Sunday School – without the rock opera

There are a lot of reasons why I respect my 19-year-old daughter’s moral compass and one of them is her years at the United Church of Lincoln Sunday School here in Lincoln, Vermont. It was that hour she spent after church week after week over the course of a decade with such teachers as Lorraine and Linda and Nancy and Russ and Curt – to name just a few of the volunteer parents who were there for her over the course of a decade and change.

So, when I was asked to teach Sunday school for seven weeks this winter, I said yes. Seven weeks? Easy.

Nope. Not so fast. I am halfway through that seven weeks and I have discovered two things: The Bible is way more complicated than I realized. And between now and my next class I have got to find a TV station that focuses on crafts. I am seriously craft-challenged and kids, even the Xbox generation, really love crafts. Glitter, paste, and Magic Markers are catnip to an artistic eight-year-old.

But let’s start with that first issue: The fact that most of what I know about the Bible comes from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. If all I had to teach were the stories of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I’d be all set. I can do Pharaoh’s voice. I can do Herod’s. I’ve seen the episode of “Seinfeld” where Kramer wears the Dreamcoat from the Broadway production.

Unfortunately, my first two classes began with two of the more serious head-scratchers in the Old Testament. What was the very first story I had to explain to the kids? Abraham’s plan to obey God and kill his son Isaac. What was the second? Jacob lies to his father by pretending to be his brother Esau, and thus inherits his father’s fortune.

The craft for the first class was way beyond my middle-aged skill set: It involved tin cans and cotton balls and half the craft closet in my church. The end result was supposed to be the ram that God provided Abraham in recognition of his obedience, so he didn’t have to sacrifice his son. The day before class I tried to make the ram. I failed. The end product looked like a pencil holder with cotton balls stuck to it, and not merely because I was building it while watching NFL playoff games – you know, multitasking. I am just really bad with a glue gun.

Knowing that absolutely no good was going to come from leading my class in a craft, I decided instead to bring in copies of the classic Caravaggio painting from the Renaissance, the “Sacrifice of Isaac.” It’s terrifying because Isaac knows what’s coming and looks plenty scared. The painting was not a great decision on my part, but not because it gave anyone nightmares. It takes way more than a Caravaggio painting to give a 21st-century boy or girl a bad dream. No, this was a bad idea because our discussion of the painting took about five minutes, which meant I had 55 minutes left when we were done. . .and I didn’t have any tin cans to transform into rams. I thought it was going to be a fiasco.

What saved me? The kids themselves. My lesson plan was a train wreck, but their energy and their questions were limitless. Abraham, Isaac, the nature of obedience and, yes, snacks got us through the hour.

The same was true the following week when we were discussing Jacob and Esau. I had no idea how to teach this story when I began, but they all had brothers and sisters and cousins. I was able to trust them to explain to me the Freudian meaning of a Biblical story where one brother gets away with lying and stealing.

Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is eighty percent of life.” I think that may be true in Sunday school, too – although snacks and a craft help. But you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar or Martha Stewart. You simply have to be a grownup willing to pay attention and take an eight-year-old’s questions seriously. I’m really glad I showed up.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on January 27, 2013. The paperback of Chris’s novel, The Sandcastle Girls, arrives on April 15.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.