The broken crayons have been tossed in the trash and the dried glue has been scraped from the tables. A number of craft masterpieces have been affixed to refrigerators, while others disintegrated somewhere between the church and car doors. Some of us are staring at piles of debris shoved into boxes and tote bags, trying to determine if we’ll ever reuse foam plane kits and coloring pages about Zimbabwe. The last notes of the last song have died away, and the fruit punch pitchers have been scrubbed clean of their red stains. Another Vacation Bible School has ended.
In a nation of over 300 million people I assume there are many who are not familiar with this annual ritual. They have my sympathy. For the uninitiated, Vacation Bible School (VBS, as we veterans call it) is a week-long program for children offered by Christian churches of various denominations. Students ranging in age from preschool to sixth grade spend between two and three hours per night listening to Bible stories, learning songs and the accompanying sign language (an apparent requirement for modern VBS), working on craft projects, and playing outside. At some point, a snack and fruit punch (preferably Kool-Aid) must be served. I’m pretty sure this last item is a rule enshrined in the Old Testament and the U.S. Constitution. Ask Google.
Why do I feel sorry for those unfamiliar with VBS? Because it strips away our so-called sophistication with a mixture of pudding-covered smiles and time spent on a swing set. Because it’s unbearably sweet when a four-year-old drags her mother over to you and introduces you as her teacher. Because everyone should experience the blessed calm that follows the storm of separation anxiety.
But my favorite thing about VBS is the way it forces me to distill my faith down to its essence. I’m no theologian, but I imagine every verse in the Bible has been analyzed by countless Smart People, with controversies to match. But as I work with children for 10 or so hours in a five-day span I have to revisit the old, old stories and try to see them from a fresh perspective.
Because, let’s be honest, Christianity is both simple and incredibly challenging. Here’s what my preschoolers heard last week: God is amazing and He made everything. He loves His people and looks out for them. In fact, God loves all of us so much that a long time ago He sent His Son Jesus to the world as a very special baby. And one day Jesus died, but He didn’t stay dead. He is alive, and He wants us to love God and love other people.
Another Vacation Bible School has ended. In another year or so I’ll be ready to step onto the playground again.
I posted this column on Facebook last summer and went on to submit it to the editorial page of my local newspaper. Prior commitments prevented me from serving as a VBS volunteer this year, but I hope to return to the playground in 2014.