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What VBS means to me

My children are having a great time at VBS. They’re making new friends. They’re learning fun songs with hilarious gestures. They may even be taking home the idea that God is always with them. I hope so. But I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them. Why? Because they won’t have MY Bible School experience.

Notice I say Bible School. I’m from the generation before acronyms. When KFC was still Kentucky Fried Chicken and Bible School still started with the Pledge of Allegiance and a rousing chorus of Onward Christian Soldiers. My classmates always included at least one cousin, usually more. And I could count on spotting older or younger cousins as we moved from one station to the next. My little, round Bible School pin, with the red, white and blue color scheme and the MURDEROUSLY sharp point was one of my most treasured possessions from June through August. And it might randomly be used to accessorize any outfit, including my nightgown.

There was one big project we worked on all week — usually a separate one for boys and another for girls. One of my favorites was a round piece of wood with a painted a face and long braids of yarn for hair. You could clip your hair barrettes to the braids and not lose them; one of life’s major frustrations solved. My cousin Carolyn was the teacher that year, and she made me plait my yarn a half dozen times before the finished product was deemed even enough to pass muster. I can still plait a mean braid even today.

But without a doubt, the most undeniably wonderful part of Bible School was my Uncle George Lee Gardner. To describe my Uncle George as taciturn would be a disservice. While he was slow to speak and rarely inclined to any great show of emotion, there was something in his eyes that drew children to him like a moth to a flame. At almost 20 years my mother’s senior, he assumed the role of stand-in grandfather, and I worshipped him accordingly, marveling at the wood-working projects — such as gun racks and shoe-shine boxes — he instructed the older boys in assembling.

He did everything circumspectly, no word or gesture wasted. But if you were patient and bided your time, a cousin or older member of the congregation would set the stage. “George!” some grown-up would begin. “Do you reckon these kids know anything about…” and that’s how the stories would start. Stories of  a young George Lee “riding the rails” to see the cherry blossoms bloom in front of the White House in Washington. Stories of dangerous jobs, near misses, and fantastical happenings. Another voice would chime in, “Did you really kill a snake with your bare hands?” And Uncle George would reluctantly explain how a person could kill a rattlesnake by grabbing it’s tail and cracking its body like a whip. I remember my jaw hanging open as I pictured its severed head flying free with a SNAP! Several kids wondered what would happen if the head hit you after the snake was dead. It was a staggering thought and one that made us even more mindful of the state of our eternal soul. Because the severed snakehead of life was no respecter of persons, and it just seemed wiser to go ahead and get things right with God while the gettin’ was good. Repeat attendance was rarely a problem with Uncle George on the scene.

Another wonder was that my birthday always, always fell during Bible School week. And every year, Uncle George would bring me a frozen coconut cake to celebrate on the grounds after everyone else had gone home. Thinking back, the flavors still mingle in my sense memory — coconut, cool whip and cardboard. I imagine I liked coconut about as well as the next kid, meaning not at all. But that didn’t stop it from tasting like ambrosia on my tongue. Simply because it came from Uncle George.

Many birthdays meld into one. The hot June sun, the stickiness of the icing, the rasp of the concrete picnic table against the bottom of my paper plate. Uncle George’s soft murmur, mama’s answering laughter and my own feeling of perfect rightness in God’s world. It’s a memory I revisit often, then carefully tuck back in my treasure box of remembrances.

I hope my boys find something this week they can hold onto. Better yet, I pray for them to consistently experience something wonderful, like I did every year in Vacation Bible School. Because that’s where the deep teaching can be found. But still, I feel a little sorry for them. Not because they don’t sing Onward Christian Soldiers in anymore, but because God broke the mold when he made my Uncle George.


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8 Responses

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  1. Kimberly Brock says

    One of my most favorite blog posts ever. xo

  2. jodi says

    Thanks, Kimberly!! Mine too!

  3. Amy Busby says

    Oh Jodi, I am sitting here crying like a big ol’ baby!! I miss Papa so much!! I too feel sorry for the children that did not have the pleasure of meeting him, like my youngest son. Papa had been gone for a little over a year when he was born and I so wished he had the opportunity to have been exposed to his stories and knowledge about life. I am thankful that my oldest son had the opportunity to spend time with him, they shared the February birthday month and we always celebrated their birthdays together. Also, when Papa went to the store he never failed to buy Casey a pack of cookies…this little gesture left a huge impression on my son and for that I am so thankful!! Thank you for writing this and sharing him with so many!!

  4. jodi says

    Oh, Amy…don’t make me cry. He was so special to so many people. And truly, they just don’t make them like that anymore, do they?

  5. Amy Busby says

    No, not made like that generation any longer!

  6. Lisa Markham says

    Jodi, you truly write with your heart in the palm of your writing hand. I grew up moving a lot and didn’t have the opportunity to share those experiences with both sets of cousins but truly relish in the remarkably rich and familiar stories of family, faith and truth. Thank you so for painting such a lovely portrait.

  7. jodi says

    LIsa, you are much too sweet to say that. Thank YOU for reading it.

  8. Akoss says

    Now I’m just a tiny bit jealous of your Bible School experience. Mine was so boring I’m surprised I survived.
    Thank you so much for your comment on my blog. I have to agree with one comment above. You write with your heart in the palm of your hand.

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