The Grinch who Stole Vacation Bible School’s Heart Grows Three Sizes

I’m not a fan of VBS.  At least, I haven’t been up until now.  I’m not saying I’m a fan now.  I’m just feeling something other than my normal deep seated conviction that I would rather do something else, like shave my eyebrows and eyelids, or lie in a bathtub full of scorpions.

I tend to hate cute stuff.  Even when I was a kid, I was opposed to being forced to do hand motions about “arky, arky, arkies” and “give me gas in my chevy, cuz the Lord’s work is heavy.”  And I also hated dancing around, singing baby songs, and making things with popsicle sticks.  What made it worse was that there were always about 50 percent of the boys in the VBS who made fun of everything and made fun of you if you did what the church moms wanted you to do.  But then my mom was always a VBS teacher, so I’d get it from her on the other end.

But on the other hand, that’s what VBS is about–cute stuff, kid stuff.  And I’ve grown to appreciate how the women who run the VBS at our church put so much into it.  With all the things our congregation has problems with, the VBS is something that we have a good reputation for. For the size of our church we have a huge turnout.

Still, I often find myself muttering to myself or complaining to my wife at VBS time.  “What’s the point of doing VBS?  It doesn’t teach doctrine.  Yet out of all the things that happen at the church, probably more people show up and put their time and energy into it than anything else that’s done around church.  Certainly more than hearing God’s Word…I need to make a whip, and after I get done demolishing Family Bookstore I can begin work on all the VBS’s around town.”

The difficulty is that it’s almost impossible to find a VBS that is like VBS is supposed to be–i.e. fun–and doesn’t teach atrocious doctrine.  I read the stuff the church that I am supposed to shepherd sent home with my son.  It was simply inadequate doctrinally.  It kept talking about how God is with us, but said nothing about Christ, nothing about sin, nothing about repentance, faith or baptism–certainly not baptism.

On the other hand, Concordia’s VBS’s have, in my past experience, just not been very good.  And the little Lutheran publishing houses who make VBS’s that are no doubt doctrinally rich, but simply won’t work here (or I would imagine, in most LCMS churches.)  Besides, being written by pastors, they lack the sensibility that the women who volunteer to do VBS have.  IE they are not cute.  Frankly, I’ve found out a hard lesson through painful experience with Sunday School teachers: if you give the Sunday School teachers (or VBS teachers) materials to teach which is teaching them as much new stuff as the kids, you will frequently have rebellious teachers on your hands–not simply because they don’t respect authority and love cuteness more than God’s Word, but because they have been made to feel stupid.  The difficulty is that often you don’t have an opportunity to teach Sunday School or VBS teachers, because they teach but do not come to bible class.

I used to get angry about this, but now I realize that I was not doing a good job of teaching and shepherding.  The goal is not to frighten the teachers and make them think that all this time they really didn’t know anything about Christianity at all.  The goal is to rejoice in the faith and knowledge the Holy Spirit has already given them, and to build them up in it toward maturity.  But I used to think, “I have to teach the kids NOW,  and I don’t have time for the teachers to finally decide to stop resisting the Holy Spirit!”  I really hope that there are very few men coming out of the seminary who were as impatient and carnal toward Christ’s flock as I was when I started.  I hope that most people know what I’ve learned painfully in the ministry before they get into the parish.

Anyway, so ending the whining about VBS, an interesting thing happened tonight.  I was a Babylonian official.  I asked the kids, “Why doesn’t Daniel just pretend that he doesn’t believe in the Lord and quit praying to get King Nebuchadnezzar off his back?  What’s the big deal?  Just ‘cooperate and graduate'” (as we used to say at seminary).  “If it was me, I’d just pretend that I didn’t believe in the true God, skip the lions, and start praying again later.”  Then I asked the kids, “Wouldn’t you?”

There were about 5 kids in this group.  3 of the kids said, “Yeah, I’d totally do that.”  (They were about 7 or 8 years old.)  These kids don’t really go to church much.  So, they probably didn’t understand wheat the big deal was.  But two little girls stood there and were like, “No, never.  The lions would have to eat me.”  (Of course the point of the story was that God hears our prayers and helps us, a very simple Christianity 101 fact that I didn’t really believe after I stopped being a little kid and found out that sometimes you pray to God for a long time and seem to get no response.)

But it struck me as I walked away from the kids–

this is why VBS is worth doing.  Because the kids get to practice confessing Christ before men and praying out loud.  They get to think about what it meant when people in the Bible confessed the Triune God even though they could have denied Him and saved their lives.

Now the three kids who said they would deny Christ: maybe I sinned against them.  I’m pretty good at expressing skepticism and unbelief, and even though we were just playing, in a sense I was tempting them to sin.  Kyrie eleison.  Lord have mercy!  We should be more careful about how we speak to children!  “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he was thrown into the heart of the sea.” 

That was kind of what was sad about it.  Kids are less hardened as a general rule.  Maybe that’s what Jesus is getting at when He says “Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of God is of such as these.”  What was sad is that these little kids were expressing the jadedness and cynicism that adults come to wear as armor, even in church.  We crack jokes and are sarcastic and cynical because we know how it feels when the devil and the world make you pay for daring to believe in Christ and entrust yourself to Him.

On the other hand, the two girls who said, “No, never!”  Of course, kids overestimate  their own ability to resist temptation, right?  But I don’t know; I’m not convinced that if right now all of us were about to be thrown to the lions that that little girl wouldn’t have been braver than me and most or all of the men in the church.  She had a look in her eye.  She was serious.  By no means was she going to deny her Lord.  Where did she get this conviction that she should never deny Jesus?  This is not a church full of ultra pious people.

But she did have to risk something just to confess Christ in that way.  The other kids were saying, “Yeah, I’d deny the Lord,” and the pastor (albeit in a costume) seemed to be egging them on.  And she gave me this deadly serious look and  said, “Never.”

In Lutheran theology we say that Christ hides Himself, but comes to us in earthly things.  He speaks to us through the pastor and forgives us.  He really and truly gives us His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins under the bread and wine.  The shepherd’s voice echoes in the ears of the flock through faithful preaching of His word.  In the water with the Word He buries us with Him and resurrects us and seats us with Him at the right hand of the Father.

And then the liturgy teaches us that, just as we come to recognize Christ in the bread and wine by faith, it is “good right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks”, because the Lord who comes to us in His body and blood on the Lord’s day actually fills all things and is Lord over all things for the church.   Because He gives Himself to us in the Lord’s Supper, all of creation and all of our lives and every experience becomes a gift from Him, because He has redeemed it all.  “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos…or life or death…all things are yours, for you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”  (2 Corinthians)

So that said, I think that I just saw the kingdom of God today.  St. Peter denied Jesus.  It was (seemingly) a normal day, just like today.  It was a little serving girl that asked Peter whether he was one of Jesus’ disciples–not someone to be frightened of or take seriously, anymore than this little girl today with her confession.

But in front of that little girl, Peter denied Jesus.  Today, this little girl (of whom Jesus says, “of such is the kingdom of God”)–being tested by her pastor, boldly confessed Christ.  There was no sword at our necks but our Lord Jesus Christ saw the whole thing.  We ignore those things but Jesus ignores nothing.  He was pleased with that little member of His body; He is pleased when we are faithful in small things so that we may be entrusted with great things.

Jesus, Lord, give me such a naive, foolish, unpretentious, unashamed faith in you–a faith that is not shot through with intellectual pride and covered with signals to the unbelieving world and the proud flesh of others that I am not an ignorant little child, that I am one of them as well as one of Christ’s.  Let me be foolish and believing instead of cynical and faithless.  Let me be like this little child instead of one with open eyes, knowing good and evil, but no longer able to know You.

I suppose as long as Jesus continues to show up at VBS and does not despise popsicle sticks, Lutheran congregations and synods or Lutheran pastors, I will put my cloak on and jump into the sea in order to be with him–or put on a palestinian shepherd costume and play bible stories with the kids.

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