March 19, 2013

Walking the Stations with my Seven Year Old Son

I’m the pastor of a medium-size congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, St. Dunstan’s Church. On Thursday evenings in Lent, we’ve been walking the Stations of the Cross at 6:00 pm, before our potluck supper and Lenten program. It's always a small group (our max has been 5, I think). Tonight it was just me, my son G (7-going-on-8), and a woman who is new to our community. We used the order of service from the Book of Occasional Services, and we walked around the full-length glass doors that form the outside walls of our church, where paper cutouts of the 14 stations are taped to the windows. The images are based on a set created by an artist who was one of the original members of the congregation back in the 1960s.

I had a little talk with G in the car about what the Stations are - kind of a story, kind of a church service - and I asked him to try to tune in and listen. I let him know he could read a station, if he wanted to; he said he didn't. He took his own Stations booklet, and grabbed a red marker. On the way into church he asked me, "Can I draw in this?" I hesitated a moment before saying, "Sure, go ahead."

What did G do, while we were going around and reading the Stations? He stood with us -sometimes relatively still, sometimes hopping from foot to foot. Sometimes reading along in his booklet, sometimes flopping his booklet back and forth, sometimes holding his booklet over his face with just his eyes peering over. He wandered off and sat down on a chair, a rocker, the floor. He drew a cross in red marker on one page of the booklet. He gazed at the art. He breathed on the glass of the windows and drew crosses in the water vapor with his finger. He fell over, once. He peered into the faces of the two adults in the room, to try to figure out what we were thinking and feeling. Sometimes he read the responses with us; sometimes he missed them.

And - I know this because I'm his mom, and because at least half my attention was on him the whole time - he was tuned in, listening, taking it in and thinking about it, the whole time. He was wiggly and distracting and all over the place, but he was, in his 7-going-on-8 way, fully present. And, as I started to read Station 7, he said, "I'll read the next one." He read Station 8 and Station 10. He declined to read again, but the other adult encouraged him to read the last one, and he did. He read most of it from a seated position astride our (heavy, stone) altar rail.

The experience made me think about church, and kids, and worship, and being present. Someone who doesn't know G or doesn't read kids well could have thought he was bored, restless, being disruptive. Someone who needs quiet and order to worship and pray, could have felt distracted and bothered by his presence and behavior, even if they also understood that he was there as a worshipper and that there was value in his presence. (It all puts me in mind of my mother Pamela Grenfell Smith's Two Rules for Liturgical Worship: 1. Don't bother other people. 2. Don't be bothered by other people.)

I guess my dream for the church, the big-C Church, all the churches, is that our hospitality for the children among us, our recognition of their full membership in the body of Christ, would encompass an understanding and appreciation of the fact that listening and participating and engaging, for kids, often looks different from listening and participating and engaging, for adults. That there would be gracious space in our life as a worshipping community for all kinds of engagement; that our worship together would be so robust that somebody drawing crosses in the books or on the windows, or even climbing the furniture a little, doesn't raise an eyebrow.

But it's not that simple, I know it's not, and I'm not blaming anyone for raising eyebrows. Some kids need more help than G does to tune in and engage. Some adults need a lot more order and quiet than I do to feel that they can connect with God. There is no way my son or any other child would be allowed to climb the altar rail during a Sunday church service, and there are good reasons for those limits. We all loved it when the MC's toddler granddaughter ran up to the front of the church to embrace him, shouting his name; but if it happened every week it would get old. We have an ordered liturgy and we need that order. My hope, I suppose, is for that sense of order to grow gradually more robust, so that the lesser disruptions of our younger worshippers (and sometimes the older ones, too!) are taken in stride.