By: Susan Wisseman
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:1–5 NRSV).
My great act of rebellion as a teenager was to join the larger Presbyterian church downtown—about four miles from the small Presbyterian church where I was reared. I had already been attending the youth group there because it was where all my friends were on Sunday night, and eventually I was going to both churches on Sunday morning. When the annual confirmation class was announced, I told my parents I wanted to go just so I could learn more (I had already been confirmed) but I knew I would join that congregation. (On reflection, is it wrong to head into a confirmation class with deceitful intent?). At our confirmation retreat, the pastor met with us individually and gave each one a scripture passage. Mine was Romans 5:1–5. It brought tears to my eyes as it was a passage that spoke hope into the chaos of my family life.
I cannot tell you how many times I have read that passage. It is a part of me and I thought I understood everything it held. But some 25 years later, a friend’s son asked her to preach on Romans 5:1–11 at his wedding. It was not until I read that sermon that I realized I had never really taken in the last half of verse 5. You see, I was stuck on the suffering producing endurance and endurance producing character and character producing hope that doesn’t disappoint us. I needed words of hope. I missed the last bit about God’s love being poured into our hearts. Apparently I wasn’t ready for that part yet. I had reconciled with the chaos, and could finally affirm a heart filled with God’s love.
I have occasion to tell this story at least once a year. Inevitably, at some point in a confirmation class, someone will ask why we have to read the Bible, or why we have to read the same stories every year. So I explain that as we grow and change our understanding of God’s word changes. I remind them that if that were not so, everyone preaching a lectionary text on any given Sunday would preach the same, or a similar, sermon. I tell them about my confirmation scripture, and remind them as they grow older, and as their needs change, they will hear the stories of our faith with a different understanding.
In the congregation I serve, one of the ways we illustrate how we grow with scripture, and how we pass on God’s story from generation to generation, is with Bibles—we hand them out like candy. When our youngest begin preschool Sunday school, we present them with the Rhyme Storybook Bible, an age-appropriate version we hope their parents read with them at home, hearing scripture together. Children entering kindergarten receive another Bible, a storybook version that acknowledges they are learning to read and need a Bible that grows with them. (We still hope their parents read with them.) Third graders, in recognition that they are starting to read to learn, receive a children’s NRSV. We give the Bible to the parents a month ahead of time, and ask that they mark their favorite passage, and that they ask other family members and friends to mark theirs as well. Our hope is that it creates a faith connection across generations, and the beginning of a conversation. The children also participate in a three-week class with their parents to learn more about the Bible they have received, and how to use it. Finally, in seventh grade, we gift them with a study Bible as they prepare to affirm their faith.
That isn’t to say that age is always the primary driver for the type of Bible. Anyone of any age new to faith might be better served with a children’s version as they begin their journey with scripture. When I am puzzled by a passage, I sometimes pull out one of my children’s Bibles looking for understanding.
This journey of faith, wherever we start, whatever stops we make along the way, is one that will take a lifetime to complete. Sometimes we wander off on our own and discover something new that delights us. Mostly, we travel with our families or companions as we encounter new passages and new meaning…and joyfully revisit familiar places in scripture. It is in those conversations, among young and old, generation to generation, steeped in scripture or just learning, that God’s word is illumined.
Who are, or have been, your companions on the journey? What are the verses that have sustained and encouraged you over the years? How do you share those and what they mean to you with your parents, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and friends? For we must, as the psalmist says, open our mouths “in a parable…utter dark sayings from old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:2–4). Thanks be to God!
Susan Wisseman is a candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and currently serves as director of Christian education and family life at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Centreville, VA. She has an M.Div from Wesley Theological Seminary