I hated that big blue box of sand in the corner of my classroom. Every Sunday morning, I painstakingly pried little fingers away from its plywood lid. “It’s storytime!” I chimed, “you can play in the sand later.” I secretly hoped “later” wouldn’t come. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 10 years of teaching Sunday School, it’s that good storytelling is all about anticipating and minimizing distractions. The chief of these are: light-up shoes, glitter, peppermints brought from upstairs and large messy toys lurking in the peripheries. That sandbox was a disaster waiting to happen.
My mom would agree with me. Everything I know about teaching Sunday School I learned from her. Rowdy five-year-old tries to eat quarter? A prolonged eye-brow raise and direct eye contact does the trick. Three-year-old doesn’t want to be there? Offer a quiet observation corner with their own toy. Feeling exhausted from a busy week and little time to lesson plan? Bring a back-up bin of games, but always prioritize the story.
My mom goes over the top with her stories. She once dressed up as a frog to tell the story of Naaman’s healing from a new perspective. Another Sunday, she gathered 12 boys from the congregation of various heights and ages and had them parade before the wide-eyed Sunday School audience as she played the part of Samuel anointing a scrawny David. As she wrapped herself in a variety of shawls and headscarves to play the different narrators each Sunday, she flawlessly insisted that she hailed from the iron age to cries of, “no you’re not! You’re Mrs. Horlings.” She never broke character.
EMPATHY AND IMAGINATION
My academic training as a historian reaffirmed what my mom had already shown in practice. A good story is all about empathy and imagination. “Use empathy and imagination to determine what’s extraordinary,” declared Dr. Jonathan Swainger to a lecture theatre of first year history students pouring over an early 20th century court case. Unless we know how perspectives on gender, ethnicity, social class, ability, religion and education worked in the past, we’ll never understand why things happened the way they did – why they were significant.
The three-year-old faces sitting across from me in the storytelling circle are just brimming with empathy and imagination. When I describe the Roman occupation of Palestine at Jesus’ time they might not get the geopolitical dynamics, but they can smell the injustice. They might even cry out, “I don’t like this story! It’s scary.” “It’s true,” I tell them, “it was a scary time.” I remind them of God’s presence and we get through it together.
One of the more experienced Sunday School storytellers at my church mentioned a desert box that she used for years to bring the kids to that sense of empathy and imagination. “What’s a desert box?” as the question formed on my lips, the big distracting box of sand came to mind. “Oh that awful sandbox!” as the words slipped out of my mouth, I realized that a church member must have lovingly made it as a tool for storytelling. “Well yes,” she replied, “it really helps the kids imagine the setting for some of the stories.” I was humbled. As much as I think I know about storytelling with my graduate degree in hand, there is always so much more I can learn from the veteran storytellers. These faithful teachers, like my mom, have been kneeling on chilly church floors preaching the gospel to a congregation of glitter fingers and empathetic eyes for decades. May we listen in, learn from them and carry on their good work!
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