Tonight our church started its annual Vacation Bible School.  It’s a long tradition in Christian churches, with many different faith traditions doing something similar.  Catholic to Presbyterian, Lutheran to Pentecostal, Methodist to my own Southern Baptist, we all like to take a little time in the summer, when the kids are out of school, to educate and evangelize them.

My own memories of VBS go back to the church where I grew up, South Side United Methodist Church, in Huntington, West Virginia.  The memory tastes like grape Kool-Aid, heavy on the sugar; it tastes like potato chips and sugar wafers.  It sounds like the balls thrown back and forth in the good-old-days of dodge ball.  It feels like the towel we brought to nap on when I went to VBS in first grade.

It was a lovely thing; a holy, tender thing.  The layout of the church is still in my mind, though I am taller and older.  I could probably find the very rooms where I first learned the ancient stories of my faith.  I wonder, if I walked through them, if I wouldn’t somehow fall back through time, if only briefly, and feel the safety of my childhood in that great red brick building.  They’re tearing it down, you know; some of my past will collapse in the rubble.

But VBS remains.  The lessons planted in my heart grew and bloomed.  I walk in the path I was taught.  My children attend VBS the way I did, and the way my wife did as a child.  Tonight, she taught kindergarten kids in a room decorated with ‘island’ colors, cardboard birds, beach balls and a giant, inflatable monkey.  My oldest, Sam, who is 13, helped his mother herd the little ones back and forth to different crafts, snacks, lessons and to me, where I helped organize games in the gym.  The men I was with all guided the children through obstacle courses and let them play volleyball.  We gave them bamboo poles to carry in a kind of relay.  We laughed as they spun around, dizzy, and fell down smiling.

And I realized what a precious time it is.  You don’t have to be a Christian to see the value of men and women giving their time to children.  The many children who attend the church were there.  But there were also children from local neighborhoods who road the church bus for lessons, snacks, or simple diversion from difficult lives and situations.

What all of them saw was a group of youth, women and men in bright green shirts, wearing flowers and captain’s hats, acting silly, dancing and singing and smiling at them.  What they saw was a group of people exhibiting interest in the children by offering them fun, insight, faith, hope and a framework for their lives.

I see the value of it.  Oddly, I used to feel a little uncomfortable evangelizing children.  Not anymore.  I’ve seen the children of wrecked world-views.  I’ve seen the children with empty eyes.  I’ve seen the children of disease, abuse, drugs and alcohol.  And I know that, without any doubt, the evil things of the world evangelize them with a passionate fervor.

Hopelessness, nihilism, cruelty, promiscuity, drugs, alcohol, violence, abuse, every negative thing in the world hides itself in flashy images on television, or in classrooms, in the lyrics of music or in the ideals of a political party.  The children of the world are constantly, shamelessly evangelized to grow up too fast, to ignore their families as irrelevant, to seek the solace of name-brands, money and fame.  They are preached the gospel of success along with the gospel of self-loathing.  You don’t have to agree with my faith to agree that we need to offer the children something more than all of that.

At Vacation Bible School, in a medium sized church in a little town in South Carolina, we’re evangelizing.  And I’m OK with it.  I hope the children come away with their own memories, like mine.  Memories of diet soda, pizza, trail-mix, silly hats, smiling faces, ridiculous games and a place where they were taught, by adults and young people, their inestimable worth in the eyes of the Creator.

Those are memories worth having.  Just like my own recollections of grape Kool-Aid.


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