Sunday before last I preached on the theme of Epiphany, but for all that talk about dazzling light and the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ I found myself feeling pretty low after the 8:30 service.
I wasn’t sure the sermon had “connected” with that 8:30 crowd. Epiphany was a new idea for many of them, and I was afraid it may have seemed too formal, too liturgical, too…”Catholic.” Not only that, but because the day before had been hectic I didn’t feel as prepared as I would have liked. I was tied to my notes, looking down at the pulpit as often as I looked out at the people. I came back to my study full of self-doubt, feeling insecure, wondering if I should scrap the sermon and try something else at 11:00.
It’s true: even preachers get the blues.
But the longer I sat in my study fretting over it the worse it got, and finally I got up and stepped out into the hallway, not sure where I was going but knowing I needed to go somewhere.
I ended up in the children’s Sunday school suite, and when I peeked in one of the windows I saw a group of children sitting around a table with their teachers. Without even knocking I opened the door and slipped inside.
“Would you like a hug?” one of the teachers asked.
“Would you like a hug? We’ve got some children here who love to hug.”
“Sure,” I said (how did she know?) and as soon as I said it tiny Abigail Corey jumped out of her chair and came toward me at a dead run. I squatted down and braced myself for the impact, but even so she almost bowled me over. And then her twin brother Kevin, not to be outdone, jumped out of his chair and ran to hug me, too.
I was off to a good start.
My next stop was the Dolphins class where I found a group of children sitting in a circle singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” under the direction of their teachers, Robert and Linda Toney. Each child was wearing an animal hand puppet and making the appropriate animal sound when his or her turn came. I pulled up a kid-sized chair and joined in, with a “Moo-Moo here, and a Moo-Moo there…” While we were singing Robert slipped me a pig hand puppet, so that when we got around to my side of the circle I was able to sing “Oink-Oink here, Oink-Oink there” and make the pig’s ears wiggle at the same time, which got at least one laugh. Linda asked the children, “And who made the animals?” and they all shouted, “God did!” (good answer).
But in the silence that followed little Mubanga Mwende, who was sitting beside me, looked up at me and said something that sounded very much like “I miss you!” But it couldn’t have been that, could it? I had only met Mubanga once before, nearly two months earlier, at an International Friendship Luncheon. But then he said it again, this time more insistently: “I miss you!” So I said, “I miss you too, Mubanga!”
And that seemed to satisfy him.
It satisfied me. I walked back to my office having been hugged by the Corey twins, missed by Mubanga, and honored with the role of the pig in the Old McDonald musical extravaganza. I was a different person than the one who had walked out of there just twenty minutes earlier, and when I went out to lead worship at eleven o’clock there was a confident bounce in my stride.
Later that afternoon I told that story and shared the moral with my daughter Catherine. “When you’re feeling insecure and full of self-doubt,” I said, “you have to take those spotlights that are focused on you and turn them outward, toward others.” I didn’t think to say it then but I probably should have told her to try to focus those spotlights on children, who—like God—often surprise us with love we wouldn’t have asked for and couldn’t have earned.