Jumping Off the Communion Rail: Worshipping with Little Ones

My son Ezekiel, at the tender age of three, was a bit of a challenge. A bit might also be short hand for “Lord have mercy on our house.”

Zeke is one of the lights of my life. He is nothing less than a beautiful gift from God. And he brings a lot of pizazz and energy into our household. Please hear me as I say, I treasure him.

Zeke was diagnosed before the age of three with high functioning autism spectrum. He has an overactive sensory system and a lot of little things can add up to a fierce meltdown. In his early years he detested things touching his hands. He didn’t like sitting with his legs dangling, ingesting food in general, or the sound of side conversations.

Church was a struggle for him to say the least. The side conversations and congregational singing got him going every time. I recently read an article about quiet services for autistic children, with less singing and no instruments. This is the kind of thing that would have appealed to Zeke when he was small and may have made church a whole lot more bearable for us.  Zeke had a solution of his own, however. When the organ started playing, Zeke would lay his entire body on the floor of the church aisle or under a pew. This made all the noise bearable. People at our church were good about it, but I know it could have easily come off looking like a giant toddler fit, lazy parenting, or at the very least, just plain weird. Zeke seemed unconcerned.

I, on the other hand, just wanted to worship.

I wanted Ezekiel to worship too.

I wanted so badly for him to find tiny sparks of joy in the service, in the Word, and in the relationships with God’s people surrounding us. Doesn’t every mother want that for her child? How was I going to convince him to follow Jesus for His whole life, if each and every Sunday it was literal misery for his poor little soul. I was fully versed in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit does His work and Zeke’s faith, in the end, was not my responsibility, but a mama’s heart hurt for want of some sign, any sign that He was hearing Jesus in the midst of all the chaos and noise that church was for him.

And then, it came…

One day, our family walked up to take communion. I lined up the troops and we waited calmly for our turn. We reached the altar and kneeled. We took the body and blood, the reminder of His forgiveness shared with us, and the blessings given on each and every little head, including Zeke’s. We stood up and we marched five feet to the left and out the side door to go back to our seat.

In our church, there are two steps down from the altar area before you get to the aisle that takes you to your seat. On this particular Sunday, Zeke slowed down and stopped at the step. He turned back and looked at me, broke into a smile and jumped with all his might off that step. With that jump he burst into the sweetest, quiet little giggles the world has even known.

After that day, Zeke continued to muscle through worship every Sunday, but when it came time for that step each week, he jumped wholeheartedly off of it.

He would giggle and then walk on. In my prayer time I would speak words of praise to a Creator who gave my son a little worship joy through something as mundane as a step.

One day, Zeke bounded off the step and one of the elders in charge of communion asked me nicely, “Can you ask him to stop jumping off that step?”

He meant well, he really did and I’m sure that each of you can see the problem – loud preschooler, exuberantly jumping full force near the front of the church. I am sure that it came off as inconsiderate and disrespectful to some people. All of us, you and I included, have ideas about what worship should look like and we do need to be respectful of our neighbor’s worship.

But my answer in this instance was, “No.”

Later I explained, “That step is Zeke’s worship joy. That one moment is the one he looks forward to every Sunday morning. I just can’t take that from him.”

A missionary friend of mine said it best, “Shouldn’t we all be jumping off the communion step anyway?” And she’s right. Body of Christ! Shed for me!

Which part of worship wells up in you and gives you even the simplest joy? What’s your metaphoric step, that place where the Word meets your ears, the grace of the place fills your heart, and you know it’s safe to jump in with your whole self, unabashed?

Our elder nodded his understanding. All it took was a simple conversation. I learn so much from Zeke every day.

Zeke is five years old now. God has brought him far. He no longer needs to lay on the floor to comfort himself in worship. Last week, he sang “Thank the Lord and Sing His Praise” with the chorus of all those around him. Most of the time, you may not even be able to tell what a struggle church was for him in the past.

And he still jumps off that step and I will be the last one to stop him.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.

Psalm 84:1-2

Childhood nightmares, adult solutions

So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  (John 20:3-4)

When I was a little girl I had a lot of bad dreams. A lot of bad dreams.

It seemed like anything could lead to a nightmare – someone talking about ghost stories, a scary movie preview on primetime television, or mean, pesky childhood communication at school.

In most of my nightmares, I was running.

Running from something, trying to get somewhere, out of breath, exhausted, tripping over branches and divots of grass and hidden treachery. As I laid in my bed, the branches scrapping the window signaled someone trying to get me, I came up with infinite excuses for drinks of water and extra hugs, mostly I imagined what would come for me in my dreams that night.

I’m sure there is a psychological explanation for all of this, but I’m also not sure I care to know. I came from a stable and loving family. I didn’t experience any form of childhood violence or neglect. The real curse was my extremely overactive imagination.

What I do know is that I hated to run for years. I saw it as a punishment inflicted to my body and soul. At recess my best friend and I would sit on swings and discuss our current favorite book reads and imagine what we would do when we were grown up – anything from European princesses, to journalists, to doctors curing disease. We sat quietly watching everyone one else on the playground run around and we were content.

Running the mile in gym class…pure torture.

“Why would anyone ask this of awkward adolescents?” I complained.

I circled around that track four times and consistently came in at my twelve minute marker. Gag. It was anxiety producing and embarrassing.

At 14, I decided to face my fear of running head on. I joined the track team and ran the 400. By the end of approximately three weeks, I embraced a new general life rule – Why spend time doing something you hate so much?

And so I didn’t.

I quit, but unbeknownst to me I began simultaneously running in another way, looking and searching. I ran to everything else, instead of what I really needed to be running to… that empty tomb, and that Risen Savior.

I ran to be the best academically. I ran to boys that I thought might love me. I ran to adventures and folly and anything that hinted of excitement.

Then this Easter, while sitting in the pew listening to my husband speak the Word, these verses jumped out to me:

Both of them were running together…

The other disciple outran Peter…

Instantly in my head I could see myself in those disciples running toward something that mattered. I contemplated whether God’s grace could be in the running. With Christ, was it possible to stop running from something, and start running toward something.

I remember one glorious spring day in college, my husband-to-be flippantly asked me to go for a run with him. We weren’t dating, I’m not even sure at that point I was interested in him. God reveals plans in His own time, not mine. I was shocked to hear my own tongue say, “Sure. Meet you in 15 minutes in the Triangle.”

Looking back, Dave was safe. His gracious spirit and tongue that constantly dripped words of encouragement, spoke grace in my life in a way that was new and fresh and sent me running to find an empty tomb, a unneeded burial cloth, a new day.

I can certainly walk to the tomb? There’s was no need to take up running as a hobby to cement my relationship with Christ.

However, for me running represented fear. Running was closely connected to my anxiety over life and worth and God.  

Jesus offered me a new gift long ago that day in college and then connected all the dots one Easter morning, March 2016:

I was made to run to Him – no matter the darkness or the daylight, the sorrow or the unexpected sweetness.

What anxieties surround you? Jesus’ Word and His empty tomb always offer healing, sometimes in very specific ways. Where are you in need of healing?

Run to Him. Run, run, run.

Let His grace seep into every little place. Then, take a breath and rest in His presence and be assured of His marvelous mercy.

When only the PK shows up…

Good Friday Prayer Lunch is a thing we do every year with our youth group.

It’s always a great event. We have done everything from collect congregational prayer requests and pray for hours in the church sanctuary to going to see a Christian movie and praying alongside a discussion over ice cream afterwards. We have prayed on an “adventure lunch” trying a new restaurant no one had been too. We have prayed over towns as we drove around with pizza in our laps. We have stuffed a bajillion Easter eggs for the kids at church and prayed over each of those children by name.

My absolute favorite year was the one where we went to the Toledo Museum of Art and searched for sacred art that depicted parts of Jesus life. When we found two in the record that were missing on the wall they took us into a special room, brought the paintings out from restoration, and let us have a private viewing. World, officially rocked. The Good Friday prayer lunch, while super casual from year to year, has always felt like one of those cornerstone pieces to our youth ministry.

Then, this year, no one could come.

It wasn’t a huge dramatic deal. It just was. Everyone had something else on their schedules, appointments to keep because they were off school, family to visit with from out of town, and other life stuff. The only person who could come, in fact, was my daughter.

I turned to my husband late one night, “I’m so disappointed. No one can come to the Good Friday Prayer Lunch. I guess I’m canceling it.”

Dave, ever the wise one between the two of us, replied, “What about Macee? What would you do if it was any other youth? You would have it if any other youth could come, even if it was just one of them.”

Valid point. Usually if only one of my youth could come I’d let them pick the outing. We’d do whatever they wanted to do that day. We would bond and have some one-on-one time. Dave had a really good point. How had I missed this, just because she was my child? She needed youth ministry too. What an opportunity!

God had just gifted me with an excuse to shower some love on one of my youth, and that youth happened to live within the walls of my own home.

Almost twelve years ago, when Dave and I started doing youth ministry, I read a book aptly named, Youth Ministry in Small Churches by Rick Chromey, published by Group Publishing. I felt overwhelmed by the idea of youth ministry with only a handful of students. How do you design programs for such a small group? I was used to the 20-30 youth or more at an event, when I was growing up in a large church. What did you do if no one came? I remember very little of the book except this one piece of advice-

if one youth shows up, you minister to them.

I remember the author saying something about taking them to lunch or getting ice cream and the opportunity that this moment gives to grow together, to love on them in a whole different way than your average youth ministry program.

Dave and I went on to embrace that concept wholeheartedly in our ministry with youth and adults. Over the years we have been blessed to know our youth in a completely different way than I ever expected. We have laughed with them, cried with them, gathered around impromptu campfires on lazy summer evenings, held spur of the moment road trips, and eventually held their babies while their tiny little foreheads were marked in baptism. These special relationships I would never trade for anything in a million years.

Dave made an extremely valid point – Why wouldn’t I offer my daughter this same ministry? Why wouldn’t I accept this gift of time and energy spent ministering to one of the people closest to my heart, and do it in the name of the youth group at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Wauseon, Ohio.

I wanted her to know that she was worth a whole program. That if she could show up, so would I, and so would the Church. She was worth not canceling for.

I think sometimes we overlook the faithful children of the church standing right in front of us. We tuck them in at night, we kiss their foreheads, and we forget that they need parents, but they need pastors and youth leaders, and faithful Churches too. They need to know that they are a valuable piece of the whole.

How many of you deal with this struggle? Your kids are the only ones in Sunday school? Or in youth group?

They are worth ministering to, I promise. I know it’s tiring and can feel disappointing when they are the only consistent ones, but they are no less the Church because they live at your house.

And churches, these PKs or DCEKs or TeacherKs, they are all worth a programming budget and time spent by you and by those who you have called to lead. Just one youth, no matter who they are matters to the Kingdom, to the Living God.

I went to my daughter that day and simply asked, “Macee, what would you like to do for the Good Friday Prayer Lunch? Your choice. No one else can come, so it’s me and you!” Her face lit up. “Fun!” she said, and gave my shoulders a squeeze.

We ended up going to see a movie. We cracked up and cried big fat tears together. We ate copious amounts of popcorn with ridiculous amounts of butter on it. We shared the largest, most unhealthy pop I’ve ever seen. We prayed for one another, our lives, our friends, and God’s plans. We came home and deemed it a very successful Good Friday Prayer Lunch.

I’m so glad I didn’t cancel. I’m so very glad for the privilege to minister to a precious child of God, no matter who she calls Dad and Mom.