We could hear our 5-year old’s heavy footfall coming down the stairs after being tucked in for the night.
“Mama? Papa?” he called. “When am I going to get my burden?”
His question set our own feet into action and we met him at the bottom of the stairs. “Whenever He’s ready,” my husband assured him, “God will give you one.”
“Well, when I do get my burden,” he said, a slight warble in his voice, “will you go with me to the cross? Because I don’t know which way to go…”
If my husband and I have ever had a tear or two pop out of our eyes at the exact same time, this would have been the night.
We’d been reading Dangerous Journey, an abridged and masterfully illustrated version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, with him at night, and apparently the powerful metaphors that have made Bunyan’s book second only in popularity to the Bible had reached our son’s little preschool-aged heart. I could hardly believe it, but at the same time, how could I not? Hadn’t they reached my own?
It has been six years since that night, and I’m happy to say that, not too long after this conversation, our little boy began to recognize the burden of sin upon his back, and hand in hand, we walked with him to the cross, just like he asked.
As a mother trying to raise up little pilgrims for the Kingdom, I will never cease to be grateful for the supporting role that John Bunyan’s allegory and Alan Parry’s illustrations played in the conversion of our eldest son.
Today, that allegory is taking on a new role for our family. With five of our members now professing faith in Jesus, The Pilgrim’s Progress is providing for us a long-term illustration of the Christian life, and as we study, we are learning, together, to be brave in our pilgrimage; when your life is retold in a storybook, and common trials and temptations are given names and personalities, things just don’t seem so scary or confusing anymore.
That man who tries to convince us to sacrifice the Kingdom for our own comfort? Oh, that’s just ol’ Obstinate! We won’t let him convince us to stay put!
That season of life where we feel like we’re drowning in doubt and flailing with fear? We’ve probably fallen into the Slough! Don’t despair! Solid Ground is available, and Help is coming!
That smooth-talking salesman who wants to tell us there are other ways to get rid of burdens than the cross? Get thee behind us, Worldly Wiseman!
There was a time when I would have considered The Pilgrim’s Progress to be stodgy and antiquated, but I’ve been schooled by its competence, and have seen enough fruit from our readings that I will never again relegate it to a top shelf in the library. This is a powerful book, and one that can fuel believers, young and old.
There are many ways to make The Pilgrim’s Progress a part of your own family’s literary heritage, but here are a few that we have employed, some of which have been previously mentioned:
- Dangerous Journey – While John Bunyan’s written description of “the burden” helps define the heaviness of sin, the illustrations of that burden found in Dangerous Journey are a wonderful tool to help children grasp the concept. My son told me yesterday that the picture of Christian’s burden used to make him feel claustrophobic. “I just wanted to claw it off of him!” he said. How many of us felt that exact way when we first recognized the weight of our sin? Even when we read from the unabridged version of this story, I pull out Dangerous Journey afterward so we can look at the illustrations together. They are not to be missed!
- Little Women – I read Little Women as a young girl and, not reading it again until I was an adult, had no idea how chock full it is of references to The Pilgrim’s Progress. Even the chapter titles are a nod to Bunyan’s work! Children who are familiar with The Pilgrim’s Progress will enjoy reading about how the March girls used the very same book to become better pilgrims during their growing-up years.
- The Pilgrim’s Progress, unabridged – Just recently, I have started reading a complete and unabridged copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress to my children around the breakfast table, and it has exceeded my expectations. We only read one small scene at a time…sometimes just a page and a half!…and it is the perfect tidbit to keep them hungry for the next day’s reading. Whether we will make it through the entire book is yet to be determined, but the old language has been such a treat to the ear thus far, and the story has been simple enough that even our youngest children are staying engaged.
- “Penelope Judd” – Whether he meant for it to or not, Shai Linne’s song about a little girl who lived in a town called Mud is a superb companion to The Pilgrim’s Progress. Every child in our life who has listened to it immediately wants to try to memorize it; bigger kids can tackle the entire song, while little ones can easily master the chorus.
- “At the Cross” – This easy-to-sing hymn penned by Isaac Watts, with a refrain later added by Ralph Hudson, has long been a favorite of our children. And now, after reading about “the burden” and seeing those claustrophobic illustrations, it is even more exciting to sing about it rolling away!
- Dramatic play – The March sisters of Little Women grew up acting out the story of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and now a century later, our own children can do the same. Keep it simple by asking your children to act out the small scene you just read as a family. Or grab some costumes and send them outside for the afternoon to make up their own interpretation! The story of Christian is their story, after all, and acting it out will only compound their understanding and shore up their sense of adventure about the Christian faith.
I could go on. There are so many wonderful resources on the life of John Bunyan, and a family could go far in their study of his life and works, but the above is an easy place to start.
Let’s grab the little hands in our homes and take them on a journey. It might be dangerous and it will certainly be uncomfortable, but we know the end of this story. It’s what fills us with enough hope each day to continue down the road less traveled.