This post originally appeared in the newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read more from that newsletter and learn more about St. John's, click here.
I do not get many long weekends away with my family, so, when I do, I like to make them count. This past weekend, we took advantage of the school holiday and spent a few days in the mountains. Several days before we left, I began my search: which Episcopal Church in the area should we attend? I rarely have the opportunity to go to church with my family, so, when I do, I drag them all along with me. After checking a few websites and Facebook pages and making a phone call to a trusted source, I decided that we would visit the Church of the Messiah in Murphy, North Carolina. When Saturday night came, I mapped the route, told the family what time we would need to leave, set my alarm, and went to sleep, looking forward to spending a Sunday in the pew with my wife and children. I had no idea what lay ahead of me.
On a normal Sunday, I wake up at 4:30am and leave the house at 6:00am—before anyone else is awake. This Sunday, our prescribed departure time was 10:00am. With four extra hours to spare, I anticipated a leisurely morning, but that dream evaporated as quickly as the morning fog. One child refused to eat a bowl of cereal—any cereal. “He does this every Sunday,” Elizabeth said, trying to calm my rising frustration. Another child refused to wear what that same child had picked out the night before. “Are you kidding me?” I asked incredulously. “You chose it. Why won’t you wear it?” About that time, screams arose in another room as a struggle over a toy turned violent. I split them up and returned to the child who was pouting over what to wear. “You’re still not dressed?” I asked. “We’re leaving in ten minutes. You’d better be in the car when it’s time to leave.” As I finished tying my bowtie, I wondered to myself, “How in the world does Elizabeth do this by herself every single Sunday?”
The fifteen-minute ride into town was more of the same: that same child fussing about being cold because that child’s outfit wasn’t warm enough, the other two yapping at each other about who started it, and Elizabeth and me yelling at the back seat about how this had better stop by the time we get to church. When we pulled into the parking lot, the only person in the car with the slightest sense of joy at coming to church while on vacation was me, and even that was fading fast. As we walked up to the church, however, things softened slightly. Three different greeters welcomed us and told us how happy they were to see some young children in church. “Oh yeah?” I asked under my breath. “We’ll see if you still feel that way in half an hour.”
Our family of six stretched across a pew near the back of the nave. A thoughtful woman brought over a colorful bag of books, crayons, and stuffed animals with which our children could play. “I hope these will help,” she said as she handed us the bag, admitting that they didn’t use them very often. Even before the service started, an argument erupted between our children over who should get the red stuffed tomato and who would be stuck with the green stuffed cucumber. Throughout the service, it seemed that our children picked the quietest moments—the lessons, the prayers, the sermon—to make the biggest ruckus. Overdue for a nap, Emily became restless, so, when the sermon started, I stood up to rock her back and forth behind the last pew. When she started crying, I stepped outside. When it sounded as if the sermon had finished, I walked back in and met Elizabeth, who was dragging our two boys outside. I didn’t know what had happened, but I could figure it out well enough on my own. At the Peace, I sent Frances to go and bring them all back in, and we struggled in place through the rest of the service, employing a variety of techniques—stern looks, pointed fingers, harsh whispers, and sharp pinches—to keep the kids in line as much as possible.
The disruptive effect of our behavior was intensified by the small size of the nave. If you count the seats for the choir, the beautiful, white clapboard church was big enough for eighty people. On this Sunday, there were seventy in worship, and, with the exception of the three youth who served as acolytes and the one woman in the choir who looked to be about our age, our family were by far the six youngest people in the congregation. But that did not stop the people of the Church of the Messiah from making us feel welcome. Seven different people went out of their way to tell us how well-behaved our children were—one even stopping us in the grocery store after church was over. All seven of them were liars, but their words were warmly received by two exasperated parents. When I stood up to take Emily to the back of the church, one of the septuagenarians in the pew behind me put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it. We love children. She’s not bothering anyone. I’ve been playing peek-a-boo with her.” Unbelievable as it may seem. I am fairly sure that she meant every word. By the time we got to the final blessing, Elizabeth and I were exhausted. And the people around us were, too. But all of us were glad to be there.
Going to church with young children isn’t easy. With four kids and only one parent to marshal them, it is downright impossible. And it can be as hard on the rest of the congregation as it is on the parents who are trying their best to keep the paper-crinkling and restless fidgeting under wraps. Why do we do it? Why do we bother subjecting ourselves and those in neighboring pews to ninety minutes of torture? Why do people who said goodbye to small children decades ago go out of their way to make a disruptive family feel welcome? Why would anyone want the six of us to come back? Because, when all of us are together, we experience the presence of Jesus Christ in ways that we cannot when we are apart.
Jesus said, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” Those words were not merely a way of validating a small assembly of Christians. They were an invitation to all of us, reminding us that, if we want to meet Jesus, we must come together. Can a family experience the presence of God by sitting on the front porch of a mountain house overlooking a dramatic vista? Sure they can, but they can’t share it with others, and God’s presence cannot fully be experienced unless it is shared. Could an eighty-year-old widower find more peace sitting on a park bench than behind our family in church? Absolutely, but solitary peace is not God’s peace. We come together as God’s family not because it is easy but because the challenge of worshipping together as a diverse congregation is how we experience the completeness of God’s kingdom. That’s why we bother. And that’s why we go out of our way to make every individual feel at home—because we are not at home without them all. That is a lesson that the people of the Church of the Messiah have learned to their core. What about us?