When we first joined the church in Garland over 30 years ago they had a Children’s Sermon and it was done by the minister. We gradually eased him out of the job mostly because he was horrible at it and scared the kids to death with his admonishments to sit still, touch nothing and behave. So a bunch of amateurs took over the job. I have to say that I learned more telling the Children’s Sermon than the kids. And I learned things I never would have learned in a Sunday School class or even by reading the bible. I learned a lot about fire, for example.
In the old sanctuary, the chancel area was small. I decided one Advent to illustrate the concept of the “Stump of Jesse.” So I went to the woods, found a tree stump that had a new branch growing out of it, cut the whole thing down and brought it to church to show the kids. I neglected to notice how dead and dry the leaves became in the week between cutting it down and the sermon because I was caught up in the wonder of the now quite bushy revived tree. A very vibrant stump if I may say so. But also very dead by the time I got it to church. In the small chancel I came close to setting the whole thing on fire when I brushed past the advent candle. Gasps went up in the congregation and so began my auspicious career as a Children’s Story teller.
The kids loved to see me coming because they sensed we were on the edge of disaster with most of my imaginative ideas. But I have yet to burn the church down. I once saw the acolytes come close to setting Carolynn Canon’s hair on fire in that small sanctuary. That was in the day of big hair and massive amounts of hair spray. If the flame from that kid’s taper had been one centimeter closer to Carolynn’s head her hair would have gone up in a blaze of glory, for sure. It would have been truly horrifying and magnificent at the same time. But it would decidedly not be my fault.
A few years ago, we moved into a new and much larger sanctuary with a very open feel to it. The ceiling is high, the chancel wide and deep with a spacious choir area to the side of the congregation. One of the first stories I told in the new sanctuary was the Prodigal Son and it just cried for a skit with lots of movement. I grabbed a couple of teenagers, gave them basic instructions and let them loose while I narrated. While the older, dependable son stayed back in the chancel dusting off the pulpit and Lords table like a good son, the prodigal was, well….Prodigal. Because, after all, the whole meaning of prodigal is prodigious, extravagant, excessive. The word Prodigal in the story refers to God’s great love and acceptance, not remorse, regretful and penitent. And that was the point of my story. “Large movements,” I told my actors. Both the father and the prodigal son needed expansive movements. The Prodigal ran all over our big new sanctuary. He showered fake money all over the congregation. When he ran out of money he went to live with the swine over in the choir area. Then, when the father spotted him walking up the center aisle to beg for a job feeding the swine back home, the father threw open his arms and ran to meet him. They embraced mid-way up the aisle. The father brought him home to the chancel area and gave him a big party. It was one of my favorite stories. A prodigious story told in a prodigious way.
Not every story was such a resounding success. When the church installed wireless microphones it gave me a new way to tell the stories. When Moses took the children of Israel on the great exodus from Egypt I led the kids away from the chancel and we literally left the sanctuary and I told the rest of the story from the choir room. The congregation could hear us but didn’t know where we were. The children lost sight of their parents. I figured this would be a great demonstration of the separation from family and asked the kids how they felt. To my dismay they were all so excited to get out of the sanctuary I’m afraid the lesson was lost.
And sometimes the person who learned the most was me. One year I wanted to spruce up the Luke 6 story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. “Props,” I thought, “how great this will be!” The two loaves of bread were easy enough. But how to find fish the kids could eat that was cooked and looked like an actual fish. “Sardines!” I started imagining the postman delivering the Nobel prize for Children’s Stories on Monday.
I told the story of what a miraculous thing it had been for Jesus to feed 5,000 people on just two loaves of bread and five fish. ‘How did Jesus feed so many people on so little food?” I lifted up a sardine for a visual effect then passed around the bread and fish. The kids were fine with the bread. But the first kid poked at the fish a bit and tasted his finger. He made a face and passed it to the next kid. That kid sniffed of the sardine a bit and passed it to the next. From that point on not a single kid let the plate remain in their hand over two seconds until they passed it to the next. I saw first-hand a totally new interpretation of the story.
Forgetting for a moment I was sitting in front of the whole church with a microphone, I couldn’t stop myself from quietly murmuring in awe, “So that’s how He did it!” It became clear to me in a way I had never thought before. What if?... Maybe Jesus didn’t multiply the food, maybe He took their hunger away! I’ve re-read this story many times since that day and still leave that understanding open for myself. If only one or two people were actually hungry two loaves of bread and five fish would have been plenty. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.
We eliminated the Children's Story a while back. Now, instead of a story told to the whole congregation at the front of the church we have a separate worship service for the kids across the hall in the Chapel. The kids stay with their parents until the scripture reading then go across the hall during the sermon. They get the same scripture reading and message there but it’s told on their level of understanding sometimes in skits or puppet shows. Then they take up a collection and return to sit with their parents in the sanctuary for the rest of worship. During the doxology, their representative brings in their offering plate right along with the adult ushers. Seeing a child walk up the aisle nested between two adults to present an offering basket from Children’s Chapel has become my favorite part of church. And nothing catches on fire.