When I was a little girl my parents didn’t go to church much, but my grandmother did, and she encouraged me every summer to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the neighborhood church. It was there that I heard Agnes Gibson, or Sister Gibson as she was called, tell wonderful Bible stories using a teaching tool called Flannel Graph.
The Flannel Graph board was mounted on an easel, and as Sister Gibson recounted the Bible story, she’d press paper cut-out Bible figures on the clingy flannel-covered board.
This Easter, as we all deal with what feels like the coronavirus plague, I’m remembering Sister Gibson telling our VBS class the Passover story of Moses and Pharaoh.
“What do you think happened next?” Sister Gibson was a Socratic teacher, always asking questions.
“Whatttt?” The gap-toothed children in her audience (including me) sat with our mouths opened wide.
Well, she told us, Pharaoh still wouldn’t let the Israelites leave Egypt, even after all the plagues God sent to torment the Egyptian people. Sister Gibson covered her flannel-graph board with cut-out Egyptians, arms over their heads and legs lifted as if running for their lives.
“Will God be able to change Pharaoh’s mind?”
We didn’t know, but God was really angry with Pharaoh. I suspected God would have to do something even worse to make the Egyptians obey him.
He’d already plagued them with “boils” which sounded a lot like the mumps to me. Then, he sent a lot of bugs called locusts to eat all the trees and shrubs in their yards. Sister Gibson carefully placed a paper cut-out of Moses wearing a long bath robe and holding a big cane called a staff on the flannel board.
“God told Moses he was going to have to punish Pharaoh again. But the Israelites could escape this punishment if they stayed in their homes and marked their door. The Angel of Death would pass over them and not kill their first-born son.”
At the time I’m sure I considered this a good reason to be born a girl. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be female because I’d never get drafted and have to go to Viet Nam like my cousin Bobby. Sister Gibson finished telling her story as we children raptly listened. She pressed a cut-out of a sad Pharaoh, head hanging down, on the flannel board. In the end, Pharaoh was forced to obey God and let Moses and his people go.
As I sit here writing, I’m thinking of how many parallels there are between the Passover story and our current Covid-19 crisis. Moses told the Israelites God wanted them to shelter-in-place to avoid the ravages of a new (novel) plague he was sending.
Though God didn’t send us the coronavirus, the message of staying home to be safe certainly resonates.
There are other Bible stories that take on new meaning in the time of Covid 19. Old Testament Jews had several rituals related to being clean and cleanliness. Both foot-washing and hand-washing were routinely practiced. They didn’t wash their hands for 20 seconds through the “Happy Birthday” chorus, but still, good hygiene was a part of their culture and faith.
Maybe the most significant Bible story I heard at my grandmother’s church, and the one that has such an inspiring message for us today, is the Easter story. As we grimly watch the death toll climb from Covid-19, it feels good to consider the story of how Christ conquered death. Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, the message of life after death is an undeniably hopeful one. The greater meaning in this story for me though, is that fear and sorrow eventually pass away. The Israelites were finally freed from their bondage. They made it safely out of Egypt, leaving despair behind. I believe we will too.