KENNER, La. (BP)–In 1986, my wife and I visited an Atlanta church pastored by a longtime friend named Bill. Early in the service, Bill called for the little children to join him on the platform. He sat in a rocker and pulled out a hand puppet that he used to make a spiritual lesson. He had the complete attention of the children and the congregation, too. Afterward, we asked him about it.
“My deacons say I preach two sermons every Sunday,” Bill said, “one of which they understand.” He opened a closet door in his office and 40 or 50 puppets tumbled out. “Where do you get them?” I asked. He said, “Church members bring them to me. When I began using the puppets with the children, they started looking for them in stores. Most of these were given to me by church members.” He smiled and said, “No deacon is going to give me trouble when his child thinks the preacher is the greatest guy in the world!”
I came to my present church in September 1990. Not long afterward, my wife saw a display of hand puppets in a Seattle store and bought them to use here. That started it. My friend Bill was right: People now bring me puppets.
Recently a team from our church returned from Thailand and brought home snake and fish puppets. A visitor to New York bought a raccoon in the F.A.O. Schwartz toy store. The other Sunday, someone presented us a red ant puppet they found in Madison, Wis. At last count, we now have more than 200 in our collection — sharks and dinosaurs and baby birds in a nest and penguins and fish and rabbits and farm animals and scary things. There are honeybees and rats and astronauts. We even have a minister of music puppet; he wears a tuxedo, waves a baton and helps me whenever we promote a choir event.
We have so many puppets that I look for ways to use several at a time. One Sunday, for example, we had a beauty contest with the puppets. Out of the “puppet bag” which a seamstress made for us to tote these little critters to church, I pulled six different dogs and one frog puppet and gave them to the children to hold. “We’re going to have a beauty contest,” I said. “Which one is most beautiful?”
The children called out several of the dogs — the Dalmatian, the spaniel, the terrier. No one chose the frog. “Oh,” I said, “I forgot something — here is the judge.” And pulled out another frog. The frog went down the line checking out the contestants until he came to the other frog, where he was smitten. The winner: the frog. The point of the story — we have to make these things extremely clear to children — is that animals and people all prefer others who are like ourselves. That’s natural. But it’s not a good idea for God’s children. God wants us to welcome others who are different from us, to love them and be kind to them.
God loved us when we were completely unlike him, and he commands that we love others too.
Once, we brought two large plastic bags of puppets and handed them out to each child in church, to keep throughout the entire service and return to me later. Why? Why do we go to this trouble? I’m not quite sure myself, but it’s all about helping the child feel wanted and accepted and a part of the Lord’s church. I want the child to feel special in church.
I am the product of a church that made a child feel wanted. My pastor knew my name and always had time to talk. To me, he was a great man on a level with presidents and prophets. When we sang hymns, I sat with other children and we sang at the top of our lungs. It was more fun than anything else I did all week.
Ours was a small Methodist church built on the side of a mountain across the railroad tracks from a coal mining camp in West Virginia. (We were transplanted Baptists from Alabama, but this was the only church in town and it quickly became ours.) Pastor Kennedy lived miles away, in town somewhere, and just came out on Sunday. He never used a puppet and did not play games with the kids. He loved us and knew us by name and we blossomed under his ministry.
The pastor of my childhood established the standard of loving the child. I’m still trying to live up to it.
I love the image of Mark 10 of the Lord Jesus taking the little ones up into his arms to touch them and bless them.
We all know the realities these days of abusive clergy members and the need for more care in our work with children. But rather than withdraw from the field altogether, those of us who truly value these little ones need to look for more and different ways of touching them in the name and with the love of the Lord Jesus.
McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kenner, La.