Youth ministry is not among my gifts. When my children were young, well before my late vocation ordination, I did my duty helping teach confirmation and organizing a few youth events, but they were not my strengths. After seminary and ordination, and in my early 50s, I had the usual round of interviews with rectors looking for a newly minted youth minister. Thankfully, none of them offered me a job. Adult Christian education is my passion, what I’m good at. As a priest and rector, I have never given a children’s sermon, nor am I much in favor of them believing, as I do, that children can handle the fullness of church, including the sermon.
This is not to say that I have little regard for youth ministry. To the contrary, I think it is of highest importance. I made it a policy and discipline to do everything possible to raise it up, make it happen, see that it was funded and rejoice in its successes. It’s just that I am not very good at it myself.
All this is prelude to my first encounter with pre-schoolers. I filled in for a good friend of mine several weeks this summer while he was on vacation. His parish has a pre-school, and he conducts a regular education and worship service for them. So there I was, face to face with about thirty three and four year olds who expected some songs, prayers, a bible story or two and a chance to talk about them. It was quite a wonderful experience. They did their best to teach me some songs about saying good morning and thank you and loving one’s neighbor. They offered enthusiastic prayers of thanksgiving and supplication. They explained to me whose house (God’s) we were in and what we do when we are in it. And they seemed to enjoy my reading of simple bible stories.
They all appeared to be enthusiastic, energetic, willing, trusting, and absolutely fascinated to learn anything new, anything at all. Much of the school is open air, it is the tropics after all, so I walked by them many times a day witnessing their behavior under each of the circumstance of their routine. It seemed to me to be a happy place.
So what happens? Do we stifle all of that, stuffing kids into pedagogical boxes and throwing up barriers to the sheer joy of being and learning? Do maturing minds naturally lose that joyful spontaneity as they age? Do we observe some small character defect, real or imagined, and label a child from that point on? Do parents discourage the joy of life as they try to teach them the right way to be? Some of these children will grow up to be pillars of society. Some will go to prison. Some will die young of drugs, accidents or war. Some will drift through a life of boring mediocrity. Some will achieve great things. Some will rebel, and some will obey. Some, maybe not many, will never lose the joyful spontaneity of childhood. Even fewer will rediscover it after many years.
It gets complicated. Children must grow into adults. Childishness must be left behind. The balance of leaving childishness behind while retaining a childlike delight in life is not an easy one. My few hours with these children helped me rejoice again in childlike delight. It was fun. Who knows, maybe I’ll learn all the words of the sassy little mynah bird song one of these days.