We recently reached the stage where Toddler’s blissful afternoon naps equate to hours of late night stomping, sneaking and hysterics. As a result, this week marked the beginning of the ‘full day challenge‘; an attempt to keep her awake and entertained for the entire afternoon when she really could do with a nap. (This largely involves ejecting her from the pram – her favourite nap spot- for as long as possible, whilst avoiding her over-tired slumps on the floor, intercepting her frantic dashes to the next object that takes her frazzled fancy, and still moving fast enough to stop Tiny losing the plot.) Thankfully, however; despite the problematic cobbles, hills, steps and skinny pavements; I do think we live in a fantastic city for this. Our current stomping ground is gloriously small but mighty; beautiful walks, parks and gardens abound, with sufficient traffic-free streets, public spaces and transport stations to walk to and explore. All in all; it’s a pretty relaxing place to be exhausted! And the pride of this backdrop, from whichever angle you approach, also happens to be our favourite public space; for we live a stonesthrow away from one of the most magnificent Cathedrals ever built, and our daughter loves it.
We stand on the bridge, to and from college, pointing at the “Big Church” over the river. We walk past Big Church to and from playgroup, “oohing” and “aahing” at it’s sheer bigness and churchy-ness. Some days, we even go inside Big Church and, like Goldilocks in the mother of all bear huts, we try every chair, read every book, touch every wall and take in as much of the beauty of this truly enormous feat of architecture as our tiny eyes can manage. And, very recently, we also began to engage with the purpose of the place. Just the other day, Toddler and her Mini Mate took great pleasure in pointing out the characters on the walls and windows, singing their own songs from the hymn books and kneeling at the prayer rail, talking to “Big Gog” with a hearty, almost American “amen!” The other folk walking around smiled warmly as they stood at the front, projecting their songs with giant smiles, (and then gasped as I rushed to stop Toddler throwing down her hymn book and stamping on it like Peppa’s best puddle!) They are observant little girls, and it was truly fascinating to watch them play together with excitable yet remarkable insight. I laughed as Toddler stood in front of the font, declared this little area “my church”, and then prattled expressively from an upside down leaflet, (Ah, maybe she’ll be just like her dad!). Only to gasp once more, 20 seconds later, as she blocked the entrance, spread out her arms dramatically and announced, “me, me, me…ME!” (Oh, God… she’s going to be a Televangelist!) After a few rounds of “Great Big Gog” (Toddler’s new favourite song); they made their way past the candles (“Sssh! Hot!”), and clambered up onto yet another pew. However, no sooner had they sat down, but a gentleman a few rows in front turned around, glared at our little group and declared, “this is a Chapel of meditation and prayer, you cannot bring children here!”
Obviously, at this point, I began the very British response of apologising profusely before considering whether or not that was called for. Mini Mate’s Mum, however, tried, “Yes, but they are welcome here too.” Unfortunately, this was met with an angrier glare and a firmer tone, as the man raised his voice and spat, “NO! This is a Chapel of meditation and prayer, it is NOT a place for children, you CANNOT just bring them in here!”
Whether a Cathedral is a place for small children or not, we were quite sure it wasn’t the place for an argument. So, we very quickly bundled up our brood and made a dash for the exit, feeling sufficiently told off and not a little bit confused. (Had we really, at our stage of life and ‘line of work’ just been kicked out of a church?!) Now, in hindsight there’s an awful lot of discussion to be had about the various themes at play in this situation, and I’m not convinced that either of us were entirely right or wrong. See, I absolutely agree that some spaces should be reserved for solitude and silence, and that adults need to access those in ways that small children cannot. However, whilst there are at least three private side chapels available, this incident took place in the main body of a very public place; a lecture was in full swing to the left and a guided tour had just been announced over the loudspeaker. I also agree that Toddler was over-excited and therefore a little too loud, (I might even have been in the process of “shushing” her at the time). However, she was excited about being in church, and he wasn’t just asking her to be quiet; he was saying she had no right to be there at all. Finally, I concede that I know nothing about this man; he could have been grieving or worse. However, he also knew nothing about us; this could quite easily have been our first and last experience of church, and he quite clearly didn’t care.
Now I’m sure, as with anything related to children or church, this story will drum up all manner of opinions and emotions. However, that’s not really what I want to talk about, because of what happened next. You see, as we made our way hurriedly down the aisle and towards the doors, we were intercepted by a lady wearing a purple robe and quite possibly the warmest smile I’ve ever seen. As she crouched down to greet our oncoming girls, her entire face lit up; she clasped her hands and, whether coincidently or by divine appointment, stood up to say, “Oh! We just LOVE to see children in here!”
Once more taken aback, I told this lady about the incident we were in the process of running from, and she looked quite genuinely horrified. She passionately reassured me that the views expressed were not those of the Cathedral staff, assured me that we were all welcome anytime- “please do come back!“- and expressed how thankful she was to have discovered and spoken to us before we felt the need to leave. She was a voluntary ‘Welcomer‘ and she was doing an outstanding job; for everything about her communicated the full investment of her heart and soul.
All in all, this woman nailed it; and in doing so she nailed everything that had gone before firmly to the cross. For Jesus welcomed little children, just like He welcomed sinners and outcasts and all. And in going the extra mile, her actions meant that we still encountered Him that day; despite the clear rejection of another in His fold. In fact, when we finally left the building, we talked about her as much as we talked about him; and that gives me hope. Hope that in a world- and a Church- full of broken, hurting (and hurtful) people; love still conquers all. Hope that in a world – and a Church- where some people seriously consider Donald Trump the face of Western Christianity; the loving actions of ordinary, humble believers can still turn the tide.
We can’t really control how anyone else speaks or behaves within our church, community, workplace or else… but we can control ourselves. We can choose to be the change in someone else’s day; for better, not for worse. When all around us are grumbling, complaining, bitching and bullying; we can chose to be lighter, brighter, kinder and lovelier. So much more so, in fact, that we outshine the darkness that may have gone before.
So talk… enquire, encourage… or simply just smile.
For all you know, for someone else, that could be the most significant mile.