I’m sitting in row seven watching Dr. Bob, our senior pastor, give today’s sermon for children. He raises a box and squints his eyes as though he is trying to figure out what is in it. Now most of us, children and adults alike, love guessing games. So, Dr. Bob calls his weekly children’s talk “What’s in the Box?” Talk about mystery. The kids love it. So do the adults. Especially me.
Next, Bob invites all the children to come to the front of the sanctuary. Sometimes a few brave adults join them, but not today. The children sit in a semi-circle with Dr. Bob as the master of ceremonies. Then I listen for the same question the eager ears have waited for.
“Who’s got the box this week?” Bob’s intonation makes the question sound brand new, exciting, fun and playful.
The gift-wrapped and much-loved shoe box is proudly presented by last week’s lucky kid. You see, children’s hands fly skyward each time he asks for a volunteer to hide something mysterious for the following Sunday’s service. So, the child who presents the “Sabbath-day secret” each week beams with the powerful knowledge of the sealed box. All eyes are fixed on the treasure cradled in his/her arms.
Even the adults lean forward in their seats, straining for a peek. I’m usually on the edge of my seat, too. Dr. Bob begins with a few observations designed to exaggerate his attempts to figure out what lies hidden under the lid. He lifts the box, shakes it and sniffs at it.
“It’s not too heavy. It doesn’t rattle when you shake it. I can’t smell anything. Nope. It’s not making any noise.”
Then, he stirs in questions: “What could be in here? Is it something you eat? Can you wear it, like a mask or a hat or clothes? Is it dangerous? Hmmmmm.”
I listen as the children answer each question with a chorus of “yes-s-s-s-s…!” or “no-o-o-o-o-o…!” And laughter. Lots of laughter. Giggling. Joy. One child jumps to his feet, shifts from one foot to another, anticipates the revelation. I feel the tension building. The grown-ups lean forward, chuckling, pretending they’re not being taken in by the ruse. But, they are.
Then, every soul in the congregation is fully engaged. Bob knows he’s got every child and adult in the palm of his hand. I listen to him launch into another extemporaneous sermon that he “hand builds,” without missing a beat, around the soon-to-be- revealed object. As always, his message seems to ignite everyone’s spirit this morning. Every child and child-at-heart is captured, “boxed in” with the word of God spoken by this precious pastor.
Is this children’s sermon, again, for this child of God? I wonder. I ask myself the same question each Sunday. And today’s answer is the same as always – yes. Dr. Bob’s message is for me, too. It’s for me every time.
I try to remember who told me to think outside the box. It’s what’s inside this box that counts.
On this day, two plush artificial kittens spring forth from under the cover – cute, cuddly and colorful. Dr. Bob tenderly raises them high so we all can see.
“These kitties are beautiful. They’re soft and furry. They’re easy to hug. They hold still when you want to hold them.” I study his eyes, watch him begin to frame his message. They sparkle. I’m watching an idea being born, God reaching out through this man.
He continues, “But, do these kittens need to be fed? Do they cry when they’re hungry? Do you have to clean their litter box? Do they lick your face?” The kids’ chorus answers every question.
I watch him carefully, wondering where he’s taking us.
“Are these kittens real?” he asks.
“No-o-o-o-o-o!” everyone answers. “They’re just play kittens. Real kitties would wiggle out of your arms,” one child declares.
“So, these kittens aren’t real?” Bob asks.
“Yes-s-s-s-s-s!” The chorus is stronger than ever. Their declaration is firm, convincing.
“Yes-s-s-s-s-s-s! They’re just play kitties!”
Dr. Bob eases into a short talk about the differences between “real” and “artificial” pets. His young audience joins in, offering their opinions, helping him understand. He graciously accepts their instruction. His smile widens. Staccato examples fly between the members of this altar-bound group.
Then, pausing, Dr. Bob gets to the heart of his message.
“Is God real or artificial?” he asks.
“God is real!” a little girl answers. “He’s real!” “Jesus is real, too!” another joins in. “He’s always real! He’s cool. Not like these kitties.”
Hands fly up. More affirmations follow, declarations regarding God’s reality are proudly pronounced, affirmed, supported. Then, the kids start to wiggle, sensing closure. Dr. Bob sits back slightly, offers a few more examples of what life would be like if God wasn’t real, if Jesus was a fake. Small heads nod vigorously. One boy stands and stamps his foot on the floor, his own signature of his belief in God.
For the closing prayer of petition, Dr. Bob asks each child to recognize the real God at work in his/her life, the real Jesus walking beside him/her every day in the form of friends and family members, precious pets and surprise secrets hidden in the box.
I slide back in my pew and consider his prayer. I think of Jesus’ promise, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”(Matt. 28:20). Bob’s done it again. Is there a better “take away” from a sermon than this?
I know this message is for me.
So what’s in the box this week? The guessing game’s over for today. I know the answer. Stuffed, plush kittens. But, next Sunday, who knows? I’m confident and grateful that when the next secret peeks out from under the shoe box lid, Dr. Bob will use it to teach another spiritual truth.
“I want the children to recognize God in the things of this world, to see God all around them,” he told me recently. “If I can do that, God becomes real for them.”
“Yes,” I replied, “and for me, too.” ?