We did 3rd grade bibles a couple weeks ago. I LOVE 3rd grade bible weekend. I think the one that I tend to remember when I’m having a hard day is the year we had 35 or 40 kids. We had the bibles all stacked and in order, it was back in the days when we called each child up individually. I don’t quite remember what happened but something was mixed up and the order became unraveled and I remember thinking we should simply start walking through the congregation and handing them out to whomever looked “bible-less” and approximately 3rd grade age because otherwise Jesus was going to come again before we got done. I think it was after that year that we started presenting the bibles to the kids with their families present in Sunday School and bringing them up as a group for a special blessing during worship. What we learn from what become the best moments – well, they become the best moments in the memory, not so much while we’re living through them.
Nearly every year I bring up my white 3rd grade Bible I received from the Maple Grove Church of the Brethren in 1971. It’s white, King James Version, and has my name imprinted in gold lettering on the front – faded some but you can still read it. It makes a bit of a cracking sound when I open it. I love having it but the King James version was not particularly accessible for reading so I didn’t use it much. It will fall open to the 23rd Psalm because I do love the poetry and rhythm of the King James for that. One of the great things about where we’ve come is that our 3rd graders now receive accessible translations and workbooks that go with them. I think our general difficulty with scripture often comes from trying to read something that seems so outside our understanding. We end up focusing on a few “common” often mis-interpreted verses that allow us to prove or disprove some opinion we have about who’s in or who’s out of God’s story and thereby offer a judgment that, rather than inviting people in to meet God, creates a spiritual if not literal door-slamming response. It’s one of the things that breaks my heart and ignites my passion to keep on keeping on as a preacher-teacher of this strangely sacred text.
One of the scripture stories coming up for worship starting in Lent, is Jesus interacting with a man whose son likely had epilepsy (Mark 9:20-24). The man asks that if Jesus is “able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus says, “all things can be done for the one who believes.” The man replies, “I believe; help my unbelief.” And THAT is why I continue to love these confounding, complex, lovely, ugly, beautiful and sometimes brutal scriptures! So much of it is so very real to the parts of life that do not change from generation to generation! We have been human since the beginning, and while the context and information and technology and ways of doing things change around us – the reality of our character, heart, mind, spirit, hopes and dreams, frustrations and anxieties, and all things that level the playing field for wherever we find ourselves, is there. There in the scriptural stories from the most ancient of days when the stories of God’s character and revelations were oral traditions to our current ability to get information on all things at our fingertips. The essence of our being, for me, is the genius of the biblical stories that speak into the heart of life itself unlimited to a particular generation or historical era.
How many of us have said at different times in different situations “I believe; help my unbelief!” Maybe not in those exact words but we find ourselves holding on to our faith and still wondering and wandering around the struggles and heartaches and unexpected happenings that pull us up short and offer us deep-seated questions that we would just as soon skip over rather than confront. The possibility of growth that happens in the walking into the struggle rather than the skipping over is the grit and grist of depth and maturity in faith. Choosing to grow up is hard, and yet, maybe less hard than staying in a place of denial or disbelief. What happens when we find we have the strength to fight through the stuff that brings us physically and sometimes spiritually and emotionally to our knees? In getting back up we may have the depth of walking with others through similar or even dissimilar circumstances with humility, a sensitive awareness that their journey, while different from our own, may be gifted by our simple presence and “knowing” rather than answering or solving.
This father so terribly worried about his son cries out with such honesty – “I believe; help my unbelief.” That mixture is all of us – regardless of particular religious system or length of time in or out of a faith community. We believe and unbelieve often simultaneously, and that’s often so difficult to admit or get our minds around. And this scriptural story simply names it – just right out there, stark without any flowers or rainbows or fluttering doves. That affirms for me that God knows us the way we are, not the way we sometimes pretend to be. And I want our 3rd graders to know that and our Confirmation students to know that, and our I’m-working-too-hard-too-many-hours-a-week-to-come-to-church folk to know that, and our chronologically gifted more-years-behind-me-than-ahead-of-me folk to know that. God knows the reality of human beings and walks with us right into our doubts and faith and beliefs and unbelief and loves us with, in, and through all of it. That’s Good News right there, I don’t care who you are, and maybe a minute of grace for us this icy and cold Kansas winter day . . .