds, we chuckle at the juxtaposition of a poker game as the foundation for a church. We are reminded that “only God could redeem something this messed up.” By telling this story, we stand as spiritual descendants of these crazy, messed up people and acknowledge that this is not only their story, but part of our story as well. We continue to be amazed that God loves broken people and not only desires to be in relationship with them, but can also use people who are that messed up.

books

It is good to tell and retell stories. As mentioned previously in other posts, stories have the power to shape our identity. Stories can be transformative, and they also remind us of truth. If stories can be that powerful, what does this mean for the stories we tell and retell ourselves over and over and over again? What do these stories reveal about who we are, what we believe, value and desire, and what we might fear? When I go back to these stories time and time again, what is so important or profound in the stories that I am trying to connect to or make sense of?

The Israelites often told stories over and over again. The Psalmist tells us:

I will speak using stories.
I will tell things that have been secret since long ago.

We have heard them and know them.
Our fathers told them to us.
We will not keep them from our children.
We will tell those who come later
about the praises of the Lord.

We will tell about his power
and the miracles he has done. (Psalm 78: 2-4, ICB)

Faithful Jews today still start each Passover Seder by retelling themselves the story of their ancestor’s exodus from Egypt. The youngest child asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” By recounting this story, they remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and their God not only delivered them but did it with amazing wonders and plagues.

So what story do I tell myself over and over again? With this question in mind, I did a little exercise, asking myself what are my three favorite fictional stories I keep going back to? Upon reflection, I realized these stories tell me something about myself. I desire a righteous world where good triumphs over evil (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling). I yearn for a community that loves people and is willing to enter in even if I shut the door on them (A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman). I hope that I grow from past mistakes, and the consequences of those mistakes can be amended (Persuasion by Jane Austen).

We all have stories we tell ourselves over and over again. Family stories. Faith stories. Stories of great trials and stories of profound deliverance. We read and reread these stories because they reveal a part of who we are and what is important to us. The Jewish people retell the stories of deliverance to be reminded of a great and sovereign God who can deliver them from their struggle. My church tells the story of broken, messed-up people and a gracious, loving God who can redeem anything.   I reread a story to be reminded that in the end, sin and death will ultimately be overcome.

What story do you tell yourself?

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The Transformative Power of Story

light forward

… the right story is like the light as it appears to someone walking in a dark tunnel….  (Horst Kornberger)

I recently returned a book to the library and felt as if I was saying farewell to a dear old friend.  Before dropping the book in the return slot, I held it for a moment, not wanting to let it go.  I savored the power of a good story, a story that was thrilling and imaginative as well as challenging and profound.  I had entered into a story and it had touched my soul.  After reading it, something in me had changed.

Each semester, I teach a class on transformational education where we discuss the power of story.  As you can probably tell from previous blog posts,  I am currently researching the importance of stories in identity formation as preparation for class this fall.  Reflecting on this library book farewell, I wondered what is it about a good story that has power to capture not only the imagination but also the heart. How does a simple story change someone?  Robert Coles, a well-known child psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Harvard University, suggests:

“Novels and stories are renderings of life; they can not only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course.  They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers – offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings.”¹

Good stories speak a universal tongue and can transcend boundaries of culture, religion, language, and time.  They have an influential power to shape us and our thinking, teach us new ideas or challenge old beliefs.  Stories teach in an indirect way.  Instead of telling us what we should do or providing us explicit directions in how to accomplish it, stories engage our heart and imagination, providing examples of who or how to be.  Horst Kornberger in his book The Power of Stories, states:

“To the soul, the right story is like the light as it appears to someone walking in a dark tunnel.  It engenders hope and shows a way forward.”²

We see an example of how stories can enlighten us in the biblical account of Nathan’s confrontation with King David in 2 Samuel 12.  David lusted after Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and slept with her, resulting in a pregnancy.  To cover up the affair and hide his wrongdoing, David then instigated various plans that finally ended in the murder of Uriah.  As 2 Samuel 11:27 points out, God was not pleased with David and his actions.  The prophet Nathan, a trusted advisor of King David, rebuked him using a simple story of a rich man who has much wealth, cattle, and flocks of sheep.  Rather than using his own, this rich man takes a poor man’s one beloved lamb, slaughtering it as a meal for guests.  Through this simple story, a light began to illuminate the dark tunnel of envy, selfishness, lust, and murder that had encapsulated David’s soul. Not only was David convicted of his own sinfulness, but as Psalm 51 demonstrates, he embraced a hopeful way forward.

This is transformation and stories have the power to transform.

The questions I am asking myself is what stories am I engaging in?  How am I being transformed by the power of The Story?

¹ Robert Coles, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989), 159-160.
² Horst Korberger, The Power of Stories: Nurturing Children’s Imagination and Consciousness (Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 2008), 74.
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Saturday Mornings, Nazis, and a Talking Donkey

IMG_2141Tell me another story when you were little…. When I was a little girl, on Saturday mornings, I would crawl into my mother’s bed and ask her to tell me a story about when she was a little girl.  Nestled in her warm embrace, I heard stories about war and perseverance, Nazi occupation and resilience, scarcity and resourcefulness. This world was very different than the one I grew up in, and through these stories, I learned many things.  I learned how my grandmother could make a meal from two potatoes and an onion. I heard how chocolate from an American soldier was both scary and a treat. And I understood that the women in my family were able to endure much hardship and still emerge strong, loving, and hopeful. Many years later, when I wrestled with a hardship of my own, I drew courage from these stories, realizing that they had become part of my story.

Several years ago, The Atlantic magazine published an article entitled “What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories.“* Along with many developmental benefits such as a better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions, higher self-esteem, and stronger self-concepts, children and youth “hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.” Family stories have great impact on our lives and who we become. As the author points out, stories only cost us our time, memories, and creativity. But these family stories “can inspire us, protect us, and bind us to others.”

Family stories impact our identity.

The Bible is full of stories. There are stories of kings and queens, ordinary people and a spectacular God, friendship and love, rape and hatred. And don’t forget one of my favorites – a story of a wicked man and his talking donkey (Numbers 22). The overarching story of the Bible is the gospel – an amazing story of God’s profound love for his children and his plan to rescue and restore them through Jesus Christ. In the church, we tell and retell these stories to be reminded of our history and where we came from. These stories shape our understanding of who we are and who we can become. These stories remind us that whatever I am experiencing right now – whether it is of great joy or deep pain – is not the whole story but only part of it.

If family stories impact our personal identity, then telling the faith family’s gospel story impacts our spiritual identity as well. As The Atlantic encourages us, telling family stories only takes time, the intention to remember, and maybe a sprinkle of creativity to keep it fun.  The question I am pondering is this: Do we understand the profound power of story in our faith journeys?  Are we intentionally making the time to tell and retell our gospel family stories to each other, so that we will be inspired, protected and woven tightly into our community of faith?  I pray that we are.

*Reese, Elaine. “What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories.” The Atlantic, December 9, 2013.
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Why We Tell Stories

It’s one of those times in life…

My soul needs to know that God profoundly loves me.

I must be reminded that He cares for me and the trouble I find myself in.

I want to hear that He will rescue me from the pain striking at my heart.

… So I go back to the Story.  

fairy tale

Once upon a time…Those four simple words extend an invitation for the listener to enter in and to encounter a different world. If it is a good story, we will encounter truth, hope, and a deeper understanding about ourselves and the world we live in. A really good story echoes truth about God.

Often when we become an adult, we may disregard fairy tales as childish because we believe the lie that they are not true. We use our intellect to disregard the possibility of a fiery dragon or scheming witch or devious wolf that can devour us.   But think for a moment.  In this broken world, have you not come across a dragon, a witch, or a wolf in your life? I know I have.

British author, Neil Gaiman, states: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” That is why we tell stories.

I often tell my students that the first biblical story a child should learn is the story of the Good Shepherd. Some of them question this.

“The first story?” they say. “Why is this most important? Isn’t Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection more important?”

“Why yes,” I respond. “That story is very important, but there is one more important story a child should hear first.”

“But what about sin? Shouldn’t we understand our sinfulness first?”

“Ah, the time will come for a child to understand his or her sin,” I say, “ a time when he or she is ready to really understand the consequences of it.”

We tell the Gospel story of the Good Shepherd first to enter into a world where there is a shepherd who deeply knows and loves his lambs. He watches them, cares for their needs, and seeks to keep them from harm. And when that lamb finds him or herself in trouble and deep pain, the Shepherd will search for them and rescue them from trouble they are in.

“Isn’t this the Gospel?” I ask my students. “In this story, we encounter the incarnate Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who came to rescue us from our sin.”   In this story, we not only encounter Jesus, we are also invited to respond. And we do not just respond in an academic way. A good story will engage our hearts as well. We respond to the love between the Good Shepherd and his lamb. And we give thanks.

I hold in my heart the truth…

… that the Good Shepherd profoundly loves me.

…that the Good Shepherd cares for me and the trouble I find myself in.

…that the Good Shepherd will rescue me from the pain striking my heart.

This is why we tell ourselves stories.

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Sharing the Easter Story with Young Children

Recently, someone asked how to tell a young child the Easter story. The person was concerned how to talk about death and resurrection in a way that a young child will understand. I thought I might share with you how I responded.

Children learn best through story, so I would recommend that you create a special time and explain that you want to share a very precious story with your child. This communicates that this Easter story isn’t just any old story, but one that you hold very dear. If you have already explained Christmas as Jesus’ birth, build on that, encouraging the child to remember the baby Jesus and that this is another part of his story – a story of his later life when he was much older. And then tell the story as factually as you can and tell the whole story – meaning that you briefly start with Jesus’ ministry then go to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Tell the story with hope and joy, not death and sadness. This is the first time the child might be hearing the gospel story, so set the right tone from the beginning – this is awesome! We celebrate this because Jesus loves us! And we are now filled with hope and joy!

Also, don’t be afraid of big words like disciple or resurrection. But make sure if you use big words, you explain them. If they don’t ask you what they mean, ask them and then share the meaning with them.

And lastly, allow time to reflect and ask questions about things that don’t make sense. Spend time wondering with your child – what was it like to be a friend of Jesus? Wonder what it might have been like to see Jesus ride on a donkey with great exclaim and then be accused of such wrong doing later that week. What might you feel if saw Jesus again on that Resurrection morning! One good way to help reaffirm the story (and to make sure they understand the basics) is to encourage them to retell the story with you to another family member.   Maybe you can share the story with another parent over dinner tonight and then again later with your entire family at Easter dinner.   This helps the child remember the story and encourages it becoming part of the child’s own story.

As I write this, I sit here wondering what it is like to hear the Easter story for the first time. May we enter these next few holy days with that type of wonder.

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Be like…Elvis?

This past summer, my husband elvisand I spent a few days in Memphis. Unbeknownst to us, it was Elvis Presley week. The city was filled with fans and impersonators wearing Elvis t-shirts, purses, and jewelry.  Men and boys slicked their hair back like Elvis, dressed in a 50’s style to mimic Elvis, and posed like Elvis, mimicking his voice when they said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”  To be honest, it was a little unnerving to walk through the hotel lobby and see not just one or two, but three Elvis impersonators having a drink together.

Watching these invested fans made me uncomfortable at first.  I grew up in the white pantsuit, drugged-out phase of Elvis’ career, so I have never really been a fan.  As I watched the crowds, I wondered why anyone would admire a dead rock and roll star so much that they would dress like him, dye their hair to look like him, and mimic both his walk and talk? But this really isn’t a strange phenomenon in our society.  Think about it – we buy t-shirts or jerseys, Nike shoes, and even underwear so we could “be like” Michael Jordan or some other favorite athlete.  Some of us buy certain clothing or make-up and perfume so we can be as stylish as the latest movie or reality show star or even a royal princess.

Why do we desire to imitate someone?  Theorists propose that we imitate famous people because there is something about them we admire, and the imitation of them fulfills some deep desire within us.  By imitating them, we are saying, “Hey, look! I am just like them.”  For young children, imitation is a social learning process that aids the acquisition of new knowledge. Children learn behaviors by careful observation and mirroring it.  In the New Testament, Paul exhorts us to follow God’s example (Ephesians 5:1).  He challenges us to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16) and follow him as he follows Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).  Theologians such as Luther and Calvin speak of conforming to Christ or being incorporated into Christ as a form of union with him.* We imitate others in order to learn new behaviors, to gain skills and to acquire new knowledge.

Imitation shapes and forms our identity.  

So, in my journey to become more Christlike, who am I imitating?  If I am a child of God, who am I carefully observing and thus, mirroring their behavior?  As someone who is passionate about a child’s faith formation, I want to ask – who are we encouraging our children to imitate?  Is it a dead rock star…a royal princess…a talented athlete?  What would it look like if I was as passionate about imitating Christ as the Memphis fans were about imitating Elvis?  I don’t mean this in a t-shirt wearing way.  I wonder if my imitation could be lived out in such a way so that when you looked at me, you couldn’t help but wonder if you were encountering Christ in me.

*Agan, Jimmy. “Departing from – and Recovering – Tradition: John Calvin and the Imitation of Christ.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56, no. 4 (2013): 801-14. Accessed September 20, 2016. http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/56/56-4/JETS_56-4_801-14_Agan.pdf.
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The Art (and Science) of Teaching

Recently, I have been reflecting on what makes a good learning experience. Is it strong content and a teacher’s command of a subject’s knowledge? Or is it a deep
understanding of the different ways individuals process information and learn? Is there something about a teacher and their unique personality that fosters a positive environment for learning? And as a Christian educator, we are concerned about an individual’s formation. What about the movement of the Holy Spirit and its role in learning?

I must admit that I often yearn to make teaching a science. I desire to have all the right ingredients – strong content, a deep understanding of the learner, good leadership skills – and mix them all together where the result is an outstanding learning experience for all. While there is some truth in this analogy, teaching can also be described as an art where a teacher understands the unique climate of the context, asks thoughtful questions and creates exceptional conditions for deep learning. So which one is it? Is teaching an art or a science?

cathedralSeveral years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a stunningly beautiful cathedral. From the light seeping through the stained glass to the smells of incense, from the stone arches that created lofty, high ceilings, to the unique examples of sacred art, it was amazing. The feelings that overtook me from standing small in such a magnificent example of architecture is one I can still feel inside of me. As my family explored the church, I sat and met God there. It was profound. It was holy. It was a sacred experience that impacted my soul.

Unbeknownst to me, there was also a lot of science going on in that building. There was a massive foundation (which I never saw) beneath my feet so that the ceiling could soar to the heights it did. There was planning and science in the structure, in the layout, and even in the art. But when I was there, I didn’t think about the science of a building. Even though it significantly informed my experience, it was not what I reflected upon.

I think the same can be said about formation and teaching. In the classroom, we experience people, emotions, conversations, information, and the Holy Spirit’s interaction with us and through us. But underneath all of this is an understanding of the development of human beings, a philosophy of how we learn, and research in teaching techniques. All of these things should inform my interaction and relationship with my students. I just don’t focus on it all the time. But it is there – just like the foundation of a building.

I believe teaching is both art and science (and a whole lot more, but that’s for another post!). The art and science of teaching are important. They need each other. They inform each other. It is not one or the other. It is a “both-and.”

What do you think teaching is? Are there other ways to look at the art and science of teaching?

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Leaving Fingerprints

This semester, I have started a new teaching position that has caused me to be somewhat self-reflective.  As I walk the halls of my alma mater and enter classrooms, memories flood back of my experience as a student.  Probably because I am in an academic building and not wandering the dorms, these memories seem to focus on classes, significant learning moments, and interactions with professors. Ironically, I am teaching in the classroom where I had one of those big “aha” moments that profoundly changed my approach to ministry.  My office happens to be down the hall from where I would sit with my academic advisor, and he would boldly challenge both my academic work and my life.

As I reflect on my teaching, I am well aware of the impact these and other teachers have on fingerprintmy life – the fingerprints they have left on me, both academically and personally.  As academics, these teachers held themselves and their students to a high intellectual standard.  They challenged students to think and make connections between theory and practice and creatively planned holistic teaching experiences that engaged the whole student and not just their mind.  These faithful men and women were open to the Holy Spirit’s leading in the classroom, speaking truth into students’ lives and displaying grace, reminding us of our Savior’s love.

The fingerprints of these past mentors and teachers are all over me, and I am grateful for these men and women who gave freely of themselves to teach both academically and spiritually.  Their imprint on my life has been profound, and my prayer is that I am able to follow their example and not only strengthen my students’ minds, but nurture their hearts and faith as well.  As Hebrews 13:7 (NASB) states: Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.

May I live into the example of those who have gone before me, leaving fingerprints of a faithful life that points others to Jesus.

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The Importance of Belonging

After a long month, my husband and I were able to get away recently to visit dear friends and celebrate the wedding of one couple’s daughter. It was a wonderful weekend where we were able to reconnect with old friends, share our lives, and celebrate with one another. As you can imagine, there was much laughter, storytelling, and encouragement, all nestled in acceptance, love, and just pure joy in being together. Our friends, all who have the gracious gift of hospitality, made us feel that our presence mattered in their lives and that life was a little better because we were together. At the end of the weekend, as we were basking in all that we had experienced, my husband looked at me and expressed something that caught my attention. This weekend was about being home, someplace where we belong.

BelongThat’s really a profound concept since we were someplace we had never been before. What was it that made such an impact on us? How did a good time visiting friends become a soul-touching, life-giving experience? As we flew home, exhausted but joy-filled, I started reflecting on this concept of “belonging.” This phrase pops up a lot in our culture. One of my favorite coffee shops, Blackberry Market, has “belong” as their motto. A favorite television show has theme music that talks about coming home. There is research discussing a student’s need for belonging in educational settings and that a sense of belonging contributes to an individual’s health and well-being.

In the church, we often focus on the concept of belonging and hospitality in terms of visitors and newcomers. We want them to experience community, intimacy, acceptance, and love. We want them to find a place in the church family – a place where they belong. And in a healthy church community, there is room for those who are new. We welcome them in and are shaped by their presence as we interact and shape them.

John Westerhoff, in his book Will Our Children Have Faith?, says that faith expands in four particular styles, one being what he calls Affiliative or Belonging Faith. As he describes, “all of us need to feel that we belong to a self-conscious community and that through our active participation can make a contribution to its life” (94). According to Westerhoff’s faith paradigm, Belonging or Affiliative Faith usually occurs in childhood and early adolescence. It is through these early experiences of belonging where we internalize the gospel story as our own, ultimately providing a foundation for faith. Just like my husband and I experienced this weekend, children in the church need to sense they are wanted, needed, accepted, and important to the community. They need to feel that their presence and contribution makes a difference in the lives of others. This sense of belonging is essential in a child’s faith formation.

The question I am wondering about is, are we encouraging this type of belonging and acceptance with children in the church? Of course, we say children belong and that they are part of the church family, but do children truly have those profound life-giving experiences where they sense joy in being loved and valued as an essential part of our faith community? Do children know down deep in their souls that their presence enhances the life of the faith community? Do they understand that without them, our faith community is less and not as strong as it is with them there? This isn’t just about affirming a child’s self-esteem. This is valuing their personhood as an essential part of a community’s identity and faith, and in turn, nurturing this faith as part of their identity.

Why is this so easy to do with friends? Why is this a priority for a healthy church to do with visitors? And why do we so often forget to do this with our children?

Notes: Westerhoff, J.W. (2012). Will our children have faith? (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Morehouse Publishing.
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