Have you ever been blown away by something unexpected, like attending an event you predicted would be fun and pleasant only later to find yourself witnessing an incredible, heart-grabbing experience?
That happened to me last night.
My kids, my daughter’s friend (Zoe), and I chatted happily as I drove to Vacation Bible School (VBS) at our home church, Living Word Community Church in Dumont, NJ. It was sure to be a great time as we would learn about Ancient Rome with many boys and girls from the community.
Growing up, I’d attended many VBS programs and enjoyed them. I can remember many to this day and stand thankful for the men and women who gave up weeks of their summer to pour into my life in this special way.
All of my children had come home from VBS last year pumped about Egypt and Joseph. Hannah still wears the headband she received at one of the activity stations. I was impressed by how eager they’d been to go each night. They learned so much in a short period of time, and I found myself quite disappointed that I couldn’t be involved due to my broken foot.
So, we looked forward all year long to visiting Ancient Rome together. I signed up to help and got the kids registered. Miss Jackie gave me my packet of information, and I attended the team meeting. Hannah even got a Roman costume so that she could look her part while serving food in the marketplace.
VBS is geared for children. Little did I know how powerful it would prove in my life.
As I watched it all come together, I stood amazed as volunteer after volunteer poured into the church. The die-hard kind. The dress-up and make-it-real type. Roman soldiers in full uniform, complete with swords and sheaths. Women arrayed with dazzling gold earrings and Roman togas.
Huge archways and walkways of stone greeted visitors as they made their way through the hallways and transported to the pillars of Ancient Rome. Children seemed to come out of the wood work and fill the sanctuary with their smiles and energy. As the music began and the evening unfolded, it was beautiful to see everyone interact in their intimate family circles, communicating a message of God’s free gift of love and enjoying a special evening together.
Many things impressed me, but one blew me away.
One of the drama scenes portrayed a small prison cell, which the VBS team had masterfully constructed using duct table and a small corner of the sanctuary. Two men shared a heavy iron chain, one stood, the other knelt. One stood full of authority and obvious scorn for his prisoner, the other surrendered.
The visual image of a man, bound and shackled, was powerful. Freedom vanished in the dark oppressive sanctuary that moments ago was filled with laughter and love. If it weren’t for the joy spread across Paul’s face, I fear the children would have fled, but his radiant countenance compelled them to draw near and sit at his feet.
Brutus, the guard (played by Mauricio) sternly warned the kids as they entered that they could have only five minutes with his prisoner. Their wide eyes met his as they nodded and sat. Then, Paul (played by Dante) took over with his kind, welcoming words, full of love and grace. He told them of God’s free gift of love and how we all need it because Romans 6:23 tells us, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The kids hung on Paul’s every word. Not only were they drawn to his words but also who he was as a person. He sang while chained! He smiled under guard. And best of all, he sat content. One child asked why he didn’t try to escape through “the window over there?”
Paul shook his head and said, “No, I want to be here because I know it’s where God wants me to be.” He said it with such clarity and confidence, proving how remarkable his character was. His demeanor never changed, his sanity certain, his peace impenetrable.
Paul definitely made a lasting impression on the kids, but he likely has no idea how his performance last night affected me. Dante’s portrayal was so believable, so real. I couldn’t help but be drawn to Paul of the Bible, the one I grew up reading about, the one I’ve idolized as both writer and theologian. I’ve mapped his missionary journeys and played out his stories with flannel graphs.
He’s one of my heroes.
To see his persona so lifelike, so real. And the part played by a man I don’t know well but highly respect. I had the privilege of being in a Wednesday night prayer group with Dante some months ago. I hadn’t met him, but as our group went around the circle, he joined in, pouring out requests before God for many teenagers.
I guessed the man might be a teacher, remembering his class in prayer. But he seemed to know a lot about the teens, more than a teacher would likely know. I later learned that he’s a policeman, one that goes above and beyond the call of duty.
One that prays.
To see an officer in chains struck me, an officer content and at peace before children, wanting them to know the love of his Savior, not just during VBS week but every day of his life.
Thank you, Dante, for your challenging example on-and-off the stage. Thank you, Mauricio, for making Paul’s captivity and oppression so convincing. Thank you to Jackie and the entire team of committed adults and teens serving together to make this a long-remembered, life-touching experience.
Please join us if you live in the Dumont, NJ area from 6:30-8:30 pm every night through Friday of this week – we’d love to experience Rome with you!