My 2-year-old daughter Evangeline loves going to church each Sunday. I don’t say this to brag about some super-spiritual quality she possesses. She’s not especially pious, even by toddler standards. She’s vaguely aware of a person named Jesus in children’s Bibles. He’s the only one whose name we seem to ask her about so she just looks for someone who looks a little like her daddy, with a beard and a smile, and points, “Jesus.”
Right now, we’re trying to teach her the Lord’s Prayer. We use motions intended to better suit her limited vocabulary. And in response she simply creates her own motions, a sort of wordless, freeform dance that involves kicking her legs up and spinning. It looks nothing like the ancient prayer of the church.
But Evangeline knows she belongs when she worships at church. These are her people! She smiles. She waves. She feels a little too comfortable interjecting her own thoughts aloud during the service. She likes going to the nursery during the sermon because her friends are there and she gets a little freedom and a snack. But she really prefers being in worship with everyone.
Some weeks she wants to take communion, which we allow because she is baptized and who among us can say that they really understand the mystery of this sacrament—not me. Some weeks she’s just happy to be in the same line with everyone else, looking for a friendly lap to sit on. One Sunday we returned to our seats and she was convinced that everyone else had gotten cake and she had just gotten a blessing. So we immediately got back in line so she could join in partaking in bread that turned out to be nothing like cake. She felt no shame in asking because she know she belongs and she wants to be included.
Evangeline is exploring what means to belong to the family of God. She has known and loved the body of Christ long before she is able to say anything about Jesus. She doesn’t understand the full meaning of her baptism when she was 7 weeks old but she does know that she belongs to these people who let her sit in their laps, wave back across the room when she catches their eyes with her frantic greetings, and let her participate in our shared worship. She belongs long before she will believe.
I’m not discounting belief and understanding. Someday she will own her faith in Jesus but now she is joyfully included in a room full of people who when asked “Will you help this child grow into the full stature of Christ?” responded we will. Understanding of the sacraments will come. Belief in Jesus will come. Christian maturity and discipleship will come. But for now she is a witness to the incredible power of belonging to the gathered people of God.
Adults often reduce Christianity to a state of mind—an understanding of the person of Jesus and a belief in his work on our behalf. Evangeline reminds me that there are other ways of knowing. If every adult felt as free and accepted as she does then the Church would be radically transformed into people who are truly known by their love.
When people brought little children to Jesus, the disciples’ first impulse was to send them away. Jesus said, “Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” (Luke 18:16-17, The Message)
We need to count little children who come so simply and freely to Jesus among our spiritual heroes, with all the saints who inspire us to study deeply or live compassionately or strive for holiness. How blessed are these little ones who know that they belong to Jesus and his people.
When we to Jesus we come like children or we don’t come at all.