Despite our best spiritual efforts, we often find out we’ve simply been asking all the wrong questions. Member of the community Jeremy Masys learns the truth of the saying “from the mouths of children.”
When I first offered to help out with the preschoolers at the start of this year, I knew nothing about children’s ministry. I hadn’t spent much time at all around 3- and 4-year olds in the thirty-odd years since I myself was one, and had only been regularly attending church as an adult since 2014.
So why volunteer? My motivation could roughly be broken down as follows: a 25% need to prove to you all that I was a kind-hearted, dedicated Christian, and a 75% need to prove that to myself. I’ve since been half-seriously informed by church leaders that, so long as I show up for my two teaching slots every month, working out a less narcissistic motivation is between me and God. Motivations aside, the big challenge for me over these past three months is this: how do I teach kids, who can’t even spell “God,” the spiritual truths I’m still sorting out at 39?
Right before my first service with the kids, I happened to hear a talk by the youth minister from the humongous Bethel Church, in which he said that, given Jesus’ exhortations that we “become like little children,” churches should change the focus from teaching kids to letting them teach us. Which sounded like just the kind of impractical, hippy-dippy koan that would definitely not come in handy when I stare down at a dozen little cherubic faces, each of them wondering, “Who is this unqualified imposter and what has he done with the real Sunday School teacher?”
But a couple weeks ago, I saw that the lesson plan was to 1) tell the kids the story of the Good Samaritan, and 2) explain that, because God loves us all just as we are, we can be like the Good Samaritan in helping the helpless man on the road. All we have to do is reflect that love towards our fellow man (and not feel like we have to help in order to, oh I don’t know, bolster our self-image and/or humble-brag on social media… not that I know anything about that).
Having finally grasped that concept through a whole other bizarre life episode these past few months, I felt like this was a lesson I understood on a visceral, very current level. Now… how to pass on that tricky but life-changing distinction between serving out of love and serving out of need to the preschoolers?
Fortunately, I had a visual aid: a picture of the fallen man on the road, and three small paper cut-outs of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. The kids each got their paper and cut-outs, too, and I told them to imagine that they were the man, beaten up and robbed by thieves, and left helpless on the road with no family members or police officers to help. I mimed being the man, slack-jawed and horizontal on the road, and, to my pleasant surprise, the seven kids mimed this along with me. Okay, I’ve got their attention! I held up the cut-out of the priest with his scroll, and told them he didn’t help the man, then showed him walking on past the man. I did the same with the Levite, showing him crossing the road to avoid the man. And heading toward the big finale I showed the Good Samaritan cut-out kneeling beside the man to help him, and laid the big question before them – “Why did the Good Samaritan help the man?” – ready to drive home the lesson like a Sunday School boss.
But the kids had other plans. One girl held up the priest cut-out, and asked, “Why he no help him?” I tried to steer back to the focus of the Good Samaritan’s motivation, but she was insistent: “Why he no help him?” Soon half the class was holding up priest and Levite cut-outs, asking, “Why he no help him?” I tried to explain that maybe the priest and Levite had places to be, or perhaps they were scared of the man, or maybe they thought he deserved to be there. None of these explanations made sense to the kids, and the girl and her compatriots continued to press, “Why he no help him?”
It was then that I realized there’s not really a great answer to that question. At least not one acceptable to a preschooler untrained in the dark art of rationalization. For me, not helping was the unquestioned default starting point, while the act of helping was something that demanded an explanation, ideally one involving an enlightened motivation. But for the kids, those were reversed; helping was a given, and not helping was the mystery. The guy from Bethel was onto something after all, what with his flagrant quoting of Jesus about becoming little children.
And as we as a church turn towards the hows and whys of helping our fellow men and women, hurt and helpless on our Los Angeles streets by the tens of thousands, we might start with listening to what our youngest brothers and sisters in Christ have to say on the matter.