Letters to and from children

I am frequently very silly with the children in the church programs I run, but I also love to take them very seriously. If a kid makes a reasonable suggestion, I follow it. Thanks to one young man, we now have small recycling bins in each children’s worship room. When they ask a question, I answer it, even when the answer is, “that’s one of the hardest things for even grownups to understand and agree about,” and even when it takes us on wild tangents that I have to work to take us back from. When our Sunday school class makes a group art piece to reflect a Psalm (we’ve done Psalms 1 and 23 so far), I let the kids have pretty free rein so they feel like the product is truly theirs, even if that means there are misspelled words and it looks more messy than aesthetically pleasing.

So this year, when I received two letters from kids, it was my privilege to take both of the writers very seriously–even while I inwardly pinched their cheeks and ruffled their hair because of how adorable their young spelling and printing was (but it really doesn’t do to ever show them that).

Letter One

The first letter was anonymous:

A note in child’s handwriting: Don’t ban Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho from this church.

Most of the children love to sing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho” (which, technically is, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” but that would involve too much explaining). They line up and pretend to be the wall of Jericho while the leader sings the song and then they decide whether or not to fall at the end–falling is often dramatic, delayed, or acrobatic.

Most of the leaders do not love this song with a similar passion. With a group of 8 kids, it’s fine, but you get 10-16 and they rile each other up to further heights and no matter how many times you explain the biblical story basis of the song, it just becomes about who can get away with doing a near cartwheel.

So I’m clear with the leaders at the beginning of the year: they are free to say, “We’re not doing that one today,” or even, “We don’t do that song when I’m leading.” I frequently say no, and I’m clear why: “You all are too wound up already today. No stand-up songs.”

They must’ve had a bunch of no’s in a row for that child to write that note. Although I would weep no tears if we never did it again (and certain kids who don’t like it when things get crazy wouldn’t be upset, either), this was my response:

Letter in adult handwriting reading: Dear members of the 2nd-3rd grade Children’s Worship room: Thanks you for letting me know of your concerns regarding “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” It is a song that kids at Grace have enjoyed for many, many years, and I promise that I will not ban it. However, I do not promise that you will get to do it every week. The song selection is up to each leader, so sometimes you will have a leader who does the song, and sometimes you won’t. That’s how it is in grown-up church, too–the songs are different every week. You must’ve had a few leaders in a row say “no,” bringing about the fear that we banned it. In fact, I am your leader this week, and I promise that we’ll do it! Yours in Christ, Miss Natalie

This felt like a good response because I was

  1. letting the kids know that I saw them and understood what they liked to do,
  2. treating them like they were worthy of an explanation for why the song choice system is set up like it is,
  3. demonstrating that I’m willing to join in the fun and give them something that they love.

And 10 out of 12 kids were overjoyed–you can never please everyone.

Letter Two

The second letter was handed to me by the child on Easter Sunday.

Letter in child’s handwriting: Dear Ms. Natalie, Sorry for being inappropriate at Palm Sunday. Next time I will not do that.

This letter was prompted by the parent due to said child’s behavior at being forced to participate in the parade of children and adults waving palm branches during the service. I’m going to guess it was an epic scowl; I was at the front of the parade, so I had no idea what was happening behind me. (I should note that we had 3 dozen or so kids in the parade that Sunday, a number of whom participated under duress, so I’m not singling out the lone scowler. I also have the child’s parent’s permission to post this.)

I accepted the note, and a couple of weeks later, gave this to the child:

A letter in adult handwriting: Dear [name], Thank you for your note, apologizing for being cranky about joining in with our palm waving on Palm Sunday. Can I tell you that it was a lovely surprise to me that you’d agreed to do it because I know you don’t normally like to do that kind of thing. Also, can I confess something to you? When you gave me your note on Easter, I was hugely cranky about things that
[continuation of note] had happened in the church service and before the service that morning–so I know what it’s like to serve God even while being cranky about it! I even have a prayer that I pray: “Dear God, you’re going to have to give me your patience, because I have none of my own left.” It works! Anyway–I know how you feel. And I am grateful that God accepts you and me and our cranky service and everything else. But I do hope Palms are more fun next time. love, Miss Natalie

I really had been in a mood Easter Sunday. Sometimes when I have heavy responsibilities on a Sunday morning I can still lose myself in worship, but that day I could not. At all.

There’s a children’s song that I have a hate-tolerate relationship with, “God loves a cheerful giver, give it all you’ve got, He loves to hear you laughing when you’re in an awkward spot.” I was not cheerfully giving or serving, and all through the service, I could not laugh. It is entirely possible that I was muttering at points. And aggressively crossing and recrossing my legs.

But still, I served.

Oh I can definitely relate to my letter writer. I’m not always cheerful about what I do for the Lord. But when I serve prayerfully–even when the prayer itself is a childish footstomp of a request/demand–and with a heart that is open, God will help me see something that will take me outside of my crankiness and will even open to door to joy.

That Easter Sunday it was so many moments: heartfelt narration, a girl playing Jesus in one scene, an anxious kid nailing his lines, the disciples doing Fortnite dances when they saw the risen Jesus in the upper room, the host of angels, and the generalized chaos that are my liturgical skits with their room for readers, nonreaders, children, adults, people with developmental disabilities, people who show up for rehearsal and people who don’t, people who are on time for church and people who are late.

Indeed, I am grateful that God not only accepted but transformed my cranky service on Easter Sunday–and I hope my letter writer gives palm waving another shot and lets God transform it, if not into something joyful and fun, then at least to something not horrible and torturous.

When a Drudge Becomes a Callling

The first time I taught Sunday School, I was 17. I don’t remember much, other than my felt board and singing the occasional song that got so loud the grown ups could hear us upstairs.

The next time, it was called Children’s Worship, and I was a thirtyish mother of very young children. During that year, I saw a child truly worship — close her eyes, raise her hands, and sing to the Lord with every fiber of her first grade self. It was one of the most beautiful and pure things I’d ever seen. That was also the year I played poker with a few young gentlemen during their choice time, because it was the only way to keep them from wrestling. Neither beautiful nor pure, but fun.

When we moved to the multiracial church when my youngest was 2, I formalized the children’s worship program and lead it every Sunday for eight months. I knew only a few adults in the congregation, but I really got to know the kids. I was the only leader, so I had all the kids, ages 3-2nd grade, and, before I got tough, multiple young helpers. It was exciting and energizing and exhausting.

Then more leaders came on board and there was a schedule. And the next year, even more leaders, enough to split into two classrooms. It felt like such a luxury for me to only lead the preschoolers. There were such competent people involved that I began to daydream about handing over the responsibilities and focusing on dance and drama. I took some seminars, talked to some people, and felt like God was moving me away from children’s worship and towards new opportunities. It was exciting and energizing. And then the church imploded.

In the ensuing storm after discovering that a trusted member of the congregation had embezzled thousands of dollars from the church and the pastor, dozens of people left the church, including 6 of my 7 other children’s worship leaders. I went from thinking I’d be happily taking my shift while someone else was in charge, to being one of two people, in charge again — no separate classrooms, with the kids fully half of the time I was at church.

I gritted my teeth and did it because I believed strongly in the benefits of kids being presented with the great stories of the faith and with church at their developmental level. I like to think I didn’t take it out on the kids, but that was the year Miss Natalie would go into her office for brief timeouts when things got too frustrating. There were so many Sunday mornings I cried, exhausted, telling God that I had nothing to give anymore, so He needed to supply me with some of His energy. He always did. There were many beautiful and fun moments during those hard years when we couldn’t keep a third leader; people would sign up, do it a couple of times, and then leave the church.

I was getting bitter. I didn’t want to be “the kid person.” But after a few years everything shifted during a conversation with my other stalwart leader. We were complaining about our situation and he said something like, “I do it selfishly because of my kids, but you do it because you love it.”

He was right. I did love it, and I loved the kids, and that was why I did it. And just like that, I settled back into the role. I didn’t do it begrudgingly anymore. I didn’t need to beg God to make sure I wasn’t a bitch. I embraced the gifts God had given me. And God brought me leaders enough to split the kids into two classrooms. I wrote a new preschool curriculum with felt board-based storytelling and had a glorious year with my kids — the wild ones I had to rein in and the ones who’d tell me they weren’t going to sing but found themselves singing and doing actions when I sneakily did all their favorite songs. And then the church imploded. This time, I was one of the people who left.

Which means it has been six weeks since I’ve told a Bible story to children or sung silly-yet-spiritual songs with them, and I’m jonesing. So indulge me here. It’s a longish one, but I had so much fun telling this last fall.

As the children arrive, give them one “stone” (a soft ball from the basket that will be waiting by the door). Tell them to hold it carefully and sit in the circle. When everyone’s there, tell them that we’re going to try to defeat our enemy, the filing cabinet. First, does anyone want to try to push it over? Let everyone who wants to, give it a shot ONE AT A TIME.

Now, does anyone want to see if throwing your stone at it will hurt it? Again, ONE AT A TIME.

Segue to the story.

Well, we didn’t defeat the filing cabinet today. But let’s listen to a story about how David, when he was just a kid, a long time before he became king of Israel, defeated someone way, way, way bigger than him with God’s help.

This story takes place during a time of war: a people called the Philistines were at war with Israel. They were on either side of a valley, with a stream in the middle.


Every day, a giant came out on the Philistine side. He made fun of God and of the Israelites and challenged them to send one fighter out: if that one fighter could beat him, then the Israelites would win the whole war. If that one person lost, the Israelites would be the Philistine’s slaves.

Goliath was huge, and he had a big sword, and a javelin and a fancy helmet and even his shield was bigger than a regular-sized man.

The Israelite soldiers were terrified of the giant Goliath, and none of them went out to fight him.

David’s three older brothers, Eliab, Abinadab and Shammah were in the Israelite army. One day, David’s parents sent him with some food to give to the army.

When David got there, his brothers gave him a boost so he could see Goliath come out and taunt the Israelites.

Goliath had been doing that for 40 days, and nobody had even tried to fight him. When David heard that, he was upset that none of the soldiers trusted God enough to help them, so he went up to the king and volunteered.

Well, some people laughed and David’s big brother Eliab got angry at him. David was still just a kid, maybe 15 years old. But David insisted that God would help him and he could do it. So King Saul let him. The king tried to give David his own armor, but it was way, way too big.

David took off all that stuff and walked forward with only his shepherd’s staff and his sling.

When Goliath saw that Israel was sending a kid to fight him, at first he laughed, but then he got offended and he ran towards David with a roar.

David walked across the stream and picked up five smooth stones.

While he ran towards Goliath, he put one stone in his sling, swung it over his head once, and let go.

The stone went right for the unprotected part of Goliath’s forehead, sunk in, and stunned him. He fell face-forward on the ground.

He was still alive, so David took Goliath’s own sword and cut off his head.

David had done what all the grown-ups couldn’t do: he defeated the giant, because he trusted God to help him, so God did.