VBS Treasure Chest
It was Thursday. Day 4 of Vacation Bible School.
Sin day, blood day, crucifixion day, what-the-heck-are-they going-to-tell-my-five-year-old day.
I honestly didn’t know.
I picked Gabe up from VBS with butterflies in my stomach. Or stones? It felt like stones falling on butterflies and crushing their delicate wings.
I didn’t want to be an overly controlling mother. I didn’t want to beset Gabe with my own spiritual baggage before he’d even begun kindergarten. I didn’t want to veto my husband’s desire for Gabe to attend VBS. I didn’t want to vilify this community church where friends of ours attended or make VBS a bigger deal that it really was. And honestly, I was enjoying the downtime from the exhausting work of mothering.
I did want Gabe to learn about Jesus, yes. I also wanted him to learn about God’s love. But I don’t know how you nuance sin to a pre-elementary child. I didn’t grow up going to church, I had no idea what happened at a garden-variety VBS, and I felt like discussing religion with my children was way beyond my abilities. I was scared. I didn’t want anyone telling my precious son that he was bad.
“Hi, baby!” I caught Gabe’s eye in the crowd and he ran up to me. There were shipwreck-themed decorations everywhere and volunteers dressed as pirates. The program finished with songs as it had the three days before, with all the kids squeezed into the sanctuary in color-coordinated age groups. I scribbled my initials next to Gabe’s name on the Orange group clipboard and we headed to the car.
Gabe took a peek into his “treasure chest” on the way out. Hundreds of paper treasure chests covered conference tables in the church foyer, one with each kid’s name. Every day more things were added: artwork, candy, keychains with Bible verses on them, etc. I wondered what kind of pirate booty he was accumulating internally, and if I’d deem it treasure or not.
Gabe opened the back door of the car and climbed into his car seat. I tossed my purse on the passenger seat and we were on our way.
I had decided in advance of VBS that I was going to ask Gabe some questions each afternoon during the drive home. I reminded myself all week that he was just a kid who was mainly looking for fun and free stuff, and I shouldn’t freak out about what he might be taking in concerning faith or church. Although I was deconstructing my faith and processing immense church trauma, my child was not.
Don’t project your wounds on to him, I counseled myself.
“Did you have fun at church camp today, sweetie?” I craned my neck to see Gabe’s reflection in the rear-view mirror.
“Yeah.” He was always nonchalant, never one to disclose much about preschool or play dates, pleasant but not particularly interested in chatting. The view out his window was clearly more interesting.
“Did you sing songs?”
“Did you play games?”
“Was it a fun day?”
“Yeah, it was fun.”
Are you going to do this thing or not, lady? Planner Mama put a check on Emotional Mama. I swallowed, sending ten more stones down my throat and slaying ten more butterflies.
“So what did you learn about today, Gabe?”
He looked away from the window and at my reflection in the mirror. His eyes widened, seemingly as he remembered the lesson.
“Sometimes people hurt people, Mom!” He reported this to me like it was a breaking news flash. “Sometimes I hurt people, too.”
Now he was crestfallen. The eleventh stone caught mid-swallow and my breath ceased. Hurting people, I thought. This is pre-K sin education.
“Like Phoebe, Mom. Sometimes I hurt her.” This was true, of course. Sometimes he did hurt his three-year-old sister. She did the same to him.
I wanted to meet him in the conversation. I took a breath. “That’s true. Sometimes you hurt Phoebe, and sometimes Phoebe hurts you.”
“Yeah.” Gabe was looking at his hands in his lap. I wondered if his gut was full of heavy things, too. Naturally a tender child, I knew he was feeling guilt about inflicting pain on Phoebe. I prayed it wasn’t shame.
“But you know what, Mom?” Gabe piped up with renewed vigor. “God would never, ever, ever hurt us.”
With Gabe’s words, I suddenly became aware of the sunlight flooding our car and bodies. I sensed his words came from deep in his soul, and represented his own thinking. This was not a regurgitation of a VBS lesson, this was Gabe’s own truth, and in an instant my little boy was preaching to my heart.
God would never, ever hurt you.
How did my baby know more about God than most adults do?
I remembered what Charles Dickens once said of children—they are so fresh from God. Maybe Gabe had just retrieved a heavenly memory, fashioned from dust by his Maker and implanted in his being long ago for this very moment. Maybe Gabe simply had a pulse on the Divine, during that car ride or in general. All I knew was that he was absolutely correct.
This was the VBS treasure chest.
“Yes! You’re so right, buddy! God would never hurt us! God loves us so much. God loves you so much!” I brushed away hot, happy tears.
“Yeah.” He beamed at me with his school-picture smile and his eyes and nose meeting in a wrinkle. He saw my pride oozing out and he smiled bigger.
I relaxed into my seat with a relief that promised all was well. My internal butterflies quieted, no longer dodging stones. I still harbored concerns about VBS -- what did he hear that he didn't discuss with me? What might he pick up in the future? What inevitable obstacles would intersect his spiritual path in general, and what control, if any, did I have over them? But Gabe reminded me that he brings his own intellect, his own agency, and his own story to his very own faith journey. And that was holy. That was enough.
Gabe’s words to me that day settled somewhere deep and I added them to my very short list of Things I Know For Sure.
Jesus said the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children. Maybe VBS should be the kids teaching the weary adults, I mused to myself as I drove. After all, it’s when we grow older we forget our childlike wisdom. When we grow up, we remember it.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” — Matthew 18: 3,4
Halley Kim is a writer and lactation consultant who lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband and three kids. She has published essays with The Junia Project, Mothers Always Write, and Scraping Raisins. She blogs at halleykim.com where she writes about shape-shifting faith, inconvenient questions, justice work, and wayward journeys.