By Elizabeth Baumann
In my first daughter’s baby book there is a quote that says having a child is to “have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Rarely — if ever — have I felt that more keenly than when I bring her and her sister to Mass.
Our Sunday service starts at the time which, on any other day, I would be doling out a snack and putting the little one down for a nap; as a priest’s wife I am a solo parent at church; our traditional building has neither nursery nor cry room, though it does have acoustics that make a dropping crayon sound like a wrecking ball. When I began bringing my first baby there wasn’t even a changing table. Mine are the only small children of the congregation. And they are both exceptionally kinetic. My visions of toddlers sitting still while I whispered explanations of the liturgy died a long, drawn-out death some time ago. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that many times I have wished to go somewhere else, where bringing little ones to church wasn’t so hard — or at least where I wasn’t alone.
God loves the hard places.
Without peers in real life, I turned to the blogosphere to figure out how to manage children in church. Online, alongside unrealistic expectations, I imbibed the belief that little ones belong in the Mass. My situation isn’t one I’ve been stuck with, but something I’d have chosen anyway. My daughters are baptized Christians who receive Communion as regularly and reverently as anyone in our church. To say they don’t belong because they can’t behave like adults is to impose a litmus test that would quickly bar not only children, but the mentally handicapped from church. To say they don’t belong because they can’t “understand” is to imply that you have to understand. Understand the mystery of God in the Mass? Then none of us belongs.
My girls love the Eucharist in a way few besides little children can. When she was two, the older one would sing “Alleluia, alleluia,” during the distribution of Communion. After receiving last Sunday, my little one-year-old was softly saying, “Thank you, Jesus!” over and over, while gazing up toward the altar during the post-Communion prayer.
They also sometimes forget to be quiet. They get bored and start hanging off the pew like monkeys. The little one hasn’t quite grasped the stay-in-the-pew rule and tries to run away. Sometimes they fight loudly over coloring books. I am often contorted trying to reach all the misbehaving limbs in an impossibly narrow space. The only way to take them out of the service is to go outside or walk all the way to the front of the nave to get out. If the weather is bad, it’s, undoubtedly, the walk of shame. By the time I get to coffee hour, I am usually frazzled and finished.Our church has been exceptionally gracious. But we’ve visited other churches where the complaints have hurt deeply (and where my girls didn’t cause any real disruptions which might have made complaints at least understandable). Having children is having your heart sit in a pew — or climb on it — beside you. No one who’s ever done it thinks that bringing small children to church is easy. The only reason to do it is to bring your children to Jesus, just as you bring your heart, because you know how much you need his grace.
Plenty of people have an unhelpful story about a child who was truly disruptive in church with which to terrify new parents. Rarely do those same people mention the numberless other times parents whisked out a child who made only the slightest peep, or turn their annoyance on the grumpy parishioners who complain about a child who’s just being a child, as if “not being distracted by other people” is the divinely ordained portion of the church-goer.
We remember that Jesus said, “Let the little children come,” that he was indignant that his disciples would turn them away. But the children I always imagined before were wide-eyed, quiet ones being still. And now I really doubt that the disciples would have bothered to turn them away if that were so. I’m convinced there was at least one mother present struggling to hold a screaming, kicking toddler — an exhausted mother on the verge of tears knowing only that she desperately needed Jesus.
If we’re serious about being like Jesus, it means welcoming that mother, the one with the misbehaving child she doesn’t always know how to handle. Yes, it will sometimes mean being distracted in church. Jesus welcomed the distraction(s) — he invited them. A smile, a word of encouragement, a compliment — “You’re doing a good job bringing them” — can change the world for a parent who’s struggling in the pew. Parents are already sleep-deprived and painfully self-conscious. Stares, frowns, complaints — sometimes even well-meant but tactless reminders about the cry room — are enough to make a family leave a church forever.
“Do not hinder them.”
After all, the very God we’re in church for became a little child. How deprived is our faith if there aren’t little children in our midst to remind us how vulnerable he became for our sake? He set a child in their midst and said they must become like one of these. How can we appreciate what that means if there are no real children to show us?
Perhaps most of all, he told us what we do to one of these little ones, we do to him. That baby behind you who babbles through the entire service? That’s Jesus. You can choose to be annoyed because you can’t hear the lessons, or you can choose to hear the innocent joy in his voice and contemplate the Christ who deigned to become a child. The runaway toddler of the outnumbered single parent who makes a break for the altar in the middle of Maundy Thursday? You choose: be offended, or see an icon of how Jesus invites us to approach the Father — unrestrained, shameless, full of joy. You choose to judge that mortified parent as she goes after the recalcitrant runaway as unobtrusively as she can — or you can choose to have compassion, and maybe even a sense of humor. How you choose to respond is a far truer measure of faith than all the undistracted praying you will ever do.
Children — and their parents — who are welcomed in church experience Jesus. They learn to love him because they are loved. And — bonus! — they will show you how God loves you if you’ll open your eyes to see.
Elizabeth Baumann is the priest’s wife and mother of the two smallest communicants at the blended congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church & Redeemer Lutheran Church in Centralia, Illinois.