A common ambivalent tribute often heard at the minister's farewell party is, "We may forget your sermons, but well always remember your childrens stories!" As a longtime preacher I've, told my share of Aesop's fables with a Christian moral, personal yarns blessed with a Biblical text, sagas, anecdotes, parables, allegories, vignettes, autobiographical sketches, object lessons, and the occasional whale of a tale.
Just out of theological college, I determined to review the entire Bible in a single children's session. I condensed Bemhard W. Anderson's Drama of Salvation into a five-minute Reader's Digest type of "Drama in Real Life." Creation, the Fall, and salvation through God's law, prophets, and Son--I didn't skip a single theme as I painted with broad strokes on a huge canvas. Then, with my Methodist twist, I wound up the drama by having the children march off the stage to their classes singing "Whosoever Will May Come." After the service a faithful elder called me aside and said: "You forgot one thing in your children's story. The unfolding of God's saving drama took thousands of years, but you whittled it down to a few minutes. You're selling God short."
When I told my stories in the early sixties the authoritarian climate of religion kept the children quiet throughout my pompous preachments, which all too often sailed over their heads like high flying cirrus clouds. I perceived communication in church as one way: I had the story, and the children needed to hear it. Taking my cue from Psalm 119,1 saw my role as that of storing up the Word in their hearts so that they might not sin against God.
On other occasions I set aside the big theme and went to work on the fine points of a single text. On Easter morning I waxed eloquent with the children on the chancel steps. Beginning with "They found the stone rolled away," I moved by free association to the proverb "A rolling stone gathers no moss," Ali Baba and his magic "Open, Sesame" formula, and Demosthenes, the stammering Greek who is said to have become a great orator by putting stones in his mouth. By imposition, if not exposition, I was able to mention Uncle Bill's kidney stones, the widening circles resulting from a stone thrown into a pond, the stones David used to kill Goliath, the stones the scribes and Pharisees didn't throw at the adulteress, and the stones that martyred Stephen. Rolling so many stones into my story used up my allotted time quickly. But by simply repeating the text "They found the stone rolled away," I was able to end the interminable with a semblance of grace.
At my first service in a northern Ontario parish five children came forward and stood at attention in front of the table. Having decided to shift from the textual to the contextual, I read through the long story of Noah from faithful boat builder to patient skipper, from rainbow recipient to drunken landlubber. Five-year-old Judy fainted.
Fortifying my stance with the motto "The show must go on," I tried not to notice her predicament. As concerned parents padded ever so softly up the aisle, picked her up, and hurried away, I continued, "Also he sent forth a dove from him. . ."On the way out, a member of the property committee congratulated me on "keeping my head when all about..."
During my romance with Biblical theology, I would seek out appropriate Biblical artifacts to reinforce the credibility of my story. I brought a slingshot to illustrate the story of David, an apple for the Garden of Eden episode, and a harp for stories from the Psalms. In a rural parish I had a lamb brought into church for my story of the lost sheep, caged canaries for the "birds of the air" passage, and a frozen rainbow trout as a subcompact substitute for Jonah's marine transportation. I was all for bringing some piglets into the sanctuary to receive the evil spirits, but the farmers wouldn't hear of it. "With pigs," they cautioned, "you never know what they'll do."
Most of the church members were only too glad to loan me their treasures to illustrate my children's stories. A lamp for the light under a bushel, a quilt with the six days of Creation, crooks for shepherds, stars for Wise Men, cradles for Jesus, and canes and crutches to illustrate stories of miraculous healing.
In the seventies, the participatory motif infiltrated my ministry. I abandoned the pulpit in favor of a seat on the chancel steps for my ad-libbed story. This was the era of show-and-tell. Oh, the claptrap 1 brought into the sanctuary! One summer in Kincardine, on Lake Huron, on consecutive weeks I brought in fishing rod, reel and tackle; a full set of golf clubs; a yo-yo; and a quiver packed with peacock feathers. While it wasn't always easy to hook up the "show" of the world with the "tell" of the gospel, my approach gave the children something to look at and handle, and provided for the congregation the equivalent of comic relief in the drama of salvation.
Once into show-and-tell, you can really put an act together by adding motion to the tale and turning a dull story into a lively scene. On New Year's I chose as my talk the theme "Be where you are, or you're nowhere." Clarence, my associate, played Adam, and since I was senior minister, I played God. A hefty fellow, Clarence crouched behind the lectern, and when I called, "Where are you, Adam?" he said, "Here I am," then scampered behind the organ. I repeated the question "Where are you, Adam?" and Clarence replied, "Here I am," then tiptoed past the choir and disappeared into the church office. Looking at the children, I ended cryptically with the line "Be where you are, or you're nowhere." The organist then sounded the chord for the last verse of "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour," and the kids moved off--somewhere.
For another form of children's story I'm indebted to Socrates' theory of knowledge. Called the theory of reminiscence, it's based on the belief that every human soul carries within it the seeds of all knowledge. By asking the right questions, the teacher can elicit answers from the children's eternal memory banks. The "dialectic" approach is a good substitute for a story, requires little preparation time, and if it falls flat, it's not the teacher's fault but the kids'. While it's a safe method for the minister, fear of embarrassing remarks by their children keep the parents on pins and needles. When the dialectic ends, a corporate sigh of relief fills the church like a giant Amen.
Storytime can lead to problems--even disasters sometimes. I will never forget the time I brought pop bottles filled to different levels with water so as to make the sounds of the musical scale. Unfortunately the children got hold of some of the bottles before the story. When I asked them to listen to the "do, re, me," my ruler banging on the bottles brought forth only a monotonous "do, do, do." To make matters worse, a 4-year-old grabbed a bottle and started drinking the colored contents. A hush fell over the congregation. I sensed hostility in the air, a hostility dispelled only when I announced that the liquid was simply colored tap water and ended the experiment with a prayer asking God to make music out of our messes.
Ah, children's stories! . . . Time with God's precious jewels. Memories of the lost child behind the massive pulpit, the Christmas tree pulled down on top of us by an exploring lad, two or three legs tangled up in microphone cords, coins rolling under pews, hankies waving, lips slipping, and family secrets being revealed.
Once I asked the children to bring me something from nature. The next week a boy brought me a sixteen-inch puffball, white as snow. I used it for the story of the mustard seed. One tiny spore makes a huge puffball. It's the story of the leaven once again. For me, children in church will always be wonder-workers--small as a spore or seed but helping all of us to grow into the fullness of Christ. And the children's story can be an important part of relationship building and ministry with them.