A number of years ago my kids gave me a book for Christmas. Books are a big part of my life and so this was no surprise. The surprise was that the book was 57 pages long and full of brightly colored pictures.
Elephant and Piggie
It’s true that I can be childish at times, but I think my kids know that I can read books without pictures and still understand them. Nevertheless, they gifted me with an “Elephant & Piggie” book by children’s author Mo Willens called Waiting Is Not Easy!
In this book, Piggie wants to give her friend Gerald, the elephant, a gift, but Elephant has to wait to receive it. Waiting is hard for Elephant. On several occasions the unhappiness of having to wait elicits a long and agonizing, “Grooooaan” from Elephant’s impatient heart.
Waiting is hard, and not just for impatient elephants. The psalmists’ cry, “How long, O Lord?” is not so far removed from Gerald’s groans. It certainly isn’t far removed from the struggles of my own heart, which is no doubt why I was given the book and why I now treasure it.
I became aware of Mo Willens about ten years ago when I heard him being interviewed on NPR concerning his then newest release titled The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? The question mark in the title carries the weight of this story, which features another one of Willens’ beloved characters, Pigeon. Poor Pigeon often feels put upon. He rarely gets his way. When in this book he sees that Duckling gets a cookie, with nuts, from an unseen hand above, he’s beside himself with envy. He doesn’t understand why his requests are met with silence when that of Duckling is answered. He asks for things and never gets them. He tries to ask in different ways, but to no avail. He pleads, he shouts, he appeals. But does he ever get a cookie? Does he ever get what he wants from that unseen hand above? No. And it’s just not fair.
And just like that I had an incomparable story to tell in support of my upcoming sermon on prayer.
It’s true that my congregation, as I, can understand books without pictures. And yet there is something so joyful and true in books such as this that they open pathways through which truth can slip by our often well fortified grown-up defenses.
Alexander, Frances, and the Runaway Bunny
Elephant and Piggie and Pigeon have made frequent appearances in my sermons. So have Judith Viorst’s Alexander (of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) and Russel Hoban’s delightfully honest badger, Frances.
And it’s not just me. Even those possessing PhDs and Pulitzer Prizes understand the power of children’s books. I recently heard a seminary professor use Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together to great effect in a sermon to students and faculty. Margaret Edson’s play Wit, concerning a cancer stricken university professor, played so marvelously on film by Emma Thompson, climaxes with a reading of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. Pairing terminal cancer and a children’s book is not unnatural in light of the deep insight to be found in such books. This book about a child stubbornly trying to go his own way and a parent who is willing to incarnate herself in various ways to bring the child home has gospel, as well as theatrical, applications.
The Velveteen Rabbit
Tim Keller has helpfully pointed out1 that we preachers will tend to preach to the people we listen to most during the week. Their questions become those that fill our minds as we prepare our sermons. When we read books by Willens and others we are listening to people who are listening well to children. In a deeper sense, we are listening to adults who are processing what they hear from children through the child-like longings of their own grown-up hearts. Children’s books are a gift to us who long to connect biblical truth to those longing hearts, both child and adult.
When a member of my church gave me Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit she said it was because it had meant so much to her as a child. She was then in her fifties, and it still meant something to her. Children’s books and stories retain their power over time. To find ways to harness that power is one of the more delightful opportunities given to us preachers.
I feel somewhat at a disadvantage these days. My children are grown and my grandchildren live far away. My occasions for being exposed to children’s books have dwindled. But their power hasn’t.
I may need to befriend a child’s librarian or a kindergarten teacher or two. Or I may need to let my kids know that I’m still willing to receive books for Christmas.
Even ones with pictures.
Perhaps especially ones with pictures.
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Timothy Keller and Edmund Clowney, “Preaching Christ in a Post-Modern World,” class notes from Reformed Theological Seminary, 2001, page 41.