By Hugh Chapman
In the midst of the crisis, I recalled the conversation that got me into this situation in the first place. That day, my friend had been straightforward in his request. “We need for you to fill in for Mrs. Weaver’s Sunday-School class while she recovers from her surgery,” he said. “But mostly, we need for you to keep an eye on Josh. Can you handle that?”
I knew all about Josh – in actually, we ALL knew all about Josh. Of all the children in our church, he was the most consistent behavioral problem. He was aggressive and loud, rude and hard to control. In fact, by now, many of the adults who had once tried to help him had given up on Josh completely. Yet having lived in this tiny town most of my life, I knew a little about his background, and his situation made the often-annoying antics a bit easier to understand.
His father had left him only weeks after Josh was born, and his mother had dealt with personal problems of her own. These days, in fact, he had been placed in the care of his grandmother who had developed the habit of simply dropping him off each Sunday morning when the church doors opened, then picking him up after the worship service.
Though Josh was the stereotypical over-active child, I anticipated little trouble, and scoffed at the absurdity of my pastor’s suggestion. “Kevin, I’m 6’1 and weigh 220 pounds. I’m reasonably intelligent and I can bench press over 300 pounds. I think I can control a five-year-old.”
Kevin snickered in a way that seemed to suggest that I might not be fully aware of what I was up against, yet I remained firm. “Don’t worry,” I assured. “I’ll have things under control.”
But that initial conversation had been a week ago, and now, in the midst of turmoil, I wasn’t so self-assured. Two of my assigned pre-scholars had earlier escaped, and though it had taken several minutes, I finally rounded them up down the hall near the water fountain. As I held both children, one securely under each arm, they wriggled fiercely in an attempt to get away.
Now, standing in the classroom doorway, I surveyed the carnage. Half-colored cartoon drawings of ‘Jonah and the Whale’ where scattered around the room. A little girl was sitting contentedly at the big table eating paste while two boys wrestled nearby over a broken dump truck. In another area, a kid was throwing broken crayons against a once-white wall, while off in the corner, my assistant, Debi, struggled valiantly to coax a little girl out from behind the piano.
As I entered the room, a quick count revealed only seven children — someone was missing. Suddenly from the edge of the room I heard frantic pounding. My eighth child had locked himself in the toy closet…again. Josh. I gently lowered the two escapees to the floor, then turned to latch the bottom half of the classroom’s Dutch door. Having done that, I hurried to open the closet. Out stepped Josh with a frown, “You need to fix that door, Mr. Huge.”
Across the room, my co-worker Debi, with the help of an Oreo cookie, had finally lured the child from behind the piano. “His name is Mr. Hugh, Josh,” she corrected, “Not Mr. Huge.” Then, bustling past on her way to confiscate the paste, she advised, “It’s time for the Bible story.”
In the next moment she was cleaning paste from the little girl’s hands and barking out orders to the students. “You kids settle down now — especially you, Josh, because Mr. Hugh is about to tell his story!”
I sighed, wondering how in the world I had gotten into this mess. I was a professional educator with a degree in Business Education. I should have been teaching in a high school with well-behaved college bound students. Yet there had been no jobs available, so I had instead volunteered to help with one of the youth classes here in church. Though pre-school was never what I had in mind, it was the only position they needed help with, and the job should have been a snap. But now, 20 minutes into the task, my head pounded from stress. In dismay I recalled Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line from ‘Kindergarten Cop,’ “It’s not a too-mar!”
In quiet turmoil, I weighed the wisdom of simply ‘throwing in the towel’ and calling for someone more qualified. Yet I had bragged to Kevin and others about my superior teaching abilities, and now there was a matter of pride at stake. So with newfound determination, I attempted to regroup. As Debi rallied the troops, I whispered a prayer, “Okay God, I see your point now. Overconfidence is a bad thing. Now, please show me a way out of this mess.”
Then taking my place in front of the crowd, I began the lesson. “This is the story of Jonah,” I said, in a child-like voice. “Jonah was a man who God asked to go into Nineveh.”
Immediately a joyous shout went up from someone in the crowed. It was Josh — again. “Mr. Huge is going to talk about the Nineveh Turtles!” And with that they were all up again, Raphael and Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Donatello, swashbuckling little pizza-scarfing Ninjas doing battle with imaginary swords. I looked to Debi. “This isn’t going well,” I said.
She nodded in agreement. “The only thing they seem to enjoy is play time.”
It was then that I noticed again the scattered coloring pages on the floor. Picking one up I studied the drawing; it was of Jonah in the boat during a raging storm, with a whale nearby peeking up from of the water. “Playtime,” I said to myself. And suddenly an idea – one surely sent from God — began to formulate. Hurrying back to the coloring table, I slapped my palm three times against the surface. “Okay everybody, hop up into the boat.”
The little Ninjas looked to me in newfound curiosity as I patted the table again, this time with cheerful urgency. “Hurry! The boat is about to leave.”
Suddenly they scampered toward the table, then stepping upon the tiny chairs each one climbed up to the top. “Careful now,” I warned. “There’s no standing in the boat!”
In a moment they were all aboard, sitting cross-legged and staring attentively in anticipation of my next instruction. Hoping to avoid more trouble, I moved to the end of the table where Josh was just settling in. Then, placing my hands upon his shoulders, I said, “This is Jonah. He’s the fellow I was just telling you about. Jonah is the one who God told to go into Nineveh and preach to the people there. But do you think he wanted to go?”
The children seemed confused. Some guessed “yes,” but others said “no.” I took it from there. “He was just like you. Ol’ Jonah wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to obey God, but he was afraid to go to Nineveh because the people there were all bad, and he was afraid they might hurt him. So instead, Jonah got on this boat headed far away from where God told him to go.”
I looked to the kids. “Do you think that was a good thing?”
“Noooo,” they sang in unison.
“That’s right, because we should always do what God calls us to do,” I said, “And when Jonah didn’t do what God said, here’s what happened.” I lifted Josh from the table and put him onto the floor, then I said; “Now Jonah, go downstairs, ‘below deck’ and pretend to take a nap.”
The children leaned over the edge of the table and watched as Josh lay on the floor, his eyes tightly closed. Then amid the laughter of the other children, Josh began to snore. I looked to Debi who had begun to laugh, too.
“Do you think God liked what Jonah was doing?” I asked, then quickly answered, “No, he didn’t! Because Jonah wasn’t doing what God asked. So God caused a big storm to come.”
I hurried over to the wall switch and turned the florescent lights quickly on and off, then excitedly I said, “In this storm there was a lot of lightening, and the people on the boat got very scared because the water started splashing up over the edges.”
As if on cue, Debi rushed to the sink to run some water, then wetting her hand, she hurried back to flip water onto the faces of the children, who ducked, and laughed in their reply.
“Ohhhh,” I said grimly, “those people in the boat got more and more frightened, and pretty soon they grabbed up ol’ Jonah and said, ‘We’re all going to drown! And it’s all because you’re not doing what God told you to do. Now, get into that water and see if the storm stops.”
I placed my hands under Josh’s arms and lifted him high into the air. Then I twirled him around the room, and as I did, I looked deeply into his expression. It was a happy, laughing, loving face, and it made me consider all the horrible things I had heard about him. He was just a child. One who had been abandoned by his father and neglected by his mother. There was no evil, nor was there hatefulness. He was just a boy trying to make his way in a world he didn’t understand. He just needed love and understanding. I spun him in a circle, once, twice, then three times until finally I placed him softly near a second table, which was covered with a cloth.
“When Jonah left the boat, the storm finally stopped,” I told them. “But God didn’t want Jonah to drown, so he caused a big whale to swim up and swallow him!” I raised a portion of the tablecloth and put it over Josh’s head and he quickly scooted further beneath the table – into the belly of the whale. I then peeked under the cloth and into Josh’s laughing face. He shrugged happily, sighed, then whispered in a tiny voice—
–“I love you Mis-ter. Huge.”
And suddenly, it became clear to me why God had put me here in this place at this time. Josh needed someone to understand him, someone who could throw a football to him, and who could lift him high into the air. He needed someone to be a buddy to him. His mother had probably tried, and perhaps his grandmother too, and the little ladies from his Sunday-School class as well. But today I finally understood — Josh needed something more.
I looked into his eyes and choked back a feeling of pride. And then — in the way that a father might tell his own son — I whispered my reply, “And I love you, Josh.”
For a minute there was a mutual silence, as Josh and I looked to one another in our newfound friendship. Then, backing away from beneath the table, I turned to the other children, who seemed to wait excitedly for the conclusion of the story. But in my own heart, the important lesson was clear. It’s not up to us to choose what tasks we undertake for God. Rather, we must learn to trust Him. And like Jonah before us, we must learn never to question what we’re told.
I turned to the others in an attempt to put closure to the lesson, as quietly I asked, “Boys and girls, do you know what happened next?”
Yet before anyone could answer, to my dismay, Josh leapt from beneath the tablecloth, and with arms raised in triumph he shouted, “THE WHALE PUKED ME BACK!”
I looked to Debi who cringed in slight embarrassment. “I — guess I told them a little about the story — when you were chasing those kids down the hall.”
I sighed. Nobody said teaching was going to be easy.