(an excerpt from Death by Breakfast: The Memoirs of the Rev Mack Ore)
“Can you say penal substitution?”
The question hung in the air and the kids that weren’t slouched in their seat with vacant stares were openly shaking their heads no at me. It was my first week in God’s Theology Explorers class and it was not going well. The kids complained about the Theology Explorers name I gave them and suggested many others, such as the Jesus Lovers, God’s Army, and The Transformers. My first lesson was stalling badly. I had intended to show what Christ did for them on the cross by demonstrating how Jesus took our sins and God’s wrath on himself and made a way for us to be right with God. I thought it would be fun to have different kids in the crowd play out the parts of my theological lesson.
I chose a boy named Brent to stand on the right and be God the Father and asked a kid named Robbie to stand on my left and represent the Devil. The kids erupted at that choice. Calling Robbie “the devil” and laughing their little cow-licked heads off, I tried to maintain order by yelling out, “OK, who wants to be Jesus? Who wants to be Jesus?”
I thought all the kids would want that role. Nope. My lone volunteer was Maria. A girl. I tried to ignore her but she stood on her chair and kept squealing “Mister Mack, Mister Mack!” I relented and had her stand in the middle between God and the Devil. She stuck her tongue out as kids shouted that a girl can’t be Jesus. I agreed with them but suggested maybe God’s grace was big enough to cover it today. They kept protesting.
Lastly, I grabbed a kid from the front row to be my representation of humanity and show how God the Father was angry with him, but Jesus could save him. The kid I picked was a seasoned introvert named Elliot. Four years old and full of fears. As I built up the teaching to the vocab-lesson-climax of Penal Substitution, Elliot, my stand-in for humanity, was crying as I talked about his sins… Satan Robbie laughed at him as Brent, God the Father, picked his nose. Jesus Maria was lifting her dress to show the other girls in the front row what her tights looked like. I jumped to my conclusion.
“Can you say penal substitution?”
Several students shouted out attempts that would’ve been bleeped out on network TV.
The only way to salvage the moment was an altar call.
“Everyone bow their heads and close their eyes,” I shouted. “We’re going to pray.”
There’s nothing like that phrase to get a room of church folk to snap to attention. I don’t doubt there’s many a devout believer that when they hear that phrase thinks in their mind, “Oh, the Lord is about to do a sweet work and bring in some sheaves from the harvest.” But most church folk think, “Yes, it’s almost done.” Kids are no different.
I repreached my lesson in the prayer and made sure I emphasized how a lack of Jesus would mean that our sins still required God’s wrath. I ended by asking them to raise their hands if they wanted Jesus to take their sins away so they could live forever with God. Every kid got saved that day. I gave them all an extra portion of goldfish crackers at snack time.
The next week, I thought I’d try something novel and emphasize prayer with the kids. Maybe the key to teaching them to obey God was more prayer and less systematic theology. I drew a picture of the globe on the world and talked about what the Christians in those countries were going through. I explained how we needed to pray for them in their persecutions and sufferings. Humanity Eliot starting crying again, and on cue, Satan Robbie laughed at him.
I changed gears. “Who has a prayer request?”
“My grandma’s sick.”
“My grandma’s sick too.”
“My grandpa’s sick.”
“Me too. Me too.”
“Okay,” I shouted, “Who has sick grandparents? Raise your hand.” Apparently everybody’s family tree was dying except for Jesus Maria who was holding the ends of her braided pigtails and making them dance.
“Do you have any other prayer requests?” I asked.
“My dad needs a new job.”
“My cousin needs surgery.”
“We have a soccer game today.”
“It’s too hot out.”
“My neighbor’s dog got shot by another neighbor but he says he didn’t do it but my mom says he did. But they might have to put the dog to sleep because it’s hurt real bad.”
I paused as my flock of thirty preschoolers processed that last request. I realized then that I did need to teach more, and considered starting in that moment with Jesus’ thoughts on prayer. As I formed my words, Satan Robbie jumped into the silence and blurted out his request.
“My mom got bit by a werewolf.”
By the fourth week of Theological Explorers Preschool class, I was taking down the collapsible wall between our class and the empty one beside it and letting the kids run amok for an hour. I started off with a bible verse that I made them yell along with me and then I hit play on the tape player and blared kids praise music. Centered in the room was an open bowl of goldfish crackers where they could graze at their leisure. I purchased four soft kick balls that I threw out into the pandemonium in random intervals. I asked the children’s directors if I could have the same two eighth grade girls help me every week, who I placed on bathroom duty for the hour. Overall, I felt like my service to the church of the future went well, despite their complete inability to grasp the blessings of atonement.