They sat in rapt attention, taking in every word from the 80-year-olds sitting in front of them. The usual restlessness was gone. The children took in every word.
It was children’s time last Sunday at our church. It was also a new event—a special celebration of the seniors 80 years young. There were 26 of them in our 250-member congregation that is demographically diverse—persons spread across all age ranges. Having just satisfied our “sweet tooth” from several “birthday” cakes in the fellowship hall, you would assume the children were on a sugar high. Not so.
I watched those eager young faces in utter amazement. It is not an exaggeration to say they were spellbound by the stories three of our seniors were telling them at the behest of the worship leader, who was querying three of them about how different church was when they were children, what lessons they learned and what their hopes were.
Marcella told how she didn’t have a smart phone or Skype when she was a child, depending entirely on hand-written letters which could take up to two weeks to arrive at their destination.
Ralph recalled sitting quietly in church on the “men’s side” with his father and brothers because the church seating was divided between the men and women—something foreign to these children today.
Joyce told of memorizing certain Bible verses that came in handy in making decisions when she grew up. She asked them if they knew favourite verses and told them to remember them because they would be helpful later in life when they faced hard choices.
When asked about his hope for the future, Ralph said his one hope was that we keep up these age-specific worship rituals (a big word for children—but they got it!) so that everyone, young and old alike could feel a part of the church family. He was referring to such things as child dedications, giving a personal Bible at age 6, honouring high school graduates as they left for university or a job, parents speaking to the faith development of their children at baptism and now seniors as they enter their later sunset years.
The whole spine-chilling experience took me back to my own childhood and adolescence.
How fortunate, I thought, remembering that, even though I felt loved by my parents and had a strong sense of belonging in my congregation, I was never affirmed with these rituals that cemented the bond with the life-long experience of “church.”
Praise and affirmation were absent from my home, but there was plenty of chiding; the expectations for achievement were high. If it weren’t for a caring and dynamic Sunday school teacher during my teen years and a loving bishop who made it a point to visit me in college, I probably would not be a part of the church today.
My heart overflowed as I looked into those young, innocent faces returning to sit with their parents—just as integral to our faith experience as those 80-year-olds with their wealth of experience, their wisdom, their seasoned perspective. How lucky I was to be a part of this dynamic faith community, who enjoyed, most of all, just being together.
And how far we have come. In this issue, we carry a story (p. 4) of a person who was not protected, as a child, from sexual abuse. The trauma of this experience carried into her adulthood, causing untold pain and loss of self-esteem and identity. Fortunately, in her congregation, she found redemption and wholeness—and gathered the courage to tell her story. Likely her story is all too common to our collective experience.
So, how do we have the church be more of a safety net for our children? By holding them closer with the rituals to which Ralph Lebold refers. If the congregation is bonded through these life-cycle rituals, there is no guarantee that perverse abuse will not happen, but with a watchful, caring congregation, there is less of a chance.
When his disciples wanted to shoo the children away as Jesus was teaching, because they were a distraction, he was displeased and said: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
If Jesus considered children “the kingdom,” why don’t we? They are a vital part of our congregations and should be celebrated, just as much as the seasoned 80-year-olds.
--Posted June 18, 2014