Getting kids to the Christmas Eve service dressed in their adorable Christmas outfits can be a struggle. It can be an even bigger struggle when your spouse is in charge of the service and leaves the house an hour before you do. I have vivid memories of a sanctuary lit only by candles, watching the wax drip down the candle in my hand, singing Silent Night accompanied by acoustic guitar. But I’m sure my mom’s memories of the same services probably involve me screaming when I dripped wax on my hand.
This year, we didn’t even make it past the first hymn at the Christmas Eve service. Little Brother was tired and excited and just wanted to sit with his daddy, who was sitting at the front to help lead the service he’d planned. When I said Little Brother had to sit in his seat and he couldn’t run to the front of the sanctuary he screamed. We went to the narthex. After some empty threats about Santa we returned to the very back of the sanctuary, sitting in the folding chairs and so far away we couldn’t see anything. There was more screaming. I dragged both kids out of the chapel and we walked back across the street to our house.
I was so angry. There have only been a few Christmas Eves in my entire life when I didn’t go to church and it was usually because we were awaiting the arrival of out-of-town family. I wanted to be there. If I didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve, would Jesus even come? Was it even really Christmas Eve?
Keeping Little Brother in worship has been a struggle for a while. Some weeks I have flashbacks to Steve starting the liturgical Protestant service at Fort Polk. At first, we met in the closet-sized chapel in the hospital. I spent most of the service following toddler Big Brother through the empty hospital hallways and preventing him from riding the elevator.
Some weeks Little Brother sits with a sweet middle school girl and does pretty well, sitting in her lap or coloring on the floor. Some weeks he crawls under the pews and tries to sit with his little friends and then spends the entire service loudly telling them about his Transformers. Some weeks I spend large amounts of the service sitting with him somewhere else while he screams.
Other weeks he runs away from me and sits under the altar table or runs to his daddy to pick him up. Every week I debate which is more disruptive: me dragging him out of the service or letting him go up front with his dad? Steve has preached, prayed, consecrated communion, and read scripture holding Little Brother. One week he was holding Little Brother during the service and the usher who came forward with the collection plates was also holding a three-year-old little boy. Everyone giggled.
Recently, Little Brother had made his way to the front and demanded to be held during the Great Thanksgiving. When Steve got to the point about the blood of the New Covenant and held up the chalice Little Brother called out, “Is that blood in there?!” Steve said, “Well, yes and no.” Everyone giggled.
It’s helpful for me to remember that worship is not a performance. We’re not putting on a show with high production values. That’s not what we’re about. If we have a space where a three-year-old can’t ask a profound theological question, then what are we doing?
I spent a good portion of the service this Sunday sitting in the sacristy with a screaming three-year-old. He’d been lying under the seats and just yelling, not angry yelling, just enjoying the sound of yelling under the chairs. After repeated attempts to get him to stop, I pulled him out and carried him to the sacristy. I know the sacristy sounds like a weird place to go but it’s a normal place to hang out if you’re a chaplain kid. The sanctuary is under construction. We’re currently worshipping in a classroom. The sacristy is on the other side of the building and has a door I could close.
Eventually his screams of protest turned into, “I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want to miss the Jesus bread. It’s going to be over.” Finally, he calmed down and we walked back to the service holding hands. Once back in the classroom Little Brother eagerly took his piece of bread, dunked it in the wine, and popped it in his mouth with a loud, “Mmmmm.” Maybe it’s apt that we’re worshipping in a classroom. He’s learning a lot.
Thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus. Jesus’ presence and gifts to us are not contingent on our behavior. Empty threats don’t keep Jesus away. Jesus comes anyway. It doesn’t matter if you have to leave the service halfway into the first hymn because your kid is screaming. It doesn’t matter if you have your goofy little Korean Christmas tree and you don’t have all your nativity sets and you didn’t finish putting together all the Christmas Legos. God comes anyway. Even the weeks you’re wandering the hospital hallways with your toddler and miss the sermon entirely. God shows up those weeks too. It’s not about our performance or our children’s good behavior. God shows up in our midst, right in the middle of our kid’s tantrum. Little Brother seems to understand this even better than I do sometimes. He knows that the Jesus bread is the best part of the service and he doesn’t want to miss it.