I ingratiated myself with the District Superintendent entirely by accident.
I was observant, merely.
It was an event for the DS to arrive at our little church, so small that our pastor was shared with another house of worship some five or six miles away. As I understood it, the DS was a bigger minister than our minister. Beyond that, this was a New Adult entering an environment of several established adults, a fellow different than the other older men who smelled faintly of Old Spice and the cigarettes they smoked conversationally on the front porch.
How could I not notice the briefcase, the business card hanging from the handle?
I’ve a distinct memory of walking the aisle that morning, destination the front row. I don’t recall how old I was, only that my head came just above the top of the pew. Children’s church was my favorite time most Sunday mornings, and on this morning, the New Adult was giving us our sermon.
One after another, we kids shambled into the pew. Me. My cousin. A handful of other kids that would be my default weekend friends for years to come. Gathering us and anticipating our attention, the New Adult smiled under steel grey hair and wide-framed glasses.
“Does anyone know who I am?”
I raised my hand too quickly. Always too quickly.
“Oh, you do?”
I told him his name.
From my brother, I took possession of a chemistry set.
There were 13 years between my brother’s birth and my own, so when he went away to college, the thing he left behind became mostly mine. Because of this, I remember artifacts of a time before I should rightly recognize. Model rocket-ships from the mid-60s, a key-chain from The Soupy Sales Show, comic books from the height of DC’s mad-cap era of the Legion turning into evil babies or Superman growing old with a knee-length white beard.
And then the chemistry set. Organized around a microscope housed in the center of a folding, latching box of compartments, the set contained all of the usual suspects. As I stop to recall them now, all that comes to me are scents and colors, no particular labels. Sulfur, surely. There was even a small vial of mercury.
When I consider just how dangerously ingestible each item was, it’s a wonder my brother or I survived.
Or perhaps that answers a question of my secret origin. Whatever superpowers I have, they came about through some random exposure to one or more of those vials and tubes. Like The Flash, minus the requisite lightning strike.
In the chemistry set were little tools. Tweezers. Snips.
And a small scoop or spoon with a black plastic handle.
This is important.
Having heard his own name from a skinny little kid, the DS laughed and smiled and probably shook my hand. Adults were always shaking my hand, so why wouldn’t he? And he asked me how I knew.
I told him it was on his card. On his briefcase. He called me sharp.
Adults were always calling me sharp.
Introductions over, he started in on his children’s sermon. An object lesson with a single prop. And that prop was …
A tube of toothpaste.
“What is this?”
“Good! Now, what happens if I squeeze this tube of toothpaste?”
“All the toothpaste comes out!”
“Right! And if I keep on squeezing and squeezing, every bit of toothpaste will come right out, now won’t it?”
Nods all around. All of us wanted to see him squeeze that tube.
“But once all of the toothpaste comes out … how do you get it back in?”
Blank faces to my left and to my right. This was the response he’d expected, and reasonably so. In later years, I’d recognize this lesson in matters of that which is done cannot be undone. In spite of the prop, the metaphor had merit. So it would only make sense that he would give the matter one beat and then another, before proceeding on.
“You see, children, this here tube of toothpaste is a lot like you or me, so when …”
“Wait. What about a very small spoon?”
That was me talking. I said that.
“What about a very small spoon? I’ve got one.”
“Well, I … I imagine that would … but … the point I’m trying to make … when you say something, you can’t just take it back. Things like gossip and rumors and lies, those things are hurtful to other people, so we must all be careful with what we say.”
Nods to my left and right. I was still planning.
“Well, thank you for visiting with me today … you can go back to your mommies and daddies.”
We shuffled off and the DS gave me a smile, though maybe a smaller one than he would’ve had I not interrupted the sermon.
After all, I had a solution.
The next Sunday, I brought my small spoon in my pants pocket, but the DS wasn’t there. I considered showing the small spoon to our regular pastor, but figured that would only get me in more trouble.
A simple Google search tells me that the toothpaste lesson is still alive and well in the children’s sermon circuit. The descriptions have words like “impossible” as concerns the putting back of toothpaste. The verse cited is from Proverbs 10:19.
In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.
None of the children’s sermons mention a small spoon.