I am a regular advocate for children in Church. I think the practice shapes children at a young age and enlivens worship for the community. Though distracting to some, the noise of children makes me feel like the church is alive and joyful. That is why I always encourage parents with young children, because I know from experience that the noises of your own child sound ten times louder than they do to anyone else. I also know that wrangling little ones can be frustrating some days and other days down-right impossible. Many a parent has expressed to me that they are glad the sermons are posted online, since they often do not hear it when their little ones are particularly active. I encourage parents to persevere and even make sure that Sunday School does not bleed into worship time so that our children can be present as gifts to the rest of the congregation.
But every once in a while, my own daughter reminds me how my principles do not always coincide with the realities of experience. This past Sunday, as we were serving communion, my daughter managed to sneak away from her dad, and kneeled next to another parishioner. When I reverently offered her the host, she abruptly grabbed it from my hand and shoved it enthusiastically into her mouth. As her parent, my immediate reaction was to be a little embarrassed and to wonder what the other parishioners must think of my parenting skills. Despite a couple of chuckles, I squashed my embarrassment, and moved on to the next person at the rail. Later that morning, during the final hymn, my daughter joined me in the aisle as I sang and waited to deliver the morning’s announcements. As the hymn was wrapping up, she dropped my hand and started shaking her hips in the center aisle, dancing to the hymn with reckless abandon. Again, my initial instinct was to fret over what parishioners might think about the kind of dancing I was teaching at home.
Later, as I was thinking about the two incidents, several things came to me. One, I was once again reminded how hard it is to manage children in the context of formal worship. I am so grateful to the parents who do it every week and who allow us to be blessed by their children. Two, I realized how hyper aware I am of my role within the church and how that role has some serious implications for my family. In my ordination vows, the bishop asked me, “Will you do your best to pattern your life and the life of your family in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?” Sometimes, I think that question makes priests and their families feel like they have to be perfect – including in the pew on Sundays. But what I realized was that my daughter was not shattering our “perfect” image. She was inviting me to let go of pretenses and be real with our parish. Being a parent, in fact being a human, is messy, and I do not need to pretend that I somehow have a better hold on being “not messy” simply because I am a priest.
Finally, what I realized on Sunday is that being a “wholesome example” means loving my child in the way that I love all our children at church. When I could step back from the fact that my child was greedily grabbing Eucharist and dancing a little “inappropriately” in church, I could see the incidents totally differently. When I could see my child as a child of God, I could see someone who was demonstrating how eager we all should be to receive Christ’s body at the table: how our longing for Jesus sometimes is downright greedy and aggressive, and grabbing for the bread is a physical way of showing a passionate longing for Christ. When I could see my child as a child of God, I could see someone who was moved by the Holy Spirit to joyfully dance before the Lord, not unlike David so many years before[i]: someone who was actually inspired by the music being sung and played, not just dutifully and dispassionately singing the words. I thought about how her body is a gift from God and how wonderful it was that she was using her body to praise God, even if my uptight-self resisted it.
One of the greatest reasons having children among our midst in church is because they help us get out of ourselves and our need to keep up appearances, and they help us to see the holy in new, exciting, and fresh ways. So, please keep bringing those little ones. We all need them to show us the face of Christ. And for our parents, occasionally they might remind you how they are children of God as much as they are your children as well.
[i] 2 Samuel 6.16