A few months ago, however, I ran out of novel ideas. Favorite narratives and stories stopped just popping into my head and my creative juices started to dry up. So I did what any red-blooded Reformed pastor in training would do… I gave up and just started reading the Bible straight through. A few months into our experiment we have read the entirety of Genesis all the way through Deuteronomy. This next week we’re going to have a “Peutateuch Party” so they can celebrate reading the Torah together as a family. They love it—which honestly surprised me. In fact, they love it so much that if there is a night when I might try to skip the reading they will get very upset and even cry. They find all of it interesting—even the laws about stoning disobedient children or the death-penalty for man-stealing in Exodus 21 (it led to a discussion about slavery that I should have expected).
One night, after reading some of these laws in the second half of Exodus, Amos asked me, "Can we even use these laws today?" I hesitated but decided not to avoid what could have been a complex discussion. Because of Amos’ tricky question we got to discuss in very simple language the three-fold division of the law. I then asked them to put what we’d talked about into practice by helping me see the moral law in the prohibition against cursing one's parents or premeditated murder. The fact that the discussion went so well showed me that I have really underestimated my children, and wish I had started reading straight through the Bible with my them sooner. I wonder if there aren’t more parents out there who are short-changing their children as well.
Here are seven simple things that have helped me with bedtime Bible reading. Perhaps you will find some of them to be helpful as well:
1) Before I start reading, I run back over what we read the night before. I fight to keep their minds in the narrative flow. Reminding them and forcing them to remember begins to engaging them in what comes next before you even read it aloud.
2) I read to them with the lights out. My goal isn't to put them to sleep, it's to free them from distractions. When the lights are on there are things to play with and siblings to torment. When the lights are out and they're laying in their bed, the distractions slip away - it's just them and the words you're reading.
3) I read from my iPad (because it's really hard to read a regular book in the dark). A Kindle Paperwhite will work just as well. If you’re feeling daring use a flashlight, but be warned that they’ll want to take it from you and play with it.
4) Don’t rush in your reading. It's better to be slow and clear than in a rush. Hurrying tells them that you're bored with what you're reading. Go slow and savor—even the weird stuff. Read it like it's important (because it is!).
5) I stop a lot and try to say what's being said in a different way and get them to talk about it. Your goal isn’t to jam another reading into their heads—it’s to teach them the importance of Scripture and to start helping them to see it all from the big picture. Help them understand the Bible. Also, to keep them engaged, stop often and say their names and ask them questions as if you care what they think while you’re reading (because you do!).
6) Constantly point out to them their need for Jesus and their own fallenness. When the men and women in the Bible constantly fail over and over again, don’t let it become a morality tale where your child stands in moral superiority over a fallen and failed person. Instead, point back to Genesis and remind them who their representatives were and that by nature we’re in the same boat as these fallen people. Then point forward and show them that all the while God was preparing a rescue in Jesus.
7) Prepare for weird questions. The readings about man-stealing in Exodus 21 led to a frank discussion of slavery and how massive amounts of African people had been brought to America against their will as slaves. It’s admittedly not an easy conversation to have with little kids. Other times sexually explicit scenes come up via euphemisms. The story of Judah and Tamar is pretty difficult, and I’d be lying if I said that reading the story of Lot and his two daughters wasn’t super awkward. But the younger ones won’t get what’s really happening in those narratives, and the older ones may just have their opportunity for “the talk” arise out of a reading of the Bible (which, considering our culture today, sure beats the far inferior ways our kids could be learning this stuff).
It’s important to remember that the way you feel about the Scriptures will be the way your children learn to feel about them too. It isn’t your intentions they’ll pick up, it’s you're beliefs and actions. Children are very perceptive and can tell if you’re just teaching or reading to them out of duty. They can tell if you’re bored with what you’re reading, or if you are absolutely gripped by it. You may need to ask the Lord to help you to be transfixed by the passage you are reading so that your children can see the urgency of the message as well. There is nothing more powerful that you can do for your children than to teach them through your own affections, words, and actions that the Bible is the most important book they will ever encounter.