What is church for

It was Children’s Time on a recent Sunday morning. I was sitting on the chancel steps with a short lesson in mind and about ten children sitting around me. Sometimes Children’s Time goes as planned. This was not going to be one of those days.

Four-year-old John* was seated next to me. He was very interested in the pictures of birds sheltering their young under their wings I had chosen for my little lesson about God’s protection. But he was in the minority. A few feet away, just beyond my reach, two sisters in pretty little dresses were wrestling on the church carpet. Their older sister was attempting to discipline them. On my opposite side, several older children were casting their eyes anywhere but toward me. At least they weren’t creating a scene. Rather than draw attention to the increasingly noisy wrestling match, I kept talking, simultaneously sending thought waves to the girls’ parents and hoping for a quiet intervention.

“I want to tell you something,” John interrupted. He was close enough to my headset microphone that the whole congregation could hear him.

“What is it, John?”

“Ashley’s* brother died.”

“Oh, that’s sad,” I replied. I had no idea who Ashley was. I wasn’t quick enough to connect his words to the lesson right away, but I promised that we’d get back to that in just a minute.

I plunged back into my lesson about how God takes care of us like a mama bird takes care of her babies. The dad of the wrestling girls did step forward and break up the fun before it became a fight. The older children cooperated when I suggested that we make a close circle so I could wrap the “wings” of my robe over them all for a prayer. And then I thanked God for promising to take care of us, and asked God to take care of Ashley and her brother and their family.

I must admit that my dominant feeling as the children departed was relief that it was over. Later, I remembered John’s concern.

That’s how I learned from his mom that Ashley was John’s much-loved babysitter, and that her brother, 17 years old, had died by suicide. “It’s really sad,” she told me by email from work. “We’ve been talking a lot about heaven this week.”

Indeed, it is sad, all around. Somehow we imagine that such deep sadness won’t touch the lives of children, that they’ll learn about death when they are older and better equipped to handle it. It doesn’t work that way. Little John’s big heart was feeling that sadness as he sat in church and thought about birds protecting their young ones. His sadness was so big that he needed to tell someone right then and there. He may not even know the word “pastor,” but there I was, sitting next to him, talking about God taking care of us. He knows what church is for. A place to share sadness, and to ask God to take care of us and those we love.

Sometimes we wrestle with our sisters or brothers at church, vying for dominance or attention. Sometimes we are distracted, and sometimes we act cool to impress others. But when our hearts are most in need of comfort, and when the dangers of the world loom over us, it’s good to be gathered under the wings of a caring community. It’s good to know that God will take care of us. It’s good to be part of a church.

*names have been changed

Children’s time idea from www.tracimsmith.wordpress.com

Hen and Chicks illustration is from the 1880 children’s book Afternoon Tea, written by J.G. Sowerby and published by McLoughlin Bros., Inc. Public domain.

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