Nine kids: nine pumpkins. Grandpa and Grandma, with a pot of taco meat and fixings. After the dumb game where I make them interview each other and then introduce each other to the group, we get to work.
“I am making a bat.”
“I’m gonna have two faces on mine.”
“Hey, where’s the knife?”
Then – that studied silence of creativity and focused concentration. Grandpa helping with the finer points of carving. Grandma taking photos, hunting up a toothpick to save a broken piece, helping set up the food.
Through it all – a barking puppy named Elijah, confined to his kennel in the kitchen, itching for a wild rumpus. We let him out and some of the kids take him for a walk.
Lesson: We take off our shoes and gather in the prayer room. The sophisticated high school juniors sit down with the middle schoolers. One or two stretch out on the floor. Others wrap up in a prayer shawl. We turn out the lights. We settle down. Elijah does not. He is back in the kennel and very much wants to be in on this lesson. The little prophet, still early in his ministry, has not yet heard “the still small voice.”
What does Jesus mean when he tells us to deny ourselves and to die? We watch a Nooma video about how death is the engine for life. We think about how parts of ourselves can get in the way of our ability to love or to be compassionate. Like the part of ourselves that always has to be right, to look good, or to impress others. The video is pretty sophisticated for this age group. I wonder if it is making any sense. The kids are quiet and listening intently.
Elijah keeps barking. I bring him in and try to calm him. He only gets worse. I take him back. Grandma, who is not all that keen on dogs, goes out to the kitchen, kneels down before his kennel, and entertains Elijah with a paper towel.
I ask the kids what desire in them might need to die, what desire is getting in the way of God’s work for them and through them. One by one we bring an unlit candle forward to where there is a small statue of Jesus carrying a cross. We light the candle and place it near Jesus as a symbol of what we want to let go of. While we are praying, we listen to Dona Nobis Pacem sung by Beth Nielsen Chapman. Some of us sing along. We are silent for a little longer, gazing at all the candles around Jesus. We say amen. One sixth grader, wrapped in a shawl stretched out close to the candles, announces loudly, “I just love that chant!”
I say I am too old for this. My youth group days are long over. I say I cannot devote the time and energy these kids deserve. I say we should be having lock-ins, going on mission trips, meeting more frequently. What I do seems so small. I teach them how to be still, silent, and prayerful. And I love them, wholly, and with a kind of wild desire for their highest good in God now and always.
I go to bed deeply grateful for grace in the midst of chaos. I think about the kids in Chicago where knives are wielded for a completely different purpose. At church this Sunday we had celebrated Children’s Sabbath. Some of these youth shared information with the congregation about the horrible neglect and suffering of many children in our country. The kids I work with are deeply loved and cared for by large extended families and a whole church pretty much totally gaga about their every move. My heart aches, thinking of kids for whom a knife is only a weapon, for whom school is a crime scene, and a walk down the street an invitation for murder. What needs to die in us for our children to stop dying?
Special thanks to Bill and Sharon Smith, Eleanor Miller, Jean Schultz, Dave Strobel, “the pumpkin man,” everyone at Crestview UMC, and all of you who try to be present to children wherever they are.
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