Vacation Bible School usually follows on the heels of ChildLightUSAʼs conference for me. The stark contrast between Masonʼs philosophy and typical VBS fare hits me every year. Like most churches, mine offers flimsy crafts, loud music, much-needed gym time, kid-appealing snacks, and time-tested themes. I like that our curricula lives with one person or section of the Bible for a whole week and makes time for the pastor to share the Gospel from sin to salvation. The programʼs delivery system is the stumbling block: a workbook that awards points and stickers to children who memorize verses, complete worksheets, and perform good deeds. I kept quiet about my concerns until God gave me a Mason study group. Last year, another CM mom and I conspired to expand woodcrafting for 5th-6th grade boys to all 3rd-6th graders. The men prepped enough lap desks for kids to sand, decorate, varnish, and tack on a cushion. The woodwork was so popular that our men followed up with birdhouses this year.
A few months ago, I talked to our pastor about scrapping the workbook system in my class. My weekly after-school children have proved that the Bible is exciting on its own merit when taught Masonʼs way. Rewarding children with points and stickers implies that the Bible isnʼt inspiring on its own. Asking them show me their chore chart fosters bragging and runs counter to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-4). My pastor elaborated with Jesusʼ comment to the apostles in Luke 17:9-10. Do children need to be rewarded for doing their duty? Then, my pastor asked what the children would do instead. I suggested they memorize verses, talk about the storyteller lesson and Gospel, and do a service project: stuffing hospice pillows (a ministry in our church). When asked about points and stickers, I offered to use them to illustrate grace. I suspect the service project won his support.
Attending the CLUSA conference strengthened my resolve. Bobby Scottʼs talk on atmosphere emphasized a warm, encouraging attitude over classroom decorations (another area in which I stick out like a sore thumb at VBS). Carroll Smithʼs talk on the Sabbath of learning affirmed the need to live “excellently and deeply” and the sacredness of space and time. Jennifer Gagnonʼs talk on science revealed what I dislike most about the workbook system. She shared a discussion of Canadian zoos on a radio show. One caller described a disturbing scene in which a bored twenty-something cruelly poked young elephants in a parade at Ontarioʼs African Lion Safari. A caller from Zimbabwe stated that animals lose their natural majesty when confined to a small space. One would never poke elephants living wild in the African safari. Stripping large mammals of their natural space invites us to prod. Likewise, confining children to an artificial system of learning by rewards encourages adults to poke them to stay in line.
During VBS week, many things unfolded that reinforced life on the road less traveled. My reckless attitude toward stickers puzzled veteran VBS students. I didnʼt even bother to check their workbooks or chore charts. I just handed them out. If they forgot their workbook or nametag, I still gave them stickers. At random times during the day, we passed out stickers for no reason whatever. They sometimes got stickers a day early. Finally, one boy asked, “Miss Tammy, why are you giving me stickers? I didnʼt do all that.” I smiled and said, “Itʼs like Godʼs grace. You didnʼt do a thing to earn it. Iʼm giving you the stickers because I like you.” He looked at me curiously and said, “Youʼre not like most teachers.” Instead of poking children to perform, I relaxed and focused on relationships. One morning in the sanctuary, one boy said, “Iʼve never noticed the green in the stained glass before.” I replied, “I love looking at the arcs, too. Itʼs like the Bible: you never know when youʼre going to see something new.” During a recitation of the memory verse, one girl confided, “I pray when Iʼm scared.” I added, “I remember when you prayed before your Christmas solo and how much it helped you.” She smiled at the memory. Another boy was looking at a poster I had made of pictures of Old Testament sites and objects. He asked about the pot inside the ark of the covenant and enjoying learning about manna. I asked children in a small group discussion to tell me something new they had learned. One girl said, “Iʼve never made a birdhouse!” Another said, “I always wondered why there were floods after God sent the rainbow. Now, I know that God was talking about flooding the whole earth!” A third girl added, “I knew that we are supposed to obey the Bible, but I didnʼt know we were supposed to think about it.” I asked them why they should think about the Bible which led to a grand conversation.
While my class caught on to turning the hospice pillows right-side out and stuffing them, they struggled with not keeping them. I had overlooked how much we give our children and how much they like things. Several times, I had to explain the purpose of the pillows: people who are in hospitals, who are very ill, who might die soon. I found it difficult to tell them no. On Tuesday, one boy told me about his sick great grandpa. I created a poster with a pillow list for specific people. Only children with family listed could take any home. While turning into church on Wednesday, an ambulance zoomed past. A few minutes later, one girl arrived in tears: EMTs had taken her grandpa to the hospital. We wrote his name on the list, and I took her to see our secretary and pastor for comfort. I returned to the classroom, and the kids circled up and prayed for her grandfather. At noon, the girl joyfully told me that he was much better. That day, she took him a pillow. Another girl missed three days of VBS because her father had been in the hospital. She gave him a pillow on Thursday. The pillow poster was covered with names on the last day, and we still had a huge bag of pillows for the hospice representative. Friday morning, we bowed our heads and prayed for every person by name.
Three days have passed since VBS, and I have already heard wonderful stories. The grandmother of the boy who inspired the list told me his great-grandpa is in hospice. His pillow confirmed what God is doing in her life. A father said the whole family marveled when his son told his great-grandmother that, since the heating pad wasnʼt doing the job of easing her back pain, her pillow may give just enough support to make a difference. Another grandmother posted on Facebook how much it meant that her grandson made a pillow with his loving hands and prayed for her hip. It was something money could never buy. “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control ofspace, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” ~ Abraham Heschel
© Tammy Glaser 2012