The Truth That Can Change Lives
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Jennifer Lyell has taught children about Jesus for years in her Sunday school class. Lyell tells how one little boy in particular, Job, touched her heart and convicted her of the importance of teaching God’s truth to the youngest among us.
The Truth That Can Change Lives
Bob: For many years, Jennifer Lyell has been faithfully teaching the Bible to little kids. She says she’s amazed at their capacity to learn.
Jennifer: I’ll teach, almost every week, something to these three-year-olds; and I ask them questions at the end. They are—not every three-year-old is ready for as much of this as four—whatever—it’s a scale; but they will know stuff at the end of every week that I did not learn until, sometimes, I was in seminary.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, May 29th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Are you taking full advantage of your children’s ability to comprehend spiritual truth at whatever age they are? Are you pouring into them? We’re going to talk today about how, as parents and grandparents, we can all do a better job of that. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I just have to point out that, while we’re talking this week about teaching big ideas to kids in a way that they can grasp it, we’re also seeing modeled for us, I think, what the Bible talks about in terms of how singles are supposed to be investing their lives for kingdom purposes. Our guest, who is joining us this week, Jennifer Lyell, who is back with us—welcome back, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Bob: Jennifer is a single woman—
Bob: —who has been involved in publishing for years. She is seminary-trained. You thought you were going to the mission field; right? The mission field God called you to was a three-year-old classroom at your church. You take 1 Corinthians 7 seriously, where it says, “If you are single, you have an assignment.”
Jennifer: Absolutely. I think I should be spending 80 hours of my life each week focused on some kind of kingdom purpose—that may not always look exactly like ministry—but I have time in the evenings that I have not been called to invest in a covenant relationship with a person. I don’t always succeed at this; but ideally, and the goal to which I strive and feel called, is that should be invested in my covenant relationship with God.
Dave: You said, “80 hours”—not 40 and 50.
Jennifer: I’m pretty intense, yes. [Laughter]
Dave: So you’re saying, “I’m going to do this all day; I’m going to take a break. I’m going to do it in the evenings as well”?
Jennifer: Right; yes. I mean, that’s what I’ve done. I mean, it’s not always healthy; right? But I do believe that, if you are not called to be living your life in the context of a nuclear family and doing that every day, in and out, the reality is that leaves a lot of extra time.
Ann: But you’re not doing it because you have to or you should. You’re doing this out of call and passion.
Jennifer: Yes, I don’t know any other way to do it; you know? I mean, yes, I enjoy comfort; and I like to do fun things, and I like to have a nice home and all of that; but for me, the only fulfillment is having a broader context of purpose. As a Christian, I don’t know what else that could be but the kingdom of God/the people of God.
Bob: Part of how you spent those 80 hours a week, over the last few years, was in taking what you’ve been teaching to three-year-olds in a Sunday school classroom and giving us a gift by writing a book, where you explain: “This is how I teach it to three-year-olds. This is how you can read it to your kids.” It’s called The Promises of God Storybook Bible. It’s the story of the Bible—from beginning to end/the gospel story—beautifully illustrated and designed for parents to read to kids or for older kids to read on their own. This was a labor of love for you.
Jennifer: It was also a response to an extraordinary circumstance I had with one little boy I taught—who I started teaching; he was three-and-a-half—and his name was Job. He was—you know, he was kind of a quiet kid when he first came in the class—but I noticed, within the first month-and-a-half, that he was really getting the content.
At the beginning of the year, they are learning how to learn, really—is what I teach for the first few months—but he was getting it, and he was asking questions. He had this look he would kind of always give; and you know, over the course of that year, he asked me questions that led to me figuring out how to teach kids about the Trinity. He was consistently internalizing, while at the same time, being silly and quoting movie quotes, that he laughed so hard I couldn’t understand. I definitely didn’t know what movies they were from, because I don’t watch three-year-old movies.
About a year-and-a-half—a year after I taught him—he was at church on Sunday. Then on Wednesday—Tuesday or Wednesday of that week—I got a text to pray for his family, because he was in the hospital, getting an MRI done. They thought that it might be serious. The next morning, they found out that he had one of the worst forms of childhood brain cancer.
I watched, over the course of the next four-and-a-half months—his parents were very young, like 20s—I watched Job be so brave. He went through radiation. We knew, by that time/I knew by the time he had left my class—although I don’t do like an invitation; I leave that to parents—and his parents were being very thoughtful about gospel conversations; but we knew that he knew God, and he was a follower of God, and that he had trusted in Christ.
When I had him in my class, I remember thinking one Sunday, “This kid’s going to be the preacher of his generation.”
Jennifer: He just was totally different than any child I’d ever taught. Four-and-a-half months after he was diagnosed, I stood in line at my church for his memorial service, trying to figure out: “What in the world do I say to his parents?”—who, honestly, you don’t get to know the parents when you’re teaching the children. I had had conversations with them and had communicated with them while he was sick. It was a big deal for our church; we’re really close as a church.
I got up to his mom and dad—and I will never forget it—they looked at me; they grabbed me and hugged me; and with tears streaming down their face, they just kept saying, “Thank you.” I was really confused; I didn’t understand. Then his mom just pulled me back; and she said: “Thank you for teaching him. Thank you; he knew.” One of the Scriptures they had recited with him was a Psalm that we memorized in my class over the course of the year, and just knowing that he went to meet God with things that God allowed me the opportunity to help show him.
Then I sat in the back of our church during the service. His dad is a part of the service—went up to the microphone—and he started out; he said, “There is a lot I’d like to say; but instead, I’m going to have the psalmist speak for me.” He’s a big guy; he started reciting Psalm 103, which is “Bless the Lord, O my soul….” You know, there are all these refrains of it, and I know that psalm. In verse 13 is “As a father has compassion for his children”—I thought, “Is he going to be able to do that?”—he got around that verse, and he started breaking up. He would start pounding his chest to get through every verse.
It struck me—it’s hard, in a moment like that, to think anything about yourself—right?—because you’re so caught up in the grief, and confusion, and everything—but I thought, “I was one of a handful of teachers that this person ever had to teach him about God”; and God allowed it to be enough. Then I was sitting next to a friend, who—I teach in the 11 o’clock hour of the three-year-olds, and she teaches at 9:30—I looked at her; and I said, “How are we going to stand in front of that rug next week?” Well, I had his little sister then.
So, as a church, we decided I would tell the kids because we wanted his little sister to be able to talk openly about what she was going through that year. Once you sit on a rug, with three-year-olds, and talk to them about their friend’s big brother—who they know because he’s a year-and-a-half older—that he has died, that he is with God, and how he is with God, and why he is with God, and what that means for us—you do not trivialize teaching three-year-olds again. To this day, I never stand there without thinking of Job.
I actually—that week, my grief was weird; and it felt weird—because I’ve got this relationship with this kid, but I don’t really know his parents, and this isn’t about me—but it was so intense. Because I teach on the thread of the promises of God—and that really starts, in a lot of ways, with God’s promise to Abraham to establish a people and calling Abraham onto the mountain with the stars. I had this image that just was going crazy in my head of I wanted to hang stars from the ceiling in my classroom. I wanted every star to be representative of a child that I had taught or of a family. Part of it was, really, I just wanted to give Job a star.
You know, there were fire codes and stuff. Our church was so great; they are so patient with my kind of fervency; but I spent a day that week hanging them. Then, when they brought Job’s little sister—her dad brought her the next week to drop her off in Sunday school. It was a very traumatic time for her. The first thing I did was—I hung a star for her next to Job’s; and I walked her to the star; it’s what I teach under. I said, “That’s Job’s star,” and I explained to her. Then I said: “That’s your star. When you sit here, when we’re learning about God’s promises and you get sad, you can look up; and you can know that Job is with God.”
It really came out of the love for the kids and seeing them. At first, it was about seeing them being able to learn; but then after Job, and after that moment at the funeral, I thought, “I can’t assume”—I taught, for years, thinking I was teaching them so that they wouldn’t go crazy in the youth group. I just thought, “This might be all they get, so I’ve got to squeeze it out”; you know? That’s what I try to do. I mean, let me be clear: I have off weeks and off months. [Laughter] It can be really challenging, and I doubt myself—especially with this [book] coming out—I’m not an expert.
But I do believe that God has created all people in His image. It doesn’t matter what their family is—it doesn’t matter—you know, I’ve had three kids—I always/pretty much, every year, I have kids who are on the autism spectrum. I’ve had non-verbal Down syndrome children and that teaching expression and the learning expression might be different. I just don’t think that a person, created in the image of God, who has had the opportunity to be discipled and know God’s Word can stand in front of other people, who are created in the image of God—regardless of their age, and their size, and their background—and honestly and earnestly talk to them about God, and love them well, and fruit not come from that.
Bob: So, it’s clear you love these kids. Have you wrestled with the fact that you’re an unmarried, single woman who has not had kids of your own?
Jennifer: Yes; I would say it’s interesting; because when I was younger, and at the stage of life where that probably would have been more likely, I never expected it; because of just the circumstances in which I grew up. It wasn’t something that I thought could be for me in ways that were disordered and just I needed to work through.
Now, there is some element where, yes, I think: “Wow, as much as I love kids/as much as I see their hearts,”—I’m just curious about them; I like getting to know them. I’d rather talk to a child than just about any adult, to be completely honest. So, yes; I do think that is something where, if I could have a direct conversation with God, I may be like: “Okay; help me understand this. Help me understand where there is not the redemptive narrative of I get to work through marriage, and coming from not having had that in a great way when I was growing up”; but honestly, I don’t get hung up on it really at all. Again, I struggle; but that’s not a huge/it’s just not a huge struggle for me. I think that’s a gift from God, too, that it’s not a huge thing.
And I understand that there are a lot—I have friends—
Jennifer: —and women—that it is much harder; that’s a deep desire of their hearts.
Bob: I’m thinking there are some of the single women you’re talking to—or single men you’re talking to—who, you are saying, “You know, you can serve in the church,”—and they are going: “If I’m back there every—
Bob: —“Sunday with these kids, every Sunday, it’s like: ‘Why can’t I have kids of my own? Why can’t I be married?’” The level of grief every week would be really hard for them.
You’ve found joy instead of grief in that.
Jennifer: Yes; it’s—I mean, honestly, I do think that the gift of being able to see, objectively, children in a way that I couldn’t see them if I was their parent; right?—but to see their personhood developing, which is really what’s starting to happen at that age in a distinct way. I get to see that with so many more kids than I would if I had just children of my own. The diversity of the children together is one of the most interesting things, because you’ve got different families coming together. It’s just an incredibly rich experience with children, and children are not lesser to God.
The theological bar for children has not been lowered. When Christ says, in Scripture, that we are to come to Him as little children, that’s—yes, that has an aspect in which it calls us to humility and which calls us to get out of our kind of, maybe, theological bubbles or obsession—but that is not God lowering His truth. That is a reflection of the fact that His truth is accessible—
Jennifer: —and His truth can find its way.
Ann: You’ve probably worked with hundreds and hundreds of kids over the years.
Ann: I want you to picture all those parents of all those kids sitting in front of you. How would you encourage those parents to teach their kids biblical truths when they are so intimidated of not even knowing where to start? What would you say to them?
Jennifer: I would say, first of all, is be completely comfortable with the words: “I don’t know,” or “You know, God hasn’t helped me to understand that all the way yet; I’m trying to understand it. Here is what I know so far.” Honesty and communicating in light of the fact that you’re raising an image-bearer, who God desires to worship in spirit and truth.
I recognize that is hard when you are also trying to teach them how to not throw tantrums or toys, and how to get along with siblings, and have table manners, and all of that; right? I get to have this, like, little petri dish thing; but just having that perspective of that you are raising an adult, who you desire—out of your love for God—to also love and worship God.
I would say, also, your kids’ behavior—they are going to act out; right?—like kids are going to act out. I’m not saying don’t address it, but just let yourself have a deep breath. I see so many parents, who when they pick their kids up from my class, they are so worried about how he or she behaved that day; because they had a hard time that morning. That’s just never my concern, you know? I mean, yes, some weeks, I’m like, “Oh my word; did you all have donuts?” [Laughter] But it’s not the point; it’s just not. So that is/truly, it would be: “Take a deep breath and be willing to own what you don’t know.”
Also, talking about your sin, obviously, in age-appropriate ways—helping them to understand that you’re not the standard to which you’re hoping they grow—but that the reflection of Christ is who we are all trying to be conformed into His image.
Again, I’m not a parent; and so I know that is super easy for me to say, because I’m not dealing with all of the dynamics. Frankly, I get them right when they are kind of/sort of potty trained. I get—that alone is a thing, because I’ve cleaned up those messes! [Laughter] So don’t use any of this/I would encourage people to not feel like: “Okay; wait. I’m not doing that,” “I’m not doing it enough”; but look for the resources you have and just love them well.
Ann: And if you are looking for a resource—your book, The Promises of God Storybook Bible, is one of those resources—you should pick it up; because it’s beautifully done. The illustrations are beautiful, and God’s Word is not boring; that’s the thing!
I think, too, to not have the attitude of: “Everybody, be quiet! We’re going to read God’s Word now,”—that’s a bad approach. They’ll think God’s Word is very boring and terrible; but to say, “You guys, tonight, we’re going to listen; and we’re going to talk about God’s Word because He has something to say to all of us,”—to make it and have them anticipate: “Tonight, we’re going talk about God’s Word again,” and “This is amazing truth that will change our lives forever.” Our attitude can really shape the way our kids view God’s Word.
Bob: Thank you. Thanks.
Jennifer: Thank you guys.
Bob: Thanks for the time here; thanks for the book. Thanks for helping us, as parents and grandparents, with this tool; we’re grateful.
Jennifer: Thank you guys so much. I love FamilyLife®. I love you guys, so thanks a lot.
Bob: Well, I have no doubt that we’ve got lots of people, who’ve been listening to this conversation, who are thinking, “I’ve got to get that book”; and we would be happy to send you a copy. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy of The Promises of God Storybook Bible: The Story of God’s Unstoppable Love, by Jennifer Lyell. It’s beautifully illustrated; it’s a beautiful book. Your kids will love it; you will love reading it to them. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY.
Let me just say, “If you know somebody who has got young kids, give them a copy of this book as a gift,”—somebody in your church or somebody you know, who would benefit from this—just order a copy and give it to them as a gift and say, “I thought you might find this a helpful tool/something you can read to your kids at night before you put them to bed.” Again, the book is called The Promises of God Storybook Bible. You can order it on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to order: 800-FL-TODAY is the number—800-358-6329—that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, this is the last opportunity we have to remind you of something that’s pretty important happening, here at FamilyLife, this month. We had some friends of the ministry, who came to us, wanting to help us during what is, maybe, the most challenging time in the history of our ministry. They have agreed to match every donation we receive, during the month of May, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, up to a total of $345,000. That means that we have just a couple more days to take advantage of this matching gift.
David Robbins, who is president of FamilyLife, is here with us. We’re hoping our listeners will rally and make sure we can take advantage of the generosity that’s been afforded to us here.
David: Well, there is a critical moment of generosity that we want to invite you into; but I just want to take a minute to remind us why—why we are asking you to give—because we believe that God is at work, among families in our nation, in an extraordinary way. The gospel is being spread, and the home is being restored to its rightful place in society.
Here’s how we know the need is real. We have seen a 500 percent increase in engagement from FamilyLife listeners and to our website through this pandemic. People are searching for answers, and they are looking for the timeless truths of Scriptures when so many things have been thrown up into the air. I heard from a listener recently, who said, “This season has made us recognize some dysfunction that we have in our family, and we realized how much we need the help FamilyLife offers.”
There is a lot of talk about rebuilding the economy; and certainly, those need to be serious conversations; but we need to also be talking seriously about what it looks like to rebuild marriages and families among our nation in our day. This is why we ask you to join and give whatever you can to this May match. We are in a critical spot; and we want to ask, “If you can give whatever you can give, help us meet this match so that it sets the course for the rest of this year for us to continue to provide the help and hope you have trusted us for.” Your gifts really do make an eternal difference.
Bob: And when you donate today—not only will your donation be matched, dollar for dollar, up to the total of $345,000; that is the matching gift; and again, we’ve got until the end of the weekend to take advantage of this—we’re going to send you a gift/a thank-you gift; and that’s Barbara Rainey’s new book, which is called My Heart, Ever His. It’s a book that will help you pray more effectively during challenging times.
If you’re able to join us as a monthly Legacy Partner, somebody who gives a gift each month, your donations are going to be matched, dollar for dollar, for the next 12 months. In addition, we’re going to send you a gift certificate so you can attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway as our guests. The getaways are coming back in the fall and in the spring. You can plan to get away, as a couple, and spend time refocusing on your marriage for a weekend; or you can pass that on to somebody you know who would benefit from that weekend away. Again, it’s our way of saying, “Thank you for joining us and for helping us take advantage of this matching gift.” Donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. We’re so grateful for your partnership, and we do look forward to hearing from you.
And with that, we’ve got to wrap things up for this week. Thanks for joining us. I hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together with your local church this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday. We’re going to talk about how we can tailor our parenting to our specific children/how we play to their strengths as we raise them. Brandon and Analynn Miller will be here. I hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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