Little Girls in Church: Two Lies and a Truth
* * *
I looked at the usher in confusion. I hadn't heard her cry. I glanced over at the stroller. She was smiling and chewing on her fist. I looked behind me. A couple I didn't recognize were smiling at her. They didn't seem to be bothered by her. What exactly was the problem? But I dutifully picked up my baby and retreated behind the glass wall of the cry room. It was only later I thought, that was a heck of a way to welcome a little child to church.
A few years later we brought our two toddlers to church on a Christmas morning that happened to fall on a Sunday. They were wired up from the excitement of a visit to Grandma and Grandpa's house, the candy in their stocking and the general chaos of Christmas. I had my doubts when our friend, the associate pastor, told us to bring them up front where the kids were gathered on a rug. They sang and danced during the worship set, then settled in on my lap as I sat just in front of the first row of chairs. The pastor began his sermon by explaining he was going to talk to the kids, and the adults were free to listen in. He started out engaging the older elementary kids with a few questions, but quickly slipped into his usual level of discourse that was definitely not aimed at children. My youngest squirmed away from me and started turning circles a few feet in front of me, dancing the sheer joy of being a two-year-old wearing a sparkly new dress.
I was just starting to relax and believe we might make it through this service intact, when a woman sitting behind me leaned over. "Could you make your daughter sit down? I can't focus on what the pastor is saying." I scooped both girls up and headed out of the room. My husband caught up with me in the hallway, offering to take the girls home so I could stay for the rest of the service. If I had stopped for a minute to realize how angry I was, I would have refused the offer and taken them home myself. I found a seat in the back and fumed through the rest of the 45- minute sermon. That day was as close as I've ever come to swearing off church altogether.
* * *
That smiling baby is about to graduate high school, with her sister just a year behind, and I have put aside the offense of those unfortunate encounters. Being part of a congregation that happily welcomes children has been a healing experience. I don't believe the lies I was told, that my girls being themselves was somehow a problem for the adults in the room. I like to think I wouldn't be so easily intimidated now, but the truth goes deeper than that: I am deeply convinced that a happy baby is not a distraction from the important work of worship; she is an open door, an invitation.
I hope I never witness another mother being shamed into removing her child from a church service for no reason other than the child being her delightful self. But if I ever do see it, I know what I would do. I would be out of my seat, putting myself between the mother and whoever was having a problem with the baby. "Wait a minute," I would say. "Don't you see what's happening here? Do you see how this baby is smiling, and the grownups around her smile back. They are delighting in each other, mirroring the love and joy of being made in the image of God. Look at her, smile at her. Feel the goodness bubble up in your heart. That's how God looks as each of us. That's the delight God takes in God's children. Stay here a minute. Keep smiling. Let that love soften your heart. This is worship. This is the Kingdom of God."
What else could Jesus possibly have meant when he took a little child in his arms and said, "Unless you become like a little child, you cannot see the Kingdom"? Maybe the next time we're allowed to meet together in the same place we can all break out in a toddler's happy dance!