Editor’s note: This is the second blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lesson #1). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next three installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
Ten years ago, I was enchanted by my Ugandan family’s practice of gathering to praise God together each evening. Their nightly ritual of vivacious singing and dancing, Scripture reading, and “giving testimony” is my favorite and most enduring memory of Uganda. It inspired the bedtime routine which my husband and I have adopted for our daughters (though I’ll be the first to admit that our energy pales in comparison to my Ugandan family’s), and it is what I miss most when I become nostalgic for my home across the globe.
Since my Ugandan family is always hosting visitors, they take measures to ensure that everybody can participate fully in their evening prayer. They have at least a dozen Bibles sitting around their living room, each well-worn and annotated. (When I returned home from our recent trip, I was embarrassed to realize that we barely have enough Bibles to accommodate our family of four. What does it say about our priorities, that we could provide enough Berenstain Bears books for an entire platoon, but we don’t have a single Bible to spare?!)
Beyond the presence of so many Bibles, though, it is my Ugandan family’s continued presence together each night that most impresses me.
A decade ago (before I was a busy mom) I didn’t appreciate just how committed my host parents have to be in order to carve out this precious time together as a family. In the 10 years since I lived with them, their lives have only gotten busier and more complicated: they are now raising four beautiful children, they both work full time, they are both completing PhDs, and they both hold leadership positions in a multitude of church and community organizations.
And yet, somehow, they spend even more time together praying each evening than they did 10 years ago.
During our visit I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mother Teresa, who advised her Missionaries of Charity: “Each day we should spend one hour in adoration, except on days we are busy—then we should spend two.” For my Ugandan family, praying together is not just a part of the day; it is the apex of the day. They are willing to sacrifice personal leisure, extended meals, and even sleep in order to honor their family prayer time.
So … What’s my excuse?
For reflection: How can we cultivate in ourselves and our children the conviction that dedicating time to God is as essential to daily life as eating and sleeping?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. One of her life goals is to bring her daughters to Uganda so that, among other things, they understand her obsession with spontaneous dance parties.
Editor’s note: This is the first blog post in the five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda. Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next four installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
Nearly 10 years ago, my life and faith were transformed by the experience of volunteering in Mbale, Uganda. Though I only lived there for three months, each day burst at the seams with discoveries, challenges and delights, such that those three months occupy an enormous share of my life’s key memories.
A few weeks ago I returned to Uganda with my husband, finally following through on a long-repeated promise to visit my beloved host family. As we danced, laughed, and prayed with our Ugandan family, we were blessed and renewed by the African spirit, a spirit which—I am convinced—suffuses anyone who has the privilege of visiting that beautiful place.
I could probably write a book about the ways in which my Ugandan family has informed and challenged my own discipleship, but I have narrowed them down to five major faith lessons.
Faith lesson #1: always room at the inn
My host family’s house is a veritable revolving door of visitors and guests. Family, friends, friends-of-friends, co-workers, community partners and complete strangers show up unannounced throughout the day, oftentimes requiring a hearty meal and/or a place to sleep.
They are always, always welcomed with enthusiastic hospitality.
Part of this, of course, is cultural: the people of Uganda are renowned across Sub-Saharan Africa for their incredible hospitality. Upon entering any home, you are sure to receive a vigorous greeting: “Oooooh, you are MOST welcome!” is followed by an exchange in which your host clasps your hands for the duration of your conversation. At first, I found this constant physical touch to be somewhat disconcerting, but I came to love the way it signified the full focus of the person with whom I was talking. In Uganda, I never felt like I was competing with a smart phone (and, yes, they do exist there!) for someone’s attention.
My host family, however, takes Ugandan hospitality to another level. Far beyond cultural expectations, they invite people into their home with relentless joy … and into their hearts with unquestioning love. They set a place for their guests at the table, and prepare for them a mattress complete with mosquito net; they invite their visitors into their evening prayer ritual, and thank God for their presence among them. They do this over and over again. Every. Single. Day.
I cannot imagine how exhausted I would be if people dropped in on me with even half the frequency they do to my Ugandan family … But that’s probably because I tend to fixate on frivolous things when I am playing hostess.
My Ugandan family does not fret over unwashed dishes or un-mopped floors; they do not panic if someone has to eat standing up; they do not offer superficial apologies for their cooking. Their guests are not seen or treated as an interruption to plans, because guests are always planned for. My host family takes seriously Saint Peter’s exhortation to “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” (1 Peter 4:9) Indeed, they have created in their home a culture of hospitality in which hugging yet another visitor at the end of the day is never a burden, but rather a blessed opportunity to extend their family embrace that much wider.
For reflection: What could I do to foster an attitude of unbridled hospitality in my home and in my heart, such that every opportunity to invite someone in is welcomed as a blessing?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She is profoundly grateful to her Ugandan host family and friends for changing her life a decade ago and continuing to make her a better person today.
I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.
My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’! You’ll get better!”
She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.
It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.
My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.
But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.
Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.
As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.
I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.
By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.
I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …
It’s so cliché, but so damn true.
This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.
My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.
… and she was gone.
I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.
But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.
I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.
I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.
I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.
I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?
My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.
This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.
And then we found her.
A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.
She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.
I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.
I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.” The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.
By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.
Except I’m not.
Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.
In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?
The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?
If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?
I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.
But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?
I seriously doubt it.
And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.
I am in the process of weaning my almost two-year-old daughter. Although I have enjoyed a wonderful nursing relationship with her since she was born, it’s time to break it off. Whereas breastfeeding used to be a tender, relaxing, sometimes-euphoric experience, it has recently become a burden of which I wish to free myself.
I have been pregnant and/or breastfeeding for four and a half years straight, and I am ready to have my body back to myself. I am ready to be able to take whatever cold medication I want. I am ready to wear a normal bra. I am ready for my daughter (the second in succession) to stop trying to reach down my shirt in public. I am absolutely ready to wean her.
There is a not-so-small part of me that is not ready; one that, I suspect, will never be ready. It’s the part of me that wishes to deny–all evidence to the contrary–that my baby is no longer a baby. It’s the part of me that desperately wants to cling to this beautiful season of motherhood for a few more days or a few more weeks or perhaps forever.
I am, you see, one of those obnoxious women for whom breastfeeding was relatively easy and immensely fulfilling. I have felt blessed and amazed by my body’s ability to nourish both my daughters outside the womb. I have loved maintaining a biological connection with them long after birth. I have (perhaps selfishly) been gratified that there is something that I–and nobody else in the world–could provide my girls. In short, I have cherished the act of nursing my babies.
And now I’m almost done.
By the time I weaned my older daughter, I was midway through my second pregnancy. I was exhausted, sore, and underweight, so the decision to wean was easy. This time, though, there is no new baby on the way … and I don’t think there ever will be. Though my husband and I never presume to know God’s plan for us, our own is to grow our family through fostering and/or adopting children. So when my daughter nurses for the last time, it is likely the last time I will ever do this thing that has brought me such joy and peace and purpose.
I am ready … But I am wistful.
This reluctant melancholy is by no means unique to nursing mothers. We’ve all felt it at some point, as we’ve stood on the precipice of a major life transition and been assaulted by memories and emotions which threaten to paralyze us. We move forward slowly, warily, weighed down by the wistfulness we carry in our hearts.
We carry this wistfulness because we cannot carry all the circumstances of the past which made the past so sweet. There is a part of me that will always long for the nursing relationship I have shared with my daughters … but that doesn’t mean I want to nurse them into adulthood. And although I might say that I want my little one to remain a baby forever, of course this isn’t really true. I want her to grow into the person God created her to be, which means embracing each new phase of motherhood as it arrives.
And so we are weaning: she from me, I from her.
As I refuse more frequently her requests to nurse, and as I create new routines to replace the old, I find myself returning to a Scripture passage that resonates even more with me now than it did at my wedding years ago:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and the greatest of these is love. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:11-13
Now I know my daughter only in part. I can think of nothing more worth the weight of wistful nostalgia than the assurance that as she grows, I will know her–and love her–more fully. So, together, she and I will put an end to this particular childish thing, and abide in what remains.
~ Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. She is aware that writing about breastfeeding is a surefire way to ignite the Mommy Wars, but as she previously blogged, she is a conscientious objector to these conflicts.
I had a Jesus moment while putting my daughters to bed the other night. My 3 year old was sick: fever, cough, runny nose, etc., and it was clear that she was going to need some special attention in order to fall asleep. Instead of going through our typical evening proceedings, I gave her a teaspoon of honey and tried to rock her to sleep. But as I did so, my younger daughter became increasingly distressed: she wanted her normal bedtime routine.
My husband and I have worked hard to establish a predictable sequence of events leading up to bedtime, and our girls appreciate the consistency. But, sometimes, circumstances demand that the routine be disrupted.
And that’s uncomfortable.
My younger daughter was upset because I had breached the established order of things. I had broken the rules. As she fussed and clung to me and tried to stop me from rocking her sister, I became irritated. Couldn’t she see that, right now, the needs of her sister trumped the “rules”? After untangling her from my leg for the umpteenth time, it struck me that this was probably exactly how Jesus felt when he was reproached by the Pharisees for healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus, in his wise compassion, knew that giving sight to the blind was far more important than following the rules. But, much like my daughter felt unmoored without her typical bedtime routine, Jesus’ disregard for the rules made the Pharisees feel insecure, and they reacted with scorn and judgment.
I am frequently a Pharisee.
But here’s an encouraging thought: although I was irritated by my younger daughter’s dogmatic approach to bedtime, I certainly didn’t love her any less because of it! I was, in fact, very sympathetic to her discomfort; I wished only for her to understand that, although I cherish them both equally, her sister’s need was greater in that moment.
As Catholics, we profess a Preferential Option for the Poor. This is a rich and provocative theological concept to which entire books are devoted, but it essentially boils down to this: God is most present to those who are most vulnerable and—as followers of Christ—we must similarly prioritize the poor. One of my spiritual directors described it this way:
Theologically, the notion of preference says more about the goodness of God than it does about the goodness of the poor. It does not mean the poor are necessarily more virtuous, more deserving, or more holy than those who are not poor… It means that God reaches out in love to those who have a greater need. —
When one of my daughters is sick, I reach out to her with a special kind of love, not because she is better than her sister, but simply because she needs me more. As a mother, it is easy—instinctual, even—to give preference to a sick child without wavering in love for her healthy sibling.
As a community member, churchgoer, and citizen, it’s a lot tougher.
We who believe in a Preferential Option for the Poor are called to stand in solidarity with and prioritize the most vulnerable. That may sound romantic, but this is messy, difficult, and sometimes exceedingly unpopular work. Still, we are called to do it with cheerful hearts.
Even as we break the rules in order to uplift the vulnerable, and even as we ourselves cling to the rules in order to maintain our own comfort, we must remember this: although he preferred the disciples, Jesus did not love the Pharisees any less.
I find that fact to be both distressing and reassuring. I am distressed because it means I must look with love upon those whose actions I deplore. I am reassured because it means that my own deplorable actions have not made me unlovable.
… And I know this to be true, because no matter how many times my daughter fusses or clings or tries to sabotage her sister’s special time, I could only ever see her as my beloved.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a mom, writer, and friend of Sister Julia’s. She finds that putting a theological spin on her daughters’ behavior helps maintain her sanity.
While driving home from church last Sunday, I watched a man frantically chase a public bus for an entire city block, only to miss it by a few seconds. The bus stop he was trying to reach is just steps away from my house, and I waged an internal debate with myself as I pulled into my driveway: Should I turn around and pick him up?
On the one hand, he was a stranger, a male stranger, and I was in the car with my two young daughters. I didn’t know if he was intoxicated, mentally ill, or violent, and my first instinct as a mother is to protect my children from any potential harm. On the other hand, it was cold and rainy, and I knew the next bus wouldn’t arrive for at least another hour. It would be so easy for me to give him a ride half a mile up the road to intercept his bus, saving him a great deal of time (and sogginess). As campy as they were, those ubiquitous WWJD? bracelets from my youth certainly did drive home a point!
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2
After hemming and hawing for a few more moments, I finally backed out of my driveway and pulled up next to the man. Although he was surprised and initially suspicious of my offer, we ended up having a very nice, brief conversation together. When we arrived at the bus stop, he thanked me for “proving that there are still good people in this world.”
My three-year-old had remained silent during the five-minute ride, but as soon as the man stepped out of our car, she was bursting with questions. The experience opened the door to a fruitful discussion about the privilege of owning a vehicle, the need to look for opportunities to help others, and the practicalities of being a follower of Jesus.
“But, Mama,” she asked, “how could Jesus give someone a ride when there weren’t any cars where He lived?”
This is just a small example of one of the greatest struggles my husband and I share as parents: How do we answer Jesus’ call to radical hospitality, while honoring our primary responsibility to protect our children?
Before we were parents, my husband and I worked extensively with the homeless community in Chicago, even inviting a man experiencing homelessness to sleep at our apartment when he missed the evening deadline for his shelter.
I wonder: Would we issue the same invitation now?How could we? How could we not?
I do not want to use motherhood as an excuse for staying complacently in my comfort zone, but I also want to safeguard my daughters from injury and trauma. So how and where do we draw the line between nurturing those who depend on us to keep them secure, and welcoming the stranger into our cars, homes, and lives?
How do we reconcile responsible parenthood and radical hospitality?
I wish there were an easy –or even a single– answer to this question. I know, though, that much like parenthood and simple living, each family’s response requires personal discernment and no small amount of humility.
May we parents all pray for one another, then, that we will not allow our legitimate desire to protect our children from danger to blind us to the many opportunities we have to entertain angels … or to feed the hungry Christ in disguise.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to a three-year-old and one-year-old. She writes from the Seattle area where–especially in the winter–the need for radical hospitality is evident and abundant.
I hate it when my children are sick: when their normally endless energy is replaced by a whimpering lethargy. When their bleary eyes can muster no enthusiasm for treats or excursions. When I know they are suffering and there’s nothing I can do to make it better.
Except for snuggles. Oh, how I love to snuggle my daughters when they’re sick!
I love to snuggle them anytime, of course, but toddlers are squirmy and busy and generally disinclined to sit in one place for any amount of time. But when they’re sick they come willingly, imploringly for snuggles. They bury their faces in my shoulder and wrap their arms and legs around me, as if physical contact will somehow cool their feverish limbs. They doze and cuddle and listen to lullabies.
And my heart swells with love.
I hate it when they’re sick … But I cherish those sick snuggles more than they will ever know.
That thought gives me pause to consider my relationship with God. Like many people, I tend to seek God out far more fervently when I am in need of comfort than when everything is copacetic. The most difficult times in my life have corresponded, un-coincidentally, with the times in which I have felt closest to God.
I’ve always felt guilty about that.
Why am I able to find the time to sit in silence and listen for God’s word when my spirit is sick, but not when all is well? Shouldn’t I spend as much time thanking God in the land of milk and honey as I spend asking for deliverance from the desert?
Acutely aware of this spiritual weakness, my prayers during those troubled times often begin with an apology: “God, I know I’ve been neglecting you, and I’m sorry I don’t spend as much time with you as I should … But I really need you right now.”
I feel compelled to confess my devotional failures before I venture toward God in supplication–as though my prayers are less valid because they are made under duress …. or as though God will be less inclined to comfort me because I have not sufficiently nurtured our relationship.
But if my experience as a mom is even remotely indicative of the love that God has for us as children, then this is not how God cares for the afflicted.
When my daughters approach me with runny noses and sore throats, seeking sympathy and comfort, I don’t ask them, “Where was this affection when I was taking you to the park or coloring with you?!” I simply gather them into my arms and treasure them.
I want only for them to snuggle in and abide in my love.
So the next time I find myself in need of spiritual comfort, I’ll try to remember that God cherishes any opportunity to lavish me with love. I’ll breathe in the divine essence that surrounds me, knowing that God, too, is breathing me in with an infinite tenderness – a tenderness of which I’ve only had a glimpse in this life, while snuggling my sick children.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to a three-year-old and one-year-old. She writes from the Seattle, Washington, area, where the flu season apparently started early this year.
It was one of those moments every parent dreads: my two-year-old had worked herself into an ugly public tantrum, and I had to abandon our planned activity in order to haul her thrashing body out to the car. Frustrated and embarrassed, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “Seriously, Jesus? The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these?”
Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” –Luke 18:16-17
Before I was a mom, I never really pondered the Bible passages in which Jesus encourages His disciples to become like little children. I assumed He was extolling children’s innocence and telling us to return to the purity of our youth.
But now I know better.
Little children are far from innocent. They are impatient, volatile, jealous, and unreasonable. They are, as it turns out, younger versions of the human species, and the human species has only ever produced one perfect human.
So why does Jesus hold these tiny tyrants in such high esteem?
As my daughter approaches her third birthday, I have a few thoughts on the matter (insert requisite disclaimer that I am not a biblical exegete… just a mom who has observed her kids for the past few years): Though they are not innocent, per se, young children are exceptionally transparent; their flaws and failings -be they fits of anger or refusal to share a toy- are out there for the world to see. Even their occasional attempts at deception are laughably obvious (ie: my daughter announcing from another room, “Mama, I didn’t make a mess!”). If they are angry with you, they do not subtly contrive to tear you down –they simply throw a fit.
When children misbehave, they do so with glorious flagrance.
And that, I think, is what Jesus was driving at: whatever children do, they do it wholeheartedly and unabashedly. So, in those wonderful moments in which our kids are not humiliating us, the face of God shines brilliantly through their wide-open eyes. A seemingly insignificant activity, like playing in the sprinklers on a summer day, is a downright awe-inspiring experience for my daughter. She does not guard herself or her emotions, but runs headlong into the adventures of each day.
It’s easy, then, for me to picture the little ones of Jesus’ time as they ran toward Him, laughing and jostling one another in their haste, completely oblivious to the impropriety of their gusto. In those days, children dwelled in the periphery of society, their immaturity excluding them from full membership in the community. Yet despite their lowly station, these children easily recognized and sought out the loving power of Jesus (as did so many of “the least of these”).
Nowadays, we afford children more respect than did the ancient Jews, but the fact remains that our kiddos are wholly dependent upon us to meet their needs. Amazingly, this relative powerlessness does not burden them with feelings of unworthiness or insecurity (as it likely would you or me), but instead frees them to experience life with a passion that knows neither limits nor shame. When my daughter belts out “Jesus Loves Me,” she doesn’t apologize for her untrained voice… And she doesn’t doubt for a second that the words she sings are true. So why do we?
We are all of us imperfect, but perfectly loved anyway.
I sometimes wonder how much deeper my relationship with Christ would be if I ran toward Him with as much unbridled eagerness as my daughter runs toward me: arms outstretched, grinning or sobbing, unself-conscious of anything other than our mutual love. How much more loudly would my life proclaim the love of God if I were unencumbered by an instinct for self-preservation? How much more devout a disciple would I be if I could not hide my own brokenness behind an exterior of apparent self-sufficiency?
In other words: how much worthier of the Kingdom of God would I be if, rather than pretending at nonchalance or stoking the fires of silent resentment, I followed my daughter’s example and just threw an undignified tantrum once in awhile?
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia who lives near Seattle. She is the mother of an almost-three-year-old and a 1-year-old, and she considers herself lucky to have only had to abandon a public place due to a tantrum once (so far…).
One of my Facebook friends recently posted a rant about mothers who show up late to and leave early from Mass. He stated that he has more respect for people who don’t bother coming at all: “Either be all in or all out.” Others chimed in with “Amens” and further complaints about the entertainment and food that parents bring to church for their children nowadays. Having arrived 10 minutes late to Mass that morning, library tote full of Dora books slung over one shoulder and a diaper bag with emergency snacks hanging on the other, I felt at once embarrassed and defensive.
Part of me wanted to dismiss his vent outright: clearly, this was the naïve and uncompassionate perspective of someone who’s not yet a parent. He just doesn’t understand the monolithic venture that is Getting Out the Door with Little Ones, I thought to myself. After all, I had spent my entire morning trying to get to Mass on time… but two blowout diapers and a child who is absolutely determined to put her shoes on all by herself had conspired to neutralize my good intentions. Let’s see him do it any better, was my rather un-Christian reaction.
Still, his words gnawed at me, probably because I have wrestled with the conundrum of kids at church since my daughter was born two and a half years ago.
The fact is, children at Mass are distracting – to those around them and, most especially, to their parents. Prayerful reverence is not easily practiced with a fussy baby in your lap and a squirmy preschooler at your side. There have been multiple occasions in which, nerves frayed and feeling far less peaceful than I did before the start of Mass, I wonder if it was even worth it to attend.
Yet something inside me always answers “Yes!” I believe there is value in attending Mass with kids… Even when it means enduring the walk of shame up to the only open pew (at the very front of the church, naturally) during the Gospel Alleluia, or spending the entire hour shushing and chasing my two-year-old, or willing myself not to engage in a glaring war with a man who disapproves of nursing in church.
We as a family are rarely (if ever) “all in” when it comes to Mass: we are late or agitated or exhausted or impatient or poopy or hungry or a catastrophic mix of all these – but I have to believe that God appreciates our presence there despite -indeed because of – our very conspicuous deficiencies in piety. We are the Body of Christ: messy, flawed, unfocused… and beloved.
My daughters may not be able to understand or participate fully in the Eucharistic celebration, and their lack of volume/impulse control may detract from others’ ability to pray as they would prefer. Still, they are vessels of a special kind of grace, and I believe that the Mass as a whole is better, not worse, because my girls are present. Their faith cannot be anything but childlike, and so it ministers in a way no polished homily can. Once, as we shuffled in line to receive Eucharist, my daughter proclaimed loudly “Mama, there’s Jesus on the cross, and Jesus in Comoonin [Communion], and Jesus in my heart!” I know I’m not the only adult whose mind, in that moment, was called away from wandering thoughts and into reflection upon the sacred Mystery of Christ.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” I’m pretty sure He knew exactly what that implied for parents, and so on Sundays like this last one, I presume an addendum to Christ’s directive: “. . .even if they are ten minutes late and their shoes don’t match.”
Nicole Steele Wooldridge attends Mass with her daughters in the Seattle, Wash. area; she apologizes if, while doing so, her baby has recently spit up on your rosary or her two-year-old has scribbled in your prayer book. If it makes you feel any better, she probably hasn’t had a shower in a few days.