Sunday I spoke in church. I began by introducing myself and giving the people who didn’t know me a little background: I moved here from Las Vegas where I ran a children’s ministry called Sidewalk Sunday School. I was under a lot of pressure from my church to make Sidewalk succeed. Then — since I don’t actually write what I am going to say and only outline, leaving the actual words spontaneous — my sermon went something like this*:
The Gift of Importance
Sidewalk Sunday School had been running for several weeks — at least ten because the day’s lesson was review over our unit on the Ten Commandments. The church people were happy with my leadership and I was feeling pretty good about myself. Then, Friday afternoon a contingency of teachers came to my classroom and told me they and several other teachers were concerned about what I was teaching the children. They said they would be at Sidewalk on Saturday, and if they didn’t like what they saw, they were shutting Sidewalk — they were shutting me — down.
I did not want to lose Sidewalk. I didn’t want to disappoint the children. I didn’t want to disappoint the members of my church. But — most of all — I did not want to lose my feelings of importance. I determined that Sidewalk was going to be perfect. PERFECT!
Saturday morning I drove the volunteers who worked with me nuts. They were incredibly competent wonderful people who had been doing their jobs flawlessly all along. Suddenly there I was questioning, correcting and nagging. “Why did you do that?” “Does that have to be there?” “I need you to work a little faster.” “Check the sound system again. EVERYTHING HAS TO BE PERFECT TODAY!” I was a hair pulling nervous wreck before the teachers even showed up!
Now, at Sidewalk Sunday School when it is time for the worship service, the children don’t get bulletins. We have a huge poster with the scripture verse of the day on it. Since this was review week, we had all ten of the posters with the Ten Commandments. Each poster was designed to look like a stone tablet with the verse chiseled on. I needed ten kids to come up on stage and hold the signs. And I look out at the kids and I see bright, fiery red-hair atop a shining face. Oh, please, not today, Lord!
Now, every school has at least one kid every staff member knows by name. There are only two ways you can get to be that well known. You are either the straight A, perfect child, OR you’re the worst behaved child on campus. Wayne — he of the fiery red hair — had never received an A in his life. And behind him, behind all of the children, stood a semi-circle of teachers with their arms crossed and a “prove it” scowl upon their faces.
I turned to my second in command, Dan, and said, “Help me keep that kid in line, and if he gets too far out, escort him off campus.” So, before beginning the lesson I had already decided I was likely throwing someone out of church.
I began with the words “I need a volunteer” … and Wayne’s hand shot into the air. “Pick me!” He yelled. “Pick me! Pick me!”* He was jerking his arm up and down; waving it back and forth, and literally bouncing on the ground. The children’s “pews” at Sidewalk Sunday School are carpet remnants. We bring them in on the truck every week, take them off and roll them out on the ground for the kids to sit on — or in Wayne’s case — bounce on. “Pick ME!”*
I was not picking Wayne. He was enough of a distraction in the audience. I could just imagine what he would be like on the stage. I ignored him completely and picked someone else — who politely walked to the stage, held the poster and listened quietly while I briefly reviewed that particular lesson and questioned the students about what they’d learned.
Then I asked for another volunteer. “Oh! Oh! Pick me! Pick me!”* Wayne went right back into hyperactive mode. “I wanna do it! Pick me!”*
Again I did not pick Wayne. In fact, I did not pick him several times over — even though his jerking and waving was beginning to grow quite alarming. I quite happily pretended the child did not exist, and the contingency of teachers still stood behind the students, arms crossed, looking grim*.
I was on Commandment Six or Seven when I noted with relief that Wayne was losing steam. I was on Commandment Eight when I noticed that he was perfunctorily raising his hand, but no longer held any anticipation of being chosen. He was a child on the verge of having his heart broken — but if I picked him, he would destroy my entire lesson. I knew it — and chose someone else.
Wayne drooped. His body sagged like a wilting flower and he drew his knees to his chest. I picked another child for Commandment Nine — only one to go and I would have made it through with flying colors — and I looked down at Wayne and could tell my his posture that I was destroying that child. I knew if I picked him he would ruin my lesson, Sidewalk would be shut down, and I would have failed the church — but …
I looked at Wayne and could no longer ignore him. Someone needed to act like an adult and — unfortunately — it was going to have to be me. I called Wayne to come up and hold the poster for the Tenth Commandment. He shot off the carpet, bounded up the stairs, grabbed the poster and jumped up and down.
At this point I am on stage, Dan is on stage, nine other kids with posters are on stage — its a very small stage — and Wayne is bouncing around like a red dot ping pong ball. He’s also talking a mile a minute. “Oh, you picked me! I didn’t think you were ever gonna pick me. You picked me! You picked me!*”
Dan clamped his hands down on Wayne’s shoulders and held the boy’s bounces to three inches or less. The other kids crowded together — away from Wayne’s babbling and jumping. I asked Wayne to hold the sign still and — much to my surprise — he calmed himself some, but then he started babbling!
He asked questions about the truck, about Dan, about the stage … he asked what was for lunch and when were we serving it and how much longer until Sidewalk was over — not soon enough as far as I was concerned — and Dan finally got him to calm so I could end the lesson review. Then we bowed our heads to pray …
“Hey,” Wayne says, “What’s everybody doing? Why’s she the only one who gets to talk? Are we going to do anything besides stand here and hold these stupid signs?” And I was fuming — Dan, still patient — calmed Wayne and I finished the prayer, dismissing him from stage with a huge sigh of relief.
Then it was time for our birthday celebrations. It is tradition that on your first Sidewalk Birthday you receive a Bible. Beverly handed me the list of children celebrating birthdays that day — and there was Wayne’s name. I did not want to give him a Bible. We only had a few Bibles left, they were very expensive, and I wasn’t up for giving one away to a kid who had just been in trouble for destroying library books. The Bible wouldn’t mean a thing to him and he’d probably destroy it, too. But his name was on the list so I had to call him.
Wayne and two other boys came to the stage. I handed them each a book and asked them to bow their heads while I offered the birthday blessing. Wayne complained. “What are we doing now?” “Is that it? All we’re getting is this stupid book?” “Hey, you’re holding on too tight!” “What do you mean ‘be quiet? All I asked was –”
I said a fast AMEN and dismissed the kids to go get their lunches and whatever attendance trinket we were passing out. Wayne shot off the truck and ran toward the food. I thought “good riddance” and seriously hoped to never see him again. I started to clean my work area and pack up the truck.
Usually after Sidewalk I mingle with the kids — talk to them, play with them, answer any questions they may have — but not that day. I was too upset. In fact, I was so upset Dan suggested I leave before all of my volunteers quit. I hopped off the truck and stepped around the back — and there was Wayne.
He was sitting on the pavement behind the truck. Beside him — unopened — was a sack lunch AND his toy. He had the Bible open in his lap and was talking to one of his compatriots in crime. “Do you know what this is?” Wayne said, his voice full of awe.
“A book,” his friend answered dismissively.
“It’s the Bible!” Wayne said. His voice was full of awe. “It’s the Bible and they gave it to me. I asked that man. He said I could KEEP it.”
“They gave you a Bible?” His friend sat down next to him as they reverently turned the pages.
“Yeah,” Wayne said. “They must think I am really something special.”
I backed up so the boys wouldn’t see me, climbed into the truck and sat down and cried. I had planned to teach a super lesson that morning, but instead I ended up learning one. It had just come to me that that child I thought had no value at all, was infinitely precious and important to God — most probably, looked at in the light of my behavior toward him — more important to God at that precise moment than I or all my “good works” came close to being.
Wayne taught me a lesson that I took to every Sidewalk thereafter — and one I thought important enough to share with each of you. Your mission isn’t to successfully carry out the work you do for the church, it is to nurture the people you meet along the way. You are always in the mission field, so react accordingly with your family, your friends and the strangers you meet on the street. Each of them is very important to God.
I’d like to tell you that Wayne instantly turned into a model child and never gave anybody a bit of trouble again — but it isn’t true. Wayne remained irrepressible and impulsive. And those teachers with the crossed arms and the scowls on their faces? They went away and I never heard from them again, good or bad. My panic was for nothing.
Now, as you get up from the pews and leave this church, I want you to remember that everyone you meet — everyone — is part of your mission field. Give them the gift of feeling important, because they are important to God.