Thursday, 13 October 2011

Suffer the little children

Right, God, I'm needing some advice.

I am a Mum of two small children.  Getting bigger, but still small; they're four and six. This means that they have a limited attention span, lots of energy, no volume control and a low boredom threshold. None of these attributes are character flaws, I don't think; they are four and six. The ability to remain quiet, sit still and concentrate develops in the years beyond four and six - in some cases far beyond. 

I'm setting the scene. 

My children are, to me, endlessly entertaining, frustrating, endearing and irritating. I am quite sure that the casual onlooker would agree with me in varying proportions here, but I do admit that loving my two daughters unconditionally in the way that only parents are able helps me to live with them despite the negatives. The wonder of them tends to outweigh the frustration they cause; is that a bit what it's like for you?  I completely understand if so far this is pretty much how you feel about me. I can be endearing when I try and I have a winning smile, after all...

Moving on. 

We go to the family service at church on a Sunday morning as a family, and the reason we do this is because I love you and I want to worship you, listen to you, speak to you and learn more about you and more about how to live my life as you want me to live it. I very much want my children to come some day to a place where they can say the same. I believe that children have their own spirituality and even though my own witness to you in family life is patchy and sometimes must be a big letdown, they amaze me with their perception and their faith. Remember when Katy asked me for a specific prayer just before her operation?  I had no idea that she'd remembered it, and no idea that it had helped her. And Lizzie too has said things to me that show that she has experienced you in a simple, child-like sort of way. 

I also come to church to see my church family. To meet people who accept me and love me and support me and to offer my acceptance and love and support to them as well because that's what we do. I've had my ups and downs and I find that I need my Sunday visit to church, just like my home group and whatever else I'm involved in at church to keep me going. If Christianity is a crutch for the weak as some have alleged, then I'm weak and I'm limping - I need that crutch. So I come on Sunday needy. 

My girls for the most part enjoy church; they like their Sunday school groups; they like making things, they like it when there's something interesting to look at or listen to, and they like the cake afterwards. What they're not so good at is sitting still when grown up things are going on. They are four and six, remember. 

I want my children to learn about you, Father.  I'd love it if they caught on about you a whole lot earlier than I did. I want them to understand that it's the most important decision that they could ever make. I want them to learn to talk to you, to lean on you, to learn about you and to listen to you. I want them to be able to worship you. So I can understand that to whisk our little ones off to Sunday school at the first opportunity, while undeniably giving hard-pressed Mums the opportunity to relax and concentrate on you not only places a burden on the Sunday school leaders but also denies the children themselves a chance to learn to worship in the midst of the rest of the church family. If they can listen to the music, hear the singing, look around at people lost in worship and feel the Holy Spirit moving, then so much the better. I would like this for my children. 

So I encourage them to listen, to look and, where possible, to sing. Of course, Katy can't read the words and Elizabeth isn't yet quite quick enough with her reading to keep up with the songs, but on rare occasions she has a go at a simple chorus. When she does I love it. I love her little voice and I love that for those moments she is engaged instead of wriggling and asking over and over when she can go to her group. Katy sometimes likes being picked up and now and again she leans on me in a sort of contented trance as I jiggle in time to the music in an attempt to keep her interested. 
How can they sit still?
They're superheroes

The level of engagement that I manage to achieve of course is directly related to the status of the children; if they are sitting or standing nicely without drawing attention to themselves, not talking, shouting, fighting, tickling, crawling under chairs, walking along seats, climbing on radiator pipes, running about or laughing excessively, then I am able to worship (with one eye on the screen and one on the children ready to extract, correct or disentangle if necessary). If they are committing any of the above crimes then I am unable to join in with any sincerity as my mind is occupied with crowd control. I know there are only two of them, but it sometimes feels like many more. I don't know if they look around at other people and see men and women engrossed in your worship but it seems unlikely that they see me that way as I am always keeping an eye on them. 

When the girls come back in after Sunday school brandishing their creations they are always voluble in their enthusiasm. Katy usually announces what she's been doing at top volume whether we are in the middle of a hymn or a prayer.


She announced, recently.  I love to hear her story and as any Mum would I break off to welcome her back and admire her handiwork. You've been there. I'm sure my lack of attention at that point doesn't offend you. You'd have your arms open too, I have no doubt.

The service ends and after the notices, during which I am asked approximately every eleven seconds how soon the girls can go and get a piece of cake or a flapjack, they dash off for refreshments. They're full of energy, having been sitting nicely during the worship, (ahem, well, as nicely as we could manage) then in their groups doing activities, and then (ahem) sitting nicely again. They are at the back of church like exocets, grab cake, then seek out their friends and then... well, who knows. I gather up bags, coats and craft activities and then try to find them. 

This is not easy, as they could be anywhere. They travel fast after an hour or more of containment. They want to make noise after having been shushed for a long time, and they want to run about and climb after having been urged to sit or stand still for a long time, and they get excited in a large building with other children of their age. They are hungry and are allowed something sugary and what follows is a burst of energy.

Meanwhile, back in grown-up land, I want to chat, or drink coffee, or find people I need to talk to, or perhaps even speak to someone new and welcome them to our church. I might even feel like indulging in a little morsel of flapjack myself. But it isn't as easy as that. 

There are those who feel that children should understand that the church is a your house, and that their demeanour should be correspondingly respectful.  That shouting, squealing, running or climbing on seats is inappropriate and offensive. That children should sit nicely, be encouraged to join in by all means, but parents are responsible for maintaining a level of behaviour in their offspring that doesn't permit the letting off of steam in the church building. Outside the church is a churchyard, where of course we need to make sure that our children don't show disrespect for graves or memorials, and there is a busy road without adequate gates which poses obvious problems. So they can't play inside, and they can't play outside, but they need to play because they are little and they've been trying to behave for an hour or more.

What do you think?

Tell me, because I really don't know. Really.  I can see that children need to learn respect. I understand that there are levels of behaviour that are unacceptable. I know that not everyone looks at my children and their foibles with the same affection that I do. I understand that a noisy child can interfere with someone else's concentration and enjoyment. I can see that a child dashing about after a service with a chocolate muffin in hand might leave a trail of crumbs. I know that you are our Lord God as well as our Heavenly Daddy and you deserve the utmost respect. 

I don't think that small children are showing disrespect when they run about. They just run about because they're children and they can't seem to walk anywhere. I don't think they're being disrespectful when they shout; its just because they're children and they can't seem to speak quietly. We keep telling them and eventually they'll get it. I don't even think they show disrespect when they climb underneath the Holy Table to make a den, though I do understand that for some, even more tolerant people, making a den underneath the Holy Table might be a step too far. One person says that if we worry about children pulling the cloth off the table and thus upsetting the candlesticks, we should just move the cloth, whereas someone else says that it is an outrage that we allow children there at all.

Who is to say who is right, but you?

What do you think?  If you're four, a line of chairs in a row looks like something that needs walking across like a bridge, especially if that means that you are for a while on the level with the crowd and able to see and not at everyone's hip-height. If you're a grown up a child walking on a row of chairs might look like a lack of respect for property and the likelihood that those chairs might be a bit grubby next time someone sits on them.

Who is to say who is right?

So the children need to play, and playing is awkward in the circumstances.  Every parent knows that you can only push things so far and so - we leave. We go home. Elizabeth sets off on her scooter with energy and Katy dances along or wants us to swing her between us as we walk up the road, leaving behind the church family enjoying drinks and fellowship. It's easier that way.

What can I do, Lord, or is it just something that needs time? Someone told me when I had a moan that it was something that all mums go through; just a phase that passes. Someone else told me that there were years when their children were small that they just didn't attend church because it was too hard. Someone tells me don't worry if your children make a noise because they are family too and someone else asks me to quieten them down. Someone says don't worry about chasing them about as we all have responsibility to care, protect and correct our children and someone else says that they are my responsibility and I shouldn't try to abdicate that. Who is right?

Maybe we're all right. Everyone seems well-meaning. Maybe it's a matter of perspective. But what do you think? 

"Then people brought the brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'"
Matthew 19:13-14

How wonderful it must have been to be able to bring the children to you in the flesh, to say, 'Here are my little girls,' and then you pull them towards yourself, smile and pray for them with your hand on their shoulders. I know we can still do this now but, like Thomas, I would love for you to do it in the flesh. I do have faith, increasing faith, but I need more. How easy it must have been for those Mums to encourage their children to approach you with a smile. For me, I feel the need to make church attractive to the children, to try not to put them off. I worry that containing them, limiting them, making them try too hard for too long will make them not want to come. Until I can somehow get across to them something of who you are... but then nothing is impossible with you. I just want to introduce them to you, Lord Jesus. I want you to bless them.  To bring them close as your own.

Lord Jesus, how much do you expect of our children? How child-like should they be and how grown-up should they be? What pleases you? That they're there at all, even if they're making a noise, or if they're sitting beautifully without drawing any attention to themselves?  I know that you love them whatever, that's not in question, but how should we get through our services? I know I can't possibly be the first harried Mum to have put the question. Is it me that needs to grow up?

Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I resent that it's all made more difficult. To those who shrug and say it was difficult for them too when their children were little I feel like protesting that surely it shouldn't be so difficult. It's all about acceptance, isn't it? About families. It doesn't mean that we don't get it wrong, but it means we should encourage, not discourage. Facilitate, not impede. Make it easier, not harder. Include, not exclude.

Children are not the congregations of the future, they're the congregations of now. If they are not welcome to be themselves now then they won't be there at all when they're grown up. If we are a church family, then we're a family, and families include the old, the middle aged, the young. They include those who can be quiet and those who are not very good at it. You can no more penalise a child for being childish than you can an elderly person for being old, surely?

I don't say that we should sit oblivious or indulgent as our children rampage round causing damage and mayhem and disrupting proceedings. Of course we should teach and correct and guide. Of course there has to be a limit just as there is in any other area of life. We should set an example and we should show them what is expected. It's just that I think that we sometimes expect too much.

Perhaps we're all expecting too much. Maybe we're asking too much of children, of parents and of those who like an uninterrupted service. I don't know. I really don't know. This is not a tirade at the unfairness of life, Lord; I just don't know what to do. I think that you understand all this. I think that you understand that the small children can't be quiet and pay attention for long and you love them anyway. I think you understand that parents get stressed by trying to make sure that their kids behave themselves and you love them anyway. I think you understand the people that are upset by what they perceive to be inappropriate behaviour and you love them anyway. I think that it must grieve you that we can't find a path down the middle.

Maybe it's just how it is. We are not perfect, after all. Our church is made up of imperfect people and so things are bound not to run smoothly. We're bound to annoy each other. Is that it?  Sometimes try as we might we can't see things as others see them. We assess and we criticise and we judge. We all do it. We shouldn't but we do.

I'm sorry.

Maybe I should just accept that life is difficult with young children even in the bosom of my church family, and get on with it. Many's the time I've left in tears because of this dilemma. Perhaps my expectations are the ones that require adjustment. Maybe I am looking for too much. Perhaps I should just be thankful for any sparkling moments of true worship that I manage in the middle of it all. Maybe this really is the only way forward. After all, they'll grow up. They won't always be so small and then I know that I'll miss their antics and wish that they were six and four again. Next year and the year after will have it's own challenges.

Maybe we all just have to turn up each week and do our best and smile when we can. And when it gets too much, we can leave, can't we?

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