This post first appeared as the cover article of yesterday's View newsletter. To read the rest of the newsletter and know what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.
Because our altar is fixed against the wall, the congregation cannot see my facial expressions when I am presiding at the Eucharist. Perhaps the quietest part of the service, the Great Thanksgiving is usually a time for one person to speak on behalf of the congregation, which kneels or stands quietly…except when they don’t. Every once in a while, the near-silence is broken by a jubilant screech or a frustrated yelp or a panicked wail or an excited shriek. Even though you cannot see my face, perhaps you can hear in my voice that, in that moment of spontaneous distraction, I am smiling. Even when the most solemn moments of our liturgy are interrupted by a noisy child, I cannot help but smile.
That has not always been my response. Years ago, before I had any children of my own, I would assure parents of noisy children that no one in the congregation felt more uncomfortable at their children’s outbursts than they did. I lied. A screaming child made me squirm worse than a former governor out on parole when the preacher delivered a damning sermon about sleazy politicians. Partly, I squirmed because I found no pleasure in the noises of children. Mainly, though, I was consumed by the irrational worry that people in the congregation wanted me—the preacher—to silence those annoying urchins even though there was nothing I could do about it. Each little squeak threatened to undo everything we had gathered in church to celebrate.
And then my daughter was born.
Like all infants, she screamed when she was hungry. She screamed when she needed to burp. She screamed in the middle of the night and in the middle of the day and any time she felt like it—sometimes right in the middle of church. Pretty soon, when I was standing at the altar with my back to the congregation, I could tell which squeaks and coos belonged to my child and which ones belonged to others, and a shift began to take place in my heart. I didn’t learn to like my daughter’s screaming or to favor her noises above others. In fact, if anything, hers bothered me more than theirs. But I learned to listen for the noises that children make and to hear them not as an interruption but as the joyful noise of a growing congregation.
As Jesus’ ministry and popularity grew, the crowds followed him everywhere, swarming to hear him preach or to receive his healing touch. He struggled to get quiet moments by himself when he could pray, and at times his disciples did their best to shield him from the needy multitudes. One day, a group of children were brought to Jesus so that he might lay his hands on them, but the disciples intervened, rebuking the people and shooing the children and their parents away. Indignant, Jesus scolded the disciples, saying, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).
Maybe we should take Jesus seriously—not just by making a little time for children’s ministry but by learning to look for God’s kingdom through the eyes and experiences of children. For the most part, we approach ministry for children by escorting them out of the room. We shoo them away when it is time for the sermon, and we whisk them out when they interrupt the prayers. We hold a finger over our lips and shush them into silence, stressing that only adult voices belong in worship. No, it would not be beneficial to anyone to let all of the children run loose during church, but maybe we can learn to hear their presence among us as a joyful sign of God’s kingdom.
Occasionally I hear stories about parishioners turning around backwards to shoot a disapproving glare at a mother who is struggling to contain her boisterous children in the back of church. Sometimes people will ask me, “Why doesn’t she take her children out of church when they make noise like that?” Usually I shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?” Maybe next time I’ll ask them what Jesus had to say about that.