My Kindergarten Sunday school teacher was Mrs. Peterson. If she had a first name, I don’t remember it. To me she was – and will always be – Mrs. Peterson. I can remember what she looked like and smelled like. I would know her if I saw her today, though I’m sure she died years ago.
Mrs. Peterson had white hair, and I thought she was really old. Most likely 50, or maybe 51.
In Kindergarten Sunday school there isn’t a lot of content that can be communicated, but one thing you have to do is let children know that God loves them. And Mrs. Peterson did that. I knew that God loved me. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that.
I also learned to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” so not only did God love me, but Jesus did too. How can you not like going somewhere where everyone talks about loving you? I felt loved, and cared for, and wanted.
And just in case you think that, early on, I was pretty much thought of as “mostly likely to go to seminary and become a preacher,” you are mistaken. Just the opposite was true. I was probably thought of as “least likely” to become anything resembling a preacher.
Mrs. Peterson would have been pleased of course if she had known where I ended up, but also very, very surprised.
But here’s the thing: Mrs. Peterson went beyond telling us that God loved us. She made a connection between feeling loved and telling someone else about that love.
Mrs. Peterson told us that she had been a “missionary,” a tough word for a Kindergartner to grasp, but what I understood is that she lived among the Zuni and Navajo Indians in New Mexico telling the children there how much God loved them.
One time she even came to class with pieces of brightly-colored cloth to tie around our heads, so that we would look like Tonto, I guess, though not the Johnny Depp version. And she gave us Navajo names.
Best day in Sunday school ever! I got to look like an Indian – and I had a Navajo name (which I’ve long since forgotten).
Not surprisingly, I grew up thinking that anybody could be called to do what Mrs. Peterson did. God would call us, and then we would say good-bye to family and friends, travel to a distant land (like New Mexico), learn a new language and culture, and tell people how much God loves them.
To be honest, I was interested, but also a little scared. Sort of depended, I thought, on exactly where God wanted me to go.
You won’t be surprised to know that I have the same urge today all these years later. It’s never gone away. I keep thinking that God will come to me in a dream and say, “Doug, it’s time. Thank you for waiting so patiently. Now it’s time for you to go to ….”
I’m preaching this Sunday on the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, and I’ve got this story in my head – Mrs. Peterson and the cloth tied around my head and the idea that I should “go and make disciples.”
Of course the idea has occurred to me that I have already gone – not once, but several times. I’ve been called to New Jersey, a strange and exotic land by any estimation. I’ve lived in suburban Chicago and also Ann Arbor, both far (in some ways) from the place of my birth.
And now I’m in south Florida, stranger and more exotic than any other place I’ve ever lived.
I suppose it’s time for me to let people know how much God loves them. And hope that a little boy – or girl – hears the story and begins to wonder what that story might mean. If I could find some cloth, I’d tie a little of it around the heads of every person who comes to church on Sunday – and give them all Navajo names.