“Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mark 9: 36-37)
These were the words I heard (just barely) over the crunch of goldfish as my two year old chewed (loudly) in my ear. Moments before, he’d (accidentally) whacked me across the cheek with his snack bag as I lifted him up into my arms. Moments later, I’d have to break up a squabble between him and my five year old. As Mass continued, we sat, we stood, we knelt, we prayed, and all the while, I shushed and comforted and held and handed out snacks.
Occasionally I made eye contact with someone and I’d look at them apologetically and they’d smile back knowingly. I picked up a water bottle at least a dozen times. I wiped snot from someone’s nose. I gave the “mom look” to my older two who surely knew better than to behave like that. I moved further down the row when my two year old decided he wanted my seat. I picked up a dropped hymnal. I picked up goldfish crumbs. I answered several questions (some of them related to Mass and some of them not). I took several deep breaths so as not to lose my cool. I lost my cool anyway.
As Mass continued, my two little boys decided to pretend like they were kitty cats. They took turns feeding each other goldfish. They were quiet about it and incredibly cute, but I still tried to shush them for the sake of others around us. However, the family behind us kept stifling laughter as my children’s antics got sillier and sillier. After my initial shushing didn’t work, I turned back toward the altar. Should I have stopped them? Maybe. But I didn’t.
As I listened to their quiet (but still louder than I would’ve liked) and imaginative play while trying desperately to hear the prayers at the altar, a wave of perspective washed over me. My children are comfortable here. They are playing and talking and eating and drinking (and fighting) as if they were in their own home. Isn’t that something? Isn’t there some worth to that? And beyond that, my children are welcome here. They are invited guests. They are loud and messy and sometimes even smelly guests, but they are always invited. Always welcome.
The friendly churchgoers around me who nodded in kindness rather than scolding were living the Gospel by receiving my children (and Jesus and the One who sent Him). The family behind us who stifled their laughter and amusement were living the Gospel. The woman who always always always stops to say hello to my family and dote on my kids (especially the youngest) was living the Gospel. Our priest who gave high-fives to all my children as they entered and exited church was living the Gospel. The Eucharistic Minister who blessed my children as they proudly marched up with me for Communion (or commitment as my five-year-old calls it for some reason?!) was living the Gospel.
And perhaps even I was living the Gospel by bringing them to church that Sunday and all the Sundays before even though it was (is) a pain to get us all there. Even though sometimes I have to take them by myself because of my husband’s work schedule. Even though they are little and still learning and are often loud and sometimes unruly. Even though there’s almost always a water bottle (or a Hot Wheels car or a hymnal) dropped on the floor. Even though they sometimes pretend they are kitty cats. Even though they fight and stand on the kneelers and beg for snacks and have to go to the bathroom and forget their manners. Even though the big kids who should know better don’t always act like it. Even though we still have to remove ourselves to the back of church sometimes. Even though they can’t get through one hour of church each week without goldfish.
Even though it absolutely exasperates me, I bring them. I shush them. I whisper to them about what’s happening. I whisper to them about Jesus. I take them to the bathroom. I take them to the back when necessary. I break up fights. I give them the “mom look.” I wipe the snot. I pick up the water bottle and the Hot Wheels car and the Hymnal. I let them play when it’s not overly disruptive. I sing and stand and kneel and try my hardest to glean something holy in that hour of chaos.
I place them in the midst of Christ. I open my heart to them. And to Jesus. And to the One who sent Him.
I know it’s a pain. I know it’s frustrating. I know it feels pointless. I also know it’s completely worth it. Keep shushing and teaching and modeling and passing out snacks. They will get comfortable. They will learn the songs. They will hear the prayers. They’ll see Jesus. They’ll come to know Him and love Him and open their hearts to Him.
They’ll never be entirely perfect or still or quiet (is anyone?), but they’ll come to know they are always invited, always welcome- loud and imperfect and messy and all. They’ll begin to show you that holiness might not always be solemn or pretty or flawless or refined, but it’s a beautiful holiness nonetheless. Keep bringing them to church, mams! Just don’t forget the goldfish!
Copyright 2018 Leanne Willen