Thursday, October 7, 2010

Messy Truth

I loved Sunday School as a kid. Crafts, music, snacks, a little story, what's not to like? If I had a quarter for every cotton ball sheep I made...Okay, maybe a dollar for every cotton ball sheep I made...
I was nearing the end of my Sunday School days, probably around ten years old, when the weekly Bible story left me a bit confused. There was a really big word that I could not even repeat, let alone understand. I must have been too distracted or shy to ask the teacher what she meant.

My answer came in a most unlikely source: my public school sex ed class.

"Male circumcision," explained the school counselor, doing her best to ignore our giggles. "Is when the foreskin is removed from the male genitals."

My scrunched up eyebrows said it all. Ewww.

But then I got to thinking. I had heard this word before, and - gasp! - I was pretty sure it was in the Bible. Ewww.

Gaping discord left me a bit confused, perhaps for years. To think that the Bible was not all cotton-ball sheep and popsicle-stick Adam and Eve and even Baby Jesus in a manger.

When I finally read the real story of David and Goliath, I couldn't believe David actually cut off Goliath's head! Well, then David couldn't have been made out of pipe cleaners. To think that Goliath wasn't just the cartoon bully on the flannelgraph!

It was all so messy -blood and sacrifices, an orgy in a dark street, swords plunged deep, wild animals tearing people apart, semen spilled on the ground, foreskins collected after midnight attacks, incest, death, mistresses and bastards...The list goes on and on.

Now, I fast forward twenty years and find myself firmly planted on the other side of this messiness. They call me Teacher Karen. And I try to make the messiness of the Bible manageable for little ones. Perhaps I shouldn't try so hard at it. Isn't Jesus all about the messiness? But as deep and spiritual as that may sound, I am using the "I'm Just a Volunteer" cop-out. And censoring the parts that make me blush.

I'm pretty sure whoever compiles the Sunday School lessons has a personal vendetta against me. It's a conspiracy to give Karen the most awkward Bible lessons possible, and watch her squirm...casually. If I wore a name tag to church, it'd say Feigned Nonchalance.

"Boys and girls, Jesus was a baby just like you. With a mommy and daddy just like you."

Smart boy in the back raised his hand. "Not just like me. His mom was pregnant before they got married."

"Okay..." I conceded.

"That's not good," he said soberly.

"Well, in this case, it was a wonderful thing," I started to explain with enthusiasm.

"Not for Joseph," Smart Boy interrupted. "Cuz we have dogs at our house and to get babies, they have to-"

"Yes, thank you, little Johnny. Time for your weekly flogging."

Totally kidding about the flogging. I only do that if the kids cuss.

Good news for me, this Smart Boy was conveniently absent on the day I was stuck teaching the most arcane Bible story - wherein David is living as a hunted man with jealous King Saul close on his heels. For those of you who think I should not annotate my Sunday School lessons, this is the source of family havoc you would get to explain on the car ride home:

"Okay, listen up, children. King Saul went to Engedi, hunting for David. Suddenly, he decided to call off the hunt while he went into a cave to go poop. Little did he know that David and his men were hiding in the back of the cave. Squatting under his cloak - for that was the common way it was done back then (made that up) - King Saul got down to business. In the meantime, David's friends urged him to take the opportunity and kill the king. David was a good man and said that he could not kill the king, but he would teach Saul a lesson. So, while King Saul was stinking up the cave, David, brave man that he was, crept up behind him and cut off a piece of Saul's robe. Then, after Saul was done and left the cave, David stood at the entrance and waved the piece of robe at King Saul. He said, 'See, I could have killed you while you were making a dookie, but I didn't. You're our God-given king.' And the moral of the story, children, is that we must never go poo-poo in a cave."

Parents, you can thank me later for editing the story, telling it in a less detailed way. Something vague about Saul "needing a break in the cave," David being super quiet, and that key element - nonchalance.

Anyways, I survived the lesson and so did your kids. There are no guarantees the Smart Boy won't figure out I censored the Bible story, but until then, your car rides home might be filled with more pleasant images than King Saul squatting in a cave.

On a more serious note, there are times when the raw imagery of the Bible cannot be ignored. Like the day we studied the Jewish holiday of Passover. To put it into context, I had to discuss the sacrifice of an innocent lamb killed for the sake of the entire Jewish family, its life-saving blood painted on the doorposts of their home before the Death Angel passed. As disturbing as the story is, and as difficult as it was to not edit out the element of blood, the students seemed to sense my awe, especially when I pointed to my own need for rescue. In my wobbly, nervous voice, I left the nonchalance behind: "'For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.' (1 Cor. 5:7) We are 'redeemed with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.'" (1 Pet.1:19)

Grace invites us close, messes laid bare.

There are parts of the Bible that leave me scratching my head in confusion. I don't claim to understand it all, I'm not sure anyone claims that. But I understand that the Truth found there is messy at times. How can it not be? I'm so thankful God is not Victorian in His censorship, blushing at every slip of us humans. His truth is approachable and available partly because it includes real life and real people, not hiding things like poo, semen, leprosy, incest, slavery, blood, pain...

The most stunning part is that God doesn't just tolerate our messes, like I tolerate Nick Jr. or diaper changes. Wherein He alone has the right to be a control freak, He does the exact opposite: not only does He allow our messes, He enters them. And not begrudgingly. Willingly. With pleasure (Colossians 1).

"The God who roared, who could order armies and empires about like pawns on a chessboard, this God emerged in Palestine as a baby who could not speak or eat solid food or control his bladder, who depended on a teenage couple for shelter, food, and love...God, who knows no before or after, entered time and space. God, who knows no boundaries took on the shocking confines of a baby's skin, the ominous restrictions of mortality." (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, pages 35 & 48)

I rest here today, because there is no other place more welcoming than here, "hidden with Christ." (Colossians 3:3)

Tucked In,


Destiny Packer said...

I love Yancey's book. I read it in college and it was eye-opening. I can totally relate to this post! Ethan is always asking us questions when we are reading him stories and I am constantly trying to decipher how much information to give him. He knows the gory details of the cross because we believe they are essential in understanding salvation. I have a friend who would not tell her 4yo that Christ died on the cross for her because she thought it was too scary for her 4yo. On the other hand, explaining to Ethan the meaning of The Song of Solomon has been skipped over for the time being! Thanks for this post. As always, I really enjoyed reading it. :)

Anonymous said...

God knew that 8-12 year old boys would need to be just as captivated by Scripture as us prudish mamas. Isn't He the Smart One. K

Karen said...

Oh! Good point! The Word is truly complete, and full. Thanks for that, dear Karen. :)

Alicia Eastvold said...

I've been teaching Old Testament this year and am getting ready for Abraham's covenant with God. Why the heck was it a foreskin!?! Even my Jewish friends can't figure that one out. But seriously- ther are so many difficult stories: Noah's Ark wasn't just rainbows. And how do you really explain the sacrifice of Isaac to a kid? I'm having to unteach the pre-school versions to my MS'ers so they can really see the "messiness" and reality of those stories...