We had a tiring but terrific VBS week. This was the fourth year we invited in a local CEF team, recognizing that we don’t have the people power to design, implement, and carry out an original program right now. I also like that it connects us to other churches and a wider community of faith. Yes, there are differences in presentation and emphasis within different Christian communities, but sometimes I think we gain more by working together, even in the tensions, than we would working separately. At least that’s one of the gleanings I took away from this week, in which I sensed the Lord was working in me as much as he was in the kids.
The kids had a great time. With the exception of the first night, when we only had 8 children, we had about 18 coming every night, with a good core coming back multiple times and being there the whole week or at least 4 out of 5 nights. A number of these kids came last year as well. It was a good reminder that, as my dear husband says, when we open the doors, the children come!
There are years (and this was definitely one of them) when I wasn’t sure we were prepared to open our doors; we hadn’t had the energy to do much preparation ourselves and our pool of volunteers to draw on seems to get smaller every summer. Our little family has been feeling a bit burned out lately, and D. and I have been asking ourselves some questions about our ministry call and the best way to carry it out in this season. I have also been struggling a good deal with some physical issues and extra tiredness on account of them.
And yet a marvelous thing happened when we did open our doors and step out in faith. The children came, and God was there to meet them, exactly where they were. God was also there to meet us. He gave us energy, enthusiasm, a renewed sense of realization about how deeply these children need an encounter with his love and a chance to hear and see the gospel.
Since we weren’t doing the heavy lifting as teachers, he also gave us time to just sit and be with the kids during meals (at least some nights; S. and I ended up handling the kitchen for the last three nights) and during the lesson time. That meant time to listen to them and laugh with them and ask them questions (in addition to directing and guiding them…and keeping them out of the bathroom when they shouldn’t be in there…and keeping them from clunking each other on the head or shoving each other around too much when they got frustrated or mad at each other). It meant time to do the goofy hand motions to the songs and to encourage them to repeat the Scripture verses. It meant time to observe and interact with and pray for some of the kids who came with extra special needs: we had a deaf boy as well as two boys who were autistic.
Wednesday night, midweek, felt a little overwhelming. We had a large attendance with no one to sit and be with the kids except us and the CEF team, two of whom were very young this year. Some of the kids got loud, rowdy, and rambunctious and just keeping order became the main task of the evening. In the midst of it all, you could tell there were kids who were doing their best to listen, drinking in what they were given. We quickly recognized that many of them had little to no familiarity with the evening’s Bible story, which happened to be Noah.
At the end of the evening, I was grateful when two lovely ladies in our church who do outreach to the deaf community came downstairs from the Bible Study they’d been holding. I had contacted them to let them know about the little boy who was attending who is deaf, and they were able to have a conversation with him. One of the ladies was able to come back the next two evenings and really forge a connection with this little boy; she signed the lessons to him and also just spent a good deal of time with him in signed conversation. She also made some beginning connections with his family, who is in need of the some of the resources and personal help she can provide. That turned out to be one of the huge blessings of the week.
Still, by the end of the evening, I felt discouraged. I kept thinking “there is so much hunger here, and we have no real way to meet it. There is so much need for attention and presence, and we have so few people to provide it. Even just attempting to reach the children within a few block radius of our church feels overwhelming.” That feeling persisted for me until the following morning, when I opened the daily intercessory email I get from an amazing mission organization working in India. Guess what the first line read? “How do you transform a nation of a billion+ people? You start with one child.”
Suddenly, our task didn’t seem quite as daunting. Or if it did still seem daunting, God had at least given me the “perspectacles” I needed. Our task is truly not as overwhelming as the task of church planters and Bible teachers in India, but with them we share a common task and calling, a common gospel. And even, in one sense, a common strategy. “You start with one child.”
That phrase changed the whole way I looked at the next two nights, even when they seemed to feel overwhelming. One hungry little boy prayed to accept and trust Jesus the next night. And that night, and the next, there were other opportunities, some of them small, to tell and show individual kids how much God cared for them.
In the midst of all of that, God directed my attention some other words I needed to hear. One was in the book Discipleship in the Present Tense (by James K.A. Smith) which I’ve been wending my way through this month, and the other was in an old seminary magazine.
Let me mention the words from the article first. I’ve been going through old magazines, some of them years old, pulling articles or photos I want to keep and recycling the rest of the pages. I was skimming through a nearly ten year old interview with an alum from my seminary who was talking about his own then-daunting task of a particular ministry, in which he had humbly realized he lacked “tools, talents…and finances.” (Sounds familiar!) But he went on to say that because of that, they had constantly relied on “seeking God’s provision and direction” (also sounds familiar!). He finished with the words “This is a ministry bathed in intercessory prayer.”
The other light bulb that went off for me was in Smith’s book, which is really a collection of essays and interviews. I was reading an interview in which he recapped much of the terrific content from his book Desiring the Kingdom, which I read last summer. Toward the end, he commented that that no matter how small you or your community might feel, it’s important to remember that “you’re in a story of immense cosmic significance.”
- Remember you are in a story of great cosmic significance
- Bathe the ministry in intercessory prayer
- Focus on one child at a time
I don’t know entirely what the future of our church’s or even our family’s ministry and calling may look like, but it seems to me that these are wise and important reminders that I know I needed to hear this week.