What was the first Bible story that you remember learning, whether as a child or an adult? As Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL) and an author, I have opportunity to teach different groups of people with regularity. I often ask the above question to audience members. The different answers in response to this question are fascinating and often reveal that a person’s life work has strong connections to a faith story they heard years before during childhood.
The first person to fascinate me with their response to this question was my mother, Mary Ann Anderson. I was in Chicago presenting on my first book that deals with the issues of faith and economic and social inequalities. I admit bias, but please understand that my mom, who raised me and my five siblings with much love and wisdom, was an incredible servant in her church. She volunteered and worked with other church leaders in a handful of ministries: overnight homeless sheltering, refugee settlement, quilts for relief efforts, music choirs, and funeral receptions. My mom was also the one who suggested gently, and effectively, that I go to seminary.
I asked the question at the Chicago presentation and my mom immediately began to wave her hand in the air. I called on her and she stated her answer with a smile: The parable of the Good Samaritan. It made perfect sense. Jesus told the story—a despised Samaritan takes care of an ailing crime victim, previously ignored by religious leaders—in order to illustrate that love of neighbor goes beyond preconceived notions and boundaries. In many ways, my mom lived out the teaching of this parable the seventy-four years she was on this earth.
Recently at ACL congregation Faith Lutheran in Austin, another answer astounded me and other adult forum participants. An elderly woman responded that she remembered learning at three or four years of age the story of Jesus blessing the little children. I then asked her how this story of welcoming possibly affected her life’s vocation. She said she was a stay-at-home mom, but when her children grew up and moved out, she began to foster children in her home. Before I could ask a follow-up question, other audience members volunteered the information that the woman, Wanda Muehlbrad, had fostered over a span of decades more than 350 children.
At ACL congregation Shepherd of the Hills in Austin, a middle-aged man responded to say that the first Bible story he learned as a child was the Good Samaritan. Not knowing the man, I asked him what he did for a living. He said he was a medical doctor. Noting the detail in the parable that the Samaritan paid for the injured man’s room and board, I asked the medical doctor if he ever serves patients who aren’t able to pay for his services. He nodded his head as others around him began to fill in the details: the doctor, Joe Spann, volunteers at a local free clinic most Tuesday evenings and, in 2014, travelled to Liberia to fight the battle against the deadly Ebola virus.
I’m of the opinion that these amazing stories of today have their roots in stories of love and compassion from yesteryear.
These anecdotes don’t prove that a child’s spiritual DNA can be positively influenced by the early learning of the stories of religious faith. We know that memories of actual events, as we look back upon our lives’ histories, sometimes conflate and distort. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that these old stories—of Abraham, David, and Mary, and the parables of Jesus which include characters like the Good Samaritan—sow good seeds in young souls that later bear life-giving fruit for future generations.
Continue to teach your children and grandchildren these important and time-tested stories. In a world sometimes overwhelmed by darkness and confusion, the faith we cherish flourishes as we encourage those coming after us to live out the hope, compassion, and love exemplified in these stories.