By the time I hung up the phone, I already regretted my decision. Who in her right mind agrees to substitute teach a large sixth-grade CCD class? But my friend couldn’t find anyone in her own parish to fill in, and she was desperate. "Fine," I said. "I’ll do it." Besides, I like sixth graders. I just don’t like them in packs.
The assigned topic was God the Father. I began my preparation with prayer. Never go in front of middle schoolers without first praying. Never do anything without praying, but that’s another topic.
I sought ideas from teachers, youth leaders and parents. I found YouTube videos, researched Bible passages, reviewed CCD materials and dug up anecdotes to reinforce God’s passionate love for us. I prayed more.
When students slouched into class on the assigned day, I launched into the game "Three Truths and a Lie." One player lists four facts about him/herself, but one of the "facts" is a lie. The others must guess which one.
I pointed to my list on the board.
I have recorded 2 CDs.
I can sing my ABCs backwards.
I wear children’s shoes.
I want a motorcycle.
Virtually all of the students guessed that the lie was the backwards ABCs or the motorcycle. To demonstrate my amazing talent, I proceeded to sing my ABCs backwards. It’s a children’s song whose sole purpose is to impress middle school kids.
They were impressed. The answer, by the way, is the CD thing.
After attendance, I commenced a presentation about God the Father. Correction: I attempted a presentation. I expected that these kids would sulk for 90 minutes with only minimal participation. Instead, I could scarcely get a sentence out without someone’s asking a question.
Is God really male? Are Catholics Christians? What’s the difference between Catholics and Jews? If Jesus was Jewish, why aren’t we Jewish?
Alternating between teaching the material and answering questions, we discussed God our Father. I explained that human dads make mistakes; they can hurt us, let us down, even abandon us. God never lets us down.
Turning to the Lord’s Prayer, I told them that Jesus did something unheard of in his day: he called God "Father." In fact, Jesus used the childish word, "abba," which means, "daddy." Jesus was describing an intimate, helpless dependence on our heavenly Father, as a small child has a helpless dependence on parents.
After I handed out Bibles, we looked up John 3:16 about how God so loved us that he sent his only Son. "I see posters of John 3:16 at football games!" several students shouted. "What does God have to do with football?" one boy asked in confusion.
We looked up the story of the lost sheep in Matthew 18. I suggested that leaving 99 sheep unattended while searching for one wanderer may not be the brightest idea. But Jesus was teaching God’s extravagant love and the lengths to which he will go to reach us, not farming techniques.
When the kids could no longer sit still, we took a field trip down the hall to the church. I explained that the church is God’s house, and since we are his children, that makes it our house as well.
We made a visit to the tabernacle, eliciting a new barrage of questions. We looked at vestments in the sacristy, crowded into the walk-in safe, and traveled down a darkened corridor that I dubbed the secret passageway.
Then I made a judgment call. Most of these students do not take advantage of the incredible sacrament of reconciliation. In an effort to demystify it, I led the students into the two reconciliation rooms, encouraging them to look around. One boy emerged a moment later with a priest’s purple stole wrapped around his neck. "How do I look?" he asked earnestly. "You look like you’ll make a great priest," I smiled.
Our final stop was a mistake: we traipsed up to the attic. The kids loved seeing all the old stuff, but the excited voices and the clomping of boots reverberated loudly in the classrooms below.
"What’s going on?" demanded a CCD staff member who heard the disturbance.
"Um, that would be my fault," I answered sheepishly.
Returning to the classroom, students continued their queries. Did Jesus really call God "daddy"? Is our pope named Francis? Does God really love us? Even when we disappoint him?
What delighted me was the hunger these kids have for God. They want answers, but even more, they want to know God. It is my fervent prayer that their parents will track down resources to answer their questions, and introduce their children to a lifetime relationship with God. In the meantime, God continues to love us with extravagant love, and to seek us when we are lost.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.