I've been thinking about reading the Bible to children in light of our Jesse Tree Tradition and after reading Annie's post on the Advent Curriculum she wrote for her church's Sunday School. I also have had questions via email from readers wondering about how to present the Gospel and teach their children about Jesus. So I'd like to share a bit more with you about how we do our Jesse Tree and read Scripture in general, but please keep in mind our children are still all under the age of five!
First, we begin with a quick and light review of the past Scripture we've been studying. This does not have a quiz feeling. Dad is quick to answer to help little ones remember! You can also use the symbols of the Jesse Tree to aid their memory.
Then, I give a very brief set up of the passage, just so they have some context for what they are about to hear, guiding them what to listen for, but also trying not to pare down the Word into a "kernel of truth."
As Charlotte Mason, the British Educator, writes,
"I think we make a mistake in burying the text under our endless comments and applications. The Word is full of vital force, capable of applying itself. A seed, light as thistledown, wafted into the child's soul, will take root downwards and bear fruit upwards. What is required of us is, that we should implant a love of the Word; that the most delightful moments of the child's day should be those in which his [parents] read for him, with sweet sympathy and holy gladness in voice and eyes, the beautiful stories of the Bible" (Home Education, Volume 1, p. 349).
So then, we read the Scripture passage itself, approached as something Holy and Revered. We don't want to give the young child more than they can sit still for but we also want to give them enough to hear the entire story and the rhythm and beauty of the Word for themselves. Charlotte Mason writes, "We are apt to believe that children cannot be interested in the Bible unless its pages be watered down" (p. 247-8). She goes on to rail against poor children's paraphrased Bibles, "It is a mistake to paraphrase the text; the fine roll of Bible English appeals to children with a compelling music, and they will probably retain through life their first conception of the Bible Scenes, and, also, the very words in which these scenes are portrayed. This is a great possession" (p. 249).
And then we wait, remembering that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
Even for children.
Not just the long-time Christian, the theologian, or priest.
And after waiting, we allow time for questions. Young children love to ask questions, don't they? We encourage our children to ask questions, to not be afraid to learn the text well. This, however, can lead to the unexpected, not always what we had set out to be the main point of the devotion for the day. But that is when we take comfort in God's work in our children's lives, not merely ours alone. So for example, yesterday when we read the Creation story for the second Jesse Tree Ornament, G's first question was asked, not with disrespect but real concern, "Well, how did the writer know that this is what happened [at the Creation of the world] since they weren't there?" What a valuable question! Yes, I had my agenda for the passage and we still got to some of it, but I was so glad to know she was grappling with the Scripture too.
And finally, we ask a few questions to provoke reflection for all of us. This is not dumb-down questions to which Mom and Dad already know the answers, but questions which drive us all deeper into God's Word.
Here are sample questions:
"What does this teach us about God? What does it teach us about who we are?"
As parents we don't hesitate in giving our own answers; we are their authority, we've studied Scripture for much longer than they. But during this time our primary purpose in reading the Bible is so we all know God more and know who He wants us to become.We want to allow the living Word to speak to us. There is time for catechism and theological discussions later.
As Annie from Learning as We Go writes,
"It is like a feast, and our job is to prepare the most beautiful meal of the Gospel. But we can’t make them eat it. So try to resist the temptation to pare down the amazing imagery in these passages into something digestible. We’ll be amazed what they pull out, even if we don’t spoon feed them."
And a last side note on the Jesse Tree.
We try to do our Jesse Tree in the morning: it orients our day, allows for discussion and reflection throughout the day, but if you have a rough start to a day and can't do it in the morning you always have the chance to do it that night. If you miss a day, decide if it is a necessary piece to discuss or if it is okay to skip it. You can combine readings too. But one of the best part about celebrating the church year is that you'll get to do it all again next year.
The important thing is to feast on the Word together and the tradition of the Jesse Tree is a unique way to unfold the story of God, again the words of Miss Mason,
"Let the imaginations of children be stored with the pictures, their minds nourished upon the words, of the gradually unfolding story of the Scriptures, and they will come to look out upon a wide horizon within which persons and events take shape in their due place and proportion. By degrees, they will see that the world is a stage whereon the goodness of God is continually striving with the wilfulness of man; that some heroic men take sides with God; and that others, foolish and headstrong, oppose themselves to Him. The fire of enthusiasm will kindle in their breast, and the children, too, will take their side" (emphasis mine, p. 249)