11 December 2010

Children and the Church by Archpriest Basil Zebrun

(The following is an edited version of a sermon given on August 8, 2010)

 As we begin the new school year – both church and public – it would be good for us to consider the topic of Children and the Church. It can be said without a doubt that children are one of the most precious of God’s gifts. How many Orthodox prayers, blessings and services, either paraphrase or quote Psalm 128:6: “May you see your children’s children.” It has always been considered a great blessing to live long enough to see one’s grandchildren. Nowadays, many expect to see their great grandchildren as well.

Jesus Christ Himself singled out children during His Ministry. For example, in the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – we are told that the people brought little children (infants) to Jesus wanting Him to lay His hands upon them and to pray over them. The disciples rebuked the parents but Jesus stopped them saying, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mark 10:14). “Let the little children come to Me:” these words point to why children are full, communicating members of the Body of Christ from their baptism at infancy. Sacramentally, spiritually, nothing is held back from the youth because Jesus invited the children and said, “do not forbid them.”

But our Lord added, “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:15). And elsewhere He said, “unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Jesus’ words do not advocate naïve behavior or thinking, although a certain innocence is expected from His followers. Essentially Christ was speaking about humility (Matthew 18:4) as well as trust, an unconditional trust that children have for parents and elders, a faith, a trust that adults must strive to have for their Heavenly Father. The Lord was also referring to the openness of children to the wonders of life, to a depth of existence that often escapes adults but needs rediscovery. Speaking of this in terms of liturgical experience, Fr. Alexander Schmemann stated:
“Children penetrate more easily than adults into the world of ritual, into liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the “atmosphere” of worship. The experience of the “Holy” which is at the root of all religion – the feeling of an encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life – is more accessible to children that it is to us. “Unless you turn and become like children” (Matthew 18:3): these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because, from their very childhood, they have treasured their love of the house of God and the joy of liturgical experience” (Liturgy and Life, p. 16, Department of Christian Education, Orthodox Church in America).
As parents, educators and elders we want to encourage children in their ability to trust, their natural receptivity to God as He reveals Himself in creation, and we might stress, in the Church. We do not want to hinder the development of the youth by consciously or unconsciously passing on to them (as sometimes happens) a skeptical or cynical view of life, easily acquired as a person ages. How many adults have been heard to say of children: “it’s time they learned about the harsh realities of life.” This is a strong sentiment. If by it, a person refers to offering challenges to the young, helping them overcome challenges in a Godly manner, learning that we must work hard as we mature, and that life is not a bed of roses, then, well and good. But if by this saying an adult intends to teach children to be suspicious of everyone, to trust no one, and to “look out for number one,” then such a lesson in animal survival is incompatible with Christianity.

We can recall a relevant and poignant story of two children taken to a park by their father on a bright Saturday afternoon. While walking they saw a homeless man about thirty yards away sitting on a picnic table bench. One of the children asked, “who’s that man?” After the father explained the man’s situation the children asked, “does he need money?” The father answered, “yes, he does,” to which came the reply, “do you have any money with you dad?” The father explained that he did have five dollars but that he was saving that to buy ice cream for the three of them a little later. The children responded, “well, doesn’t that guy need the money more than us?” At that moment a light went off in the father’s head. The children had been more open, more receptive to the plight of others, and more sensitive to the spiritual significance of the presence of the homeless, than he (the parent) had been. He ended up giving the man the five dollars and telling him that “the children wanted you to have this.” What could have been a lesson in callous behavior toward the less fortunate had the father refused the request of his kids, ended up being a revelation to the father himself, a lesson that “he” would never forget.

With regard to the natural openness of the young, one of the great joys that we have both as parents and members of Christ’s Body, is the opportunity to see a kind of wonder and amazement in the faces of infants and toddlers coming to Church. I often think of how extremely fortunate we are at St. Barbara’s in this respect, that there are members of Churches (Orthodox and non-Orthodox) across the country who would sacrifice much to hear just one baby cry during the service, or to see a young boy serving in the sanctuary. But with these kinds of blessings there are responsibilities given, to love, educate and discipline our children in a Godly manner. Books exist on this subject. Two highly recommended works are: “Children in the Church Today: An Orthodox Perspective” by Sister Magdalen; and “On Marriage and Family Life” by St. John Chrysostom, both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Teachers of the Faith explain that besides leading children along a path to employment and financial security, parents should stress with equal strength a virtuous life, spiritual priorities. Here, the greatest teacher is most often the parents’ example: children will generally follow the priorities of those who raise them. Chrysostom states: “It is necessary for everyone to know Scriptural teachings, and this is especially true for children. Even at their age they are exposed to all sorts of folly and bad examples from popular entertainments. Our children need remedies for all these things! We are so concerned with our children’s schooling; if only we were equally zealous in bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord!” (On Marriage and Family Life, p. 67). Keeping these concerns in mind there are specific things that may be emphasized that pertain to children coming to Church.

First, that the Church is a household of love where young and old alike experience forgiveness and compassion. Adults must strive to make the parish reflect this reality in human relations. Our youth should be protected from the negative influences of Church gossip and politics. However, it is not necessarily a bad thing for children to witness occasional disagreements, even confrontations between grownups, as along as these disputes are followed by equally visible acts of reconciliation and brotherly affection. Such experiences are quite valuable. Every effort should be made to ensure that children learn what is meant at the Divine Liturgy when the priest and choir chant: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…” i.e., that love is the condition for everything in the Church, and that often it is acquired through much effort, humility and self sacrifice.

In addition, children should be encouraged to appreciate the heavenly character or dimension of the Church as the Kingdom of God on earth. As such the Body of Christ is the model for all households: St. John likens the home to a “mini Church,” an expression of the Kingdom. At the same time, however, the Church is not exactly like every other home. It is “God’s House,” and children must be taught reverence for that House and for what takes place in it. Let us look at some ways in which this may be accomplished.

Laying the foundation for this appreciation ultimately starts long before the family arrives at Church. Along with their parents, children prepare for worship services through observing the fasts, Bible reading, and a daily routine of prayer (even briefly, once a day). Another useful practice is the turning off of all televisions, computers, cell phones, CD players and so forth on the morning of Divine Liturgy as well as prior to Holy Week services and special festal gatherings. If a child or adult is sick it is profitable for both to remain quietly at home (again, no T.V. etc.) during the hours of Liturgy. It must be emphasized to the youth that this is not done as punishment, but out of reverence for the liturgical services that the family is unable to attend because of illness. In some families when sickness prevents people from participating in the Divine Liturgy, brief prayers are read at home during the time of the service. Children can also be encouraged to “dress up for worship.” This serves to stress the special character of Church participation. Again, adults set the example. If the Church and her worship are special to the parents, if that recognition is shown by attention to “preparation,” and by joyful “anticipation,” this attitude will be passed on to the kids. In many households where these ideas are new it is best to work gradually toward each of the disciplines over a period of time.

Once the family arrives at the Church it is helpful not to give children a great deal of free, running around time prior to the service. Preparation is needed for both adults and youth to adjust from the ride over, to transition into worship. There are icons to venerate, candles to light, and prayers to be said before the service begins. Psalm 5:7-12 provides appropriate words to say as one enters the chapel. In fact, these are recited by clergy prior to each Liturgy: “I will enter Thy House, I will worship toward Thy Holy Temple in the fear of Thee; lead me, O Lord, in Thy righteousness, because of my enemies make Thy ways straight before me…” Children should be taught that during the Liturgy there can be no wandering about the building to drink water, make cell phone calls, send text messages, read books from the library or bookstore, or to use the kitchen as a place for prolonged conversations and visits. When these latter activities are practiced by adults (as sometimes happens), children are implicitly taught to take corporate worship lightly, that it is acceptable to “drop in and out” of the Liturgy at one’s discretion. More than that, however, they are not experiencing the joy and saving character of worship, the benefits received by a full participation in the Liturgy. When a child is small it is much easier to impress upon him (or her) this understanding of prayer, one that will last a lifetime. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

Adults (specifically parents) are called to be involved continually in loving instruction and discipline during the services to insure that children – according to their age and maturity level – are attentive and engaged. This watchful care is “our” offering to God while our kids are young. As children develop they should learn that more is expected from them in terms of understanding and participation. It is likewise important that youngsters learn that “they” are not the center of attention during Liturgy, “God” is. A child quickly realizes how easy it is to command the notice of a Church full of adults through various kinds of behavior, and will take full advantage of such opportunities when allowed.

Parents can help to engage children by pointing out and explaining quietly the particulars of the service: entrances, processions, Gospel and Epistle readings, color of vestments and altar coverings, symbolism of festal icons, etc. Much of this can and should be done prior to arriving at the Church itself. It may then be reinforced briefly and discretely during the prayers. Occasionally it may be helpful for parents to bring quiet, Church related items for the “very young” to work with while the congregation prays. Children’s bibles or illustrated liturgy books come to mind, or small, soft stuffed angels or Noah’s arks, etc. Restraint must be shown, however, so that the Church doesn’t resemble a day care center because of the mass variety of toys. Noisy playthings and those not in keeping (thematically) with the movement of the Liturgy should not be brought into the Church: i.e. building blocks, trucks and cars, robots, books about witches and goblins, comic books, etc. What to bring is easier to remember if one keeps in mind that the idea is to help engage the child in worship, not to distract, or take his mind off of the service while adults pray.

Service to the Church, i.e. stewardship of time, talent and resources, must be emphasized beginning with young children, enhancing the message progressively as they mature. While being taught about the many blessings they receive from God each day, and specifically from their union with the Church, they are to be taught the value of “giving back” to God. For example: visiting the sick with their parents, getting food for the elderly during coffee hour, learning how to sing and chant, making monetary offerings from their weekly allowances, passing out flyers at the end of Liturgy, taking out the trash, vacuuming floors, helping adults carry items to the Church from their cars. These are just some of the ways in which children can make meaningful offerings. Sister Magdalen in, “Children in the Church Today,” writes the following:
“Children should feel that they are responsible members of the parish community. They should not always be on the receiving end of parish activities. They should be encouraged to contribute help not only in church, but also in the social activities of the parish, in visiting the sick, and so on. A Christian belonging to a parish should feel a responsibility towards the other parishioners; he cannot merely attend services and remain indifferent to the lives of his fellow members…Let there always be willing volunteers to help with projects involving children” (pp. 69-70).
If adult Church members are patient and consistent in the above efforts they will pay great dividends in the long run for the life of the Church and for the lives of specific households. Let us think about these things and above all let us be grateful for the blessings that our Lord has bestowed upon the community of St. Barbara’s most assuredly in terms of our youth for which we give thanks.

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