We all know that kids say the darndest things… but they also speak deep truths and absolutely astound me with their questions. They are unafraid to wonder, not shy with their uncertainties, and will ask until they get a satisfactory answer.
Although I have been a pastor for five years, I have not spent very much time at all teaching little ones. My church has some dedicated Sunday School teachers and I have been blessed by their work. I do make the time and effort to lead the children’s sermon each week – in part because it is important for the little ones to know me and for me to spend some time talking on their level. But two-five minutes a week is nothing compared to the opportunities I had last week to teach students at Vacation Bible School.
Our community Presbyterian, Catholic and United Methodist churches sponsor a community wide VBS each year. The program was up and running long before I showed up and it is absolutely wonderful. Working together, we can do so much more than we could apart. And this year we had 65 students ages three through fifth grade. For the past two years, I participated as a shepherd for the 3 and 4 year olds. I moved them from station to station (crafts, music, snack, lesson, games), watched over potty breaks, wiped away tears, had little ones sitting on my lap and we played LOTS of “duck, duck, goose.” It was fascinating to watch them think, to get to know each of them better, and to love on them.
But for each of those years, I didn’t have to teach. I didn’t have to answer questions. I was hands and feet and eyes and ears and didn’t have to say a whole lot. Which was kind of nice.
This year, I was recruited to lead the lesson time for all of the students. In 20 minute blocks, students came to me in my basement forest campground and we told stories around my “campfire.”
Let me tell you, 20 minutes is NOT enough time to tell a story. Especially with the questions and insights these kids have.
Our very first lesson: Jesus calming the wind and the waves. I have my script in hand courtesy of the prepared and purchased VBS kit and launch into the story about how Jesus, God’s Son, had fallen asleep on the boat. A hand shoots up among from amongs the first and second grade class.
“But, I thought Jesus was God…”
I get my bearings… “Yes, Jesus is God.”
“But you said Jesus was God’s Son.”
“Yes, I did. And Yes, he is.”
“I know… It’s confusing. I’m confused, too!”
These kids don’t miss a beat. And they are asking the exact same question their parents and grandparents are often afraid to ask. Questions that simply can’t be answered in twenty minutes when we need to tell a story, pray, memorize a bible verse, and hit home the point of the theme for the night.
“How do we pray?”
“How does God answer my prayers… will God talk to me? How long will it take? Do I just wait until I hear him?”
“What is the Holy Spirit?”
“How did Jesus die?” (as I’m holding up the empty wooden cross… try explaining capital punishment to a three year old in thirty seconds!)
“If Jesus is God, then did God die on the cross, too?”
“If Jesus forgives me, why do I still have to sit in time-out?”
“Are angels real?”
Those kids kept me on my toes! They wracked my brain, theologically speaking. Especially one little girl who had lots and lots of questions about prayer. We talk a lot about praying to God and praying to Jesus, and she had just reached this stage in her development where saying a wrote prayer wasn’t enough. She wanted to know how prayer worked – how it could change her life – how it could really and truly make her feel better when she was scared. We talked about how prayer is a conversation, how we can close our eyes and clasp our hands to pray or stand outside and shout to the skies. But then she wanted to know about how God answers… what does God do to make us feel better? Does he talk to us? Does he fix things? Does he send people? I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and thank her for all of her amazing questions and sit and talk with her for hours…
I learned from Vacation Bible School that we have some amazing little kids in our community.
I learned that the simplest questions are the hardest.
I learned that I felt very uncomfortable trying to use substitutionary atonement (the predominant theology of the materials) to explain why Jesus died for us to the little ones and did much better with the “Christ as King” metaphors… although it took me two classes to get to that point.
I learned that with a few sheets and some plants and ceramic animals, a basement can transform from a lake to a field to a desert… and that the kids will go right along with you.
I learned that telling stories is a lot of work and exhausting for my body and my voice.
I learned that there have got to be better ways of teaching prayer to kids than having them close their eyes and clasp their hands and repeat after us.
I learned that I have a lot to learn about teaching children.
I learned that dried allium makes excellent tumbleweeds and a card table with some pillows and a blanket makes a very convincing bear/lion cave.
I learned that kids would much rather be sheep and lions and camels than kids.
I learned that the allure of a “bear cave” or an open tent flap is just too much for some little ones to take 😉
I learned that even at four and five, we have a hard time admitting that we are sometimes bad and make mistakes and get into trouble.
I learned to be grateful for all of those people, everywhere, but especially in Marengo last week, who teach our little ones.