Some people's fondest VBS memories are the intricate Play-doh, sugar cube, and popsicle stick replicas of Nazareth, the flannel graph robbers beating up the traveler on the road to Jericho (which led, on occasion, to inappropriate applause), or the bathrobes and beach towel dramas of Zacchaeus coming down from the balcony (which were far superior to the puppet shows which made Howdy Doody seem like Hamlet in comparison). The best memory for me is the liturgy. In the Southern Baptist churches in Mississippi in which I grew up, Vacation Bible School was the most liturgical week of the year.
We had a formal processional into the sanctuary-pre-schoolers to twelve-year-olds. We had elaborate, peculiar rituals like the pianist playing what were known as "stand-up chords" and "sit down chords." To this day when the right combination of "da da da da" is played some Baptists rise to their feet involuntarily.
VBS was the one week it was okay for young Baptists to read litanies like Catholics do. (My church gave up on two week long VBS when I was in the third grade. Some people are just lazy.) Children who could recite the Bible verses under pressure received praise, glory, and the coveted "Books of the Bible" bookmarks.
We said pledges to the Bible, Christian flag, and American flag. When I remember that rite I am disappointed that we were Baptists who forgot that some of our Baptist ancestors died rather than pledge allegiance to anyone but God in worship, but at the time all I felt was envy for whichever boys (boys carried the flags, girls carried the Bible, and no one asked why a girl could not carry a flag) got to carry the flags as we anticipated, "Attention. Salute. Pledge."
On Friday, we skipped the high tech missionary slide show, because it was Decision Day. At the close of the assembly the pastor explained how elementary school students could change their eternal destination. (The three and four year olds were dismissed before they had this opportunity. The Baptist age of accountability-which biblical writers forgot to mention-was five.) The four points were
1) God loves you.
2) God hates your sin.
3) Jesus died for your sins.
4) If you are certain this makes sense, then you are saved.
The pastor said, "Raise your hand if you believe this."
Most years about half of us got saved. Some of the sixth graders raised their hands every year just to be sure they would not go to hell.
My last year in Vacation Bible School a smart aleck child asked, "What about the Indians who were here before Columbus? Did they go to heaven?"
The pastor answered, "The Bible says that you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven."
The sixth grader replied, "But the Indians never even heard of Jesus. That's not fair."
The pastor, a bit defensive but still calm, said, "We have to believe what the Bible says."
The sixth grader protested, "But the Indians didn't even have a Bible."
Finally my father said, "Brett, we'll talk about this when we get home."
Some version of "What about the Indians?" has been around a long time. The question goes to the heart of our faith. Do we believe in saving knowledge or saving grace?
It should not take a lot of thought to realize that if we had been born in India, we would be Hindus. If we grew up in Thailand, we would be Buddhists. If we lived in Iraq, we would be Muslims. (If we lived in Canada, we would think bacon is ham.) We would not get to go to Vacation Bible School and learn my home church's four steps to being saved.
Ignoring the experience of billions of people is an insult to God. The God who would offer grace on the conditions that many churches present is not God at all-certainly not the God of the Bible. God is far too great to act in the arbitrary manner that some churches suggest.
Salvation is not a question of whether we have been dunked, sprinkled, or poured on. Salvation is the gift of God's grace. There are not four steps to salvation; there is only the one word of grace. We are not saved by anything that we hold; we are saved by the one who holds us. The best that we can do is give ourselves to God's grace and give thanks. We need to give God our attention, salute, and pledge.