by Michael P. Murphy
It was my sixth year as a church camp youth coach. In my first year I found myself ambushed in the dead of night by a battalion of snickering teens armed with seemingly endless cans of shaving cream. However, after six years you learn a few things.
An Ill-Fated Swipe
Back then it was a long held camp tradition for the kids, particularly the senior guys, to steal away into the woods at night, cause playful mayhem with shaving cream and fingernail polish, and eventually get chased into their dorms by the adult sponsors. On this night, after some three hours of chasing kids in the woods, I decided I’d had enough. It was time to go to bed. The kids were still out there, but I decided to let them stay outside until they realized it was no fun if no one was out looking for them. That was usually enough to make them want to go to bed.
Despite being summertime, the nights were cold in the Arizona high country. Like everyone else, I slipped comfortably into my sleeping bag on a lower bunk bed, then closed my eyes and hoped I could sleep. Almost at the same time I heard voices entering the dorm. I kept my eyes closed, but I recognized who they were. Gary, a senior, and Steve, a freshman. They were looking to have some fun with those of us who were sleeping. I opened my eyes just enough to see that both held a bottle of fingernail polish in their hands.
“He’s sleeping. Piece of cake.”
“There’s Murf,” I heard Steve whisper. “I’m gonna get him.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Gary cautioned him.
“He’s sleeping. Piece of cake.”
Gary was the smart one. I could hear him walk away, probably to the dorm room on the other side of the lobby. I sensed Steve’s cautious footsteps getting near me. After a few moments he stopped next to my bed, then I heard a plastic cap loosen from a small glass bottle. Right away my nose caught the toxic scent of fingernail polish.
I decided to make it easy for Steve. My eyes still closed in faux slumber, I moved my upper body a little to give the impression I was restless and pulled my hands out from behind the sleeping bag. Moments later I felt the cold brush of polish on a fingernail.
Then I bolted upright and screamed as loud as I could. The top of my lungs never were higher.
That got Steve’s attention. He hit his head on the bottom of the bunk above me, then he fell back on the floor, uttered an unkind word, and ran out of the room as fast as he could. There was a small puddle of fingernail polish on the floor and a swipe of the stuff on my one of my nails. My only war wound of the evening.
I went to sleep giddy over my victory. Yeah, you learn a few things in six years.
A Work In Progress
I have served 12 years as a teen youth coach at one church, then another 12 years collectively as a third and fourth grade Sunday school teacher and helper at another church. It’s a good way to volunteer at any church, they’re always in need of help, and a good way to know the members of the congregation one might not always cross paths with. It’s not so easy to know people if all you do is attend worship and then head to the parking lot. It may assuage your guilt that you did your obligation and went to church, but you lose out on the pleasure of fellowship with your church family.
It’s always a work in progress.
I’ll admit that breaking in as a Sunday school teacher or youth volunteer can be intimidating. I had three fears before I started:
Am I the right guy to represent and teach God’s Word to these young people?
Can I be a good role model?
Will the kids act like kids and bully me out of the church?
The latter fear was unfounded. You’re off to a good start if you approach them on their level and take an interest in them. The trick is to be sincere and put it into practice. As for being the right guy to teach God’s Word, that’s always a work in progress. But if the kids understand that being a Christian is the most important thing to you, then you have their attention. That makes for a good role model too.
I make it no secret: I love old cartoons. Disney, Warner Brothers, Popeye, Mighty Mouse, it does not matter. I have a nice collection in my DVD cabinet, and I wish I had more. As a third grade Sunday school teacher, I made a discovery that satisfied my desire to help teach the point of the Bible lesson and share with these kids that, once upon a time, hand-drawn cartoons were the entertainment of choice for kids their age.
When doing a lesson on self-control, an early Donald Duck cartoon is an easy choice. A lesson on spiritual strength? A Superman cartoon. Popeye too, but it’s not easy to find a Popeye cartoon sans lots of spinach-inspired violence. No, I never used that scene from Bambi on Mother’s Day.
The kids got it.
However, no other cartoon made a bigger impact any of my classes than Bone Trouble. I played it every year because it was so effective.
This 9-minute cartoon from 1940 features Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto, and it contains three important lessons that are easy to apply to Scripture. It begins with Pluto waking up in his backyard doghouse. The birds have taken the last of the food from his dish. Hungry, he peeks through a hole in the wooden fence to see Butch, the bulldog next door, resting his front paws on a huge bone as he sleeps. Pluto then looks at the audience with evil intent, devil horns coming out of his head. Through a series of fun gags, Pluto steals the bone and is chased by Butch into a House of Mirrors in a nearby deserted carnival. After more mirror-inspired gags, Pluto scares Butch off with multiple large mirror images of himself and walks away triumphantly with the bone in his mouth.
It’s a fun cartoon. The kids love it. Some are even scared for Pluto that Butch will catch him. But when the cartoon is over I ask two questions. What two commandments did Pluto break? Why does Mister Murphy not like the ending of this cartoon?
Hands go up. The first commandment answer is easy, “Thou shalt not steal.” How about the other? The kids look around at each other, then one of them slowly raises a hand and utters confidently, “You shall not covet.” Right. Because Pluto desired, or coveted, something that wasn’t his, it led to him stealing it. Two sins for one act.
And why didn’t Mister Murphy like the ending of the cartoon? Because Pluto stole the bone and got away with it. That would not please God, and there are always consequences to stealing. The kids got that.
During those years as a teen youth coach I was simply known as Mike, but when I became a Sunday school teacher for third and fourth graders, I assumed a new identity, one I had a little trouble embracing. I became Mister Murphy. Mister was what Pastor Phil required the kids to call the male teachers. The female teachers were addressed as Mrs. or Miss, maybe even Ms. The business of being Mister Murphy wasn’t easy for me to accept. After all, that was my dad’s name, not mine. But accept it I did.
To this day many of the kids I taught in Sunday school are now young adults or close to it. To them I’m still Mister Murphy, and that’s OK.
Here’s another thing I learned. I like kids, but I never wanted any of my own. Having kids is something other people do. Not me. But I learned through this experience that God most certainly has a sense of humor. Like it or not, I have kids.
So what am I up to these days? I’m a volunteer a children’s hospital. God showed me that kids are my ministry.
And I’m still at it.
posted on February 10, 2019
Meet the Author:
Michael P. Murphy is a happily retired dental laboratory technician who now lives the life of a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Arizona. His articles and stories have appeared in The Lookout, Encounter, Straight, Live Wire and R-A-D-A-R. His 1990 novel Wise Up, Zack for Christian teens was published by Standard Publishing. (You still might find it if you dig deep enough on a used book website.) Michael is also a feature writer for Wander AZ, a travel magazine for Arizona tourists.
Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash