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Insufficient Safeguards

A seedling from a Japanese red maple was carried by the wind and landed among a group of azaleas. The soil was rich and it took root. It grew for many years in this spot. The gardener thought she needed to transplant this beautiful little tree away from the foundation of the house into a special spot where a similar tree once grew.

In the spring, and believing that this little tree could become a beautiful tree one day, the gardener transplanted the tree near where the other tree once grew. Beautiful red leaves appeared. It began to thrive until a deer family began to eat its leaves.

Once a week, the gardener sprayed a deer repellant on the tree. This spray failed to repel the deer. Three times the young tree put forth new leaves only to be eaten by the deer. Then one spring the tree produced no leaves. The inner life of the tree had died over the cold winter. Saddened by the tree’s demise, the gardener reluctantly dug it up.

Our children are like the young seedling that needed protection from its predators. The questions for parents are “How do I monitor and protect my children from negative influences—be they certain books, social media, TV, child and internet predators, as well as unrestricted iPad and/or iPhone influences—that may destroy their innocence and security?”

It unrealistic to expect children to survive and thrive on their own. Yet many lost children live in bombed-out cities, refugee camps, and on the streets of our cities. The gardener learned that the tree was too young to leave its original, protected spot amongst the azaleas. So, too, children need the love and protection of family, home,  community, and government until they are old enough to fend off all negative influences and big enough to stand on their own two feet.

May God protect and help parents protect their children.

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Reading Books about God

When we read to young children an illustrated children’s book or Bible story, they are not so concerned about what we read as they are by the pictures they see. They see things in the illustrations that we would never observe. They will put their fingers on the pictures. If the book has a little fuzzy and/or anything tactile they will touch it. Vicariously, children will jump into the illustrations in order to explore that world on the page before them. Give them all the time in the world to wonder, wander, and use their imaginations in this way.

We are, in effect, teaching them how to combine right-brain with left-brain activity, how to associate what they are hearing with what they are seeing and feeling. It is important to have good illustrated children’s books on prayer and Bible stories.

Jesus lived when photographs did not exist and actual descriptions of what he looked like were unimportant next to his teachings. However, through the ages, each generation’s artists produced their own idea of his appearance. What we do know, however, that He was a man and was truly human. So different male images are acceptable so long as no one particular static image dominates in all the different picture books you read to children.

Likewise, artists have drawn their interpretation of God as an old man in the sky, as a dove, and/or sun rays in the sky. None of their illustrations can be substantiated and must remain symbolic as no one knows whether God has a body or form. Therefore, stay clear of bodily images of God.

We do not want children to have to unlearn the bad theology some illustrations teach.

It is good to let books on God, as made known to us through Jesus and the Bible, and on prayer be a natural part of their daily routine. These books, unlike television, are not aimed at making our children consumers in a market-driven economy. They are there to teach them about God. They plant moral values and a moral standard that can be built upon. God’s will becomes their standard for the way they make critical life decisions and the way they will live their lives. In this way, we honor God and nurture and cherish our children.

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Our Beautiful World

Children see things we cannot see. When they are young, they are closer to the ground and have not trained their minds as most adults have to shut out observations and appreciation of parts of the universe. Children, if they have not been anesthetized by television, iPad, iPhone, and other media, spend much of their time in wonder. They see their world as one big place for exploring, to roam through without any pressure of time, to jump from one interesting observation and thing to another. Their growing muscles keep their bodies on the move. They are in perpetual motion. Their minds are creating universes that exist partly in this world and partly in another world.

A good illustration of what could happen if we are not attentive to a child’s world happened on May 28, 2018, in Paris. A father had left his four-year old son alone in his fifth-story apartment while he went shopping as well as stopped to play Pokemon Go. Meanwhile, the boy had wander out onto the balcony of their apartment and had climbed over the railing and hung precariously from it. Below, a crowd quickly formed. Then a 22 year-old undocumented immigrant from Mali, Mamoudou Gassama, scaled in 30 seconds the building from balcony to balcony and rescued the boy. President Macron met with “Spiderman” and offered to begin his naturalization process as well as give him a job as a fireman.

As our children’s world opens up to them, explore it with them. Try to see their world through their eyes. Marvel with them at this wonder. Tell them how God made this world and how we should live in it and protect it. Keep everything we do and say simple and uncomplicated. Examine with them the beauty of a flower, a butterfly, a stone, a seashell, and other wonders. Then tell them that you thank God for giving us such treasures.

Children’s initial education is through their senses with the help of their motor muscles and nerves. They need to see, touch, hear, taste, smell, and sometimes put into their mouths or caress most everything in their environment. Encourage this education of their senses. It should be a life-long process. It is right-brain activity and an important part of learning about life. But do not leave them unattended.

Instead, share and enjoy these marvelous wonders and teachable moments with children.

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Holistic Wellness or Rotten to the Core?

That leaning tree is not my tree. It’s on my neighbor’s land just a few feet over my property line.  At least 20 feet of this once magnificent tree’s trunk is hollowed out by decay. It is dying. Its branches are all gone except for a single healthy branch that rises to the height of contiguous trees. In the spring, I expect to see new leaves on it.

But I am concerned what will happen next. Sooner or later a storm will bring this tree crashing down and damage my healthy trees on its way to the ground.

Can we draw an analogy of this tree to our human affairs and our soul? I think so. Outward appearances may suggest that we flourish. But no one sees or knows our soul, which may be either healthy, semi-healthy, or rotten to the core like my neighbor’s tree. Only God and some intuitive people know the true condition of our souls. Riches and glitz cannot save us from the inevitable destructive storm that will end our lives and those that will be impacted as this once magnificent tree crushes them in its downward fall.

In life as in nature, most trees never change their location. Some are transplanted. But most trees and people live under conditions beyond their control. Let me list a few helpless and often hopeless conditions people endure such as:

  • Power politics
  • Corruption in governments, businesses, the economy, religious institutions
  • Predators and their chain of blaming and misleading accusations
  • False imprisonment
  • Evil
  • Greed
  • Poverty
  • Homelessness
  • Oppression
  • Terrorism
  • Discrimination
  • Slavery
  • Human trafficking and
  • Genocide.

Maybe someday my neighbor will cut down this rotten tree. Similarly, powers may rise up to protect the innocent. Maybe the dawn of a new day has arrived now that some predators are being identified and punished. Yet the world overflows with vulnerable and helpless people living in dangerous situations.

Under these circumstances, the best course of action is to let God live in our heart. Understand that God is not Santa Claus at our beck and call and that some of us must suffer to survive. We need to confront and strive to overcome our daily challenges with wisdom, courage, and energy. We are called to do God’s work and not to think only of self. At life’s end, we will rest either in God’s presence or apart from God.

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Better to Educate Rather than Indoctrinate Today’s Children

Parents and educators who are concerned with the Christian education of our young people need to know the beneficial effects of education over indoctrination.

Indoctrination is the communication of non-evidence supported beliefs that the receiver is expected to accept without any questioning or argumentation. For instance, it is snowing today. I tell the person I am trying to indoctrinate that it is not snowing, that what they see is an illusion. He or she cannot question my authority and partisan point of view. In effect, I am brainwashing and gaslighting that person.

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I see on the internet pictures of ISIS preparing boys for battle as young as four or five against their perceived enemy. These boys even wear military-style clothing and learn to handle and use guns. They are being given cocktails of drugs, superstition, false religion, and violence to make them killers.

Contrary to indoctrination, John Elias in his Psychology and Religious Education writes:

Education is teaching; it is not indoctrination or preaching. It is not propagandizing or manipulating. Education respects the freedom of the student. It presents as certain truth that which is believed to be the truth. It shows the options available and presents differences of opinion if they exist are significant. Education is concerned with the entire person: mind, body, spirit, and character. It is concerned with both thought and emotions. It is not limited to schooling, but is a lifelong process. (p.6)

What then is religious education? It is everything that education is—and also more. Religious education attempts to educate a person to a religious view of life. It should present various religious views and even present non-religious views of life. It should respect the freedom of others to accept or reject our religious point of view. Even though we may have very strong Christian convictions, beliefs, and commitments, we should not force anyone to believe as we do.

Every attempt should be made to have our children and adults question our beliefs, to voice their disbelief, and be aware of and grapple with the inconsistencies that appear in the Bible and in everyday life. Our job as a parent and/or teacher is to anticipate the stumbling blocks on their road to faith. There are no textbook answers to their doubts and questions. All we can do is help guide them to figure things out for themselves. Do not be afraid to voice your own beliefs on certain matters, how you struggled to arrive at an understanding, and how time and experience may cause you to adjust your present understanding in the future. Only through personal understanding of our religious beliefs and personal struggle with our doubts can we come to enjoy the conviction necessary to make a thoughtful commitment to God.

Perhaps Jesus taught in parables so that listeners had to struggle with the meaning and purpose of his parables to gain insight to what he was about. Take for instance Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Who would you say is indoctrinated and who is educated? What makes you think so?

Religious education should be rooted in knowledge, but knowledge alone is insufficient. Additionally, we need to accept God’s grace and use it wisely. Since we are endowed with the ability to think, you and your children should use this gift as you navigate your spiritual journey in life.

The church school and church are only two sources for the Christian education of our children. Families, too, must bear responsibility for the Christian education of their children, especially in the home.


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The Bible Did Not Drop Out of Heaven

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Look at the drawing “From Oral Tradition to Canon” as I try to explain how the Bible with its Old and New Testaments came into being.

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament developed along similar lines. But the Old Testament took a much longer time to develop.

Both Testaments began as an oral tradition.

Many of the stories we find in the Old Testament were memorized, told, and retold by illiterate tribal storytellers for at least 1,000 years before they were put into writing. That means that these oral stories began some 4500 years ago.

After the Jewish people entered the Promised Land and after King David had defeated the Philistines, peace made it possible for the people to live in cities and towns. The old tribal system that existed before King David was beginning to fall apart. Their storytellers were beginning to die, and no new storytellers were coming along to replace them.

Because King David was concerned that these Bible stories would be lost forever, he hired scribes to travel into the countryside where the tribal storytellers lived. The scribes wrote down every story that the various storytellers knew about their people.

The process of putting these stories into written form began around the year 950 B.C. It took another 200 years for the Jewish people to collect, combine/merge, and piece together all existing stories into one story.

After this time period, we have additional books written for or by various prophets.

Canon refers to the books selected to be in the Bible. The Old Testament books had to be judged as to their truth and spiritual value. After the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Pharisees concentrated on collecting all known books. Then they held the Council of Jamnia in 90 A.D. to decide which books should be considered Jewish Holy Scripture and the books that form our Old Testament and their Torah or Hebrew Scripture.

New Testament writing began about 46 or 48 A.D. with the letters of Paul. Before Paul’s letters, the gospel message was oral. Very little was in a written format. The gospel of Mark is the oldest of the four gospels and was believed to have been written between 64 and 75 A.D. This time period includes the war and the destruction of the Temple. The gospel of John was the last one written. It could have been written as early as 90 A.D. and as late as 120 A.D.

Even though the process of developing the New Testament was much shorter and covered events that happened in less than 100 years (as compared to more than 2,000 years for the Old Testament), both the Old and New Testaments went through the same process from Oral Tradition to Written Form, then Collected and Edited to become Canon.

In 382 A.D., the Council of Rome vetted, accepted, and adopted the New Testament books in our Bible.

The New and Old Testaments are considered the Holy Scripture and Bible for the Christian Church.

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Children’s Cognitive Development

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Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist famous for his research in the field of cognitive development—the study of how the mind develops. He discovered that people think on one of four levels of thought.

The first level of thought is called the Sensorimotor stage. This stage usually last only for the first two years of a person’s life. Little or no organized thinking occurs. Infants react and respond to whatever stimuli affects their physical senses. By about age two, children learn that they are a separate entity from their environment.

Piaget’s second level of thought is called the Prelogical stage which begins around age two and lasts to around age five. In this stage, boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred; and children perceive the world in egocentric terms. Language develops during these years.

His Concrete Operations stage begins around age five and lasts until about age twelve. During this stage, children begin to develop cause-and-effect thinking skills. They also acquire the ability to solve many of their problems by themselves. They can organize facts, categorize them, and then reorganize them if necessary.

The last mental developmental stage many children enter is called the Formal Operations stage. People begin entering this stage around the age of twelve. But some people never enter it. During this stage, people develop abstract thinking skills. They are able to develop complicated philosophical systems and concepts. They do not necessarily take things literally, but can reason through metaphors, parables, allegories, etc.

Many people can enter Piaget’s last stage of cognitive development if they are challenged to think abstractly and choose to accept the challenge. However, because it occurs on unfamiliar, non-physical territory, many people feel threatened by abstract thinking. Part of a Christian educator’s job is to help children and students cross this barrier by challenging them to think in “what if” categories. Jesus used this teaching method to challenge the thoughts and beliefs of his listeners.

Take for instance the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Was the elder son justified in his reaction to his younger brother’s welcome home? Based on the elder son’s reaction and possible future actions, what do you think will happen to the brothers when their father dies?

Each child has his/her own timetable for growth and mental development. Accept this as a given and help your students to grow in the faith as best you can by working with each child within the limits of the stage of cognitive development in which you find him/her.

Keep in mind that students who have fully entered Piaget’s Formal Operations stage become extremely bored when asked to think and work at a lower level. They are not challenged by factual questions that have easy answers. On the other hand, factual questions must be posed and answered to assure that all students know the factual material they are expected to master. For students in this fourth stage and those entering it, supplement factual questions with more challenging questions such as: “Was Jacob right in taking Esau’s birthright from him?” “Why was Rebecca unfaithful to her husband when it came to her two sons?” “What if you…”

Today at the grocery story, a mother was negotiating with her five-year old which granola bars he wanted. I overheard them while I was trying to decide what I wanted. I told them what my grandson likes. The mother must have told him that he was going to send her to the nut house if he didn’t make up his mind. Seeing my indecision, the little boy asked me if I were going to the nut house with his mother. Where would you place him on Piaget’s cognitive development scale?

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Teaching Tips

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If Christian educators are not properly prepared and confident about what they teach and how they teach or if the material they present to their students lacks depth, or seems like a fairy tale, then the realities and pressures of our times will cause our young people to abandon or take a wrong turn in their spiritual quest. They will never answer for themselves the four major questions our faith and our life’s journey demand us to ask: Who am I? Who are you? Who is God; and What does God want of me?

To ensure that our young people do come to terms with these questions, the Mustard Seed Series uses Jesus’ own teaching techniques of parables and open-ended questions. In our lives as Christians, there are often no easy or ready-made answers to difficult questions and uncertainties. All of us need to ask how we as Christians can be God’s instruments in such matters as refugee and displaced persons resettlement, towards the starving in Africa, towards persecuted minorities, and towards the homeless and vulnerable in America. In the Mustard Seed Series as in life, questions arise for which there are no easy or ready-made answers.