Holy promises — Christian ed at home

When I was a child, I believed all promises were binding and equally important.  If a friend said she could play outside tomorrow, I expected to see her on the front lawn rain or shine.  If my parents promised we’d get doughnuts for breakfast on Saturday morning, we best be heading to the grocery store to pick them up bright and early no matter what.  If a couple promised “til death do us part” to one another, divorce was off the table.  Of course, now I know that life isn’t black and white.  There are reasonable explanations for why a promise may not be kept.  And there are consequences – good and bad – for keeping promises.

Promises are important to children.  They are something many young people value — while also wrestling with the challenges of keeping them and responding when they are broken.  This week’s at-home lesson gives your children a chance to explore two calls for promises in the Bible.  They will hear of God’s covenant with Abraham to make him “ancestor of a multitude of nations” and Jesus’ request for his disciples to promise to give up everything by following him.  These stories will give them a chance to think about what it means to make a promise to love Jesus and follow in Christ’s footsteps.

Begin your time with your children by asking them to think of a time they made a promise.  Have each describe that promise.  Did the child keep the promise?  How did the experience make him feel?  Then ask each child to talk about a time when someone else made a promise to her.  Did that person keep the promise?  What did that experience feel like?  Explain that people make lots of promises.  Some are big promises and some are small.  Some can reasonably be kept while others may need to be broken.

Prepare to read two of the lectionary passages for this Sunday.  Tell your children they will be hearing two different stories. One is from the Old Testament and one is from the New Testament.  The Old Testament story is about a man named Abram/Abraham and a woman named Sarai/Sarah.  As you read the story, ask your children to notice what promise is made between God and this couple.

Read aloud Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 from either a children’s Bible or an “adult” Bible.  When you finish reading, have your children describe the promise God makes to Abraham and Sarah.  What does God promise to give them?  What must they do to uphold the promise? Continue to examine the promise a bit more.  Who benefits most from this promise — God or Abraham and Sarah?  Is this a good promise?  Would it have been easy or difficult for Abraham and Sarah to commit to this promise?  Your children will likely notice that this covenant ensures the well-being of many. God continues creation and has a community of people who love and follow God.  Abraham and Sarah will have children despite their old age and they will be the starting point for generations and generations of offspring.

Next prepare to read aloud the Gospel text.  Tell your children that this story takes place years after the conversation between God and Abraham.  However, the people involved in the story are part of the generations of God’s people that began with Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Sarah would have been their ancestors.  Ask them to again look for the promise in this text.  (Note that Jesus is asking for his followers to make a promise.)

Read aloud Gospel Mark 8:31-38.  (Note: This text doesn’t often appear in children’s Bibles, so you’ll likely need to read aloud the original text.  It may be tricky for your children to understand all that happens in it.  Encourage them to listen and gather as much as they can from it.  Remind them that you’ll talk about it together.) After reading, ask your children what Jesus is asking his followers to promise.  Note that he says that they should be willing to give their lives for “the gospel.”  Ask your children what they think he means.  Then have them share what Jesus tells the disciples they will receive if they follow him.  In other words, what does Jesus promise them?  Share that he promises their lives will be saved.  Ask our children what they think he means.  Let them wonder about these ideas even if they can’t fully form their responses.

Put the two texts together for your children.  Which offered an easier or more joyful promise?  Which was more difficult?  What are the benefits of each set of promises? What are the challenges?  Give them an opportunity to wrestle with both texts for a while.  Note that the Bible offers stories of God’s whole relationship with creation.  There are lots of different aspects to this relationship, just like they have different experiences in their relationships with other people.

Finally, encourage your children to think about the promises God makes to them and that they make to God through an art activity.  Gather the materials you’ll need: paper, markers or crayons, scissors, and a Mason jar or a bowl. Cut the paper into strips about 3 inches wide.  Place a few of these in front of each child.  Then ask them to think of all the things God has promised them.  They can draw these from Bible stories they have read or experiences they have had. As they brainstorm these, have them draw or write each on the left side of a strip of paper.

Spread out the strips of paper so they can see all of the promises God makes to them.  Ask them to consider what their response or role in each of these promises is.  Remind them that each of the promises they heard about in today’s Bible stories is two-sided.  Both God/Jesus and the people involved make commitments to one another.  As they share their ideas, have them write or draw their responses on the right side of the corresponding paper strips.

When all of the strips are complete, fold them and place them in the jar/bowl.  Offer a prayer thanking God for making these promises and asking God to help us maintain these promises.  Place the jar/bowl somewhere in your home where your children will see it on a regular basis.  Encourage them from time to time to pull out one of the paper strips and read it.

JOELLE BRUMMIT-YALE is the director of children’s and youth ministries at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  When not at the church, she can usually be found at home with her son and husband caring for their many animals and developing their family homestead.