Sunday Catechism: Teach Me to Worship

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Q: What are the ordinary, external ways Christ uses to bring us the benefits of redemption?

A: The ordinary, external ways Christ uses to bring us the benefits of redemption are His regulations, particularly the word, sacraments, and prayer, all of which are made effective for the salvation of His chosen ones.

The next set of catechism questions will deal with the tools of worship, Scripture reading, prayer, the formal sacraments, and so on. At the same time, we’ll be shifting in the Children’s Church at NewCity to a new curriculum we’re sharing with McLean Presbyterian Church: Teach Me to Worship

One of the central purposes of the Children’s Church is to provide scaffolding and training into participating fully as a member of a local body of believers. We expect our young participants to eventually age themselves out and join the regular Sunday service. I think the Teach Me to Worship curriculum fits very well into that mission. As you can see on its web site, it breaks down the traditional elements of a sacramental time of worship and explain their significance.

Prior to this new curriculum we’ve been supplementing our catechism instruction with surveys of the gospel narrative over the whole of the Bible, first through the Jesus Storybook Bible, and then through Kevin DeYoung’s Biggest Story book.

Again, we practice these rituals, habits, and sacraments of our faith in faith, prayerfully hoping that in the mercy of God they will bring the benefits of redemption to our little ones. They, in and of themselves, do not constitute true worship or obedience, like King Saul’s sacrifices, but we institute them in our lives–even in the eclipse of our belief and understanding–so that they guide our identity and rut our evolving worldview. We may find ourselves lost in sermons or mouthing the songs or nodding off in prayers, but we know that God somehow manages to fill these jars of clay.

Not-Quite-Sunday Catechism: Faith That Is Not Alone

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Q: What is repentance unto life?

A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, by which a sinner, being truly aware of his sinfulness, understands the mercy of God in Christ, grieves for and hates his sins, and turns from them to God, fully intending and striving for a new obedience.

Just as faith in Christ is a saving grace, so too is repentance a saving grace. In fact, the two go hand in hand. Just as we could not have come to believe on Jesus and accept his salvation without divine help, the same grace lets us turn from our sin and desire obedience. It pushes us through the entire turn; it is one move.

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One does not believe just enough to attain forgiveness, eternal justification in the eyes of God, and then drops the matter to go back to his old life. To have faith in the gospel is to see that old life with fresh eyes and understand there is a way out. To reach for the life preserver is with the new knowledge that you don’t have to stay in the shark-infested waters. To quote John Murray, “the faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.”

There are dangers to winning the lottery. Most of them come from not having a clear view of all that comes with this new life: new expectations, new taxes, new desires. You will have to see your friends and family differently and know that they will see you differently, as well. Your dreams, your work, and money itself, now takes on new meaning in this new context, and you will have to scramble to learn what is wise from this new height — or suffer in your denial.

Or, to put it another way, we as believers all suffer from a kind of PTSD. Having lived a life of survivorship, war, danger, failure, and trauma, it is strange, even unnerving, to find ourselves in a life after D-Day, where peace has been attained, victory has been declared, and freedom has been granted. Though our reality has shifted overnight, we ourselves cannot adjust as quickly. We are still stuck in the old habits, fighting the battles in our heads.

Repentance re-orients us. It is when we look again at what sin is, what Christ did, who we are, and where God is. It is a reminder of our new reality and a commitment to live in it instead of relapsing into recidivism. It is not, at its heart, about regret or penance or self-improvement or duty; it is, instead, about waking up again to the gospel. And that requires a grace beyond us.

God extends his grace beyond an initial insight into his mercy; he perpetuates it in enabling our repentance as well.

Rowan University Fossil Park

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Biggie’s most favorite people in the world would probably be his cousins in upstate New York. Every summer he spends a week with them to attend a Rock & Gem summer camp, reinvigorating his shared obsession with rocks and fossils to a roiling boil. Their mother, my sister-in-law, found out about a homeschool dig at a fossil quarry in Mantua, New Jersey and signed us all up.

Mantua is in South Jersey, about a three hour drive from the DC metropolitan area. Apparently South Jersey is a hotbed of paleontological activity, boasting the first dinosaur skeleton and kicking off the “Bone Wars” in the 19th century.

The fossil quarry we went to was the site of a six-inch bone bed that has yielded some of the best finds from the Cretaceous Period east of the Mississippi. Rowan University purchased the quarry and is in the process of turning it into a “fossil park.” In the meantime, it is hosting a number of community digs, information for which can be found at its website.

At the event we attended, Dr. Kenneth Lacorva, the very paleontologist who has been leading the research and excavation at this site, gave us some background information about past dinosaur finds in the area, the quarry, and the Cretaceous Period.

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We also were treated to a presentation of some of the fossils and finds that researchers have dug up in the quarry, including parts of mosasauruses (the terrifying stars of Jurassic World).

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Most of the time, however, was spent freely digging in the quarry itself. Plastic shovels and buckets were provided, and we were told to just have at it.

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Almost every attendee has walked away with something around 65 million years old, including ammonite fossils, shark teeth, and vivianite — mineral evidence of the mass extinction event that ended the Cretaceous Period.

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Grad students and volunteers from Rowan University were on hand to help identify finds as well as answer any questions. It was a marvelously educational experience, and even JB enjoyed herself, just sitting and digging in the dirt with purpose.

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If you have young’uns obsessed with dinosaurs or fossils, I would wholeheartedly recommend taking advantage of a trip up here while the university is still hosting these community digs. We paid a really measly suggested donation of $3 a person. I think more of these digs will be announced at the Fossil Park’s Facebook page.

Sunday Catechism: Children of the Covenant

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Q: What is faith in Jesus Christ?

A: Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, by which we receive and rest on Him alone for salvation, as He is offered to us in the gospel.

We don’t do altar calls in the Children’s Service, and some of our parents may wonder why. The covenantal model of spiritual education is possibly unfamiliar to a number of families in our church, and it’s particularly relevant to the next several catechism questions.

I’d like to quote at length from Our Covenant with Kids by Dr. Timothy Sisemore. The entire book is well worth reading, but I’ll focus on his chapter entitled, “How and When Can Children Be Saved?” In a subsection on “How do our children become Christians?” (pp. 62-70), Dr. Sisemore mentions several major practices and doctrinal positions, including baptismal regeneration and confirmation, but I’d like to hone in on “personal decisions for Christ” versus a covenantal stance:

[Personal decisions for Christ] is the most common view of the salvation of children in evangelical circles today. Its most common form runs like this: The child grows to reach an age of accountability and inevitably sins. The child realizes his sinfulness and makes a personal decision to repent of his sins while accepting by faith that Jesus paid for sins on the cross. This is often during the invitation of a church service or is made public if it occurred in private.
There is a certain theology to this, of course. Such views most often stress the individual’s choice about salvation and the need for faith to occur before regeneration. Strangely, many who hold to this insist one cannot lose his or her salvation after such an event, even if he or she choose to desert the faith. In that sense it is a twist on freedom of the will in that one can will to be saved but loses freedom after that. Persons who hold to such a view often disapprove of infant baptism because of the inability of infants to decide for themselves and, as we have mentioned, the poor record of some who were baptized.

While I will not argue that sudden conversions do occur and can be genuine, even in the lives of children, there are important problems with this view. First is the problem of setting an age at which conversion can occur. In church history children were generally not admitted to full membership of the church until they reached ten or more years of age. Conversions are reported at ages as young as four. While certain developmental differences are to be expected, there are questions as to how much of the nature of salvation must a child understand before making such a major decision. Children raised in churches holding to this view know what is expected of them and are encouraged to make a profession of faith. The pressure applied to young children can range from the natural desires to please one’s parents to the terrifying threats of a fiery evangelist. Children who make decisions might easily do so for questionable motives.
…. Little stress may be given in such child evangelism to informing the child of the challenges of the Christian life so that he or she can ‘count the cost’ before making such a decision. Most often there is not a dramatic turning of a sinful life into a godly one, and later behavior may not reflect a change of heart. In my work, I have talked with a number of burdened parents whose children had gone through the right steps but still did not seem to have a heart for God.

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Scripture suggests that God has voluntarily reached to man through covenants. He offered life to Adam and his posterity upon the condition of perfect obedience, this being the covenant of works. We know this didn’t last long, but notice that Adam didn’t act for himself alone; his offspring was affected. Following Adam’s sin, God compassionately instituted a new covenant, this one of grace. In it, sinners are offered life based on the work of Christ and faith in him, Christ being the ‘second Adam.’ Specific covenants in Bible history work this out in more detail.
If you study the biblical texts telling of God’s covenanting, you will be impressed by the fact that covenants are made with families rather than individuals, and children are included in these; Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:39 being two of the clearest examples. God routinely deals with families in the Bible. Examples include his dealings with Noah, Lot, Israel on the Passover, the Lw, Korah’s rebellion, and Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus’ family. Baptisms in the New Testament were frequently household baptisms.

…. While Scripture does not appear to offer parents a guarantee of their salvation, the nature of covenants seems to offer a great deal of hope…. Calvin believed in a ‘common election’ of a people by God, meaning he drew most of his children from a body of people of his choosing. In the Old Testament, he covenanted with Abraham, and Israel became the people from whom almost all believers originated. In the New Testament, there is not a national people, so the covenant promises flow from the members of the church….
The best understanding of the covenant blessing to children of believers is that there is reason for parents to hope for and anticipate the salvation of their children though there is no room for complacency nor taking this hope for granted. Parents may see faith given to their children in infancy mature and blossom, leading to a clear profession and behavior consistent with it. Others may see their children make a more specific decision to follow Christ. The manner is not as important as the impact, with the best evidence of belief being a life marked by love for God and a longing to follow in his ways.

National Park Week

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April 16 to 24 is National Park Week.

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Practically, this means free admissions to all national parks.

If you go today, Saturday, April 16, your child can earn a junior ranger badge.

April 22 is Earth Day. You can celebrate by helping out at a national park.

April 24 is Park Rx Day, a new annual day to promote how parks can improve health and well-being. Apparently lots of family-friendly activities are being planned.

Math Apps Pt. 1: Mathbreakers

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Last week we took some extended time to bug out on the iPad and evaluate a whole mess of educational math apps. Pretty soon we’re going to write up and roll out our recommendations, but I wanted start first with a desktop math game that Biggie is currently obsessed with.

I mentioned Mathbreakers before on a prior post about math resources I wanted to look into in the (then) future.

Let me again post a trailer for Math Breakers here:

As you can see, the game looks a lot like a MMORPG (massively multiple online role-playing game) or first-person shooter; it uses the Unity game engine, which has been used to make a number of those kinds of games (as well as other kinds). Biggie hasn’t had much experience gaming (or being on the computer for that matter), so it’s taking him a little while to get used to basic controls like controlling his perspective and moving around. At the same time he’s getting that heady feeling one first gets from encountering this kind of interface, which is a kind of wonder at the freedom of such a virtual space. And he’s like, “Whoa. This is a game. I’m being told to just play a game!”

The basic advantage of such a sandbox environment is that there’s plenty of room and time to just wander and uncover hidden surprises and test out concepts and capabilities. The basic goal is start at point A and end up at point B, figuring out how to bypass obstacles along the way, but there is no time pressure and the player is implicitly encouraged to experiment and explore.

Within this environment are number-objects, some of which players can pick up and throw, and others which are obstacles like walls or threats. Throwing one number-object into another number-object merges them into their sum (at least in the early levels). You can get rid of obstacles by summing them up to zero. So, for example, a -8 wall can disappear if you throw a 2 ball at it four times.

That’s the gist of it. I took a video of Biggie playing one of the early levels; it’s a little long but it’ll give you a good sense of what the game entails:

Objects and gadgets in later levels allow for number interactions with all the basic operators (multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction) as well as fractions. Geometry and algebraic equations are not covered, although there seems to be efforts to expand the game into that territory.

I don’t think this game is the tool you want to go-to to master fluency with “math facts.” It doesn’t seem like it would be all too effective at getting your kids to rattle off the times table. However, I do think it does facilitate something more invaluable: a visceral sense of the properties and possibilities of numbers with the basic operators.

You get a “feel” of what happens when you add 2 to -64. You get a sense of how those quantities differ and how adding them creates a new situation for you. I got a wonderful aha! moment when listening to The Gist, when Mike Pesca talked about how poker players know what a 67% probability of something happening feels like. It’s a much different understanding than simply knowing in your head that there’s a 67% probability.

Let me stress this hard. There are definitely moments in the above video when I’m internally frustrated because I know that Biggie knows, for example, that 50×2=100 and why can’t he just throw the 50 blob at the -100 wall two times? But as I’ve kept my mouth shut and just watched him play this thing, I’m realizing that some of these number manipulations that I thought he had a good handle on are still very abstract for him — and playing this game has made them less abstract. He now knows better that numbers are for playing around with — that beyond math “facts” are math options. (This previous post goes more into thoughts about math literacy).

Honestly, I also like this game because it makes it easier to be less meddlesome in his learning. It’s so involving and self-directing that I can tell Biggie, “I’ll let you play it for an hour,” and go check email in the other room instead of hovering over his shoulder or jumping down his throat or pinching myself till I look like a heroin addict as I try to resist giving him a clue on how to solve a problem. He doesn’t think like I do; he doesn’t solve problems or understand math the way I do, and I want him to find his own way. I had to bite down on my tongue when he said, “Hey, Dad, you know that -64 wall that was impossible to get through? I got around it by jumping the fence!” I mean, it counts as problem-solving. In its own way. Right?

Try it for yourself. The Mathbreakers web site has a demo version that you can download and play for free. The full version costs $25. Teacher friends, you might want to get on this, too. Classroom versions are available.

Sunday Catechism: Yes And

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Q: What does God require from us to escape His anger and curse, which we deserve for our sin?

A: To escape God’s anger and curse, which we deserve for our sin, God requires from us faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto life along with diligent involvement in all the external ways Christ uses to bring us the benefits of redemption.

There’s a famous, almost cliche, phrase in improvisational theater: “Yes and…” It signifies the principle that improv works best when every actor affirms and builds on whatever new information, circumstance, or dialogue is added to the scene. In the relentless juggling of improvisation, one does not have the luxury of editing the work of your peers; you must accept it as given and work to continue to move the story forward with these new wrinkles, coherently and compellingly as possible.

In the faith of improv, you do not say “No, but…” but “Yes, and…”

And every act of faith, I think, is essentially an act of improvisation. You are handing yourself over to the unknown, making a firm initial decision to commit to a series of extemporaneous ones. You are letting yourself get swept up in the swell of a transporting tide.

“No, but I want my life to remain the same.”

“No, but I don’t do church.”

“No, but this habit is too hard to kick.”

“No, but I don’t feel anything when I pray.”

We hear a lot of “No, buts” from our children, too. They don’t understand why we require them to do certain things or complain that they’re unable to. They worry that our desires conflict with their desires and sulk in their limited perspective. Sometimes we just want to say to them, “Do you trust me? Do you know who I am? How much do you think I love you? Do you think I’d purposefully do anything against your best interest? Would I ever let you drown in helplessness? I’ll be right here at your side, doing everything in my power to make it okay for you. I’m not the enemy here.”

These are teachable moments, for “how much more will your Father who is in heaven…”! What may look like the extra-conditions of salvation, the fine print one fears is there, are actually the keys that come with the car.

And that deserves an Amen.