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Heart Matters: Sandy's Penguin

Tim Miller

Recently I sorted through an accumulation of ministry stuff-props, musical tapes, songbooks, and other things. I've discovered that when it's time to clean house at church, it's better to do so when no one's around to object. Reasons for tossing some things and keeping others often defy logic, and "We should keep that!" can be said about almost anything. I usually try to find good homes for stuff whenever possible, because everything has some intrinsic value. But our space is at a premium, and sometimes hard decisions have to be made.

After I'd trashed the old records, Millennial Celebration songbooks, and eight-track tapes; after the newer items were piled to be donated; after the "Spider-kids" costumes were confirmed to be a nesting place for an unsavory element; and after it was decided that the collection of one-inch pencil stubs were no longer needed, I came across Sandy's penguin.

Sandy had brought her stuffed penguin to church a few years ago for our "super cool" VBS. It came to us with a badly damaged wing, so we used it as a prop out of the way where its damaged wing wasn't so noticeable. Years stuffed in the closet hadn't healed the wing; it still hung askew from the penguin's body. As I tossed the old penguin into the dumpster I wept-not for the penguin, but for Sandy.

Little Sandy also came to us with a badly damaged wing. Make that a badly damaged heart. Not a week went by without a volunteer coming to me about a problem with Sandy. She was unruly, she was mean, and she was occasionally dangerously out of control. Yet at other times Sandy showed herself to be sweet, loving, and very intelligent.

For a while we didn't know if Sandy's issues were chemical, emotional, dietary, or simply poor choices. I talked with Sandy's guardian and discovered that Sandy lived with relatives because her abusive father was gone (finally) and Sandy's mother was either high or looking for someone to make her feel good. She had no time for Sandy, and relatives finally took her in. They loved her, and they tried their best with her. But Sandy's scars were deep; her wing was almost completely torn off.

Sandy's problems could-at least partially-be explained by her environment. But finding a solution wasn't so easy. When she became a danger to other kids, we had to ask tough questions. We had to decide whether to keep trying to repair Sandy's wing or to let someone else worry about her.

I didn't tell Sandy she couldn't come back, but I feel bad that I even thought about it. If a child can't feel welcome at church, something's terribly wrong! Yes-there were some serious safety issues for other children, but I think part of our job is to find a solution other than discarding a child as if she were a damaged toy.

Before we ever had to come to a decision about whether to allow Sandy to come back, the decision was taken from us. Her abusive father came back into the picture with promises for Mom, and one day they just packed Sandy in the back seat of their car and drove away. We never saw her again. Her penguin remained at the church where it was eventually stored in the closet. I guess peace was restored to our children's ministry. But how we wished for just one more month of trouble from Sandy. How we longed for one more opportunity to say, "Sandy, I love you, but I can't allow you to do that."

Inevitably we have to throw things out or give them away. But we must do everything in our power to hold onto children-even if they're tattered, bruised, and broken.

Tim Miller is a children's pastor in Hamburg, New York.

Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change. Originally published in September-October, 2005 in Children's Ministry Magazine.

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