Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Sounds of Joy

He looks like a normal dog who has just been to the groomer where he received a new bandanna for his neck. He's gentle in nature and goes by the name Jack. But we learned something about Jack on Sunday afternoon during our first Blessing of the Animals at Mount Vernon Place.

We only sang one song with a guitarist who was sitting on the steps with everyone else. She started to sing, and others joined along in the second or third verse. Additional people singing prompted Jack to start howling. It was not the kind of howl that a stranger at the door provokes. It was a howl of delight and pleasure. Jack was singing along. It was a genuine sound of joy that brought laughter to all who gathered. I loved it!

The Sunday afternoon atmosphere was quite different from the one created on Sunday morning. It was the first Sunday of the month, a Sunday on which we seek to save time by not having a children's sermon. Rather than having the children come to the sanctuary at the start of the service, the children went straight to their classroom or nursery. We were not five minutes into the service of worship when I leaned over to our worship leader and said, "I really miss the children. There is a huge void in our space when the children are not here."

We have not always had a lot of children at MVP. There were a handful of youth when I first arrived and one baby born into the life of the congregation the next year. Things started to change as our congregation started to grow and attract many young adults. We now have lots of children in our midst, the majority of whom came while they were still in their mother's womb. And I love it.

Some of my favorite moments are when I'm offering the opening welcome and I hear a child who is not yet two-years-old yell, "DONNA!!!!!!." While I often wonder if my robe is going straight to the dry cleaner later that day, I love it when a three-year-old runs and embraces me around my knees, burying his face in the cloth of my robe. One of my favorite moments on communion Sundays used to be when a young girl would regularly come to me and ask me to bless her. We have prayed that bullies would stop bullying her and always asked God to help her never forget how special she is. I love offering a lesson in Godly Play and inviting our children to turn to wonder about who God is and how God is at work in their life. There is a first or second grader who regularly brings me a note on his completed connect card about what's happening in his life. We often believe it is our peers, mentors or people older than us who make more of us. But our children regularly make more of me - as a childless woman, as a pastor, and as a disciple of Jesus. The closest thing I have to a child is the joy that comes from being the pastor of so many children who I get to see and embrace on Sundays.

A colleague of mine recently posted a picture on Facebook that broke my heart. It is a sign that appeared outside the doors of a church she recently visited in her neighborhood. I'm not sure what provoked the creation of the sign, but I know I never want to be part of leading a church that believes young children should not be in worship.

Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, for theirs is the kingdom." It's true that Jesus was always reaching out to and befriending the most vulnerable in our midst. But I also believe Jesus knew something about kids and adults. He must have known how often we need a child to point us to wonder, to draw our attention to what is most important, to interrupt solemn space with joy, laughter and delight, to show us what God is doing in the world around us. He must have known how we need a child who will hug us for no reason or take our hand or ask us to play in the same way I imagine God does the same.

I am convinced that we cannot fully know and experience Jesus without continuing to make space for and embrace the gifts of everyone in our midst - starting with the one who comes covered in a seat carried by a parent and leading all the way up to the one who comes pushed in a chair by the daughter who he used to carry into the church many decades ago.

Beloved parents in our midst, when your child is crying, please don't run out of the sanctuary. Please don't feel awkward or that you're disrupting a sacred moment, but know that we sometimes catch a glimpse of God holding us when we are sad, hurting or agitated by the way you gently lift your child and put her on your shoulder. When your child loves to color, please let us know that it would be helpful to have large coloring books available in the children's space but also in the pews and then bring back his or her masterpieces so we can show everyone your child's creative side. When your child wants to happily greet people, know that their greeting may be the biggest source of joy a person will receive that day. When your child wants to collect the offering with you, know that we are all deeply touched by the way he gently carries the plate and moves around the sanctuary. When your child wants to wear something you would never pick out, let him wear it to church because we want to embrace him just as he is. When someone looks at you strangely or cannot imagine how there could ever be coloring marks on a piece of furniture, step back and remember that many of us have no idea what it's like to bring a little person with us to church. We don't know what it's like to walk in your shoes. We need you to remind us of how hard parenting can be - and invite us to regularly help you in the journey. And we need your children in our midst to regularly help us experience God.

Jack's howling on Sunday brought laughter and delight. But Jack's howling did something much more powerful in the process. It reminded me of how St. Francis was on to something when he paid so much attention to animals in our midst, birds in the air, and every living plant around him. Francis knew God was to be found there. Francis experienced God's presence in those gifts in a way I never have until Sunday - through Jack's singing.

One of the greatest gifts of MVP is that we really are trying to live in community with each other - as difficult as it might be. We need everyone to be the fullest possible expression of him or herself that they can be in order for the fullness of God's reign to be seen and experienced.

What if a crayon mark, laughter, crying or a skip around the sanctuary are vehicles through which we might come to know God or see God at work in a whole new way?

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