ONCE UPON A TIME
"Will the children please come forward?" is a liberating invitation for children who feel like captives. It sets them free, makes them feel part of the worshiping community. But what shall we tell them Sunday after Sunday, year after year? For there is no definitive cookbook with handy recipes. We storytellers are pretty much on our own.
Object lessons and stories
There are two basic kinds of children's messages. There are object lessons and there are stories. Object lessons are like a city park with a fence around it. We enter through a gate. There are clearly marked paths. Everything is laid out neatly. There are no surprises. There is no mystery.
A story is like a thick forest. Behind each tree may lurk a wild animal. We just never know. There is wildness and mystery all around. Stories engage children's imagination, which is why, for 22 years, I have told stories rather than object lessons.
But where do the stories come from?
How to Begin
Many stories begin with "Once upon a time . . ." And it amazes me what magical effect these words have. "Once upon a time . . . in a land so far away that you can't get there from here." "Once upon a time . . . a flock of geese went to church every Sunday morning." "Once upon a time . . . there was a father mouse and a mother mouse and their two children, Know-it-all and I-know-better." "Once upon a time . . ." is an attention grabber without equal.
Another way to start a story is with "What if . . . ?" "What if . . . you are playing outside and a nose walks past you?" Not someone with a nose but a nose without someone. You can even make "What if . . . ?" the glue for the entire story. "What if you were a mouse? What if you were a mouse that lived in the house of a giant? What if that giant loved to eat mice? And what if that giant had set traps all over his house to catch you? Then what? Then you'd better listen to your mom or dad when they tell you to stay away from traps. But what if you don't listen? Or what if you think you know better? What ifone day you stick your head outside the mouse hole and smell cheese, follow the smell, enter the trap, eat the cheese, and then discover you can't get out again? What if you hear footsteps and a giant opens your cage, grabs you by the tail, and swallows you live? Then what? Then who can help you?"
Time out! We've now reached the point that J.R.R. Tolkien calls the eucatastrophe (the good catastrophe), the sudden joyous turn of events, the totally unexpected grace. It is, says Tolkien, the mark of a good story that, however terrible the adventure, it can give a child who hears it a "lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears" (The Tolkien Reader, New York: Ballantine Books, 1966, p. 86).
Back to our story. You're the mouse in the stomach of the giant wondering, Who can help me? And then, the story continues, all of a sudden you remember what your mom or dad have taught you. Then you fold your two front paws and pray: "Please, Lord, save me!" And then something unexpected happens. Then the giant burps, and burps a second time. And when the giant burps a third time, you are flying through the air. You are out of the giant's stomach. You are free.
"This story teaches us, boys and girls, . . ."
The temptation is to clear up all ambiguities or to attach a lesson. Resist that temptation. Don't clarify or teach anything, for the meaning of the story is wrapped up in the story. As Flannery O'Connor once wrote: "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to to say what the meaning is" (Mystery and Manners, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957, p. 96). So, unwrap as little as possible. At the most, give a hint, or end the story with a question. If there is need for an ending other than the one provided by the story, make sure to stay within the imagery of the story. As, for example, in the story of the electric eel by Robert McFee Brown (Christian Century).
Once upon a time, in the middle of the ocean, a fish was swimming all by itself. Suddenly sharks came and attacked the fish. They tore off many of its scales. They bit it in several places. Then they went away, leaving the fish half-dead. After a while some tuna fish came along. They looked at the scene in horror, but did not stop to help. Then some whitefish came along. They too didn't help. A little while later an electric eel came along who managed to drag the fish into a cave occupied by an octopus. "Mrs. Octopus," said the electric eel, "could you hold this fish in one of your eight arms until it is better? Here are some oysters to pay for your services." Then the eel swam away.
If, following the parable of the Good Samaritan, you wish to conclude the story with a question, you could ask: If right now you would turn into a fish, which fish would you like to turn into? A shark, a tuna fish, a white fish, or an electric eel? Did I hear you say an electric eel? You have answered well.
Watch Your Language
Stories should be told in children'slanguage. Of course, you say. But read the literature and you'll be amazed at what you find. Here are a few examples that I have come across:
In other words, take time to craft your stories. The simpler the language the better. But also, the simpler the language the more work it takes. If you don't feel certain, perhaps have an experienced teacher go over your stories. And while on the subject of language, make sure it is gender, color, and disability sensitive. "Does you mom or dad ever . . ."; not "mom and dad." Who cooks in the family? Who tucks you in, little Johnny Green? Are doctors and ministers male? Are nurses and teachers female?
Touches of Humor
Humor is an effective way to catch children's attention. Humor can be conveyed through dialogue. It can also be injected by the names you give your heroes or victims. Here are some examples:
Another way to add a touch of humor is by messing up the text of a song or nursery rhyme that children well know:
Three wise guys of Gotham
went to sea in a bowl;
if they'd been smart,
they would have said: Let's not start!
Whatever your story, seek to reflect the outlandishness of grace and the topsy-turviness of the kingdom of God. That will truly be a liberating word for the children.