I was early to the service at the downtown church that’s becoming more a part of my spiritual practice, so I walked through the adjoining cemetery and took some deep breaths. I was alone. Our kids didn’t want to come, so my husband stayed home with them and worked on our Valentine’s Day dinner. I would have welcomed their presence but I needed the time to myself.
I entered the church through the usual doors behind a man dressed for business, and we stepped into the large sanctuary with the high ceilings. It was nearly empty. Another man directed us to the chapel where we found children at the door handing out the orders of service and a small-but-growing gathering of families and others. This was the Ash Wednesday service designed with families in mind, and I didn’t really know what that meant. It was the only service that fit my schedule.
I quickly noticed that the order of service was simplified, with each part of the liturgy explained in terms children (or occasional Episcopalians) could easily understand. Children sat on the floor of the chapel and the priest met them there. The ceremony was toned down a bit, which isn’t to say that it was less important or less serious. It felt more accessible. Less intimidating. The small room was packed and later when we would receive the ashes and then the bread and wine, there was some jostling and rearranging to make sure everyone could get where they needed to be.
What surprised me most was how welcome the children were. Some of the older ones were chosen to read the Scripture passages and it was not cute or precious or some of the things I usually think of when children are allowed to participate in the “adult” services I usually attend in a different denomination. It felt right. As it should be. The message was directed to the children with props and a simple story that even adults could find meaning in.
These things in and of themselves warmed my heart and lightened my spirit.
And then the priest invited the kids to help him prepare for the Eucharist, and I think I must have held my breath or let my jaw drop. The littlest ones and a few of the bigger ones crowded the altar area as the priest guided them through: First, I need this. Then, I need someone to hand me that. Now, the wine. I thought of the scene in the movie about Martin Luther starring Joseph Fiennes when Fiennes as Luther is so nervous serving Communion that his hands shake and he spills some of the wine. It is humiliating and embarrassing. (I think I’m remembering this right.) I haven’t watched that movie in years but there I was in a chair in a chapel bearing witness to children carrying the small pitchers of wine. I held my breath like I did when my children carried cups of juice across the carpet.
None of them spilled anything and if any of them did anything wrong, I didn’t know it. These children were not admonished. They were accepted.
Earlier in the week, I saw a picture of Pope Francis holding hands with a little girl with Down Syndrome while he spoke to a crowd and every time I saw it posted, someone was freaking out (in a good way) about how refreshing it was to see. (Here’s a story explaining the photo and backstory.)
A religious leader holding the hand of a child.
It reminded me of the scene described in the Gospels where children are trying to get close to Jesus and the disciples are shooing them away and Jesus says, “No, let them come. The kingdom is theirs.”
Let them come.
The children. The outcasts. The broken. The bruised. The adults. The “in” crowd. The whole. The healed.
Ours is the kingdom.
The more I read about Jesus’ life, the more I love him and the way he opens the kingdom to all who will come. I am reminded of another story Jesus told about a man hosting a banquet. He invited many guests and they all made some excuse about why they couldn’t come. So, he expanded the invitation.
It is almost as if he is saying, “Let them come.”
One of my favorite Christmas gifts is a T-shirt that says “Build a Longer Table.” It is a concept that has been phrased in a variety of ways. Every time I wear the shirt I am reminded that there is always room for one more.
One more friend.
One more kindness.
One more smile to a stranger.
One more person included.
One more welcome.
It is the philosophy that compelled me to work with newly arriving refugees. (Let them come.)
It is the philosophy that drives me to my day job at a middle school. (Let them come.)
It is the philosophy that encourages me to say “yes” to my daughter having a friend come over even though the house is in a constant state of “lived in.” (Let them come.)
It is the philosophy that breaks down all the walls I want to put up between the ones I think are “in” the church and the ones people tell me should be “out” of it. (Let them come.)
This has become the song of my heart.
Let them come.
And when I see it modeled from a place of leadership, I hope and pray it trickles down. So that every day someone who has been on the edges, on the outs, feels welcome. Included. Accepted.
Let them come.
I do not care much who “they” are.