Last spring in this space I described a new Vacation Bible School curriculum compiled by my daughter Grace Pritchard Burson, a priest currently living in New Hampshire. A few months later, when our parish’s Sunday school director approached me with the idea of doing a VBS, we got the chance to field-test Grace’s program. Here’s a report.
The parish where I am a member is currently in transition, awaiting a priest-in-charge and managing with Sunday-only supply clergy. Our vestry and other lay leaders are heavily committed to day-to-day management of parish affairs, and to frequent committee meetings of a task force for discerning our ministry and mission and planning for financial sustainability. It was from this task force that the initial impulse arose: Let’s do a Vacation Bible School. And let’s not wait till things settle down; let’s do it now.
Since we were doing something new, we didn’t want to get in over our heads. Despite the many demands on parishioners’ time, we found we had no shortage of adult and teen volunteers, but still, we intentionally did very little publicity, because we wanted to be sure not to overreach. . On Monday morning we found ourselves with fifteen children between 5 and 11 years old. Half of them were Sunday school kids, and the rest consisted of a family of siblings and cousins who have been coming regularly with their grandmother to our parish’s weekly community meal, Dinner for a Dollar. They in turn brought along a couple of friends.
By the end of the week, they had all blended into a single community of children, who were as eager to play hide-and-seek in the undercroft as to do the structured activities we had planned for them. And that was fine. Building community—making friends—breaking down barriers between “parish” activities and “outreach” activities—is integral to being the church. Next year (yes, we’ll definitely do it again next year!) with the benefit of experience, we will build in more structured activity early in the week, when the kids are shy and hesitant, and leave more time in the last few days for free play.
We had no desire to use one of the packaged curriculums from Group Publishing, with their typical core of one simplistic moral or doctrine per day, each one embedded in an isolated Bible story, and the whole works wrapped up in a packaging deliberately designed to resemble a TV show or a theme park. Full disclosure: we used a program developed by the Rev. Grace Pritchard Burson, who happens to be my daughter. The curriculum is called “God’s Garden, God’s City,” and the main thing about it is that instead of using Bible stories as packaging for “Single-Point Bible Learning,” and “Easy Bible Reinforcement,” it trusts the stories to stand on their own and stir the children’s hearts and imaginations. And it tells the them in sequence, making the week into a single story, stretching from the opening of the Bible to its last chapter, to convey a sense of the whole narrative arc of scripture.
I did the storytelling and led worship, and our wonderful, patient, skilled Christian-ed staff member did more or less everything else. Each day began with worship, singing and story, and ended with a second brief story to set up the next day.
On Monday, we told the story of creation, and then the children planted marigolds in pots—and by Thursday, they had sprouted, just as we had hoped. Outdoors, they assembled a “garden” using flowers, leaves, pebbles, and other found objects. Together, we marveled at the varied beauty of what God has made … all of it very good … and we closed the day with an exciting visit to the Garden of Eden, with a tree full of candy, and two teens playing devil’s advocate, tempting the kids to break the rules and help themselves to it. (We’re still getting conflicting stories from the teens and the kids as to whether any of them gave in.)
Tuesday’s story was the saga of God’s people, from their loss of Eden through their adventures as wanderers in the desert … slaves in Egypt … and, finally, liberated tribes crossing the Red Sea, receiving the Law, entering the Land of Promise, and building a capital city and a temple for the worship of God. And the children went outside and they too built a city—out of dozens of boxes and cardboard tubes, brightly painted and assembled in fantastic shapes and configurations. My personal favorite was the Temple, which was approached by a long corrugated cardboard staircase painted bright yellow. But the designer ran out of materials, so she improvised. Beneath the gap in the staircase she made a cardboard trampoline, so that the priest or people ascending to the temple could bounce up enough momentum to reach the next section of staircase.
Then we made another city, out of blocks, in front of the children’s altar in the undercroft. And at the end of the day, I told the story of the Babylonian armies encircling Jerusalem, breaking down its walls, and destroying both city and temple—and I kicked down the block city, to loud gasps from the kids.
Wednesday was the day for exile and prophecy. At worship we heard the story of the Dry Bones, and then, at our time for intercessory prayer, we went up to one of the tables and the children worked with modeling clay as I read passages of lament and hope from the prophets, from a list included in the curriculum. For a full forty minutes, they worked with the clay with deep absorption as I read one selection after another, directly from the New Revised Standard translation of the Bible, making only an occasional word substitution here and there. Several times, I stopped and asked them if they had had enough, and they said No, keep reading. Words from Lamentations: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks. Words from Isaiah: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
I think we don’t give children enough chance to lament. So much of what we write and do for children is all about insisting that they be happy and grateful. And yet on the very first day, in our prayers, they shared so much sorrow and worry: “my baby cousin who never got born so we never got to meet him.” “My grandfather who died.” “My grandmother who’s in the hospital.”
I think we don’t give children enough chance to lament. So much of what we write and do for children is all about insisting that they be happy and grateful.
Lament is so central to scripture, and again and again it is followed by joy. I had expected to read all the laments first, and then the prophecies of redemption, but I found myself, after two or three readings from the list of laments, needing to insert some passages of hope and joy—just as, in the Psalms and the prophets, the laments are not all lumped together, only to give way to joy and thanksgiving; they are swirled and marbled together, like the vanilla and chocolate in a marble cake.
Our closing activity on this third day was to act out the Dry Bones vision of Ezekiel. It continues to amaze me how few children’s Bibles include this wonderful sign and promise of the Resurrection—so simple and accessible to children, and so much fun to act out!
On Thursday, our theme was “home,” and we heard the story of Ruth, the outsider, who followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, to the land of Israel and cared for her, and became the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s great king. The children made houses from brown paper lunch bags, and gave them all the features they hope to have in order to live with people they love, find peace and safety, and welcome guests. We were struck by the prominence among such features of pools, hot tubs, and trampolines.
And at the end of the day we recapitulated the story of Israel in the form of an obstacle course—out of the darkened basement into the beautiful world, then a second brief visit to the tree of Eden, a mad dash across the Red Sea (hoses cascading onto the church driveway) and in through the church door into the Promised Land. There we sat the kids in a circle and had them shut their eyes. Together, we remembered God’s promises, and as I handed around a tiny, soft, swaddled baby doll for them to touch and feel, we looked forward to the new thing that God would do for the people—that God would come to live with us, share our life and our death, show us the way of peace, and set us free at last.
On the final day, we heard the story of Jesus, and the good news he brought: that we do not need to be afraid, and we don’t need to fight, because God’s love is always enough and more than enough.
On the final day, we heard the story of Jesus, and the good news he brought: that we do not need to be afraid, and we don’t need to fight, because God’s love is always enough and more than enough. His baptism, his temptation to seize power before the time was ripe; his parables and miracles—most tellingly the miracle of the loaves and fishes—are all about taking the risk to let go of our notion that the world is full of zero-sum games, that if I am going to win, it has to be because you will lose. And the timing was right, because on this day, with the end of the program in sight, the community of friendship that had been building all week started to fray at the seams. The kids were tired and overstimulated. (So were we.) It was hot and muggy and threatening to rain, so our outdoor options were limited. One child who had come the first day and then missed the next three days, came back on Friday and had trouble re-integrating. There was bickering and shoving. But with a bit of help, they came together, and there was, after all, enough and more than enough—no need to compete or push—when our closing lunch of pizza came in the door. We assembled once more around the altar, with a vision of God’s faithful people: “Each one has different work to do. Each has a different life. …
“But all of us, one day, will die.”
“Is this the end of the story?”
Noooooo, they said. God’s garden, God’s city, will become a New Heaven and a New Earth, where God’s people will come from east and west, from north and south, and the Lamb will be their shepherd, and they will see his face and hear his voice, and God will wipe all tears from our eyes. And that’s our story. And it was very good.
A few additional vignettes and thoughts. During the story of the Exodus, I said that Pharaoh was afraid of the Hebrews because he thought there were so many of them that they would take away his power. A fourth-grader raised his hand, and remarked, “I think there are a lot of stories in the Bible about kings and pharaohs being afraid that someone would take away their power.” Yes, there are; because the Bible is about the human condition. Kings—rulers—are perennially afraid that someone will take away their power; and not only kings but all those who are used to having power. And that is nearly always because they do not see or believe the Good News—rather, they are convinced that the world is all about zero-sum games. For me to have power, someone else has to be deprived of power. For someone else to gain power (or anything else that might be desirable), I will have to lose power, and that will never do. But the message of the Law, the Prophets, and most of all, Jesus, is that this entire concept is wrong—wrong from beginning to end. It’s a false premise, and like any false premise, if you build your worldview around it, your worldview will be wrong.
Oh, we can make it into a zero-sum game, if some of us grab and hoard out of fear, to the point where those people have such excess that there really is not enough for others. It happens all the time. But the heart of the Good News is that if enough of us have the courage to let go of fear, greed, and envy, there is enough and more than enough for all: enough food, enough space, enough worthwhile work, enough love—even, through Jesus’s self-emptying on the cross, enough of life itself to share with all of us, so that we need not fear even death.
This is the Good News; once you spot it and name it, it jumps out of the New Testament and you see it on every page. This is what Bishop Curry is telling us that the Jesus Movement needs to be about: a community that is loving, liberating, and life-giving, because there is no need to fear and no need to fight. The social and political implications are obvious enough; so is the sad fact that so many who claim the name of Christian seem not to have got the message.
Each of us has different work to do. Each has a different life. But everything we do as the church, from the Eucharist to social outreach to pastoral care to faith formation with children, needs to be about grasping this Good News, truly believing it, building each other up in our conviction of it, sharing it with all who come to our doors, and going forth in the name of Christ to make it real in the world.
© 2017 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.