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Near the end of his life, Pope John Paul II was seated on his chair at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. He was in his eighties and suffering from Parkinson’s. He had trouble sitting up straight, and even holding up his head was a chore. Yet there he was, in front of hundreds of parishioners and visitors who filled the cathedral to capacity. Thousands, indeed millions more watched him on television outside in the square and around the world. He looked tired and rather glum—not an office-holder of stature, but an old man hunched by the many failings of his body.
During the mass, children of multiple nations paraded across the front in their native garb to greet the ailing pontiff. Until that point, you could see the hardships of his health writ large over his countenance. Yet, when the first child mounted the steps of the altar, a subtle but certain joy broke upon John Paul’s face like a ray of winter sun. In that moment, he did not have to be a pope, but a mere man of great age taking thankful pleasure in seeing the young in all their guileless vibrance.
I have never forgotten this.
Like many local bodies, the church where I attend has alternative activities for small children during the service. Up to a certain age—fourth grade, I believe—the kids are invited out after a few songs to participate in what is ostensibly a more age-appropriate gathering. Very young children, below grade school age, can spend the entire service in the care of kind, dedicated volunteers.
This is the situation in many churches, and I think there’s a definitive place for it all. There is nothing wrong with age-appropriate practice. We don’t lade our children with the fullness of the predestination debate, for example. We don’t expect them to understand the depth of iconography behind marriage and sexuality—for goodness’ sake, we hardly scratch its surface as adults. However, my wife and I make our oldest two—seven and nine years of age—sit through the whole service, sermon and all. We do this for a very specific set of reasons.
If we have read the book of Hebrews, we know that we ought not to give up meeting together. Concerning why we ought not give it up, we tend to come up short. Corporate worship is, for lack of a better term, special. It may seem vaguely animistic, or at least far too easy, to subscribe to mysticism here, but there is something particular and ineffable about congregational worship. It is there that the embodiment of the Body of Christ is most often expressed. Furthermore, among the ways we perceive the reality of the Church, corporate worship is one of the more tangible and even visceral. I certainly want my children to see this.
I’m sure part of our family decision, or at least my half of it, stems from a crotchety, mawkish pride in my own age—a modest thirty-five years among all the epochs of the world. When I was a wee young lad, after all, we had no “children’s church.” We had to sit and listen to the preacher. And we walked fifteen miles to school. And we ate boiled shoes and pine bark in the lean winter months. I want my own children to suffer the same deprivations, in order to build character.
The other part of me—the less narcissistic bit—is happy for them to be exposed not only to the stories of the Bible, but to words and doctrines that escape them. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “Calvary” as a child and envisioned Union Army horsemen, charging in with swords drawn. Of course! Why should there not be army men charging anywhere and everywhere in the church service? This is what little boys dream of. I was probably in middle school before I gathered exactly what Calvary meant. As with so many things—names, phone numbers, recipes—it’s the repetition that finally gets through our thick skulls.
Secondly, and in a way more importantly, I want my kids present in church so that we can be the Church. Not only are they supposed to learn from all those grown-ups hopefully hanging on every word of the Scriptures or lining up for communion, but we as grown-ups ought to learn from them. They receive everything with a sense of novelty. They’re quick to ask hard questions, and they do so without the guile so often hidden in adult debates.
When we bring our weaknesses and faults to the Body of Christ, we offer the opportunity for people to see the way in which we must approach the Lord—pitiful, blind, and naked. Whosoever does not come like a little child cannot enter.Adam Whipple
Furthermore, they stubbornly refuse to give in to our self-importance. They write little jokes and draw things that have nothing to do with the sermon. They openly sleep. The pastor mentions the Water of Life, and they have to go to the bathroom. People take some degree of offense over these things, mostly because adults chafe at assaults upon their quietude. I know, for I personally fail often here. For example, I find it difficult to concentrate on the finer points of, say, soteriology, while some dear old lady unwraps a single butterscotch candy for eight excruciating minutes. The plastic crinkles in the quiet. My hands close and unclose involuntarily; my teeth grind. I quote verses to myself such as, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Deliver us, O God, from Werther’s Original.
In regards to noise, kids in church show us something we rarely have the gumption to show each other: weakness. A hungry baby cares not a whit for “Now let us pray” or “Thanks be to God for his Word.” The child mews and squalls, flinging raw sound over our decorum like Jackson Pollock before a canvas. And for God’s sake, we ought to let her. You may recall a scene from the movie Children of Men, in which Clare-Hope Ashitey and Clive Owen carry a newborn through a bombed-out building in the midst of a guerrilla war. Cowering civilians and rifle-wielding soldiers alike stop cold in their tracks at the sound of the baby’s crying. With wonder in their eyes, they make way, in the midst of a firefight, to let the child through. There’s so much in that scene about the mighty power of innocence, but imagine if we held to that same wonderment about children in church.
I recently attended my first church business meeting. Thankfully, it was a sheer delight, a poetic scene of a hundred unsung volunteers managing a gigantic sum of money (gigantic to me, anyway) out of plain servanthood and willingness. I’ve heard the horror stories of other church meetings, though. Backbiting, subversion, and sabotage make regular appearances. Imagine if, into all that posturing and sebaceous bravado, there was placed a single clean drop of innocent weakness. What self-entitled pillar of the community would not rise from his laurels to help if, say, a little boy suddenly broke an arm falling off a chair?
Now, I know kids can be irritating. Don’t hear me saying that I’m against things like good discipline or those helpful crying rooms in churches. I know it’s embarrassing to have your kid make a ruckus, but for the rest of us listening, I think grace one-ups decorum every time. If these be silent, the stones will cry out. When we bring our weaknesses and faults to the Body of Christ, we offer the opportunity for people to see the way in which we must approach the Lord—pitiful, blind, and naked. Whosoever does not come like a little child cannot enter.
It’s true, we’ve given each other plenty of reason to fear showing our weaknesses. It isn’t for nothing the Church is often seen as a pack of wolves. We all bite now and again. Faith in the Lord gives us hope, though, and hope keeps us returning, even to each other. And when at last, old and broken, we see each other as the Children of the King that we are, we can pause amid the ceremonies and the pageantry to take joy at the guileless, helpless young. Like John Paul in that moment upon Christmastide, we can forget our thrones, and our offices, and our fine robes and remember that those young ones are us, and that we all come to God as little children.