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The storyteller

When I first began preaching, I was terrified of leading the children’s moment. I couldn’t stop thinking of Jesus’ words: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). It just so happens that drowning is very near the top of my list of “worst ways to die,” so I didn’t want to find out what might be worse than that.

I remember one Sunday in particular when only one little girl showed up to church. The lesson that week was about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and receiving manna from God. They got the same amount of manna for five days, but on the sixth day they received twice as much so that they could observe the Sabbath (Exodus 16). I had planned to retell the story during the children’s moment before the sermon and let the kids participate in the retelling. There were tables up in the sanctuary, and I had placed seven hymnals on them. I told the story about how the Israelites were in the wilderness and they needed food, and we were going to journey along with them. On the first day we needed food, so we looked under hymnal number one to see what God provided, and there was a lunch ticket! The same for the next four “days,” but then under the sixth hymnal there were two tickets, and none under the seventh because God had provided enough the day before. We talked a little about what it meant to trust that God would provide enough for the next day, had a prayer and continued on with the worship service.

Now, I’m certain that as far as children’s moments go, that one left a little to be desired. In fact, the “children’s moment” concept as a whole has a number of disadvantages. This one in particular was a little abstract, disconnected from both the story and the lesson it was supposed to teach. It expected a lot from a preschool/kindergarten-aged audience. It had no space for questioning or wondering about the story, and it put the girl involved “on stage,” performing for the rest of the “audience”/congregation. Looking back on it even later that day, I wasn’t too impressed with myself. But the girl who came to church seemed to have fun with it — she walked along and told the whole church about what she found under those hymnals, and listened well enough when I told her about God’s ability to provide.

The next week I came to church again, and that same girl came back also. I had a different sermon ready, and was worried about a different children’s sermon. But as I walked around saying good morning to people before worship, I watched that little girl’s face light up when she saw me. She immediately asked: “Do you remember me? I helped you tell the story last time!”

At that moment, I knew it didn’t matter how well or poorly thought out that particular children’s moment had been. It hadn’t mattered whether I had used the right props or asked the right questions or laid out the story in a way that someone her age could understand. What mattered was that she had gotten the chance to help tell the story. She had become a part of the church.

What took place on that Sunday morning went beyond a mediocre children’s moment. The Holy Spirit took that lesson and used it to teach a little girl something wonderful about her place in God’s kingdom. She was a storyteller; she had something to offer to others. She could help the pastor teach the church about God.

Now, maybe she was getting ahead of herself a little bit. (I think that’s forgivable.) And maybe I’m making too much out of an interaction that was, in the end, only one part of her much longer journey with God. But every Sunday after that she would ask me, “Do you remember how I helped you tell the story?” And I would remember, and it would remind me to take these kids seriously — to remember that they do help tell the story.

The children of our churches help tell that story in children’s moments, in their play before and after (and sometimes during) worship, in Sunday school, at home, at daycare, at school and with their friends. Their struggles to understand the story God is telling them remind me that I still have a lot to learn about God’s story, and that I am also only a helper in telling that story to others. And their willingness to serve reminds me that I don’t have to know or understand everything before I start telling that story.

Yes, we should take great care in telling the story. There’s a reason Jesus talks about giant millstones around people’s necks when he’s instructing his disciples in the importance of children in God’s kingdom. But I try to remind myself that I, too, am a child of God — and kids don’t always behave. So although I do my best to not put stumbling blocks in front of children (and adults), I also try to remember God’s grace. I remember the time the Holy Spirit took an ordinary children’s moment and turned it into something extraordinary. And I pray that when words fail me, the Spirit will be there to provide what God’s people need.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.