A little while ago, one of our church’s more exuberantly squirmy members asked me with a hesitance unlike himself – suggestive of the very deepest longings of his interior soul – if at the midweek kid’s class, we could make a city.
Maybe he is already developing a tendency to become an architect; but there are also strong theological foundations for this desire. It goes back at least as far as Babel. Abraham also looked for a city. John saw the city coming down from heaven in a vision – the gift of God to everyone who hopes with Abraham.
But the contents of the lesson for the upcoming Wednesday did not seem very propitious to those themes. It was about when the Ammonites offered to pluck out all the right eyes of the men of Jabesh-Gilead, and Saul rescued them. The week before, we’d made Saul pop up from behind a pile of luggage, when everyone was looking for him: a scene they will not now easily forget. May it sustain them in some similar crisis.
Now we had come to address one of Saul’s most promising moments. He was so brave and humble, so protective in a crisis, so much like Jesus. He could have been such a good king. Most of the kings fall into the temptations of their office – but the good ones repent. They stay close to Jesus in repentance. That’s a big lesson: how could I help children remember that . . .?
I decided that we could make the city of Jabesh-Gilead.
This plunged me into a lot of research and legwork. I had to find a better recipe for play dough. And one for fingerpaint. I had to multiply all the measurements of these recipes exponentially, because children have no restraint about things they can pound and squish. I had to run out and buy vast quantities of noodles and salt.
My city plan was brilliant. We were meant to assemble little dwellings with Rigatoni and Penne noodles for bricks, and playdough for mortar. Then we could plaster over the walls with fingerpaint. Then roof it with little foam boards on which we’d flour-paste rows of colored beans.
When the children saw the play dough, and the noodles, and the goop, their energy (which never really falls below a barely contained frenzy) reached unprecedented volumes and mass. I imagine that the wise men were almost as excited when they saw the star, as these children when they saw the foodstuffs. I stammered on bravely about the city plan while they impressed themselves on the materials, but the children had no use for my gimcrack ideas. They had their own. I think we got three and half walls, something that looked like an Arctic waste, and a few slumlike structures that would probably appeal to a vagrant slime monster.
I never knew that Jabesh Gilead had so much squalor. But I ask myself, will any of the children even remember the name of the city? I fear it might be forgotten in their enthusiasm for smooshing finger paint onto a gob of noodly goo. Indeed, I have confused it with Kiriath-Jearim a few times myself. A perfectly understandable mistake: there’s not much to distinguish one of these macaroni towns from another …
When I come up with crafts for the lesson, I am thinking especially of the childrens’ memories. I want them to remember what they have learned. I promised my little pupil several weeks of city building, so we’ll try again — maybe with the tower of Babel. They can remember how it comes crashing down. And I would like to share with them Corrie ten Boom’s witness to God being our refuge even in the worst places: for that we can again build (paper) houses, this time with secret closets. Maybe the closets will help them remember that Jesus is our hiding place. I expect some of them will always remember making our City of Primordial Ooze – but will they remember what city it was supposed to be, or what story it was related to?
On that score, this effort was probably a washout.
But I also want them to remember love and delight, when they remember being little ones in God’s family. And on that score, this effort was a success. At the height of their fervid and dubious makering, with their hands caked in goo and their shirts shmooed in glop, the children pronounced it their best craft ever. On the way to my car, I got attacked with a hug by the boy who asked If We Could. I want him to remember that the church is a place where he is treasured. Where his longings and needs matter. I want him to remember that, whatever happens when he grows up, just like I want him to remember that Jesus is his hiding place.
And I realize, when I’m down on my bedroom floor, cutting and folding paper, or stirring a tureen of play dough at the stove – that God is giving me a similar experience, something for my memory.
It is not hard for me to understand, when I am preparing these lessons, how differently Jesus sees people than we tend to do. I know with perfect clarity at those times that these children – not the people the world courts because they are so powerful, gifted, or wealthy – but these little people who have to be told every thirty seconds not to crawl under the table or bang on their chair or hit each other – they are the most important people on earth. In getting to be with these children, I get to receive the presence of the Father. And I am reminded that that is how God sees all of us, His insignificant and often unruly little ones. It makes me want to love people more. To listen better. To make sure that the ones around me know their longings and their needs matter. To treat whoever is standing in front of me at any given moment like the most important person on the planet, the image of God.