How a Fantasy Book Helped Me Teach Sunday School

This past Sunday I finished teaching the Fruits of the Spirit to my class. Until this series of lessons, I had never really paid attention to how the fruits all tend to tie into one another. It can make it hard when you’re trying to find a distinction between longsuffering and temperance, or meekness and gentleness. (Also, when reciting the fruits by memory, “Jesus” or “God” was also someone’s guess.)

For most of the fruits, I used a Bible story to illustrate my point. We hit faith at the start of our missions revival, so I used missionaries in general to demonstrate faith in action. But with temperance, I was feeling stumped.

I decided to go with the story of Nehemiah if all else failed, but it didn’t feel quite right. Then, true to form, I had a brain wave right in the middle of song time: swords.

I’ve found that my kids listen best when I am so excited about an idea that they can’t help catching onto that excitement. I like using illustrations, no matter how vague, because that’s how I think: in concepts and metaphors and hypotheses. Next to Light and Dark, there is one metaphor I come back to more than any other, and it comes straight out of a book very few people have heard of.

During my dad’s tenure as a Christian bookstore manager, he picked up a lot of obscure media to share with us: self-published books by authors he had met and talked with, advanced reader copies of self-help books by new authors, quirky new children’s videos, and always a preview copy of the latest Veggie Tales movie. While I loved this because it often meant free books for me to read and enjoy, it became a problem when I misplaced those books and they were so obscure that I could never find them again.*

The particular book in question is still on my shelf, excluding the dust jacket (which had the type of cover that I try to hide for fear of people judging me). I’m not sure where Dad picked it up, and we never got a hold of the sequels. It’s one of the better Christian fantasy books I’ve read to date, set in a future where civilization and technology have reverted to the middle ages and the villains are genetically-modified sentient reptiles. One of the main characters is a swords-master with a dark past, trying to rescue his daughter in the midst of an impending war. He takes on an apprentice he picked up while they both were running from an attack on their village.

This young man is puny and somewhat lacking in knowledge about the world, but he has natural talent and is an eager student. From the start, the older man decides to mentor the younger, including teaching him how to defend himself.

It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, so I can’t remember why he uses this illustration, but the illustration itself has stuck with me:

He puts two swords in the ground and gets 10 stones for himself and 10 for his student. They move away from the swords and take turns throwing their stones to see if they can hit the blades. In the illustration, the swords start out as glass and every strike with a stone turns them to stronger and stronger steel.

The mentor hits his sword every time, while the student misses for the majority of his throws.

“Now,” the mentor says, “which sword would you want?”

For my illustration in class, I held two imaginary swords and called on the baseball player in the group to take his best shot at the first sword, which I held at arm’s length. (This actually worked out well, because I could say he hit every time and no one would know if I was wrong.) Then I tossed my second sword back to my assistant teacher and threw a few imaginary baseballs at it.

I have seriously expanded my comfort zone since taking on this class.

Like the student in the book, I have poor aim, and my kids know this.  “Which sword would you want to take into battle?” I asked after I made a show of throwing baseballs and panting over every attempt. “And why?”

I’m proud to say my students caught on to enough of the illustration to give me the correct answer. After they had quieted down a little, I told them about the mystery surrounding ancient viking swords, and about the people who are working to reproduce them. I explained how the best swords undergo the most pressure – the hottest temperatures, the heaviest weights to pound out impurities – and how those processes make them stronger.

I don’t know how much my kids took away from a lesson about tempering steel, but I like to think using illustrations like this helps concepts to stick. I was able to tie it all back to Nehemiah, a man who underwent so much pressure trying to get Jerusalem’s wall rebuilt, and who never faltered, but came out stronger. I showed them how he became a man people, including his enemies, could rely on.

It’s funny, but I felt like my kids understood the illustration with the glass swords much easier than my peers did when I tried to share it at small groups one evening. I thought I would struggle a lot more trying to connect with humans so young they can barely read.

Now I get to figure out how to develop lessons out of the student-suggested topic of “hair” (because we’ve been doing word studies and lessons on character since last year). Safe to say Samson will be involved.

 

*Now if anyone can find a middlegrade fantasy involving a traveling magician who employs dwarves, a friendly lake creature, a volcanic eruption, several royal family members, and a nasty villain named Umber, I will bake and send you real cookies immediately following a brief episode of joyful hysterics.

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