There’s No Crying in VBS
And other insights from the vacation bible school trenches
By Dana Bowman | July 10, 2017
It’s summertime and we parents know the drill. We stock up on pool passes and sunscreen, hunt down all our library cards, and hope in vain that this summer our children will be tall enough to maneuver the lawn mower. And vacation Bible schools pop up all over the place. They’re like a thousand points of light where our children can tie-dye things to their hearts’ content and learn about Jesus.
On a sticky July morning at our church’s VBS, I’m observing a young mother and her son waiting in line. She is standing over him whispering fervently. Actually she’s not really standing; she’s doing that hunch-lean that moms do because her child is melting down, and she might be hoping that leaning over him will make
the melting congeal.
It never works, the hunch-lean, even when paired with the arm-grip of death, but we keep trying.
I am watching the mom’s face as it pages through empathy, tenderness, severity, and desperation, all in about three minutes. I might have also spotted barely concealed rage, but I’m not judging. The woman is trying to get her child to attend VBS, and he has mutinied. The situation is dire.
There are times when our children are adorable and tremulous and afraid of something, and we comfort them with hugs and kisses and that soft cooing voice that moms have. And then there are times when we just need the kid to go to VBS for three hours so we can go get the first pedicure we’ve had since the late eighties.
I’ve been there, friend. Just shove him toward the nice church lady and run.
There are times when our children are adorable and tremulous. And then there are times when we just need the kid to go to VBS so we can get the first pedicure we’ve had since the eighties.
As it happens, I am the nice church lady. Mom shoves her kid at me, and then she vanishes. I swear I hear gleeful cackling and tires peeling out, but then I am surrounded by small children who are on the cusp of freaking out, so I’m not sure. I find myself folding into the hunch-lean as well, and I want to start lecturing: “Okay, listen up, kid. Whatever you do, remember this. There is no crying in vacation Bible school. Now come with me and let’s emotionally eat our way through some Teddy Grahams.” Instead, I offer him multiple hugs and tell him there might
be puppets later. He brightens.
I have taught VBS for so many years now that I am starting to think of myself as a sort of grizzled veteran of the Bible school trenches. “Gear up, people!” I announce at the other volunteers as we rinse out fifty thousand milk cartons and count pipe cleaners. “This is do or die. Our strategy is charm ’em with the nut-free snacks in paper cups, then bam—surprise attack altar calls on both Thursday and Friday.”
I start scrawling battle plans on the whiteboard while the other volunteers, wide-eyed, start to shift in their seats. “Clearly, we need to aim the most heat at the younger kids. Let’s hit ’em hard with the end times and Revelation right from the start.”
One woman raises her hand and tentatively interjects, “I thought we had planned a camping theme this year…?”
Perhaps my plan to fire Revelation at the children is a bit misguided. I figure we only have these kids for a week, so time is of the essence. But then again Jesus isn’t exactly known for rushing things.
We stick with the camping theme.
VBS is important. It teaches the children how to tie-dye pillow cases. But also it gives them Jesus. Be it on a felt board or in endless puppet shows, Jesus shows up. I know this because I have seen him, right in the middle of a child-train of four-year-olds who are walking from the sanctuary back to their classroom—a process that takes twenty minutes.
They are sticky. They ask for more snacks than humanly possible. Jesus is right there with them.
He is right there when one skeptical fourth grader asks, “Wait. He came back? Who is this guy really?”
He’s there when peel-out mom gets to sit with a cup of coffee and stare off into space for an hour before she realizes she misses her kid a little. She smiles at the knowledge of this, the tug and pull of motherhood. She won’t have to re-microwave her coffee twelve times or wipe up any crumbs, yet suddenly she finds she can’t wait to hug her boy hello and exclaim with awe over the hand-painted bug catcher he hands her.
Jesus is there when my son takes his little brother by the hand and leads him to his room. “This was my classroom last year when I was little,” he tells the younger one. “Good luck, kid.”
He’s there when the kid who always gets in trouble at school shows up. He walked to the church, and he has his little sister with him. They are not pre-enrolled and no one has seen his mother. They are sticky. They ask for more snacks than humanly possible. The behavior issues are just as bad as they were during the school year, but now they are doubled. Jesus is right there with them, and with their teachers, the whole time.
Jesus knows this is one of the toughest teaching gigs out there. In fact, I think anyone who teaches any sort of Sunday school or VBS or children’s church is privy to some conversation like this when they go to heaven:
heaven admittance person:
Hi, welcome to heaven! Here’s a goodie bag. Did I hear that you used to teach VBS?
new heaven attendee:
Why yes. Second grade.
heaven admittance person:
Congratulations! You get a FastPass. This allows you to be at the front of the line for everything and also, just extra everything. On everything.
new heaven attendee:
There are lines in heaven?
heaven admittance person:
Of course not. But if there were, you would be at the front. You’re a saint.
And I should know.
Two summers ago I decided to take my chances with this FastPass business, and I did not volunteer to help. It was a risky move because I also schlepped my children to fifty other VBS’s in the area, and each time I dropped them off I felt so much mom guilt for not Doing My Part that I felt like I needed to wear a tie-dyed scarlet letter.
You see, that summer was full of all sorts of writing deadlines. It is common knowledge that people who miss deadlines do not go to heaven. And as it seemed that every minute of my summer meant I was wedged up against two sweaty boys who craved attention like heat-seeking missiles, I was getting desperate about those deadlines. So from the very start of June I began my campaign.
“I’m not going to help with VBS this year,” I announced at dinnertime. “I need to write.” My husband nodded and asked, “What’s VBS?”
At the grocery store, the checker asked me if I wanted paper or plastic and I answered, “Paper, please. And I’m not helping with VBS this year.” When I still received
my groceries my confidence skyrocketed.
And then I decided to lobby my mom friends.
“Hi!” I smiled and waved. “I’m not doing VBS! I’m free! Free!”
“That’s so great,” said Mom Friend 1. “I’m helping with two VBS’s this summer. It’s for the children, you know.”
“Me too. I’m in charge of crafts,” said Mom Friend 2.
“Ohhh, crafts. That was where Megan helped last year. You remember Megan, don’t you? We never heard from her again after crafts. Let’s hope you don’t have to use glitter. I’ll add you to my prayer list,” added Mom Friend 3.
“But that’s great, Dana. Good for you. Take some time for yourself. You deserve it. Totally. You do. Not us. But you. Of course,” they all said in unison.
I signed up the next day.
At that point, the only jobs left were drama team and the cleaning crew.
I opted for drama.
“Ohhh, crafts. Let’s hope you don’t have to use glitter. I’ll add you to my prayer list,” she said.
When I showed up for my first day, I had my lines learned. I was even kind of excited. The theme that year was something like Let’s All Spy on Jesus, and I was playing a spy! I was dressed all in black, with a baseball cap and dark glasses—appropriate garb for my role. During the skit itself, I hit every line, and all my funny moments were followed by cackles from the crowd. I was killing it. They liked me; they really liked me!
Toward the end of the scene, I went off script because I am a method actor, and we do stuff like that. Also, I decided to add some ninja moves to my blocking, with a few high kicks because spies like flair.
And that’s when I pulled a groin muscle and nearly died.
But you know what they say, right? There’s no crying in vacation Bible school.
Look for me this summer, where I’ll be in charge of the four-year-old child-train. If one falls, they all go down, so let’s hope for the best. Repeat after me: no crying.