On Saturday night I was singing Julianna through hair washing (“I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!”) when Alex turned to me and launched into an unfinished conversation from the day before. “Mommy, we don’t sing that Devil verse at school because it would be wrong.”
I paused in the middle of “If the Devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack—ouch!” (Julianna’s reward verse for getting through the rest of the torture. It makes her giggle.) “What do you mean?”
“I mean, we can’t sing that at church!” He looked appalled by the very thought. Somewhere deep in my gut, I felt a disturbing flutter. “Well,” I said, “I don’t know that I ever sang it at church when I was little, either. But Alex, church isn’t supposed to be all gloom and doom.”
He looked at me like I was completely nuts. “It’s supposed to be…” He couldn’t find the word, but I knew what he was searching for.
I wasn’t about to fill those words in for him.
There are so many ways to skew how we approach God. An acquaintance of mine once told me, “A person’s faith ought to be a comfort to them, not a source of misery.” The point being that faith should never require suffering or challenge you to do anything you don’t want to do. There’s a strong movement in the world in which church is entertainment—I heard recently of a church where the cross isn’t even used, because it might “make people uncomfortable, and we want all to be welcome.”
On the other hand, there is a strong reaction to all this which focuses myopically on formality, on sacredness—to the point where it’s viewed as disrespectful at least, and perhaps sacrilegious, to crack a smile, to play an upbeat song, or to speak above a whisper.
Believing that God lies squarely in the middle on this topic as almost every other, I find myself continually frustrated. But to see the dawning of POV #2 in my own child brings me to a whole new level of soul disturbance. God created us as people who love laughter and companionship. And since we’re created in God’s image, doesn’t that say something pretty important about God?
At first, casting about for explanation, my mind settled on the strict regimen of behavior expected at parochial school. But as Alex stood beside me during Mass yesterday, his nose pressed to the shiny lacquer of the piano his daddy was playing, looking at reflections of his face and the ceiling in its depths—and more importantly, as we tried to scold him into paying attention—I realized that we bear a large portion of the blame, too.
Not so long ago, I read somewhere that when we’re trying to make the liturgy “relevant” for our young people, the opposite of boring is not entertaining, but meaningful. That’s what I want for my children. Alex shows some really wonderful early signs of reaching that goal—he’s trying to listen to Paul’s brutally convoluted rhetoric and make sense of it, and when he doesn’t (which is every week, of course), he tugs on my arm and says plaintively, “I don’t understand.” I love that about him.
But I think as his parents, we have a huge role in this too. Guidance and formation might happen without us…but it’s not very likely.
“Alex,” I said, “you know, Jesus didn’t walk around being all solemn all the time. He loved to laugh and tell jokes. Jesus was a human being, too.”
Two little ones screamed for attention then, and we never finished the conversation. But maybe that’s okay. Because this isn’t really a conversation that ever gets “finished,” is it?