Vacation Bible School ain’t what it used to be

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omeone once accused me of being a “tax and spend liberal.”

I was offended.

Like politicians today, I fall more into the “don’t tax but keep spending” category, which is why I was taken so aback when my wife told me that I had been selected (by whom she never said) to play the tax collector at our church’s Vacation Bible School.

But I agreed because, well, my wife told me to.

If you are married you understand.

As a kid, I never cared much for Vacation Bible School. As far as I was concerned it was just a midsummer reminder of what regular school was like and why we did not want to go back in the fall.

Our mothers sent us, as much to get us out of the house as to expose us to religion. And for a week my friends and I were tutored by elderly church ladies, determined to cram as much “Bible” into us as they could in the time the Lord had given them.

Two memories stand out.

The first was when our teacher told the class that the next day there would be a prize for whoever learned “Luke, 12th Chapter, 22nd through the 30th verse.”

Which I dutifully did.

And the next day, when she asked who learned it, I raised my hand.

“Proceed,” she said.

“Luke, 12th Chapter, 22nd through the 30th verse,” I said.

And sat down.

“Well?” she said.

“Well what?” I said.

And as Billy (who would one day be a preacher) rose and began to recite about considering the lilies of the field, I realized that she wanted us to learn what was in it, not where it was. How was I to know?

Another time another Billy (the one who didn’t become a preacher) was asked his favorite Bible verse, and that Billy (whose idea of a good time was looking up dirty words in the dictionary) came back with “Behold, thou art fair, my love” from Song of Solomon.

That was as far as he got. I didn’t know an old woman could move so fast and snatch so hard.

Consequently, about all Vacation Bible School taught me was that, if not carefully controlled, children and the Bible can be a dangerous combination.

Well, whoever organized the program at our church this year seemed to have learned the same lesson. Despite my misgivings I found that today VBS is a well-organized mix of religion, fun, food and free-form frolicking. Kids line up to attend. And parents (some from other churches, some from no church at all) line up to send them, drop them off for a few hours of peace at home, then pick them up worn out and ready to sleep.

My church recreated an ancient Jewish marketplace, complete with craftsmen, a synagogue, a storyteller, a top-of-the-line spice shop, a jeweler, a beggar and, of course, a tax collector (with a Roman soldier to lean on the locals who would not pay up).

Adults played all these parts. The children, divided into “tribes,” played the townsfolks.

They learned songs and Bible stories along with how to make rope, make bricks, make other stuff.

Meanwhile, I went about levying taxes on all sorts of things. A tribal tax – you’re in a tribe, you pay a tax. A synagogue tax – you attend, you pay. A begging tax – the beggar was doing pretty well, so I took my cut.

The kids responded in various ways. Some grumbled but paid. Some ran when they saw me coming. Some offered to help – for a cut of the take. In other words, they acted pretty much like adults.

Then I decided to arrest the storyteller, played by the preacher, for not paying his taxes. And I told the townsfolk that they had to come up with the money to set him free.

And they did.

Like grown-ups, some children contributed out of the goodness of their hearts – someone was in need and they helped him.

Like grown-ups, some contributed out of obligation – they had listened to the stories for free and now the bill had come due.

Like grown-ups, some contributed because they were afraid what might happen if they didn’t.

And like grown-ups, none were particularly happy doing it.

So they came with their little purses full of shekels – painted stones.

And as they crowded around me, holding out their money in their grubby little fists, one among them wedged through the crowd and kicked me.

Kicked the tax collector.

Just like grown-ups would like to do.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at  Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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