Monday, February 12, 2007

Lesson 19: Impromptu

I've said before that one of the major problems for a Sunday school teacher is the fact that one's students have inconsistent attendance, and if one plans a lesson with a specific kid in mind, that kid is the one who fails to show up.

Sometimes, that's ok. The kids who do show up might benefit from the lesson, too. Other times, however, it's not ok. This morning was a fine example of that. At ten o'clock, when our class was supposed to start, no students at all were present. A couple of passing adults poked their heads in the door and commented that we looked lonely. At 10:06, Joshua clomped in, sat down, and laid his head on the table.

Joshua, let the record state, is a great kid, and definitely one of the best students we're ever likely to have. He's very sweet and funny, has good reading comprehension, is incredibly polite, and treats the other kids well. I have a hard time believing him when he tells me that he doesn't do anything but play video games--but then, he's an only child, and maybe he has to play alone alot.

The lesson we had planned was one on "bad words." We planned it as a response to a previous class, where some of the kids decided that pointing out every "bad word" hidden in every other word was funny. We wanted to take the wind out of some of their sails and get them to stop giggling about it. Both of us, of course, recall being that age and finding "bad words" as titilating as any kid does. Still, I don't think either of us would have dared use that kind of language around an adult. We were going to talk about "cursing" and "swearing," what those things really are--and why certain words are not culturally acceptable, though many of them are neither cursing nor swearing, in the literal sense.

As you might have gathered, Joshua was basically the only kid who didn't need this lesson at all. During that class, when all the other kids were going nuts and getting giggly, he just ignored them. He paid better attention to his project than he probably ever had, and I think he was a bit embarrassed by or for the others. We couldn't do this lesson with just Joshua. Not only did he not need it, he also would probably have felt like we were lecturing just to him.

JC and I exchanged frantic glances, casting around for what in the world to do next, when Lachlan came in. We were glad to see her, because the times when we have only one kid in Bible class are terribly awkward. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how I look at it), Lachlan is next-best-behaved kid. Though she giggled at the kids who were underlining the "bad word" in the middle of "Manasseh," she certainly wasn't instigating it. Her dad was a preacher, and her mom worked (I think) at a Christian school. She's probably heard some variant on this lesson before--if not aimed at her, then aimed at one of her older sisters. This lesson was specifically intended for David and Amanda, who were not present. The lesson wouldn't do much good if the instigators didn't hear it.

We decided to totally wing it, and opened our Bibles to the beginning of I Samuel, which was the next section of the Bible we had intended to cover with this class. The kids read sections aloud, and we talked about the story. David came in about ten minutes late, and he had a cold, poor kid. He followed along, though, and did pretty well at participating. He just didn't seem very chatty.

The beginning of I Samuel starts by talking about Elkanah, who had two wives. We've been through the several wives thing before (Jacob), but I don't think the kids know how to handle it. Polygamy is so alien to anything they understand--or, for that matter, to anything *I* understand--that they ask about it every time. "He had two wives?" Lachlan said.
"Yes," said JC. "Some men had several wives back then. Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines."
Josh's eyes got wide. "Wow. You'd have to get married like, every day!"

We talked about Hannah's prayer and Eli's accusation that she's drunk. When Eli finally gets what's going on, he gives Hannah a blessing ("The God of Israel grant the petition which you have asked of Him") so we ended up being able to use our preparation for class at least a little bit, to talk about blessings and curses and things. None of the kids knew what a curse was, in that sense, and they only had the most vague idea of what a blessing is. We need to start doing a little "Bible vocab" section to our class, I think. The little kids aren't the only ones who need it--my teen girl class didn't know what an agnostic was, and they were surprised when I said that "disciple" basically just means "student."

The kids were all kind of appalled at the thought of a mother leaving her two- or three-year-old baby at the temple. I couldn't explain any of it to them, except to say that she was so grateful for what God had given her that she wanted to thank Him by giving Him the thing she loved the very most. I found it disturbing too, in some ways, but I didn't know how to tell them that the Bible has some disturbing things in it, and that's a good thing. The Bible is varied and disturbing because life on Earth is varied and disturbing. That's how the Bible answers our questions--by being so deeply odd that we can see our equally odd selves reflected back in it. I can't imagine what Hannah must have been thinking or feeling, leaving her little boy with his long curly hair in the care of an aging priest and his wicked sons. I love that the Bible includes that Hannah made Samuel a new robe each year, each year a little bigger, because he was a little bigger each year. I pointed that out to the kids--Hannah does love her son. He just has a great destiny to fulfill, and he can't fulfill it if she doesn't make this sacrifice. That's also like Mary, and Miriam, I guess, but I didn't think to say that in class.

JC tried to explain what a Nazarite vow was, and the kids all thought it was weird. "He couldn't drink grape juice?" Joshua asked. We tried to explain that it was a special way of showing one's dedication to God, that Samson and Paul both took similar vows, but they couldn't get past the physical impact of such a promise. "Would his hair grow all the way down to his feet?" Joshua asked. We told him that it would.
"Never let anyone tell you that long hair on boys is a bad thing," JC said. I'm dreading the parental phone calls I'll probably get over that one.

We talked about the jobs that Samuel probably had in the temple, what his life was like as he was growing up. JC asked them how they would feel if they had to live at church and hang out with David (our minister) all day, helping him with his sermons, vacuuming the auditorium, preparing the Communion trays. Though they think that David is a nice guy, none of them thought that would be much fun.

"What do you think your mom would have picked out as a job for you, before you were born, if she got to pick?" I asked. David didn't know, but Lachlan thought that her mom probably would have wanted her to become a teacher, and Joshua was pretty sure that his mom would have wanted him to have a job training "rookies" on how to use computers, like his dad does. I thought that was very sweet--Lachlan's mom used to work at a computer lab for a school, and she must have told Lachlan how much she respected the teachers there. Joshua clearly sees the admiration and love that his mom has for his dad, and thinks it has something to do with his job (and it might, I don't know).

Joshua got to read the section where Samuel hears God calling him and thinks that it's Eli. He is a good reader, and he put some serious frustration into Eli's voice on the second and third repetitions of "I did not call, my son, lie down again!" I got the feeling that maybe he's one of those kids whose parents have to send him back to bed several times in the night. The kids all thought that Samuel's mistake about who was calling him was hilarious. I agree, it is funny. I love that these kids are starting to find humor in the Bible. I love that they are starting to open to the idea that the Bible can be funny, or scary, or sad--not just boring, and not just..."holy," blasphemous as it might sound to object to that adjective. As we went through this story, reading from the actual text, with JC and me glossing some hard words, they laughed, they commented on the pain or absurdity of it. That is how I want them to read the whole Bible. I want them to look for the humanity of it. I believe that God speaks to us through the beauty, pain, and humor of tiny details--Hannah making little robes for her growing boy, Ehud's sword sticking in Eglon's fat, Jesus cooking breakfast for his friends on the beach.

JC pointed out to the kids that Samuel was almost certainly around their age when God first spoke to him. Because he is called a "boy," he must be younger than thirteen. "He was probably singing and praying in front of crowds of people," JC said. "He probably helped perform sacrifices and was a major part of the worship at the temple. Can you imagine doing that at your age?" They all shook their heads.
This was as good a time as any to talk with them about our latest idea for them. If nothing else, I was fresh out of material, and we still had ten minutes of class time left. "When JC was a little boy, only five or six years old, the little boys at his church would collect the attendance cards during the services. They would sit in the front row until the announcements--"
"Actually, it was right before the sermon," he corrected me. "So we sat up there on the front row for most of the service, without our parents or anyone. And then right after the last song before the sermon, we would walk down the aisles and collect the cards, and then we had to help a deacon sort them, figure out who were visitors, who wasn't there. It made us feel really important--we were just little guys."
I hadn't thought that this story would make much of an impression on the kids, but their eyes were wide when JC finished. "You got to do all that when you were five?" asked David, finally coming alive for the first time all morning. JC nodded.
"I get the feeling that sometimes it seems to you that church is just for grown ups, and a kid's job is to sit still and be quiet," JC continued. "That's not true, though-- I mean, it helps if you sit still and be quiet, but you also can be part of the service, you can have an important job. We've been talking to some people to see what we can do to give you jobs, like Samuel, if you want to do that."
"For example, you might be asked to help hand out bulletins and greet people at the door, or bring the Communion trays back to the supply room, or something," I said. Inwardly, I was bracing myself for a harsh reaction--I didn't realize until I said it how much like chores that sounded.
"We could really do that?" Lachlan asked. She seemed excited, as did the boys.
"Yes," I said. "We're working on that, if you think you'd like to." She would like to, certainly, as would the boys. I guess I need to keep bugging the eldership about that one, then, given the positive response. These kids are eager to be part of the Christian community, to know that it's not just about grown ups and behaving oneself. That eagerness is today's blessing, and blessing enough for my week.

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