Practicing with Children

Astonished to Worship

by Tripp Hudgins

It astonishes me how comfortably he sits facing outward strapped to my chest as we sing. It is Advent and the music director and I are leading the congregation in an Introit. “Open my heart,” we intone. I am teaching the low voices, Christopher is teaching the middle voices, and the choir is holding down the melody as we enter worship together. EP is clapping and making eyes with one of the older members of the congregation seated in the front. We have all become accostomed to this.

tripp and elias for PFThis is sometimes how we worship now.

Facing outward, EP scans the faces of the rest of the ensemble gathered behind the altar. The instrumentalists and the singers sometimes return his gaze with a smile. He can see the congregation over the piano and past the altar. Sometimes he claps and makes his own noises as we sing.

Every Sunday that I take him to worship with me is a gift that I treasure.

Our son, EP, is nine months old now. Since he was large enough to sling across my chest, I’ve been taking him to Wednesday evening music rehearsals at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, CA. Of course, this took some convincing.

I had to be convinced.

Yes, me. This isn’t a story about how I had to convince a congregation to accept my young child in rehearsal or worship. I, the wise and progressive parent studying liturgy at the doctoral level, did not demonstrate a new way of parenting to the cold and ignorant people of God. Nope. It’s quite the contrary. This reflection is mostly about my disbelief that they would accept him or that he would be able to manage all the stimuli. I assumed none of us, especially me, would be able to manage having such a little person with us. I was so very, very mistaken in my assumptions.

I assumed that I was going to have to quit attending Wednesday night rehearsals. My wife works in the theater and I often have solo parenting duties in the evening. When EP was two or three months old, my wife returned to work and I was prepared to tell our music director that I was not going to be able to attend. I approached him on a Sunday morning and started in, “Christopher, about Wednesday rehearsals…”

I got no further.

“Bring him with you! It’ll be fun.” You see, Christopher remembers being a little boy sitting under the church piano at rehearsals at his church growing up. He was already there.

So, I brought EP. The moms, dads, aunts, siblings of that musical community welcomed him in, passed him around, helped me to feed him, and rightly steered clear when a diaper needed changing. EP, for his part, was entranced. The sounds, the sights, the faces looking back at him captured his attention. He would hang there in the sling quietly listening, laughing, and now that he’s older, clapping and joining in.

He has a special love of banjos and of a cappella singing, apparently.

Wednesday evenings can be very special for us. But that’s not where this ends. This is where it begins for us.

Sometimes my wife works on Sunday mornings. Child care is available at the church, but when he was so very young, we weren’t quite comfortable with leaving him there. So, one Sunday I packed up the formula and the diapers and took him with me.

Strapped to my chest he slept and gurgled his way through the whole service. He smiled at the acolytes as they busily hurried past fulfilling their duties. Every so often one would stop and say hello. EP would kick in glee. He’s a social creature.

And we sang and played. I strapped on my guitar or mandolin and he hung on. Sometimes he would get a little squirmy and I would take him out of the sling and pass him around (He loves the soprano section especially. He has made new friends there.). He was entranced and entrancing. And I, his hesitant father, was astonished.

I am still astonished.

I am astonished by how much he can take in. I am astonished at how much attention he will pay to liturgy and, most especially, the music. I am astonished at how comfortable he has made himself in the sanctuary of the church. I am astonished by the hospitality offered to him and the hospitality he offers in return.

I wonder what this is doing to him, what kind of values are making their mark, what kind of sounds and actions are becoming a part of him so very early in his life. Instead of being quarantined from Life Together in Christ, EP is precisely in the middle of it. And I am too.

All Souls has a habit of making space for children. There are two areas with plush toys and rocking chairs for kids and parents. Often there is more than one small person in the procession as the choir enters the nave. They hold the hand of their parents as we all sing and gather. This is a common occurance at All Souls and I am grateful for it.

Bringing my own child into this dynamic has changed church for me. I am more awake right now to the liturgy than I have been in some time. I’m not only seeing it anew through his eyes as many told me I might. I am also seeing it anew through a parent’s eyes. I’m a dad. In worship. With my son. My needs have changed. I need to make certain that EP is comfortable, that others are comfortable with him there. I need to learn how he engages worship. I need to know what it feels like to sing with him attached to me as his little body resonates against my own.

I need the priests to bless him when I take him forward during Eucharist. I need to come down from the choir loft when my wife has EP in her arms and is coming forward to receive on the Sundays she attends.

It feels selfish to list these needs, but these are not needs that I anticipated having and I am startled by them.

And the liturgy, the community that offers this service, is meeting my needs. They are meeting EP’s needs. They are meeting my family’s needs.

Liturgy is a service. It is a service offered to God and to God’s people. All of them. Even apprehensive parents who are surprised to find themselves in the midst of worship.

_

Tripp Hudgins is a preacher, chorister, cantor, picker, liturgiologist, ecumenist, writer of articles, ethnomusicologist (hon.), Ph.D. student, and grateful husband and father. Read more from him – about culture, music, theology, education, parenting – at http://anglobaptist.org.

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2 thoughts on “Astonished to Worship

  1. I will always be thankful for the privilege of teaching my children to sing while in worship. Their bodies against mine felt each note, and the fervor of my heart. They know me well, and understand my heart, and I can’t help but believe that a big part of this knowledge came during our times together in worship.

  2. I’m just astonished that Tripp would have expected anything else — not to mention his misbegotten idea that rehearsals are optional in the first place. 😉

    Of course, I’m being totally selfish here, “letting” EP come to be underfoot. I have my mom and grandmother to thank for taking me to rehearsals in the first place, as part of the parish choir rehearsals at St. Luke’s, San Diego. That experience was central to forming the rest of my life. All the rest — being an acolyte, chorister, and organ student, comes out of my experience in church. (And bedtime be damned — I’m sure I was out plenty late on choir nights — but obviously there was value that far outweighed that “foolish consistency.”)

    In the big picture, though, it was the choir director, Jack Magill, who was the one who really made space for me. The choir members who let me literally crawl underfoot — sometimes in search of goodies (I particularly remember little plastic dinosaurs given out at the gas stations)) — made the choir my family and made the church my home in the deepest possible way.

    In fact, when my grandmother was downstairs playing the pump organ for Sunday School chapel, I would occasionally stay in “big church” for a favorite anthem. James Knox’s “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” and John Stainer’s “I am Alpha and Omega” were particular faves.

    If I can be in a position to pay all that forward, I figure I’m off to a pretty good start at balancing the scales.

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