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The Promises of God Storybook Bible Author Q&A

Andy Whisenant | Sep 5th

Tell us about what prompted you to write The Promises of God Storybook Bible?

After teaching Sunday School for almost twenty years and editing (truly) millions of published words, I knew it was probably inevitable that content would start forming in my head. So, several  years ago I kept catching myself writing Bible stories in my mind or developing a story sequence for a Bible storybook around the theme I’d found the most consistently sticky for the kids I’d taught—the thread that 3 year olds could hold onto through the whole Bible with it being tangible enough for them to understand. But if the thought of actually starting typing came to mind, I resisted. I didn’t tell anyone. I had worked in publishing for twelve years at the time and had always asserted I would never publish, so I dismissed the notion and just kept teaching.

Then God brought a little blonde haired, blue eyed boy to my story rug. He was four months from turning four when our class year started and at first I thought he was shy. He was quiet, would initially play independently, and at first gave short answers during snack time. But that changed and it didn’t change because the class was full of games and fun. It changed because of what God did each week as he would take his spot on the story carpet and listen. I remember a lot of conversations with that sweet, funny, mature boy, but what I mostly remember is the nonverbal conversations we’d have as I teach. It only took a few weeks for me to be able to tell he was retaining and internalizing a lot more than most children I’d taught at that age, so he became my meter for the whole group. I noticed that he’d sometimes tilt his head to the side while sort of slanting his eyes when I covered some element of a story . . . and then that would be the element that he would wait until storytime was over and then he would ask me about it individually. After a few rounds of this I knew that if Job tilted his head, then I needed to back up because I had likely lost the whole group! 

I thought Job would grow up and be a pastor. I didn’t know his parents well at the time, but knew they were godly and that Job adored them. One day, around Christmas, within a week of his 4th birthday I believe, I was prying the goldfish carton out of the cabinet after storytime. Job was still sitting on the carpet after a lesson in which we had taken a break from the OT curriculum for a series of lessons on the birth of Jesus. Job asked if Jesus had made Adam and Eve. He was staring at a drawing of Adam and Eve with the forbidden tree, still sitting in his storytime spot, and while at first confused, when I saw where he was staring, I ultimately realized he was trying to wrap his mind around the trinity and the preincarnate existence of Jesus. I had taught grown women the Bible, including women decades older and way godlier than me, but I had never been asked this question. I explained it to him as well as I could, with him asking a few follow up questions and me fearing that I was going to create an accidental heretic by my lame teaching abilities! Ultimately he was satisfied when I told him that there are things about God that He lets us understand all the way and other things that because He’s God and knows what is best, He has decided to make like a mystery to us and that when we trust Him even though we can’t understand it all, then He works in our hearts to make them softer toward Him. He said, “Oh, yeah” as though that absolutely settled it and got up for goldfish time!

Well, nineteen months later I was replaying that moment, his giggles when he quoted movie lines that were so laughter filled I never once understood what he said, and how he would do the hand motions with great flare as we memorized Psalm 121. That’s what I was thinking about, that is, while I stood in line at his memorial service in our church chapel. I was sick, broken, overwhelmed with anger toward God, and trying to figure out what in the world to say to his parents who had just lost their incredible five year old after he fought so hard against a horrific brain cancer that took him in a matter of months. I was petrified I would say something that would make their pain somehow even greater. Then I got to his mom and dad, Chase and Katie. He was their firstborn and, I now realize, a complete visual and personality mashup of the two of them with a distinct eye shimmer that was all him. As I got to Chase and Katie, with all of us in tears, they hugged me and before I could speak, Katie began thanking me over and over. I was so confused. But then as they spoke, I realized they were thanking me for teaching their child about the God who he had absolutely known with a saving faith—the God we all knew was holding him right then. It was through that moment that displayed the pure heart of parental love, followed by sitting in the memorial service next to one of the other two Sunday School teachers Job ever had, that I first fully appreciated the significance of teaching children the Bible. Not watching them while their parents’ are in the building studying it. Not keeping them interested in obviously kid friendly components of biblical stories, but actually teaching them the Bible with the conviction that taught carefully, they can understand far more than we anticipate they can. I had always believed that and tried to do that, but I never ever stood in front of a 3 year old and considered that I may be one of the only three Bible teachers he would ever have. And then, as I felt the weight of that reality, Job’s dad began to proclaim Psalm 103 from beginning to end. Days from both his thirtieth birthday and losing his son, he was blessing the Lord and proclaiming that God cares for us as a father cares for his children. And at that moment, on that verse (Psalm 103:13), I suddenly thought, “God’s promises are real. God’s promises are what establishes us. God’s promises sustain us. Okay, I’ll write it.” 

I didn’t leave that chapel that night and begin writing. In fact, it was another three months before I did as I continued to wrestle with grief that felt both sacred and disproportionate since I had just been his Sunday School teacher for a year and barely knew his parents. Was I just being emotional? Well, that same year, Job’s little sister was in my class. And each week I stood in front of that rug and taught her the same stories I’d taught her big brother. She shared a lot with her brother, but styles of learning was not one of those things, which was a huge piece of how I realized that I wasn’t driven by emotion. I was driven by conviction that God used emotion to put into action. Because those two oldest Kemp kiddos were different learners through and through, but the promises of God was a thread that held them both. That all being said, I’d give this book any fruit that comes from it, my career, and honestly my life all in a heartbeat if I could somehow change the mind of God on His plan for Job’s life. I’m thankful his parents want people to know about Job and hopeful that me sharing about not just his loss, but his faith and what that taught me (a whole other story!) will lead people to Chase and Katie’s Instagram page for Job on which they raise money for St. Jude. While I trust God is keeping all His promises to Job right now . . . and can’t wait for the day when I get to be reunited with Job and hope that Heaven works in such a way that he will get to be the one to tell me all the things I got wrong explaining the trinity, I really just wish he were playing with his younger siblings and having dinner with his mom and dad.

How is it structured and how is it different from other storybook Bibles in the market?

I believe the biggest distinction in this storybook Bible from others on the market is that it written by a Sunday School teacher with the intent for it to not just teach children some Bible stories, but actually establish a theological framework through which they’ll understand God, themselves, and ultimately, I hope, be prepared to read the actual Bible. That sounds lofty and I’m extremely intimidated at the actual concept of adults reading this and me discovering that I’m actually a horrible teacher! But, teaching kids of various ages every week for around fifteen years necessitates that you avoid the trap of relying on what you know about who you are teaching to determine how you communicate what you hope for them to learn. All of those years taught me the reality that every single year’s class, even if it’s the same age and same content being taught, will be a different class because every child is different. That is the unique perspective I bring—a thread that has stuck for three year olds and seventeen year olds; a thread that has stuck for children who are intellectual and for children who are imaginative; a thread that has held for children who are grieving the loss of a brother or parents divorcing as well as a thread that has held for children who God has given the gift of nothing but a sense of security and peace thus far. It’s a storybook Bible that wasn’t written by a writer. It wasn’t written by someone who loves kids, the Bible, and books (although that’s true!). It was written by someone whose my favorite name is Miss Jennifer and greatest 100 minutes of any week are those spent in a room with about at dozen preschoolers. It was written by someone who has gotten to know hundreds of children and has seen the image of God distinctly reflected in each of them, yet His Word land soundly upon all of them with the same words and in the same moment. This gives me the hope that no matter the child, no matter the circumstance, no matter the exposure to church or not, that this will be a book that touches those little image bearers and teaches them that the Truth is better than their imagination.

When did you first start teaching kids’ Sunday school, and what made you fall in love with it?

I first started teaching Sunday School about four months after I became a Christian at the age of 21. The church I was in didn’t have anyone my age, but did have some middle school girls who needed a teacher, so once I had read the whole Bible, they asked me to teach what was essentially the youth group, albeit a small one in a small church. I shudder when I think about me teaching then because I am certain I taught heresy at some point because I was so absolutely new to the faith and while never without zeal, ignorance was definitely an issue. I did realize quickly, though, that I loved preparing to teach and finding ways to connect with the girls individually through the biblical content. So it really was within months of being saved that I sensed a call to teach and God was especially kind to encourage me by showing me fruit far beyond what I was contributing would naturally produce! In addition to weekly Bible studies or overseas conferences (generally for adult women), I then continued teaching Sunday School for children or youth each week, but changing ages each year. I have never burnt out ton it, but never ever feel like I’m as effective as I could or should be. I did learn, though, that while I love playing with babies and toddlers, that 3 is not only my favorite age, it’s the lowest age that is a fit for me because I really do want to teach and most kiddos 2 and under just aren’t ready for 15-25 minute Bible teaching sessions. I took a 3 year break from teaching when I moved to Nashville and joined Lifeway as I felt led to enter a season without teaching in order to allow my heart to be more deeply instructed. When that season ended, I began teaching the class that I still teach and that I’ll keep teaching as long as God and our children’s pastor allows me! Finally, what I love most about teaching is getting to see the image of God reflected in so many different people who in the course of a year grow to understand more of the God who made them, experience church as a place where they are seen and loved, and who give me the tremendous gift of getting to watch God work in them through the power of His Word.

What have you learned about the Bible from teaching it to kids over the past few years? What surprised you the most?

When the Bible (whether in Psalms, Proverbs, or the words of Jesus in the gospels) calls us to approach God or faith as a child, we are not being called to simplistic faith. We are being corrected from complicating faith. And because there can be no biblical faith without Truth, God is not framing a child’s capacity to understand Truth as anemic or simplistic. If it is the standard of faith to which adults are strive then that tells us that children are capable of understanding all the Truth that is essential to hear, love, and obey God—that which a Christian possesses. What I believe these passages reflect about adults is that the impact of more years of sin and the perspective that being older means knowing more positions us to be less willing to accept Truth even if we believe it’s more easily cognitively understood by us. My application is to challenge all adults to expect and pursue the reality that the children in your life can understand far more about God than you think they can and to pray for God to keep us from believing we know so much that we do not understand He is teaching us.

What has surprised me most is how much the kids can learn. I’ve taught many children who have special learning needs and I’ll sometimes hit a point where I think that there’s just not a way to teach this child a this point, but then God will expand my understanding of what it means to be taught or another teacher will have an insight on some new method to try and it works. You just cannot ever give up on a child.

How do you hope families use this resource together? What do you hope both parents and kids learn from reading it?

I wrote every story with two particular children in mind (who are very different personalities and learners) and with three different families in mind when it came to the idea of family devotional times, which is definitely my greatest hope for how this book is used. While I know bedtime is crazy, I have been fortunate to be present for family bedtime devotions with friends and their kids in the past and know how significant that time is. The families I had in mind as I wrote have varying numbers of kids, ages, and personalities as well as schedules. My goal was for this to be a resource that could be fully consumed as quickly as in 10 minutes, with at least one question asked. For families with children who are on the young end of the spectrum, this is a great start. But it would be amazing if parents read this and decided that they want it to be part of their children’s discipleship. That, along with other great storybook Bibles out there, this could be one of a couple or few that the family rotates through, generally reading a story each night, and then watching year after year as the children internalize these messages deeper and God works through them. My ultimate hope is that those who do not know who God is, the sin that binds them, and their need to repent and trust in Christ when they are first exposed to The Promises of God Storybook Bible—whether young child or adult—will ultimately come to see all of that and then walk steadfastly through the unstoppable love of God who opened their eyes and softened their hearts.