“’Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.’” – Mark 10:14-15 (The Message)
In his lively volume of scripture-related poetry that’s wonderfully titled “God Must Have a Sense of Humor He Made Aardvarks and Orangutans …and Me!” the late Presbyterian pastor and poet David Steele included a verse or two reflecting on the text printed above:“Let those children in,” Jesus shouted, And said something frightfully odd, “They are bearers of Grace, And their ultimate place Is right smack in the Kingdom of God.” So . . . the place of a child is the kingdom! That’s what He so carefully taught. So . . . the last time you did Play some ball with your kid, You were closer to God than you thought. – “Let the Children Come,” by the Rev. David Steele
This bit of poetry regularly comes to mind in anticipation of that weekly ritual of Christian worship that’s known in various congregations as the “Ministry with the Children,” the “Children’s Sermon,” or as I have come to understand it over the years as a pastor, those few minutes of the church service every Sunday where I’m “worshiping without a net.”
Lest you think I’m sounding like the cynical pastor, let me be clear: I’ve always enjoyed leading this part of worship. In fact, in some ways it’s the time spent with the children where I feel a true presence of the Lord in the flow of worship. That having been said, however, it’s also been one of the riskiest and least predictable aspects of worship, in that the pastor might have a well-prepared message to present to the kids on a given morning, only to discover that they have something else on their minds entirely and are not at all reticent to speak their minds about it!
Oh, yes… many has been the time when a child or two (or twenty!), by virtue of spirit and spontaneity, has completely derailed the preacher’s good intentions! Over the years, for instance, I’ve heard from a lot of little ones who have inadvertently both entertained the congregation and embarrassed their parents, from the red-headed little firebrand early on in my ministry who announced to the congregation just how much beer his father – a church deacon, by the way – had drunk the night before, to the little girl who lifted up her new Christmas dress to show off some lacy bloomers! And there have been heartbreaking moments as well, such as the time that one little boy, with tears welling up in his eyes, abruptly shared with us that his Mom and Dad were getting a divorce, news which up to that moment most in the congregation had not heard and which suddenly I had to at least acknowledge (suffice to say those tears spread to all in attendance).
Needless to say, such exchanges have created some unscripted and occasionally awkward moments (to say nothing of some fresh grey hairs on the heads of a few parents I’ve known!), and I will be the first to admit that there are times that it can get a little crazy! Mostly, however, it’s a lot of fun, it tends to make a gathered group of church goers more of a church family; and sometimes even serves to unleash a few spiritual truths in the company of the family of God. It’s true; and I’m convinced this is why many church folk will tell you that the children’s message is for them the most meaningful part of worship: that even given our supposed sophistication and education as well-meaning adults on matters biblical and theological, so often it’s a child who effectively articulates what it all really means, what it is to be truly, truly loved and how we ought to love in return.
This speaks to a truth we don’t always affirm in the church but which I have long believed: that though the expressed reason for taking time out of the worship service for the children is for us teach and nurture them in the ways of faith, ultimately we end up learning at least as much from them! We are energized by their joy and enthusiasm; touched by their sincerity and genuine caring; moved (oft times jolted!) by their openness and honesty; and inspired by the utter simplicity and clarity of their understanding of God. After all, take away all the deep seeded questions and theological conundrums we carry around with us on the journey of faith formation, what remains is the Divine as “Some Children See Him:” someone as big and powerful and mighty as to create the heavens and the earth, but who can also love each one of them deeply and beyond measure; as near and as personal to them as a mommy or daddy, as close as a favorite “luvvy” or a best friend.
It’s a pure and natural relationship they have with God, girded in love and unending hope, one that so many of us grown-ups will spend a lifetime trying to find; and there it is, displayed for us every Sunday morning on a front pew that’s filled with wide-eyed and utterly unpredictable kids! I marvel at this, wishing that we could find a way to bottle that kind of unfettered enthusiasm – an elixir of spiritual youth, if you will – but Jesus was right: ultimately it takes our having the heart and the spirit of a child to know it for ourselves.
That’s why when over the years there’s been the occasional skeptic who wonders aloud at the value of what might just have the potential of creating utter anarchy in the worship service (Isn’t that what Sunday School is for, they’ll inevitably ask), I’m quick to point out that these children’s moments are far more than just “a fun time with the kids,” and certainly more than the requisite way of acknowledging those who are “the future of the church.” It’s actually an affirmation of those who, by their spirit and joy, are an essential part of the present of the church, thank you very much; and moreover, it’s a weekly act of praise for the God whose kingdom is very definitely the place of a child! It’s also a moment for each one of us to recall and loose the very childlike spirit that our Lord has placed within each one of us; perchance that such blessings of grace might not only infuse the rest of our worship experience, but might also overflow to the many other facets of our lives as people of faith.
And it seems to me if even if that sometimes involves a loud and overly exuberant rendition of “I Have a Friend Who Loves Me,” (Yee Haw!) a chatterbox preschooler who won’t stay on topic, or even a little one who can’t sit still no matter what, for you and I to receive that kind of Christian nurture is definitely worth the risk!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry