Jesus Fixes Our Perception Problem

Year B, Lent 4; Numbers 21:4-9; Lectionary reading for March 14, 2021

I’m no biblical scholar, but even I know the Israelites did a lot of grumbling in the desert. I leafed through Exodus and Numbers for a quick count, and this particular grumble is #14. Most of the time, Moses calmed his people down, took the problem to God, and God solved the problem. This time, however, the Israelites were whining about the very food God had provided; talk about ungrateful. God punishes the people with snakes, but also provides a solution by instructing Moses to build the bronze snake.

I found several interpretations of this tricky story online, but Dr. Keith Wagner’s explanation most struck a chord with me. Dr. Wagner suggests the Israelites had a perception problem. All they could see were their problems; sore feet, repetitive food, no water, and now, snakes! When Moses raised the bronze serpent onto the pole so that it could heal anyone bitten, he helped them adjust their focus. Rather than grumble about how hard life in the wilderness was, the bronze serpent reminded them to focus on God, the source of all healing.

I think this is why Jesus compares himself to the serpent in the passage from John 3:14. We are saved by looking upon Jesus suffering on the cross, saved by keeping our focus on God, saved not through efforts of our own, but through God’s grace. When I focus on my troubles, that is all I see. When I focus on God’s grace, I am transformed.

Is there a children’s book that can make sense of this? I believe there is!

Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson’s book Last Stop on Market Street follows CJ and Nana on an after-church bus trip across town. CJ, like the Israelites, has an acute case of the grumbles. Why do we have to wait for the bus in the rain? Why can’t we drive a car? How come it’s so dirty here? At every turn, Nana helps CJ change his perspective.

“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

Nana, Last Stop on Market Street

CJ learns that a little bit of hardship, a little bit of jealousy, or a little bit of want doesn’t mean much when he focuses on the beauty of the people and places around him.

Questions before you read:

  • Have you ever had to do something you really didn’t want to do?
  • Did grumbling about it make it any easier?
  • What do you think it means to “look on the bright side?”

Questions after you read:

  • Why is CJ glad they came at the end?
  • How do you feel when you help someone?
  • What can you do to remind yourself to focus on God when you feel like whining?

Even if you choose a different focus this Sunday, I hope you keep Last Stop on Market Street in your back pocket. You never know when you might need the perfect story to teach gratitude and service. Enjoy!

I receive a small commission when you purchase a book through my links. All proceeds go towards maintenance of the site… which may or may not involve the purchase of new books to review. Hey, the public library can’t do all the work!

de la Pena, Matt. Last Stop on Market Street. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2015.

God’s Love For the World

Year B, Lent 4; John 3:14-21; Lectionary reading for March 14, 2021

The second part of this verse (“… that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”) gets tossed around a lot to condemn others: people of other religions entirely, even people of different Christian denominations whose beliefs don’t align with our own. It is also a great verse for scaring people into believing in Christ, because who wants to perish? Not me.

However, both those that use this verse to condemn and those who use it to frighten do so in ignorance of a key word in the verse: world.

It doesn’t say “God so loved Canada,” or “God so loved Jews,” or anything else. “God so loved the world.” Let’s celebrate that with our children! This verse grants us the opportunity to explore the expansive and never-ending love God has for our planet and its inhabitants.

Honestly, it is difficult to pick just one storybook that celebrates the world. As this blog progresses, I hope to have many more opportunities to present books that celebrate the diversity of creation, but to simplify your planning needs, I’ve selected one of my very favourites: Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, by Oliver Jeffers.

Written as instructions for an infant, this tender book presents the wonders of the physical world as well as the human. The illustrations are whimsical and a little silly, and you’ll find sprinkles of sweet little bits of advice throughout. My favourite?

You are a person. You have a body. Look after it, as most bits don’t grow back.

-Oliver Jeffers

I don’t want to give away the ending and steal your goosebumps, so go find this book and celebrate God’s love for the whole of creation with the children in your ministry.

I receive a small commission when you purchase a book through my links. The money goes towards the expense of running the site… just kidding; I buy more books.

Jeffers, Oliver. Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth. London, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2017.

Time To Clean Up

Year B, Lent 3: John 2:13-22; March 7, 2021

Young children might not understand why Jesus was so angry at the people selling livestock in the temple, so make it a little more personal; would they want cattle, sheep, and doves in the church with them right now? Why or why not? It might seem fun to have a cow visit the sanctuary, but remind the children that animals are messy eaters… and poopers.

Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Pug books are full of fun lessons for children. Pig just might be the world’s dirtiest dog! Before reading, ask the children to make connections. Have they ever helped bathe a dog? Was the dog happy about it? Did the dog smell a *little* bit better afterwards?

After the story (and after laughing at the stinky bubbles on the last page), see if the children can make the jump from washing a dog to clearing out the Temple in Jerusalem. How is a stinky dog like the livestock in the Temple? Did the Temple need a bath like Pig? Jesus was angry about how people had made his Father’s house dirty. Driving out the animals gave the Temple a good cleaning and fresh start.

Jesus chased out not only the animals but also the people selling them and trying to steal money from worshippers. He wasn’t just cleaning up dirt, but also dishonesty and greed. What can we do to keep our church clean?

I receive a small commission when you purchase a book through my links, which helps cover the expense of running the site. Just kidding, I buy more books.

Blabey, Aaron. Pig the Stinker. Scholastic Canada Ltd., 2019.

God’s Safety Tips

Year B, Lent 3: Exodus 20:1-17; Lectionary reading for March 7, 2021

Have you ever rolled your eyes when a young child tattled on a friend or sibling… again? As exasperating as it can be, tattling tells us something quite important about children. They want to know the rules, follow the rules, and make sure everyone else does as well! I like to think that tattling children are our future police officers, lawyers, and judges. The Ten Commandments are God’s rules to keep us, safe, happy, and living in community, just like the rules at home or at school.

Office Buckle and Gloria tells the story of a safety-conscious police officer and his dog, Gloria. Officer Buckle enjoys giving safety presentations, but his audience doesn’t share his enthusiasm. Thankfully, Gloria finds a way to give the presentations more pizzazz, and Napville has never been safer!

Before reading the story, ask: What are some rules at your house? Why do you think you have those rules? Do you always follow them?

After reading the story, ask: Officer Buckle had 101 safety rules. Do you think there are safety rules in the Bible? How many do you think there are? Tradition says there are 613 just in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament if you like). That’s a lot of rules to remember! Thankfully, God gave us the Ten Commandments to simplify matters a bit.

Read the Ten Commandments in a child-friendly translation (like the Spark Story Bible linked below) and ask children what they notice about these rules. How are they similar to Officer Buckle’s safety tips? How are they different? Officer Buckle’s last safety tip, #101, is my favourite in the book, and to me it brings to mind the first of the Ten Commandments: You shall have no other gods but me. Stick with God, and follow his commandments to stay safe, happy, and living in community. And never stand on a swivel chair!

I receive a small commission when you purchase a book through my links, which helps cover the expense of running the site. Just kidding, I buy more books!

Rathman, Peggy. Officer Buckle and Gloria. Scholastic, Inc., 1995.

Spark Story Bible. Augsburg Fortress, 2016

Windows and Mirrors

Thanks for joining me!

Stories capture our attention and open our hearts as much today as they did for our ancestors. Children and adults alike enjoy listening to stories. They help us understand who we are and connect us to the wider world. A good storybook  Elementary school teachers know that a well-chosen book can draw even reluctant learners into a new lesson. Luckily, there are thousands of quality picture books available to supplement lessons from friendship to photosynthesis. As a teacher with 15 years of experience, I have read (and collected) a lot of books!

When my husband began occasionally leading worship services in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, he frequently asked me if I had a book that might tie into the message that Sunday. As a retired teacher, he knew the trick of drawing listeners in with a good story worked for little kids and adults too! More often than not, I found something, and after the service, someone (usually an adult) would inevitably tell me how much they enjoyed the story.

The more I looked at my collection of storybooks, the more I wondered if it was possible to connect a quality storybook with every week of the Revised Common Lectionary. Maybe not from my personal collection, but could this be the excuse I needed to purchase even more? In the interest of marital peace, the library helped out and put holds on about 50 books that piqued my interest, and I’ll be browsing libraries and bookstores regularly, looking for new additions for my lectionary of children’s literature.

While working toward my MEd in Early Years Education, I leaned to pay close attention not just to the story, but how it is told. Does it feature a diverse cast of characters, both male and female? Does it rely on gender, ethnic, or classist stereotypes? Will this book be a window out into the wider world? Will readers see themselves represented in the pages, as if in a mirror? While the books reviewed on this blog are meant to supplement Biblical scripture, they are chosen with a modern lens. I will do my best to select materials that add a spark to your sermon or Sunday School lesson while staying true to the inclusive values of the United Church of Canada. 

From time to time I will also be posting resources that, while not tied to a specific week of the lectionary, may prove helpful during the church year; books that tackle racism, gender inequality, reconciliation between Indigenous people and settler descendants, family diversity, tragedy, disaster, and death. We could all use a little help to make sense of the complicated, intersectional world in which we live, and settling in with a storybook is a great way to do just that.

Until next time, here’s a TEDx talk by Grace Lin who does a great job explaining how books need to be both windows and mirrors for our children.