It began with a snake in the grass. We were huddled together on our circle rug, my second-semester first graders and I, doing our Plug In activity and “speculating” about the Bible story we would hear in a few minutes.
“Do you know any stories from the Bible about snakes?” I asked. A moment of silence.
“Sure,” Ethan said. “There was this angel in heaven and he was the most beautiful angel there ever was only he wanted to take God’s place so God kicked him out of heaven and now he lives in hell and one day God’s going to throw him in a big lake of fire at the end of the world. (Breath) And he showed up in the garden of Eden as a snake.”
As a summary of evil’s genesis and how God will end it, it wasn’t too bad; only we weren’t going there, not with first graders and certainly not five minutes into the lesson. “Wow, you know a lot about that, Ethan. Let’s go to large group and find out if that’s what our Bible story is today.”
Thirty minutes later, we’d heard the story and reviewed it, and all was well until someone asked The Question. You know the one I mean: that question (or comment) that derails the lesson. You may recognize it immediately for what it is, or its danger may be concealed at first, but suddenly you’ve lost control of the situation and the group is off and away, chasing that rabbit.
“But how does the angel fit in?” Amelie asked.
“Tell us about the lake of fire!” Kevin prompted.
“Why did he have to leave heaven?” said Holly. “Didn’t that hurt his feelings?” My eyes almost welled in response to Holly’s tears, that tender-hearted girl. Every kid in the group was interested in, if not downright concerned about, Satan’s well being and whether God was a big ol’ meanie. For once, there was no wiggling or giggling or poking of their neighbors. Seven pairs of eyes were glued to me, and my palms began to sweat. It was plain to see there was no going back; we were going down that rabbit hole, and like Alice in a strange Wonderland, I was going to have to make the best of it. Oh, God, please give me the right words and don’t let me scar these children for life.
That’s how it goes sometimes. The Bible story is about the serpent, and Eve, and Adam, and what they did in response to the devil’s wily lies. The point you’re supposed to be making is that God is honest, and He wants us to be honest in obedience to Him. But someone in the group introduces fallen angels and a fiery lake—the unexpected rabbit(s)—and you have to choose how to deal with it. Do you chase, or do you attempt to drag everybody back from the brink of that hole?
The answer is that there’s rabbit chasing, and then there’s rabbit chasing—the holy kind.
Wherever kids are gathered, someone wants to talk about their dog’s latest trick, an upcoming piano recital, or whether Thor could actually take the Hulk in a fight. They’ll insert these comments at the most inopportune times, too. On those occasions we just draw them back into the conversation and keep moving.
Then there are the serendipities, those golden moments when a child makes an insightful observation (even if it’s a bit off topic) or asks a hard question (even if it sets you back on your heels). In the normal course of things, you’d never consider bringing up these advanced and difficult ideas, or straying too far from the lesson at hand. After all, kids need that lesson. However, they also need answers to their questions. They need us to recognize these divine opportunities and to deviate from the plan when needed.
They need us to:
- Stay alert. Are the kids confused? Are they asking questions? Can they answer questions in ways that show they understand? If not, what is the Holy Spirit prompting you to do about it?
- Be flexible. If kids are confused or inordinately interested in something worthy that has cropped up, resist the urge to stick with the lesson in order to “cover the material.” Their confusion or interest might be a providential sign that you need to seize the opportunity and change course.
- Pray. Ask God for help. He’ll give you the right words for those particular children, at that particular time; trust Him.
- Take the plunge. Sometimes you have to follow children down the hole to rescue them from confusion. Answer their questions or concerns as truthfully, but as simply, as possible. And if you don’t have an answer, be willing to say so. Then find out and follow up.
My first graders and I had no idea where we were headed that day. I had intended to take us one place, but we wound up in another. What was supposed to have been a lesson on honesty developed into a chance to better understand God’s goodness and abiding love for us, from a first-grade perspective. I think that was part of God’s plan for them all along.
How do you handle rabbit chasing? What sorts of rabbits have you chased and were later glad you did?