Take yesterday as an example.
Even though our kids wake up a good four hours before the service starts, somehow we scramble to get everyone showered and dressed and out the door. There’s a fight over who drives (not between Peter and me, but between our children who for some reason have strong opinions about which one of us should serve as their chauffeur). We arrive, a few minutes late. Marilee heads downstairs to the nursery, and I sneak in the side door with the older two. But our entrance becomes more conspicuous as William insists upon taking up the first pew so he can watch the choir director play the piano and the organ.
Penny and William wriggle and squirm. I try to make my whisper both very quiet and very forceful as I ask William to color lightly instead of bearing down with his pencil and scribbling as hard as he can. I put my hand over Penny’s mouth as she holds open the hymnal and sings in the midst of the Prayer of Confession. Irritation feels like it has weight, like it is tracing a line up my spine that will soon extend to my shoulders and seep down my arms.
Someone is in the pulpit reading from 1 John. It is something about love, about God’s love for us and how we should love one another. But I am shushing my children and can’t pay attention to the words I am hearing. I want to give up on church as a family.
Later on, the day gets better. We go to the lake, and all three kids spend an hour filling cups with water and pouring them in the sand and digging and creating sand castles and stomping on them. Back and forth and up and down, building, smoothing, discovering. We go to dinner in a restaurant and they order by themselves and they sit in their seats and they even eat their broccoli without a complaint.
It’s easy for me to think that our time on the beach was the more spiritual one, the one with beauty and goodness and laughter all emerging naturally, without any effort other than a stack of plastic Mardi Gras cups for entertainment. It’s easy for me to think that we could abandon church altogether. We could sing our own songs and read our own Scripture and say our own prayers and not even bother to get out of our pajamas. And then we could go outside and praise God along with the created order.
On our drive home from the beach, we pass our church, and one of the kids yells, “Look! It’s our church!” and they all erupt in laughter. It is a place that holds joy for them, somehow. Joy, and I suspect, comfort.
It is a place where they are known, a little bit, by everyone from the youngest children to the oldest grandmothers. It is a place where everyone assumes that God is present and deserves to be worshiped. It is a place where prayer and Scripture and singing hymns are expected. But it is also a place that asks something of them–sitting still, paying attention, subjecting their desires to those of the community. It is a place that gives to them but also asks of them. A place that gives to and asks of me, too.
So we will go back, next week and the week after that and the week after that. And we will trust that even amidst my short-tempered words and their inability to sit still and their refusal to go up front for the children’s message, we will trust that they are learning something about what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ, something about God’s presence in the midst of a very ordinary place in a very ordinary town, something about God’s grace and love, something about singing Alleluia, praise the Lord.