Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Let the little children come to Me, and forbid them not.....

One of the most amazing things about our journey to the Eastern Church is the impact it has had on our children. It has become somewhat in vogue in Protestant churches of late to exclude or limit participation of children to varying degrees. It is, unfortunately, becoming more and more in vogue in more historic communions as well. Some (in our experience, few) still have the old-fashioned "cry room," where parents are encouraged to take their children if they are unruly for a short time, then return them to the service. Our current parish fits this mold, though the "cry room" is seldom used since most merely remove their children to the Narthex or the front porch for a short period before returning them to the Liturgy. Others have "children's sermonettes" that allow the children to have a portion of the service that is "just for them." Still others have a staffed nursery to allow parents to "drop off" their kids in lieu of having them in the service, if the kids are unruly or if the parents just want a break. And others, in our experience an increasingly alarming number, have "Children's Church" where the kids are excluded from the service entirely.

Now, it is not my wish to criticize those who engage in such practices for their intentions. I firmly believe that those who practice varying degrees of seclusion of children from the worship service have good intentions. Having said that, I believe that the use of the historic Divine Liturgy of the Church is the single best environment for raising children in the Christian Faith and eliminates or minimizes any concerns that may arise about having children present during the worship service.

First, the Liturgy is repetitive. That may seem "boring" to some in theory, but in practice it is anything but. For one, the readings and, for the most part, the hymnody change weekly (actually, daily, but that's another topic for another day). But the more interesting thing is that with the change of seasons, there is change of emphasis. And without going into the movement of the daily, weekly and yearly cycles of the Church year (yet another topic for another day), that change is well thought out and instructive. The repetitive nature of the Liturgy involves things that should be repetitive. Which is to say, the bulk of the Divine Liturgy is drawn directly from Holy Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Church. How many times can one pray the Lord's Prayer, or say the Creed, or sing the Trisagion hymn or the Cherubic hymn, before one gets bored with them and needs to spice things up? To even ask the question is a fool's errand.

Second, the Liturgy is interactive. Put in a crass, materialistic sense, it gives children something to do. But it is not mere crass materialism at work here. Rather, the Liturgy teaches a proper Christian piety, a sense that what is going on is important and worthy of our attention and reverence. Because it is. Even the youngest child can have some level of participation in the Liturgy. All of our children are encouraged to make the sign of the cross, bow, orient themselves properly (i.e., toward the icon of the Theotokos, or the censer, or the priest or deacon), and so forth. They are encouraged to participate in veneration of icons and the Holy Cross. In the Eastern Church, they are blessed to participate in Holy Communion. This level of personal piety has the added benefit of maintaining a child's attention, helping them to behave properly. That is not to say our children are particularly well behaved in Church compared with others -- with three young ones, it is always a struggle to maintain proper behavior by all. But they are better behaved when they are engaged in the Liturgy than when they are not.

Third, the Liturgy has roots. Which is to say, the Liturgy gives children something concrete, unchanging and reliable. The Liturgy in primary use in the Orthodox Church has not materially changed in nearly two millennia, and one could argue has not changed significantly in the entire life of the New Testament Church. Children need structure, and there is no structure better than one which has withstood the test of time. The Liturgy provides them something in their life that is always there, always the same, always comfortable, always familiar. It is reassuring and gives a sense of solidity and security.

If you have noticed the benefits of the Liturgy to children I reference above are also benefits to adults, well, that's probably not a coincidence.

A good example of the practical effect of liturgical worship is our youngest daughter, pictured above. Emily has never "done Church" well. She is a very sweet child, but she is a free spirit, and in a quiet setting is typically loud, unruly, boisterous and bullheaded. And she is still all of those things. At our prior parish, we had an unhistoric form of liturgy (which is to say the liturgy was basically comprised of several portions of the prayer services and Common Service in the hymnal), but the settings were frequently changed and, more to the point, there was no sense of piety such as making the sign of the cross, and other than the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, there was little about the Divine Service in which Emily was expected to participate. While my wife and I still made the sign of the cross, bowed in appropriate places, etc., the example of the parish was a bit more "low church," to use an oft-repeated cliche. Lauren, who always made the sign of the cross before, fell out of the habit, and Abigail and Emily never acquired the habit in the first place. In the Orthodox Church, all three are now engaged and motivated. They want to go to Church, and they practice the piety of the Church. They still need to be reminded, but they are learning more and more where and why this reverence is shown.

When we first began attending the Orthodox Church, after maybe 2 or 3 visits, Stephanie and I were not yet comfortable with a lot of the local piety of the Eastern Church. In particular, we did not venerate icons, the Gospel book or the cross, and while we would make the sign of the cross at appropriate places, we were not particularly comfortable doing metanias, etc. But Emily always wanted to go venerate the cross at the end of the liturgy, so Khouria was kind enough to take her and Lauren and Abby for a blessing at communion and down the aisle to venerate the cross after the Liturgy. After the 2nd time Emily had done this, our priest was talking to us at a table in the parish hall, and as he leaned over the table, his pectoral cross was swinging back and forth. Emily loudly interrupted the conversation by yelling "ah, a cross!" and grabbing it and kissing it. She knew very little about the Christian faith in general apart from her "night night prayers" and the Lord's Prayer, and nearly nothing about the Orthodox Church, but she knew that cross was made to be venerated, and so she venerated it.

What message is being sent here, and what message is being received? What is taught to a 2 year old when she is given the opportunity to venerate icons, the cross, the Gospel? When she is taught to make the sign of the cross when the Name of God is spoken? When she is taught to pray -- even as young as two and a half -- "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us?" When every week she has the Creed and the hymnody of the Church and the prayers of the Church hammered in her ears over and over and over? She is simply being taught the Christian Faith. That Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that He is one of the Holy Trinity, that He is immortal, that He will have mercy on us, that He has given us His Gospel to teach us His Faith, that He lives in His Saints and they in Him. And though she cannot articulate it, these things will stick with her throughout her life and when she is taught them in a more formal manner, she will understand them because she will have lived them for the bulk of her life. She will be able to point to the places in the Liturgy where the concepts she is being taught are lived out.

Conversely, what message is sent when children are excused from the service their parents attend? When they are given a "special" sermon that is "just for them?" When they are absented from the piety of the Church (or worse, when that piety is excluded from the Church entirely)? They are taught that the service is not for them. That the Christian Faith is something that will have to wait until they are older. That nothing particularly important (to them, at least) is going on here. And by the absence of basic piety, the things listed in the preceding paragraph that they are now not taught are possibly more significant than the things that are.

Exclude children from the Divine Liturgy, or alter or remove the Divine Liturgy from the Church entirely, and is it any wonder that when children grow up, they voluntarily absent themselves from something they have been clearly taught is not for them in the first place? But include them in the historic Divine Liturgy of the Church, teach them the Faith by having them live it out, and let them know from the earliest age that this Faith is for them -- as Saint Peter said, "the promise is for you and your children" -- and it is my firm belief that they will be more likely to remain in that Faith throughout their lives. They may not remember, and they may not even know why, but the lessons taught to them in the Liturgy will stick with them long after we forget how cute it was that time they kissed the priest's pectoral cross.

"Let the little children come to Me and forbid them not, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." May it ever be so.


David Garner said...

As a postscript to this, as we were getting ready for Liturgy this evening to celebrate the Feast of the Martyrs and Holy Innocents, Stephanie put the neck cross Emily received at her Chrismation around her neck. Emmy immediately made the sign of the cross (okay, sort of -- she touched her head, then her chest) and said "Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us." Hmmm, where have I heard something like that before?

Daniel said...

David, God bless. I am an Orthodox Priest in Evansville, Indiana; and a former Lutheran Pastor of ten years. I resonated with this post on many different levels, but the one I will particularly make mention of here is my middle child's love for our Liturgy. He is a special needs child, age six; but of the three boys he is the one most likely to kiss the panagia of a bishop (just happened last week), venerate icons,light candles and bask in incense. My other two do these things as well, but with him it is most meaningful in that I am sure he would not be ministered to in the same way in a more cognitive heavy atmosphere.

Fr. Daniel Hackney

David Garner said...

Father, bless.

Thank you so much for your kind words. I had heard of your departure from Lutheranism, though we have never met. I have kept up with some who left before you, including Father Gregory Hogg and Father John Fenton, and I'm sure I heard of your reception into the Church through one of their blogs or through some or another Lutheran blog, but I recognized your name immediately. What a wonderful blessing that your son is able to enjoy the piety of the Church in such grand fashion! Emmy seems to grow in it every day. She was attempting to do metanias during evening prayers this evening. Feebly, but she was trying!

Thank you again for commenting. Please drop by any time.

Emily H. said...

Isn't it a wonder how little children so easily fit into Orthodoxy? Faster than adults! Before we were Orthodox we would visit an Orthodox church for Vespers and I remember worrying what the kids would think of it. I had no need to worry. It was like they were breathing air. Children flourish in an atmosphere of love; in the Church.

David Garner said...

It certainly is, Emily. When I spoke with one of our former pastors after we decided to be Chrismated, he asked if the kids were going to be Chrismated too. My rather reflexive response was "oh, yeah -- they were ready long before we were!"

Stephanie and I had questions and doubts. The kids had none. "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." We have found this to be quite true.

Deaconess Emily Carder said...

Beautiful post! One rich in learning for all of us.

I raised my children sitting in the front pew. Though they didn't always have the full richness of "high liturgics", they were always in a congregation where the liturgy where the liturgy was stable. Liturgy is primary theology, the first catechesis a child learns. I suspect, too, that the pew is where a child first learns the reverence necessary for other forms of learning.

David Garner said...

Thanks, Em! That would be my guess too. We've considered moving ours to the front row (I believe kids are more likely to behave there), but Emmy is improving so we are trying at present to maintain a stable environment and not change anything too drastically.

We had the benefit before writing this of observing Lauren in your parish for nearly 2 years, then in 2 others for roughly the next 4 and a half, and now again in one which practices a piety and liturgical stability more similar to yours. The difference in her, though different in emphasis from Emmy, is stark.

Jim said...

excellent observations!

The Wests insists of having "separte" children's sermons/services and even children's pastors for some of the larger churches stems from the rejection of Sacraments and the embrace of rationalism.

It goes like this: Since we must "make a decision" for Christ, we must understand what the Gospel is before we can be a believer and since children have a different learning curve, we have to make sure they understand by putting things on their level."

The result: Children's church, children's sermons and altar calls during VBS.

Christ however can be found in the Sacraments which has nothing to do with "reason"

David Garner said...

Hey, Jim -- good to see you here! I'm not sure it stems from rejection of the sacraments. Some sacramental parishes in the West (Lutherans, Roman Catholics) have childrens' sermonettes, and I hate to break it to you, but some Orthodox do as well. Fortunately, this is less common in Orthodoxy, but we're having to deal with it too. I'm thankful our parish isn't embracing this novelty.

I also know that some Orthodox parishes are big on the use of a nursery. That's going to be something all of us have to deal with. I fear it's an American thing more than a Western/Eastern thing. But I do share your conclusion, and I think that has to be the response as we see this encouraged in our own communion as well -- "Christ is in our midst." Followed by "let the little children come to Me."

Jim said...

I was thinking mostly of Evangelicals (of which my present denomination is a part of - church of the Nazarene). since so much depends on a conscience decision for Christ, it would be inconceivable for them to view the sacraments as any more than a symbol.

I am wondering, though, is there any place in Orthodoxy to ministry designed just for children or would that be too protestant. It seems to me that there would be some benefit.

David Garner said...

Oh, absolutely. We have Sunday School, there are all sorts of teen programs through SOYA, and there are summer camps through Antiochian Village, etc. The kids are always doing something or another. We also have a Christmas play, etc. It's not that we refuse to recognize the differing needs of children. It's just that we don't agree that the difference extends to the Divine Liturgy.