Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio
A pastor charged with teaching a third-grade VBS class realized she was learning not only from the children but with them, by openheartedly engaging in the activities meant for kids.
I’ve worked in family ministry for the last few years, and I can attest that Jesus was on to something when he told us to have faith like little children. Kids can have the most imaginative, openhearted, wonder-filled ways of looking at the world, and they can express their growing sense of faith in the most surprising ways.
Once, while teaching a song to a group of little ones, I asked for suggestions to fill in a line of lyrics. We could say, “God loves me” or, “God helps me.” What else could we say?
A first-grader stunned me when he suggested that we sing, “God nurtures me.” When I asked him what it meant to nurture, he told me it meant to take special care of something.
I often call to mind that touching image of God’s love, taught to me by a 6-year-old.
So this summer, when a pastor from a neighboring church recruited me to volunteer for their Vacation Bible School, I jumped at the chance. I was assigned to oversee the third-grade Sharks, and I geared up for five days of all things VBS: feathers and glitter, T-shirts with iron-on logos, water games on the lawn.
Each day had a simple theme (“God hears me”) that accompanied a Bible story (“God could hear Jonah even way down deep in the belly of a fish!”) that was repeated over and over at different stations. We’d make a sea-themed craft, then we’d play a sea-themed game, then we’d sing a sea-themed song.
Of course, kids don’t just sing songs at VBS. So I found myself swinging my arms and sashaying to a jazzed-up version of “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” alongside my Sharks.
At the end of the week, I wasn’t sure how much of the actual VBS content the kids had absorbed, although there were some standout takeaways.
The notion that it was probably really stinky inside that whale’s gut was pretty popular, and the adult leaders’ repeated exhortation not to taste the experiment materials (“Don’t eat the science!”) became a refrain.
It didn’t surprise me that a group of rowdy 8-year-olds were not spiritually transformed by the story of Jonah as told by a papier-mache fish puppet. The goal was for kids to experience church as a place where they have fun, feel safe and learn that they’re loved by the congregation and by God.
What did surprise me, however, was that I was spiritually transformed by the experience.
I didn’t notice at first. I’d come home at the end of the day and find myself Googling the VBS songs and dance moves. This could be because they are nauseatingly catchy, but as I danced alone in my living room, it occurred to me that it might be something more.
After all, words like “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free” are understood on a new level when you stand on tiptoe and stretch your arms, bringing your whole body into it.
And then there were those daily themes. I wrote each one in my journal, initially as a kind of record keeping, but I found them creeping into my prayers.
“God hears me” is simple enough for kids to grasp but complex enough to be a challenging spiritual lesson for adults. I have sat with many struggling parishioners as they doubted the efficacy of prayer or the accessibility of God. I have doubted those things myself.
I kept reading the Bible stories that accompanied each day’s theme, praying through them and coming back to them throughout the day -- a practice that was more than record keeping.
On one page of my journal, I listed the Sharks’ names, doodling around each one with colored pencils as I lifted them up to God in prayer. It was an intercessory prayer practice, Praying in Color, I’d learned from Sybil MacBeth and had been planning to teach in the fall. But I hadn’t used it personally before.
It’s not that I thought coloring was something only kids did; it was more that I thought the lessons I taught at work were separate from the lessons I needed to learn myself.
I’d made the mistake of thinking that children’s religious education was somehow a lesser version of adult faith formation, and my supposed expertise in pedagogy had gotten in the way of my own spiritual vulnerability. I’d often been struck by things kids had shared, but this was different.
I wasn’t learning from something adorable or interesting the kids had said as I taught them about God; I was learning from God by openheartedly engaging in the activities that were meant for kids.
The silly songs with their embarrassing dance motions, the accessibly creative prayer practices, the oversimplified Bible lessons with their bottom-line emphasis on God’s love -- they all had something to teach me, whether or not they had something to teach the kids.
As the kids return to church this fall, I’m better prepared to learn not only from them but with them, to find God in the most surprising and silly places. May we remember to have childlike faith, even when there aren’t children around to teach us how.