Columnists > Voices

Discomfort zone

When the church bulletin has a "help wanted" notice

Issue: "John Smoltz: The closer," Aug. 3, 2002

I had no intention of being anything but a warm body from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the "4-year-olds" Sunday school class at my church. There was a hole that wanted plugging-a need for "teachers" and "helpers" had been announced mercilessly in the bulletin for weeks on end, until the steady drumbeat of call to obligation had become an intolerable tug on the conscience. In any case, others had taught my kids in Sunday school, so the logic of it was inescapable. I chose the wallflower position of "helper"-sharpening pencils and clearing Ritz cracker crumbs off tables, I hoped.

The reader must not be too condemning here. I had been badly burned in a valiant attempt to teach 5th- and 6th-graders in a local public school that I'd hitherto perceived to be high in common-grace levels; and even well before that, from a thousand little deaths, the verdict was in that I am singularly unsuited for working with children. I have watched crackerjack teachers in action and have noticed that one salient ingredient in those who've "got it" is a discipline of mind that I will call "presence in the moment," which I have notoriously lacked all my life, being a hopeless Walter Mitty. And I have furthermore reluctantly bowed to the conclusion that if one or two kids are intractable it's the kids' problem, but if all 25 are intractable, it's the teacher's problem.

I realize there are two schools of thought about Sunday school service. One is that the Creator has endowed us with certain gifts and that we are responsible to use these, and to let others use their own as they have been apportioned; and that everything should work out swimmingly this way: the well-oiled body of Christ with every distinct part humming in its place. But there seemed something suspiciously self-serving about this theology as I tried to recuse myself from the child-care sphere of church life.

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The other school of thought, of course (which I expect anyone in my church would have pointed out to me if I had attempted to wheedle out of service using the first school of thought as a defense), is that one should be willing to step outside one's "comfort zone" and serve wherever there is a need. I settled on that second philosophy, and stepped into the class of Mr. Steiger, for better or for worse.

One must always remember when entering a classroom of children-and especially when this is the start of their third hour in the church building-that they will have a different agenda than the teacher's. The teacher may be thinking how interesting it is that there are nine fruit of the Spirit, or that the tabernacle in Israel was first located in Shiloh, but it is a rare 4-year-old who will immediately share his enthusiasm. And at this late hour you have going against you not only total depravity but the pent-up energies of stallions too long held in the stall. (I am referring also to myself in this last observation.)

By week three the good news was that I started to learn some of the 22 names, and that personalities began to emerge from the faceless blob of preschool humanity. The bad news was that the kids were in control of the class. At Bible-story time they sat in their chairs-when they deigned to sit at all-like Lily Tomlin in her Laugh-In shtick, and called my bluffs when I weakly intimated that consequences might be meted out for lack of cooperation. I began to get butterflies in my stomach on Friday afternoons in dread of Sunday mornings.

I needed to do something desperate. I called Becky W., a fellow church member who had half these kids in her class at the nearby Christian school, where, the rumor was, they were pliant and docile as Rubens's cherubs. We met at Barnes and Noble, I with pen and paper, eager to plunder all her best games, time-fillers, and strategies; she, with messages about reaching hearts, getting down to eye level, and the subliminal instruction that goes on in the teacher's every choice and gesture, way before you crack the catechism open.

I am learning a lot in Sunday school these days. Last week a girl ran up and hugged me when I walked in, which warmed the temperature of the room considerably. Also, I bought two puppets at a craft fair, borrowed the pastor's daughter's puppet stand, and discovered the effectiveness of one degree of separation between me and the audience when communicating a Bible story. This doesn't mean I'm signing up for next year, but then again, you never know what God will do.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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