Last week our congregation sponsored a week of Vacation Bible School for our young people and for others in the surrounding communities. Because we have so few young families with children as members, we are both surprised and pleased when parents bring children to us for the week who have had little connection with churches in our area.
This summer our curriculum focused on a handful of people in the Bible who displayed great faithfulness in their lives. Our puppet show, our storytellers and our teachers retold incidents in the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, David and Jesus. On Tuesday we hiked around the northern end of Fort Stevens State Park and stopped for lunch in the Indian long house, close to the south side of the Columbia River east of Trestle Bay.
I was the storyteller for that day, and I acted out the role of one of Joseph's brothers. After I finished, I took what little time remained to grab a bite to eat from the snack bag that had been given to each of us for the day. Five little girls wandered over and sat down on either side of me while I drank lemonade and ate trail mix. One little girl I had not met before looked at me and asked if I really were Joseph's brother. I smiled and replied that I was only pretending to be Joseph's brother while I was telling the story. Thinking I had answered her question adequately, I went back to my snack. Another little girl, also sitting next to me, eyed me with suspicion and asked, "Isn't that lying?"
I paused long enough to think how to answer her question to the satisfaction of both of us. I wanted to explain that pretending was not necessarily the same thing as lying, but I was searching for a way to explain the difference in a way she could understand. Children who regularly participate in our church program hear me and other adults tell stories from a first-person perspective quite frequently. But this little girl was a newcomer and apparently was not accustomed to making such careful distinctions. If I said in my story that I was Joseph's brother when in fact I was not, then she thought I must be lying.
I tried my best to explain that motivation was the most obvious difference, but I'm not sure I convinced her completely, and I feel bad about that. I think now that what may have troubled her is that I did not come right out and explain to everyone beforehand that in telling my story I was only pretending to be someone I was not. A Jewish proverb warns that "If evil comes upon you, you will find him there ahead of you; pretending to help, he will trip you up" (Sirach 12:17).
The prophet Jeremiah was adamant about the wrong kind of pretense. During the time when the Jewish nation was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah took the residents of the southern kingdom to task over the matter of pretense. After describing the terrible faithlessness of the northern kingdom - which must have pleased the southerners - he added the following conclusion: "Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in pretense, says the Lord. Then the Lord said to me: Faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah" (Jeremiah 3:10-11).
I'm pleased to be reminded that the complexity of adulthood occasionally has something to learn from the simplicity of childhood.
Doug Rich is the pastor of Pioneer Presbyterian Church in Warrenton.