With donut-filled cheeks and sticky fingers, Charlotte and Isaac skip down the hallway behind me to find a seat in church. With a smile the usher greets us at the door,“Morning!” He offers the bulletin to me while two small hands reach up with a chorus of “me too’s” and “mine.”
“Another one,” Isaac shouts as he’s handed a different bulletin from the one his sister is holding.
“Alright, get another one and let’s go find a seat.” I push them gently ahead of me and scan the congregation assessing the best place to sit. Every season of motherhood seems to bring a new challenge in worship - for now we need easy access to bathrooms (or simply to quiet screaming tempers) and ideally next to friends who don’t mind lending a helping hand wrangling two children.
The organ’s deep notes pipe through the sanctuary and welcome me to the space. Piling into the pew each child voices their own demand: “Mommy sit next to me,” Charlotte pleas as Isaac quickly yells, “No me!” Dropping the diaper bag, bulletins, and my purse we all sit as the music continues to play.
Charlotte grabs the red hymnal in front of her and a pencil. She scoots back in the seat and drops the hymnal with a loud thump. Laughter ensues. “I color too,” Isaac demands.
Picking up the hymnal and handing it back to Charlotte I hold my hand up to keep Isaac from taking her pencil. “Just wait, I”ll get you your own pencil. Charlotte, wait! Stay in your seat, I’ll take care of it.” But she’s too quick and has already walked across the aisle to grab a pencil for her brother.
“Thank you, Charlotte.”
For a few moments, they both sit with their backs leaning on the pew, bulletins in lap, and begin to draw.
It doesn’t take long before Charlotte starts whining for cheerios. “O’s please, Mama?”
“Not right now,” I whisper knowing it’s too early in the service to use the only thing that keeps them quiet.
“I sit mommy lap,” she says and wraps her arms around my neck.
“No, my mommy,” Isaac protests as he tries to squeeze himself on my lap too. For a second I hold them both on my lap while we listen to the scripture readings.
“O’s, please mommy.”
“O’s, O’s, O’s,” they both declare.
“Sshh..not right now. Soon.” By now they’ve both made their way off my lap and Isaac is standing on the pew smiling at anyone who catches his eye. Jumping down on the seat he grabs another red hymnal pulling out the page marker and waves it around.
“Rainbow!” He smiles proudly as the bright streamers twirl in the air.
“Me too!” Charlotte reaches to grab another one while I take her arm and tell her to sit down again. “I see daddy now?” Charlotte asks and Isaac quickly joins in: “Hi daddy?”
The day’s Psalm can be heard as I tell Charlotte and Isaac again that they have to wait to see daddy. In their minds I imagine that having their daddy up front as the pastor should mean they can see him at any time. But there’s still a few more minutes to go before the children’s message when they do actually get to go up front.
“Sit down and color for a few more minutes, soon you can go up.”
“O’s,” they both ask.
“Yes, then you can have your o’s.”
Once it’s time for the Gospel and sermon, I grab their snack bags and let them eat.
For a few moments, they both sit quietly shoveling cheerios into their mouths.
As a preacher and worship leader children in worship never bothered or distracted me. Kids who cried or melted down, ran up to the front of the church, and talked loudly were always a delight to see and hear. It brought joy to see their energy and enthusiasm. I reveled at the gift of their presence. Children in worship allowed me, as the pastor, a chance to offer thanks for the parents and families who showed up week after week for worship.
Yet, as a mom with her own children in the pews next to her, my patience is almost non-existent. Every sound they make feels like shouting heard from a megaphone. What could be considered cute and funny at home (counting together, saying their ABC’s, or climbing all over me) drives me crazy. I know from my conversations with other parents that it’s hard to be in worship and it’s a challenge to focus when kids are with you. Yet, I can’t help but see other families (or at least the picture of them I have in my mind) with kids coloring quietly or listening without an arsenal of snacks at the ready. Many Sundays sitting in the pews with my kids, I feel like I’m not measuring up and that my children may never learn to focus in worship.
The crazy thing is that I don’t actually have a family in mind who sits perfectly in church every single Sunday. I don’t know one parent who hasn’t wrestled their kids in the pews or faced a toddler wanting to take their clothes and shoes off in worship, or listened to the never-ending question of wanting another donut. Worship with children is loud, exhausting, and a sometimes-never-ending-wrestling match. But I still think that my kids should behave and sit quietly. Yes, there are Sundays when I look at another family and see all the kids sitting and listening, or at least coloring, quietly. There are the families whose kids fall asleep like clockwork on their shoulders without squirming and crying beforehand. There are the families who don’t look more tired after worship then when they arrived.
But mostly, if I really take the time to see the families around me, I see families just like me doing the hard and holy work of raising their kids in faith.
If I were the pastor to my present self with kids, I would say to give myself more grace. Perhaps I told parents over and over again how much kids in worship are welcome and how they expand our worship experience because deep down I knew I’d be the one who needed to hear the words: You’re doing great. We’re glad you’re here. We know it takes so much, but it’s worth it, and most importantly, God is with you in it.
God doesn’t measure how loud or unruly our children are, rather, God’s marveling at the sheer beauty and energy of their lives. God doesn’t measure the number of cheerios needed to keep children quiet, rather, God’s marveling at the families who show up week after week. God doesn’t measure how much I get out of the liturgy, rather, God’s marveling at me and my children as beloved, precious gifts; the work of God’s hands.
Next Sunday may be just as challenging and tiring for me, but we’ll be there, together. In the pew with cheerios and pencils and fidgety bodies. That’s one of the messages I hope my children receive from worship week after week - that we’re there showing up as a family and honoring the presence of our neighbors. And reveling in the measure of God’s love and grace that encompasses us all.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV)
**This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Measuring Up."