It is Vacation Bible School season, a blessing that involves armies of volunteers and intense planning. As a new minister, I was a little intimidated. I am a former high school English teacher. Teaching is one of my gifts and graces. However, this was Vacation Bible School. My own children had attended VBS, but that was decades ago. I helped a little. Now I had been asked to be the storyteller for a four church effort in our area. I would teach every age group in turn, 12-year-olds to four-year-olds. My churches have few children. Wouldn't I love to have a chance to work with children?
The teaching materials were no help. The plans called for more space and staffing than I would have. They did not really solve the big problem; I had never taught four-year-olds. I prayed, asked for advice from friends who teach pre-school, and pondered. One of the stories was the parable of the Good Samaritan. For the older children I used my son's old T-shirts to make costumes with symbols and pictures to represent the characters. At their suggestion, we even added a buzzard for authenticity. The buzzard was the most popular part, followed closely by the robbers who beat travelers up (the subject of a future column). Every child had a chance to be a player. We acted the story out many times with creative variations. I felt that they understood the story and would remember it.
What to do with the little ones. One four-year-old is cute; lots of them are like little pieces of mercury. I fell back on stuffed animals, treasured and well worn reminders of my own children's lives. The traveler was a possum; think road kill. The robber was a triceratops; perfect type casting. The priest and the Levite: a blue hippo and an elephant. And for the Samaritan: a koala bear complete with Aussie hat. No buzzard. The action was intense and lively. Everyone got to be a character. The Good Samaritan is one of Jesus' best parables. We had a great time; that would have to be enough.
The next day, one of the parents of a four-year-old stopped me in the hall. My son loves your class she said. He told us all about it on the way home last night. I explained that I wasn't sure I had done anything but give the class a chance to move around and play with stuffed animals. Then she spoke words I will never forget. "He told us that Jesus has a pet teddy bear that helps people."
What a gift of grace. Mark 10:14 says: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." Children know how to ask questions when they don't understand; they know how to relax and play. Unless they need a nap; they are lively, friendly, creative and loving. Their openness and trust allows God to work in their lives.
If we developed some of those lost characteristics we probably would have a better relationship with God. Maybe we could have fun with the stories in the Bible. Maybe we could let those stories speak to us in fresh ways. Maybe we could remember that the Holy Spirit works in lives with unimaginable results.
The significance of the Levite and the priest was lost on four-year-olds. They knew that not helping someone in distress is wrong. The hypocrisy of the professional is not their concern. The Samaritan as the outcast did not really mean anything to them either. They were way too young for the labels we use. Once more I marveled at Jesus' storytelling gifts. With many different layers and subtleties, Jesus' parables spoke to the crowds long ago and still speak to all of us, even the four year olds.
I want to be Jesus' teddy bear that helps people. I want to sit at Jesus' feet and soak up the warmth of his love. God Bless the children; they reminded me how to be in the kingdom of God. God Bless all those volunteers who are preparing once again to introduce the Kingdom of God to its youngest members. May we learn from each other about God's love. May we also remember that no matter how impossible it seems to pull it off, VBS is always guided by the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Diane McCartney serves the Bigelow/Lakeville Charge of the United Methodist Church in Holmes County. She invites you to visit the next time you come to Amish country. Thoughts of Faith is a weekly column written by various ministers and lay people. Those interested in scheduling a date for writing a Thoughts of Faith column should contact Christy Hudson at 376-5446 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if a Thoughts of Faith column is written at the writer's convenience and sent to The Times, it will run the first available date.