“This is the joyful feast of the people of God! They will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.”
This joyful feast we in which we partake at the Lord’s Table is the center of many wonderful memories for me. I remember the conversations I had with my parents before receiving communion as a child. I remember celebrating the Lord’s Supper at summer camp surrounded by dear friends and amazing counselors. I remember the first time I presided at my ordination. The table, appropriately so, is one of the central objects/events of my ongoing faith development.
Another memory I’ll never forget is a time I helped serve communion as an intern at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. I held the cup while the congregation, including my wife and then two-year-old son, came forward, received a piece of bread from one of the pastors, dipped that bread in the cup, and partook, receiving the holy gift of God’s grace.
While serving communion is always a special experience for me, what happened just after we completed serving the congregation is why I remember this experience. The cups and remaining bread were place on the table, and the shuffle of feet and creaking of the pews silenced. In the corner of my eye, I saw my wife and son struggling in the transept as he attempted to break free. Then, in the midst of the silence of the beautiful and holy space, my boy yelled, “I want some more!”
This story will certainly be in a sermon someday, but this post is more about the outburst than the good theology behind it. Those who have worshiped with or taught my son are not surprised to hear he was loud and outspoken when quiet and calm was the expectation.
To put it simply, my son is a force of nature. He has trouble being still for any amount of time. To say he has ants in his pants would be any understatement; my little man has ants in his soul. He is an energetic, fun loving, excitable, highly independent, attention-addicted, and, at times, poorly-behaved child. Compound that with the fact that his dad, who has been his primary caregiver for most of this life, becomes unavailable for an hour or so during worship, and you have a little boy who loves church but can be a difficult neighbor in worship.
We continue to work with my son on what behavior is appropriate for the various settings of his life. This is a part of parenting. But for now, while he continues to grow and learn, he will continue to be louder and more animated than your average Presbyterian. He will want to make an announcement every Sunday in church. He will try to wander around the sanctuary. He will, well, be him.
So this brings me to my question. Is a child like Kellan welcome in our worship services? Is someone who is disruptive to our norms in worship welcome? What about persons with conditions that make them noisy or especially distracting to others? Are they welcome in worship? What about a person with questionable hygiene? What about a person who *gasp* raises their hands while they sing? What about someone who (fill in the blank here)?
I think most of us lean towards saying something like “Of course, all are welcome!” This is what we want to say. We want to be an open and loving church, a church where everyone can gather to worship God, study scripture, and find a home filled with loving family. But saying “all are welcome” and living “all are welcome” are different challenges. It is much easier to say we can live with discomfort than to really live in discomfort.
I often use the invitation to the Lord’s Table written at the beginning of this post. I love how universal it is. “This is the joyful feast of the people of God!” All of God’s people are invited, all are served, all receive God’s grace. Whether you have grown up in a Presbyterian church or stumbled into the service just to get off of the street for an hour, you are welcome. Whether you know when to stand, sit, and speak or not, you are welcome. Whether you are sitting at the Lord’s Table or playing peek-a-boo underneath the table, you are welcome.
I got to witness something wonderful this last Sunday in worship. My son usually eats a snack during worship. We begin worshipping right around his normal snack time, and nobody wants a “hangry” Kellan in worship (yet another reason I think we should feast at the Lord’s Supper each week, but that is another post for another week). Anyway, Kellan decided he wanted to sit in the front with Daddy, so we gave it a try and he joined Bradley, another member of our congregation, and me in the front row. Right as I stood up to begin the welcome and announcements, Kellan tripped and spilled his large, full bowl of goldfish all over the floor.
Bradley’s reaction to the spill was wonderful. Rather than panic or look to me or my wife for help, he just calmly helped Kellan clean up his mess and regain his seat. I didn’t even need to stop the announcements. Kellan was happy, the congregation wasn’t distracted, and worship continued. Bradley showed Kellan the radical welcome of Christ’s church. He set aside the norms of our church culture (reverence and stillness) for the norms of God’s grace (abundant love and joyful, selfless service). He showed Kellan what it means to be welcome in church just as he is.
Oh, and just a side note here. We do not gather in the sanctuary to worship comfort. We gather to worship a God. Our God does comfort the afflicted, but God also repeatedly calls on people to reach beyond their comfort zone. We shouldn’t let our comfort become an idol.
Worshiping with people we find distracting or disruptive can be a challenge, but below are a few pointers I offer for doing so.
1. Admit our discomfort. Whether to yourself or someone in our personal support network, admitting our discomfort is the first step to dealing with it.
2. Remember baptismal promises. “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture (Disruptive Dan) by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church?” Just keep our promises.
3. Get to know and love the individual. It is easier to dislike someone from a distance. Share a meal with them, get to know them, and love them for who they are.
4. Support their supporters. Ask if that child/adult can sit with you for a week. You will not only foster a deeper relationship with another follower of Christ, but you will also have a grateful parent/family/supporter who gets to focus more on worship that week.