The famous French essayist Joseph Joubert wrote, “To teach is to learn twice.”
I have found it to be the absolute truth. Not only does the teacher learn it once for herself and again when she teaches, she remembers the truths longer and perhaps more accurately after she’s served them up to her class.
Last week, I had the stressful privilege of teaching Vacation Bible School at our church. I already knew the familiar Bible Stories—Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath, and several others—but as I revisited them in my own Bible, I learned again.
I might take issue with Joubert and argue that “to teach is to learn thrice,” because I also learned a few things from the kiddos I was teaching while we discussed these overfamiliar Bible stories.
Vacation Bible School (VBS), on the surface, is an exercise in endurance. By the end of the week, the volunteers, kids, children’s ministry budget, and the collective creativity of all involved are tapped out. When it’s over on Friday afternoon, everyone needs a substantial lunch and a long nap.
Years ago, a single day of leading the three-year-old class actually sent me into premature labor (Not to worry. I stayed home the rest of the week and carried Levi to term 😊).
I won’t sugarcoat the challenges. It’s tough to get kids to VBS on time and corral 22 preschoolers in the church hallway. It takes supernatural patience to deal graciously and compassionately with “that child” who seems old enough to know better.
But there are also tremendous rewards. I often leave VBS feeling certain that I learned far more than any of the kids. Of course, the lessons are ultimately from God, but sometimes they come from the mouths, and faces, of children.
Here are just a few of the lessons I learned from the kids while teaching Bible stories at VBS.
Sin Sucks the Air Out of the Room.
I don’t enjoy talking or teaching about sin, and I’d be initially suspicious of any teacher who claimed to like it. It feels a bit dangerous because, as a teacher of Bible stories, you’re automatically granted some degree of authority whether you deserve it or not. Kids tend to believe what you say, so you better make sure you’re telling the gospel truth. In Jesus’ words, a teacher would be better off at the bottom of the ocean than upon land, if they’re leading children away from the truth.
So when we talked about sin, I tried to keep it close to their own experience. We mentioned lying to your parents, being hateful to siblings, and looking at someone else’s paper at school to get an answer you don’t know. In every session, the room went quiet. One second-grade girl in the front row looked at me as if to say, “How did you know?”
Such sins might make adults snicker. After all, we’re personally familiar with “far worse sins.” But in their semi-innocent elementary minds, children are able to recognize their own failings.
As I left my classroom that day, it occurred to me that I would do well to take a cue from the second graders. I must take seriously the fact that I, too, even as an adult, have lied, been mean-spirited, and cheated.
I prayed that recognition of my own sin would suck the air out of my lungs so that I might become desperate to inhale the fresh, life-giving air of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Heaven is Better than Even THAT.
After gasping for the fresh air of God’s forgiveness and grace, we talked about being with Jesus forever.
It’s hard for adults to wrap their heads around eternity with Christ and without sin. When I try to imagine it, I fall back on the verse, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, NLT)
So when I showed the kids a golden rendering of what one artist thought heaven might be like, it seemed somewhat unconvincing. “Streets of gold” would certainly be an interesting tourist attraction, but they don’t seem like a compelling reason to stay for eternity.
After looking at the picture, one child asked with serious interest, “Will there be Prank Week in heaven?” His facial expression told me he thought Heavenly Prank Week would be a fun and enjoyable way to pass the time.
Since I have always hated April Fool’s Day and pranks of every kind, I was tempted to wax eloquent about kindness and truth, but I was reminded that I asked a similar question when I was his age.
My dad died when I was young, so my family talked about heaven often. It’s where our daddy was living, after all.
I remember asking my mom, “In heaven, will I be able to have all the Cabbage Patch Kids I want?” In 1982, Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage. Crazed parents were duking it out in the parking lot of Toys-R-Us to get their hands on a doll. Some of my friends had four or five Cabbage Patch Kids, so I imagined their parents must have had tons of money or else they had been in multiple parking lot fistfights.
I had one Cabbage Patch Kid doll, but they were apparently so valuable, I wanted more. Surely heaven would allow me all the dolls!
My mom didn’t shame me for asking or for wanting something so ridiculously temporal. She didn’t scold me for being a greedy American brat. She didn’t even turn my attention to the impoverished kids who had so much less than I did. She simply let me dwell on the best possible thing I could imagine at that moment, and then she said, “Heaven will be even better than that.”
Will there be a Prank Week in heaven? I highly doubt it. But instead of saying so, I told him, “Heaven will be far better than that.”
I was glad to remember that no matter what our minds can conceive, an eternity with Christ will be good beyond imagination.
Marveling at God’s Greatness is a Marvelous Response.
On the final day, we studied the story of David and Goliath. It’s so familiar. I sometimes wonder if it’s worth rehashing. Turns out, it is.
Goliath was a warrior champion, or so everyone at the battlefield thought. All the signs pointed towards the likelihood of Goliath’s victory and David’s defeat. Even King Saul had his doubts about David’s odds for success. The King gave him ill-fitting armor to increase his chances of survival, but David couldn’t walk in it, much less move with the agility that would surely be needed in an ancient duel.
As it turns out, David’s goal wasn’t to make a hero of himself; it was to show the world that the One True God can defend and care for people who trust him. David trusted God when no one else did.
When the story ended, the children knew that neither Goliath nor David was the champion. They knew God was the champion and that he cares for his children.
One little girl in the second row sat staring at me, smiling with the satisfaction of knowing that the One True God, who defeated sin and death, is her champion. He made her smile.
And it made me smile, because her smile was evidence of the worship happening in her heart at that moment, and that makes God smile too.
There are a zillion figurative and physical headaches involved in planning and teaching Vacation Bible School. But the rewards are breathtaking. If you want a front-row seat to those beautiful, expressive faces–some of them hearing the old, old stories for the very first time–slip into a class at your church’s VBS and look for the goodness of God.
You might learn something new (or for the third time) from the little learners beside you.