When VBS Comes at You Like Nathan

The scene opens on a kitchen. A restauranteur seeks chefs to make food according to the recipes in his book. He tells them they can follow any of the many recipes he provides, but if they decide to make something else they will lose their jobs. At the end of the first day, the new hires look at each other and wonder aloud what could go wrong.

Throwing out the recipe book

I’ve been volunteering at VBS this week and each night opens with a song and short skit. The second day’s skit picked up with several eager little chefs trying to figure out what they’ll make when the “health inspector” comes by interrupting them asking, “Did the boss really say…?” I cringed knowing no good ever came from this question. He convinces them to throw ingredients together as they like. Thus begins their gleeful abandonment of the book. I watch on as one watches a pedestrian rush into oncoming traffic knowing it won’t end well. They chuck the book in the oven and three girls rush to the front of the counter to form a kickline and dance as the recipe book bakes behind them. By the time they pull out a charred Holy Bible, my eyes are watering. “This is so sad,” I say to my friend. “I know” she says, “It could’ve been so good.”

This story was not new to me. I knew at the end of day one what came next, but something about watching their happy disregard of both book and boss, not just reluctantly or accidentally botching recipes but throwing them out with relish, and seeing myself in that really unsettled me— I’d been in the kickline confusing disobedience for freedom too.

I felt ridiculous getting so emotionally worked up. The skit was for the kids but while they found the chaos of flour and myriad other ingredients flying everywhere funny, I could only find it tragic.

Winning the game

The first activity my group had after the opening songs and skit was games, so after dinner we headed there. I eyed the indecipherable jumble of chairs and tables set up, curious what we’d be doing with them. I was hopeful the day’s game would be less painful than the first day’s which involved a victory elbow from a volunteer to my face. I was wrong.

Once the kids quieted, a volunteer explained the rules. The kids would divide into three teams with each team member being assigned a role: some would be babies, some would be elderly, and others would be strong and tasked with assisting the weak. She even had a fellow volunteer demonstrate what a successful course finish looked like. The object of the game was not merely to finish, but to stay together. They were even supposed to hold hands. Just as Israel had to help each other, the kids would have to too.

My group went last and we watched the first two groups entirely miss the point. Each person rushed forward to finish on their own and then watched their teammates finish, those needing extra helping bringing up the rear. They had understood it to be a race between individuals rather than a challenge to solve together.

As my group prepared to be called up for their turn, I yelled to them, “You only win if you finish together! You have to help each other out.” Conviction struck with the force and immediacy of gun kickback. The week prior, I’d finally confessed to my roommate the truth behind my rapidly cooling feelings toward someone. I owned up to the issue I knew resided in my own heart: I was turned off by my friend’s weakness when I should have had compassion. I’d recently cleared a part of the course she was stuck in but rather than assisting, I turned back to watch in annoyance that she was having such a hard time with that section. My sympathy simply ran out.

I told my roommate I’d been ashamed to be honest about what I felt like was this “Republican side to my heart” that really believed I had overcome through my own strength and that this person just needed to toughen up, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get it together. I’d given lip service to God’s grace helping me to survive—which I truly believe—but my response to my friend suggested I may have thought God just gave me a boost. I referenced the verse I will forever associate with my friend Mike’s unassuming rebukes when I’d complain about someone else’s sin, “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

After I encouraged my kids to remember that this wasn’t a game they could win alone, the words of Amy Carmichael came to mind: “If I belittle those whom I am called to serve, talk of their weak points in contrast perhaps with what I think of as my strong points; if I adopt a superior attitude, forgetting “Who made thee to differ? And what hast thou that thou hast not received?” then I know nothing of Calvary love.” I thought back to the recipe book and the chefs’ disregard for the boss.

When I had opened up about my sin with my roommate she offered to pray for me right there at the dining room table. When she finished, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders, but the Lord knew I needed to see that game. That morning, a Tuesday, we had house prayer and I asked for prayer for my heart toward my friend and for VBS.

In 2 Samuel 12, the Lord sends Nathan to confront David about murdering Uriah after committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba. Nathan creates a scenario that he presents to David for his input and David, not realizing that he is the main character in the story, pronounces judgment: “David burned with anger against the man. “I solemnly swear, as the Lord lives,” he said to Nathan, “the man who did this certainly deserves to die! And he must pay back four times the price of the lamb because he did this and had no pity.”” In the smoothest friend rebuke of all time, Nathan answers, “You are the man.”

I woke up this morning with God’s words to David in my heart, “I anointed you king over Israel and rescued you from Saul. I gave you your master Saul’s house and his wives. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if this weren’t enough, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise my word by doing what I considered evil?” I knew I got a piggyback ride through the course. But here I was despising his word, throwing his recipe book in the oven. The strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak (Romans 15:1)? No thanks.

Enter the beauty of the cross, Christ, the game, and that Calvary love that Amy Carmichael was fixated on understanding. Christ was the volunteer who showed us how to run the course. I was not the strong, but had been made that way through the cross. I was a kid in a game, given a role, and told to keep an eye out for friends who needed extra help. I was ashamed I so easily forgot and that shame had kept me silent, avoidant, impatient, and leading a kickline of arrogant disobedience. Christ didn’t run a perfect race and then look back and wonder why I was so weak or slow, but having run a perfect race he works to build us up and sympathizes with our weakness. Something I couldn’t be bothered to do.

I know VBS is for kids, but last night it was for me too. I needed the reminder to help my friend through the course and to see how easy it is to toss the recipe book. The theme, soul food, delivered.

‭1 Samuel 2:9 “It is not by strength that one prevails.”

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