Miracles R Us

Today's UPI column

So There I was...

Trying to tell the story of a mystery and a miracle to a group of four year olds. In some ways this is not hard – humans that age are amazing creatures. They have not yet had the cages of reason and impossibility built around their heads. For instance, most preschoolers hold the belief that under the right circumstances a human just might fly without benefit of an airplane. But they also can be literalists of an order that only the most rigid fundamentalist aspire to. They just have other notions of what is literally possible. This makes them fun.

My job, that Sunday morning several decades ago was to tell the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand people with one boy’s lunch of two fish and three biscuits.

I drew from my experience in Christian Education – twenty some years of sitting on the other side of Sunday School. I grew up in a family of storytellers. I also grew up in a church that was very invested in communicating the stories of the Bible to children. I grew up in the first era that tried to speak to children on children’s terms. Consequently I saw Gospel magicians, Gospel clowns and Gospel ventriloquists. Stories always came with pictures usually in “flanelgraph;” a gentle, cozy art form that pre-dated PowerPoint. I was not planning on getting a creepy wooden sidekick, but I did agree that stories that you could hear, see, touch and preferably taste did stick better.

I had this brilliant idea to use the ubiquitous goldfish crackers and little round oyster crackers for the boy’s lunch and to tell the story while acting it out with the kids. I took a linen napkin and stitched a secret pocket into it, which I filled with lots of spare crackers. When the children were all assembled in the circle of tiny chairs, I gave the ‘lunch’ of two goldfish and three oysters to a sweet little girl. I chose her because she was pretty compliant and was most likely to not eat the lunch before the critical moment. I played the part of Jesus and made some of the children disciples and others the multitude. The story proceeded, and I prompted one of the disciples to ask about food for the crowd. We searched for anyone with a lunch and found the girl, who even willingly offered up her lunch – something you would never be able to do with two year olds. I folded this offering into my seemingly empty napkin and prayed over it. Then I stated passing out crackers. When we started around the circle for the second time, a perceptive boy named Tommy sat up and said “HEY”. Then there were lots of big eyes and much amazement. The multitude was fed, the leftovers were gathered up and indeed they turned out to be greater than the original lunch. I finished up the story and sent the tots back to their mommies and dads. I was feeling pretty good. Clearly I had a career ahead of me as an inspirational Sunday School teacher. I went home well satisfied with myself.

Until the phone rang that afternoon. It was Tommy’s mom.

“Peggy, Tommy had a pretty amazing time in Sunday School this morning. He says that teacher Peggy is just like Jesus and can do miracles!”

Yikes.I explained my process. Mommy said;

“We were pretty sure that you hadn’t actually multiplied food, but Tommy will not be dissuaded.”

I promised to clear the whole thing up the next week.

Next Sunday in came all my new disciples, excited, reverent and waiting for today’s miracle. I had my trick napkin there and I carefully explained to the children that I was not really like Jesus, that we were just pretending, and I showed them how it worked. Then I let them play feeding the multitude. Little Tommy did not want to play. He crossed his arms and looked at me with utter disdain. I felt pretty bad.

I felt worse when his mother called again that afternoon.

“Well, Peggy, thanks a lot! Now Tommy says that “Jesus never did any miracles – it was all a trick – teacher Peggy showed us how.”

The transmission of faith is treacherous business. It is not for the faint of heart. Our stories of faith are important. They under gird our lives and our culture. It is our job to get them across. We have to balance inspiration and ignite imagination without inflating to the point of inviting disillusionment.

I have prayed for little Tommy and the other children I taught when I was myself a novice. I hope they settled into a faith in spite of my efforts. They taught me humility. They taught me to weigh my words and methods carefully. I hope that since that day they have met the real Jesus and learned the real lesson of that story.
In God there is no scarcity.

Hi Peggy

When I taught this story to kids, I used the goldfish crackers and pretzels. First, I secretly gave a bunch out to each of the kids and told each one to hide their stash in their pockets because we were going out for a walk on a long hot day and we didn't know if anyone else was going to have food. Under the social rules of the time period, we were obliged to share whatever we had if we ate in front of each other.

Moreover, I told each kid that some people we'd be with would be poor, like beggars. These people would not be our equals. According to the social rule, if we ate together, that meant we considered each other equals. So we could not share our food (unless we wanted people to think that we only thought ourselves as good as a beggar!).

The kids dutifully hid their crackers, and we all got together and walked around the room (like you, I was Jesus). Then we stopped for a chat. I told them we were all getting hungry. Then I took five crackers and two pretzels and put them in a box for them all to share and passed it around.

The kids looked at each other and at the box. Nobody took anything out of it. They were remembering the social rules I'd told them about. And they were trying to decide whether or not to share.

But sure enough, after a few minutes, one of the kids confessed that he had some extras, reached into his pocket, and dumped his crackers into the box. Within seconds, the others did as well, once they realized they all had crackers (they thought it was a great joke).

As we munched away on our little feast, I explained how there are two kinds of miracles: the magic-trick kind and the human-heart kind. A lot of people think of the loaves and fishes story as a magic-trick kind of miracle.

But at that time, nobody in their right mind would have gone out for a long walk without food under their cloaks. And nobody in that culture would have felt comfortable sharing food with strangers of different castes. So they would have had food, but they would have been trapped into keeping it hidden.

By taking the food from the child, who was unaware of all the "food issues" going on around him (and further support for the idea that the others were carrying food -- even the kids had some!), Jesus was able to quietly embarrass the crowd of thousands to share with each other. Like my kids, they saw the basket being passed around and felt sheepish. Their feelings eventually overcame all the social rules and selfishness that was crudding up their hearts.

This was a miracle of the human heart.

Jesus' message that day was powerful. To live in the light of God, people have to share, to regard each other as equals worthy of their gifts, to give up their selfishness. He preached this sermon with his hands, not his words. But the people were powerfully moved by it.

Magic-trick miracles have never had much meaning to me. I'm not sure it matters whether Jesus could pull a rabbit out of a hat. But that he could change the human heart seems to me to matter so much more.

Yes, sunsets and sunrises are miracles, and so are flowers blooming and babies being born. But what about Amnesty International? Isn't that a miracle too?

If we could go back in time and tell people 200 years ago that there would exist an international organization of thousands of volunteers who come together solely to lobby on behalf of people they have never seen but whose rights have been violated through imprisonment -- well, they would never believe us. That would have to be a miracle, they would say. The human heart would have to change -- nobody would bother to do such a thing.

Yet that heart has changed. There are thousands of nongovernment organizations and relief organizations and Red Cross and Care and Oxfam and many, many more. People go live in other countries to serve the poor, donate their time. Nations have become united under the United Nations and (except for a few renegades) obey the rules of that organization for the safety of us all. Even nations have given up their selfishness.

These are miracles in the style of the loaves and fishes.
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