Teaching First Day School in a liberal unprogrammed Friends meeting is a strange and wonderful business. Somehow you have to transmit whatever it is that is going on mostly in silence among the adults in the next room, without any hint of indoctrination and ever aware that what might be your Truth may very well not be Truth as experienced by the parents of the tender minds under your care. Teaching the Bible is this experience on steriods. You soon find yourself navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, your sails flapping ineffectually before the feeble winds of your own insecurity. This has led to some of my most distressing episodes as an FDS teacher and some of the funniest.

On one never to be forgotten Sunday at a time when I was the Religious Education clerk, I was waylaid by an irate mother who accused a teacher (not me, thank heavens) of brainwashing her children with a fundamentalist version of a Bible story. Further investigation revealed that all the hapless teacher had done was read the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, leaving the kids to decided for themselves on the story's "truthiness," as Stephen Colbert would say. No amount of pouring oil on troubled waters would calm the mother and, as a result, we lost that family and the FDS teacher refused to ever teach again (not an insignificant loss, as any RE clerk will tell you).

On a more amusing note, I was (nervously) reading a Bible story to the children one First Day when I came across the word "sinner." Aware that most of my charges had probably never heard of a "sinner" before or even "sin" (such an uncomfortable concept for us post-Modern Quakers), I felt obliged to pause to ask the children, "Does anyone know what a sinner is?" There followed an impressive silence. Eventually, one brave fellow decided to hazard a guess. "Is it someone who goes to a synagogue?" he asked. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! We FDS teachers have to take our teachable moments where we can find them. "Indeed!" I replied. "They can also be found in churches and temples and mosques, and even (dramatic pause) at Quaker meetings!"

Given the terror of parental wrath and the glorious tabula rasa that is most of our liberal Quaker youth with regard to the Bible, the subject of Jesus is usually approached occasionally, selectively, and with great delicacy. To stay on the safe side, we tend to avoid the miracles, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the virgin birth (except at Christmas where it occupies a special place next to Santa, elves and other seasonal magic). What that leaves us with are the parables. Blessed relief, since they can be presented rather like queries and are wonderfully open to interpretation. Perfect for avoiding trouble. It is entirely possible for a child to go through all of FDS in a liberal Friends meeting - from kindergarten through high school - with only a nodding acquaintance with Jesus. Or - even worse - what they do know is invariably heavily colored by negative perceptions gleaned from the shriller quarters of the fundamentalist universe. I should know. While I was wrestling with what I could "safely" tell my children about Jesus (and my husband, an Episcopalian, was having his own struggles on this question), they had the temerity to grow up Jesus-less. Oh, the irony! I had decided not to raise them in the nice, local Methodist church because I couldn't bring myself to present the Christian doctrine as the unvarnished truth, and now 16 years later I am regretting that I managed to leave them almost totally in the dark on a subject that has come to occupy the central place in my spiritual life. Dear Lord, can we please do a make-up?

Because here's the amazing thing. I have (finally) met Jesus again, not as a TV dinner precooked and semi-digested by someone else (please see The Odd Man at the Dinner Party Part II), and not as some intellectual exercise, sanitized for college grads who don't want to look like idiots or be associated with "them." But, in the words of George Fox, as "the Christ Within." As the living Teacher who opened up the  minds and hearts of the first Quakers, as well as many others before and after Fox, including non-Quakers. And this Christ Within continues to do so, bringing transformation and a new way of experiencing life and experiencing it more abundantly. This Christ is not a metaphor or just some super-charged ethical teacher or (to me, at least) an unintelligible cosmic sacrifice necessary for my entry into heaven, or any of the other definitions that include some and exclude many. No, the Christ Within that I have come to know is not separate from Jesus of Nazareth, neither is this Christ Within exclusive to Jesus of Nazareth. This Christ Within is available to all. But I do not believe I could have come to know the Christ Within without the historical Jesus. And I would not have come to know and love this Christ Within, this Jesus, without stopping to drink from the living waters that flow through many Christian traditions - Catholic, Protestant, Quaker. I cannot comment on non-Christian paths because they are outside my experience, but I do know that I have met people of faith from outside Christianity who live lives of godliness and who are clearly powered by the same Spirit of love and transformation that was epitomized in the life and teachings of a man who lived 2,000 years ago in Galilee. As John Woolman discovered in the mid-18th century in his contacts with Native Americans: "I believed some of them were measurably acquainted with that divine Power which subjects the rough and forward Will of the Creature." Jesus, the Christ Within, God, the Divine, is bigger than our definitions, far larger than our self-imposed fortresses, beyond the limits of our human minds, yet miraculously accessible to us all, a promise of a rich life beyond our wildest imaginings.

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Comment by Christine Manville Greenland on 12th mo. 6, 2011 at 9:04am

Thanks for this, Patricia... I often find younger Friends (middle school and older) much more interested in the structure of the Bible, as well as the stories... Since I frequently teach when parents are present, their ideas go into the mix.  I agree that the Crucifixion is problematic, unless it is to point out that the humanity of Christ engages God with human suffering... I'm still working that out for myself.

One time, we were working with the book of Jonah, and the kids really "got it"... The parents, however, where pretty shocked by the insights their kids had during the theater improv session. 

Throwing Jonah overboard didn't phase the parents, but repentance? The kids got down, pounded the floor, told God they were so sorry that they'd done wrong -- and some parents were horrified. Turned into a teachable moment for the parents -- and me. The most amazing lesson I learned is that God "appointed" a plant to shade the sulking Jonah (Chap. 4) and then "appointed" a worm to eat the plant so that Jonah was -- in a word -- steamed. Two of the younger folk acted that out with great glee -- and it taught me a lot about spiritual growth and unfolding, as well as providence and my own fumings. We all discussed that.

I had not prompted anything, just asked the group to interpret the texts for themselves)... Parents were invited to be part of the groups, too. One or two participated.  Some told me privately that they were distressed at what came out of their children's interpretations of the text. I assured them that this is all right. I find myself arguing with Bible texts all the time. Wrestling with it.

In terms of "sin"... sometimes this is understated in the original languages (Hebrew, Greek). It can simply mean "outsider", or it can mean "rebellion".  This opens up so much in terms of discussion "When have you felt like an outsider?" "When have you felt that you didn't want to do as you were told?"  Followed by the questions "Tell me more about..."

One of the most successful forays I had was to ask a younger person in my son's age cohort "What would your parents say if you had stayed behind in the temple at Jerusalem and your parents didn't know where you were?"  This opened up a very interesting conversation -- and conversations we should be having with our younger Friends.

Comment by Isabel Penraeth on 12th mo. 6, 2011 at 9:47am

Thanks, Friend Patricia, for posting this. I do think we sometimes forget that God is entirely capable of Reaching our children, no matter what intellectual errors we may commit as parents and teachers.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 12th mo. 6, 2011 at 9:53am

Christine -- Your efforts at teaching the Bible sound a lot more creative and successful than mine! I am much amused at the parents reaction to repentance vs throwing Jonah overboard. I have found good old-fashioned repentance to be critical to my spiritual growth because it has forced me to come to terms with (to paraphrase Thomas Merton) "the contagion of my own obsessions, my aggressiveness, my ego-centered ambitions, my delusions about ends and means, my doctrinaire prejudices and ideas." I now perceive repentance as positive and necessary - sort of clearing out all the old underbrush - rather than the negative and self-damaging which is how some people perceive it today. I also have no problem with "sin" although I do take your point about meanings lost in translation. But that's another discussion...

Perhaps having the parents present when you teach the Bible is a good idea - they can weigh in immediately if they have a problem rather than ambush you later. 

Comment by Christine Manville Greenland on 12th mo. 8, 2011 at 4:06pm

And actually talk about it with the kids afterwards... :-)  The reverse happened at another meeting. Some of my dear Friends were teaching from Ecclesiastes... My son (who had read the entire Bible -- another story for another time) questioned their interpretation... They approached me demanding to know why he had the temerity to challenge their views. I was puzzled until I got both sides of the story.  (My son was 11 or 12 at the time -- a questioning time, for certain).

I suggested that my son contact someone who had studied the text carefully --  a well-known Friend. I commented that there were other Bible scholars around, too -- some of whom he knew in other contexts.

So after a week of exchanged e-mails, my son's interpretation was affirmed ... I was copied on the exchange. Together we put together a list of suggested references, and simply handed the list to the teachers, suggesting they might find it interesting.

A few years later, I was in seminary, taking a class on the Apocalypse of John. My son, then in college, was delighted, and we had lively discussions on interpretation.

The moral of the story is harks back the original reason my son had read the Bible. He had gotten in serious enough trouble at school that I packed up the television and video games until he could manage to get his act together. There were several older Bibles (mostly presentation Bibles given to long departed relations). He read each one cover to cover. So here's this 12-year-old who has read the text in several versions, and makes of it what any 12-year-old might. 

Not only that, but he had read George Fox's and John Woolman's Journals, and had (I think) begun on Barclay's Apology. Pity the 1st day school teacher with a kid like that in the class, particularly if they're just going for basics. I don't make many assumptions on knowledge or lack thereof. I just find it's better with parents as a part of the conversation -- and vice versa... In adult classes, I welcome younger people. They will absorb something.

Comment by Clem Gerdelmann on 7th mo. 10, 2013 at 7:50am

Just as the Old Testament people had God "taught" to them via their history(fact + interpretation), so New Testament people have God presented to them via the historical "Jesus of Nazareth". If our God chose to teach via human history and person(s) in it, is this not "The Way" for Children of the Light as answering that of God?


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