It is a very fine day for Doubting Tommy. In the second graders' Sunday school room, which smells of graham crackers and Playdoh, Mrs. Prindle is warming to her story. On her flannelgraph board, green parrots, gawky giraffes, butterflies, aardvarks, lizards, and more line up under a blue sky. A nice Christian family-Mr. and Mrs. Noah and their offspring-are helping the happy menagerie walk up the long bridge to the door of the ark. Tommy is crunching on a cracker.
"Why is it called an ark instead of a boat?" asks Tommy.
"Ark is a Bible word for a very big boat," says Mrs. Prindle. "When everyone is inside, Mr. Noah shuts the door." Mrs. Prindle seems anxious to get on with the story. "Then it begins to rain."
"What about wats?" asks Tommy. "I have a pet wat."
"Sure, there were rats on the boat, too," says the teacher.
"The ark, you mean."
"Yes. And it kept on raining for days and weeks."
"What about fleas?"
"Sure, fleas, too...I guess. Probably on the rats." She attempts to beam. "And it kept on raining until the whole earth was covered in water."
"What about the Noah's fwends?" Tommy looks peeved.
"The water covered them, too, because they weren't on the ark."
"And what about the kids across the street?"
"Them, too, Tommy. Honey, would you raise your hand if you want to talk? And then one day..."
But Tommy won't be stopped. "What about their gwamas and gwampas?"
"And the people in other countries? Millions and millions. And their kids and their pet wats?
"God dwowned them a-a-all? Glub, glub?" Tommy, all alarm and triumph and cracker crumbs, is staring wide-eyed around the ring of bored kids.
Tommy has just chased into the light of day one of God's major oversights in writing the Bible. It's really not for kids. The God we read about there often behaves badly, loses his temper, strikes his people with boils, kills them off by the thousands and their enemies by the millions. His chosen people behave badly, too. They sleep around, hate and murder with gusto, and keep trading Yahweh in for their neighbors' idols.
How do you grow up to believe such a Bible or know and serve such a God? How is Mrs. Prindle supposed to make a 20-minute kids' story out of a part of the Bible that doesn't end up making a lie out of the whole of it a few years later? And how can we as parents raise our children to believe and know that this amazing book is God's truth for their lives?
Surely one of the rockiest spiritual passages a Christian must make is from a cozy bedtime faith to a sturdy adult one. Fortunately, some things we heard in Sunday school go with us on this journey: Walk humbly. Do unto others. Jesus loves you.
But sooner or later we have to come to terms with the terrors of God. We puzzle over the Noah story. Is global holocaust a defensible response to anyone's bad behavior? We look past the baby in a manger and see a human sacrifice at Calvary. Then we hear Jesus say to us, "Take up your cross and follow Me."
"Who is this God?" we ask, "and if He's for real, do I want to follow Him?"
We need a God who is big enough to stand outside of time and circumstance, and whose book can be to us the very Word of Life.
As parents, Heather and I have come to know Mrs. Prindle very well-she is us. (And we know Tommy, too-he lives at our house.) How much we want to spare our little family from drowning in unhappy endings! Yet even more, we hope and pray that as our children mature, they will encounter a God who is greater than the benevolent, fairytale version of Sunday school. We couldn't really recommend a God who is always safe and kind, who winks at wrongdoing. To grow up is come face to face with disaster, suffering, and evil. What good are rainbows and flannel parrots when one of Taylor's best friends drowns? When a boy from Noah's soccer team grows up to be Kip Kinkle, school terrorist and murderer? When Jana's sincere, childhood prayer for Mom and Dad to get back together goes unanswered?
As adults, we know that the God who saved the animals two by two doesn't hold up-if that's the only picture of Him we take with us.
For that, we're willing to risk a little fright along the way. Maybe it's like teaching your children about sex: Start with what they need to know at the time. Face their questions honestly (even if your answer goes something like, "Honey, I have no idea!"). And don't let the details obscure the big picture of sacredness, wonder and delight.
What's the worst thing that could happen to Tommy anyway? Not that he would leave in search of more rainbows in his religion. But that in finding only a nice-enough and safe-enough God, he would then turn away, finding no reason for awe or repentance or love or surrender.