This past week our congregation held a Vacation Bible School—we often call it “VBS”—to welcome little children. Children remain the unvaccinated portion of the population at this point. Even if some parts of our culture have “returned to normal,” families with young children must keep masks as part of regular life for schools or for camp programs with indoor environments—we’re not sure yet what will be required of children returning to school in the fall, if it will be masks or physical distancing or frequent hand-washing or some combination of all of these.
The anxiety is high, the emotional resources for continuing to deal with this pandemic are diminished, and we’re all tired. But I’ll tell you what: the kids still have plenty of energy!
It was a different experience to host an outdoor VBS in nearby Tilles Park, just a few blocks away. We couldn’t have an elaborate set-up the way we would do if we were transforming the fellowship hall into a different space and organizing classrooms for kids to gather. We had to gather materials and take them into the park and then clean it all up again at the end of our time together. We used portable instruments—a bongo drum, guitars instead of a piano, and of course our voices and clapping hands. We had to keep it simple, and that worked out just fine.
The kids knew they were welcome, and their grown-ups were glad to bring them. Many of us remarked on the weather—it wasn’t too terribly hot, and there were no surprise rainstorms. We had a chance to gather and to notice God’s goodness in creation.
Jesus thought these kinds of things were important. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus takes a break from teaching and says to his disciples: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Sabbath is not a suggestion: it is a commandment. There is always more work to do. God will always be present, empowering that work. But human bodies are limited, and we require rest. It could be a sign of humility, a reminder to ourselves that we’re never going to be able to work harder than God.
And making time in our busy schedules for something like VBS—this is a testimony that we are living by our values as a faith community. We’re not just here for the adults, and that’s a bold statement. The culture we live in doesn’t value children for their intrinsic worth. The culture we live in values people mostly as commodities, with a higher value put on those who can earn money or better yet, who can spend money, and children are valuable inasmuch as they can command spending by their parents or guardians. I know, it sounds downright evil to say it so plainly.
And even though we are followers of Jesus Christ, even though we believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, even though our Lutheran tradition practices baptism on infants who cannot even speak for themselves, we are still susceptible to following along with our culture in the ways of assessing value and determining the worth of people.
Even as a congregation of Christ-followers, much like many other Christian congregations, our concern becomes more about sustaining the institution of the church than about carrying out the mission of Jesus Christ. Instead of building up disciples, we want to gather faithful members who will tithe regularly. Instead of wondering about how to serve our neighbors, we wonder about how to make ourselves more attractive to make people want to come to us. Instead of considering faithfulness to God, we consider what programs we offer that might be useful.
Instead of considering God’s will on earth, the church builds up anxiety about our shrinking population, anxiety about diminishing vitality, and anxiety about decreasing cultural influence. Joyce Ann Mercer, who wrote a book titled “Welcoming Children,” notes that the church is being “reshaped around an ecclesiology (of)—an understanding of what the church exists for, based on—the market economy, focused on what needs people have that the church might meet with programs and on what niche groups within the population to target for their church growth (advertising) campaigns.”
In other words, if our church is welcoming children primarily because children are commodities to bring in their parents, which could help us grow our membership and increase the finances and bring in more able-bodied volunteers so that others of us can take a much-needed break…then I gotta ask: who are we really serving? Do we think we can fool God if we can just make our motives look righteous enough?
I’m guilty of this, too. During VBS, if I saw a young volunteer or an adult sitting down, I felt that worry rise in my chest we should be doing something! Doing what, exactly? What did I think needed to be done? Fix the effects of a pandemic for a child who doesn’t remember what life was like before this? Impart all of the gifts of the church at the same time—forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, love, Sacraments, all the gifts of the Spirit, Christmas and Easter all at once? Isn’t that a lot of stuff to pile onto a child?
What if, instead of going the anxiety route, what if I embraced the gifts of being present in the moment? I tried to do that, instead—to enjoy these children, some of whom I met in person for the first time this week. I laughed with the babies, asked the older kids about their favorite songs, and marveled at the energy of our confirmation class students who kept the younger kids engaged and led the game playing. And I think it’s important to note we had no casualties from game-playing.
It’s so easy to get nervous and worked up about the future that we cannot control, particularly for kids we so desperately want to protect. But surveying the scenes at VBS, even an abbreviated program as it was, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is a vision of what it means to live on earth as it is in heaven.
That was our theme, after all—the Lord’s Prayer, something so familiar and so basic to our faith and so valuable for life that it’s worth taking time to teach it to kids. We explored some parables of Jesus—the parable of the sower, where God provides everything we need, and the parable of the Good Shepherd, where Jesus loves us and calls us as a good shepherd cares for the sheep.
This is the image we have in our psalm for today, as well—Psalm 23, well-loved. A few years ago, while serving a congregation with a preschool ministry, I re-imagined that psalm with an image we were more familiar with: preschool teachers. I don’t have any life experience with shepherds, maybe you don’t either, but many of us have been taught in school, even as very young children, and considering the work that preschool teachers do to care for their students so that their little students can learn, it made a lot of sense. So I close with this re-imagining of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my preschool teacher;
I shall not scream for anything.
She makes me lie down on my soft nap mat
and refreshes my water bottle frequently.
You restore my soul, O Lord,
and guide me safely down the hallway with my hands by my side, for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the darkness while a storm is raging, I shall fear no thunder;
for you are with me; your routines and reminders, they comfort me.
You welcome me with high-fives and hugs, no matter how cranky I feel;
you anoint my hands with sanitizer, and my paper towel at snack time is overflowing
with goldfish crackers.
Surely surprises and forgiveness shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will frolic on the playground of the Lord forever.
 Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood, Joyce Ann Mercer, Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 2005, page 33.