This reflection comes to us from Kim Kaufmann, part of the team at StoryMakersNYC (our awesome new children’s ministry initiative).

Hold up an old, dried, brown, and knobbly turnip to a kid, and what do they say? “That looks like Gramma!” “It smells like poop!” “I bet there’s a fairy living inside!” “It’s a tree for my Star Wars guys!” “Could we cut it open to do block printing?” Very few will say “Oh look, a turnip.”

You get the point. In early developmental stages, children are a lot less literal than the rest of us. Adults, on the other hand, want to impose meaning and purpose on objects, events, and stories, including those from Scripture. We apply reason and academic knowledge. We wrestle to squeeze human logic out of the proverbial turnips all around us. Cause and effect, linear reasoning, outcome-based thinking. To an adult, the turnip is a root vegetable, intended for consumption.

But could we also say that a turnip is a visible representation of invisible elements of life and the cosmos—atmosphere, weather, photosynthesis, and nutrients?

In other words, to stretch it a bit, could a turnip actually serve as an icon?

This kind of wondering makes me curious about how we present the stories of Scripture to our children. Check out what Robert Farrar Capon says in Kingdom, Grace, Judgement, a book written about the parables of the Bible—those wacky, nearly incomprehensible stories with which Jesus peppers his teachings:

Christian education is not the communication of correct views about what the various works and words of Jesus might mean; rather it is the stocking of the imagination with the icons of those works and words themselves. It is most successfully accomplished, therefore, not by catechisms that purpose to produce understanding but by stories that hang the icons, understood or not, on the walls of the mind. We do not include the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, because we understand it, nor do we omit the parable of the Unjust Steward because we can’t make head or tail of it. Rather, we commit both to the Christian memory because that’s the way Jesus seems to want the inside of his believers’ heads decorated.

If this is true, then I’ve seen some pretty ugly Sunday School curriculum in my day: morality tales and prescribed crafts that merely re-tell this kind of adult-driven, lessons-to-be-learned storytelling. Highly controlled, may I even suggest fear-based, content delivery rather than living, breathing stories that spark the imaginations of young image bearers. This raises a significant question for anyone who wants to share the story of Scripture to children: Do we want to merely influence behavior, or do we want to inspire genuine affection for God?

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word. He’s the main character in the ultimate Story of all history—the tale where everything is turned upside down, where weakness is strength and loss is gain, the Gospel itself.

What if we presented these icons—these lower-case stories—to our children, encouraging them to use their imaginations to access the ancient stories as well as their own individual story in the here and now—and let God make the meaning in them? What if we trusted God to reveal how his stories are true?

For example, consider the Old Testament story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. Think about the various ways a child’s imagination might enter that story: visualizing the scourge of leprosy covering Naaman’s body, empathizing with his physical discomfort and social shame, feeling the heat of the sun, the water of the Jordan River, and the bags of soil Naaman takes with him back to Syria in order to worship God secretly. How many ways might a child’s senses be stimulated through the story? Might not a child wonder why Elisha’s messenger tells Naaman to do something as bizarrely simple as dipping into filthy water seven times rather than coming before the prophet himself for healing? And could a child understand why Naaman didn’t like this solution at first? How might those elements become icons that decorate a child’s mind and point them to a growing sense of God’s character and grace?

In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit…” Seems to me that we can view our personal stories in a similar way. He is the Story; we are mere chapters that take myriad forms. Some of our stories may be ornate prose, others haiku, cartoons, or even pale gray marks on a page. But without abiding in the main story, we aren’t going to live, much less bear fruit.

Our imaginations are a spiritual gift to cultivate. As children learn how their own stories are grafted into the story, they see the story’s author in his fullness. Additionally, they are able to see how those around them might tap into that same Story as well—not as upright citizens, well-educated individuals, or rule-keepers bound by the Law, but as image bearers in need of Grace. They realize that anyone can be part of the vine and they draw them in. That’s fruit.

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Kim Kaufmann is part of the team at StoryMakersNYC, our new initiative led by Melina Smith and dedicated to breathing new life into the old stories of Scripture through simple, imaginative, playful engagement. StoryMakers works with a team of artists and writers to create content that engages the minds and imaginations of children and adults. To learn more, visit www.storymakersnyc.com. StoryMakers is partnered with Mockingbird.