She looked at me with wide eyes. Ghostly white and a tremor on her lips, she whispered, “Mommy says I can’t say that word.”
I paused, frantically searching my memory for what I could have said that offended this seven-year-old. It was my turn to teach Sunday school and this child was a visitor. Her mother had walked in ten minutes before the service started, mumbling something about wanting to teach her kids some morals.
I retraced my steps. We were talking through the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand from Mark chapter six. I asked this girl if the boat in the beginning of the story scared her. No. Did the waves scare her? No. The group of disciples, the lack of food, the crowd of people? No.
She whispered again, “Mommy says I can’t say ‘Jesus.’ She says it’s a swear word.”
Now it was my turn to be nervous. “What do you mean?”
“It’s a swear word. And you keep saying it over and over.”
I stopped my lesson. I only had four children that day. My own son looked at me, his jaw slowly unhinging. I prayed silently, desperately.
Sometimes the best education doesn’t come with lesson plans and a diploma. Had I prayed for the morning? Or was I simply dutifully taking my turn to teach the Sunday school lesson?
I sat there, and in an instant every Bible study, sermon, and Christian book I had ever read came crashing together in my mind. I felt so inadequate to present the Gospel to this child who had never heard such a message. The One who made the universe and set the stars in place was asking me to tell a little girl about Himself. And I couldn’t find the words.
How does one tell a child that her mother is wrong? ‘Jesus’ is not a swear word, but rather the name of our Savior. It’s one thing to present the Gospel to an adult who can argue back, but to a child who has to go home with her mother? I knew I had to present this in such a way that wouldn’t disrespect her parent. With a big sigh mixed with silent prayer, I began at the beginning: God created the world. Jesus, the focus of the morning’s lesson, is the Son of God; He’s the part of God who came to earth to tell us about God.
Suddenly had a very attentive audience. All four of my little students soaked in every word. In that moment, I explained that Jesus is a person, a truly unique, amazing, awesome person who is also the one who created the world. We talked about salvation and forgiveness.
She asked question after question about the God of the Bible. What is the Bible? Who wrote it? Where is Jesus now? Why do we worship Him? What is worship anyway? Is it really possible that one little boy’s lunch of fish and bread fed so many people? How did Jesus make that happen?
What is children’s ministry made of? Bible stories, coloring pages, and craft projects. I did none of that with those kids that day. We never returned to our lesson plan. With simply my Bible, some prayer, and the freedom to ask questions, God provided the lesson that morning.
When we were done, I prayed for that child’s mother, sitting upstairs in a pew in the sanctuary. I knew my husband was preaching a hard subject that morning, but I also know he has a way of presenting things with a grace that invites people to hear more. I had no idea what that mother was facing, just that she seemed harried and frazzled.
I never saw that girl or her mother again after that morning. But sometimes that’s all he calls us to do: be faithful in the moment with what he’s given us and trust that the simplicity of the Gospel is powerful enough without any extras.