Monday, March 19, 2012

4th grade theology

A couple of weeks ago, I got the children’s ministry newsletter in my inbox. At the top was a desperate plea for teachers. Our children’s ministry does a very cool rotation model for elementary Sunday school. The children learn a story for 6 weeks, reinforced through different ways of engaging – cooking, drama, art, music, etc.

Since I’ve transitioned out of youth ministry, I no longer have a regular commitment during the Sunday school hour, so I e-mailed the children’s ministry coordinator to offer to sub. Sunday before last I had drama with the kindergartners, which was a blast, even though the Scripture we were covering was Peter’s denial of Christ. This week, same curriculum, but 4th graders were coming to my room.

First, it was a very small class, what with this Sunday being at the beginning of spring break. No problem, I decided to myself that rather than break into two groups to act out pieces of Scripture, we’d do it all together. But my good intentions never came about.

In the midst of decorating crosses and drawing ocean scenes for a VBS t-shirt contest, some deep questions started to come out.
·         Why do we have a cross for Jesus? Isn’t that where he died? It doesn’t seem right.
·         Where is the devil? I heard someone say he’s in the middle of the earth since it’s hot down there.
·         Isn’t the devil a bad angel?
·         If someone doesn’t believe in God, but never does bad things, do they go to the devil?
·         Why do people think God is a boy?

I tried to take them as they came, seriously but in terms understandable for their age and stage. Here are my efforts (with their help in parentheses):

Why do we have a cross for Jesus? Isn’t that where he died? It doesn’t seem right.
I’ve wondered why we have a cross for Jesus, too. But here’s the thing, is Jesus still on the cross? (No) That reminds us how even death can’t stop God. Jesus died on the cross, which is a very painful death, and was buried in a tomb. But 3 days later – BOOM! – the rock rolled aside and Jesus was alive again, he was resurrected. And then he was seen by his disciples and taught them some more things before going back to God.

Where is the devil? I heard someone say he’s in the middle of the earth since it’s hot down there.
I think it’s hard to put a specific location on spiritual things. We tend to think heaven is up and hell is down, but our spaceships have never bumped into heaven. I think spiritual things work differently. I also think this is important when some people say hell is in the earth – who made the earth? (God!) That’s right. And what did God say after God had made everything? (It was good.) That’s right, too. So everything that is created, from you and me to the horse to the earth, starts out very, very good. So it would be weird to me to think that hell is somewhere inside the earth.

Isn’t the devil a bad angel?
From what I can remember this morning, there’s really not very much about the devil in our Bible. There’s much more in there about God and us and how we’re supposed to be in relationship. Some people have written a lot of other stories about the devil, since people always wonder about how things work, why bad things happen, etc. But one of the places I remember that is about the devil is in Job, when the hasatan, or the tester – someone who tests you, goes to God to talk about Job. Hasatan is a title, a role, but it is also where we get the word Satan. The hasatan’s job is to test people. So he asks God to test Job, to see if Job would still be faithful to God if he didn’t have his wife and children and camels, in other words, if he didn’t have everything a person could want. But that is a hard book, so let’s talk about that more later.

If someone doesn’t believe in God, but never does bad things, do they go to the devil?
Well, we all do some bad things, but you mean they haven’t killed anyone, they don’t steal – they’re not any better or worse than most of us. I get that. So there are lots of different thoughts on these things, but here is what Pastor Jessica thinks – I know God loves us. God loves us a lot. God wants to be in a relationship with us. And I can’t imagine God ever turning away from us or sending us somewhere away from God. It’s good to believe in God because it lets you enjoy a little bit of heaven now – you can have joy, peace, love, and incredible strength and comfort from knowing that God is with you. If you don’t believe in God, the world can be a lot scarier.

But if you don’t believe in God, I think when you die you go to work all that out with God. And, of course, you can keep choosing not to believe in God, which I think is what hell is like. Just because you choose not to believe in God, doesn’t mean God is not there. It’s like closing your eyes. Just because you can’t see the light, doesn’t mean it’s not there. But a lot of these things are a mystery. I don’t know exactly how they work, but I know that God does.

Why do people think God is a boy?
That is a good question! Back in the day, back in Bible times, who were really powerful people? (…pause…kings?) Right! Kings had lots of power and they were boys. Every once in a while there was a queen, but most of the time it was a king. Physically, boys are built to be stronger, so they were the ones who could get their way and make themselves the bosses. People wanted a strong king so he could protect the people from other people. So when they talked about God, it was natural to talk about God as a mighty king.

But there are also other images for God. God is described like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. And there’s also this part in our Bible
Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
So, what does God look like? (…pause…like Jesus?) Yes, but who else…it says “male and female he created them.” (So, God looks like me? says a girl) Yes, we all look like God. All people are made to look like God. (God has a wife?) No, God doesn’t have a wife. God made us to look like God, boys and girls. (I don’t think God is a boy or a girl.) I think God is probably beyond things like that, too, but God is very creative and made us all a little different, but we all look like God. It may not be what we look like on the outside that’s most important, but how we love others that makes us look most like God.

By the end of the hour, we hadn't done very much of what I had planned. And it was completely and entirely good. I thanked the children for their questions and encouraged them to keep asking. I let them know that many times adults stop asking questions because they think they're supposed to have the answers already, which doesn't feel good. I was amazed and humbled by the children's good questions and willingness to dig around to uncover more about God. It was such a good morning. What a gift for a pastor to be a substitute elementary Sunday school teacher!


  1. Nice, Jess. I am so glad you posted this!

  2. Excellent post and thoughts. I'm sure some of the junior highers in our group would probably get something out of this! :)

  3. It's like the days that you go into the church office to 'work' and then are interupted at every turn by all those people who need to talk ... Coworkers ... Congregants ... You don't feel like you've gotten anything done until you look back and realize you have the best job ever.


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