Nicholas still acts up in church sometimes. A couple of weeks ago, we had an even more difficult time than the one I wrote about last year.
It started with Nicholas wanting to go to the bathroom just as I was listening eagerly to the Old Testament reading, which was the story of what happened to Jonah after he got out of that fish–although I knew Jonah had his own book of the Bible, I’d never read or heard any of it other than the part about being swallowed by a fish, so I was curious. But I didn’t get to hear it because Nicholas had to go to the bathroom, and he’s only three-and-a-half years old and afraid to wander around the church hallways alone, so I had to go with him. Well, that couldn’t be helped. I would read it in the service leaflet when we got back.
The moment we got back, Nicholas grabbed my leaflet and began scrambling the pages around, scribbling on it with a pencil, crumpling it, and generally rendering it unreadable even if I ever managed to get it back from him. I resolved to read Jonah at home later, and I turned my attention to the next reading.
That lasted about twelve seconds before Nicholas began whispering at me. He started with the questions he asks in almost every church service: “When do we get Communion?” and “How long until coffee hour?” Those are totally understandable; the readings and sermon often are “over his head”, and the hymns and psalm are frustrating because he doesn’t know the words and can’t read, so the Rite II Holy Eucharist seems to drag on for a very long time before we get to the Communion part that he understands, and then he has to endure more singing and talking before we’re released to coffee hour, his favorite part of the whole church experience.
I don’t feel so understanding about questions that have no discernible connection to church, like, “Why are pickles spicy?” and “When can we go to the Children’s Museum again?” and “Why is, like, a frubble so glibjous with, like, like, like, chowongalinglang?” (This last one was all the more frustrating because I initially thought he was saying actual words, so I strained to understand him and had him repeat it several times, which meant that he got louder and began giggling more and more.) He was talking to me just to amuse himself and keep my attention on him rather than elsewhere. I explained, several times, that now was a time to listen to our pastor and that I would really like to do so.
Nicholas proceeded to pinch and elbow me while continuing to jabber. He also was arranging the hymnals and prayerbooks on the pew–a frequent method of amusing himself in church, which usually is okay–and accidentally dropped one on its spine so that it made a loud noise. He then did that on purpose, over and over again. I kept telling him to stop, using my best firm-but-patient mother voice to explain that pinching hurts me and that I and other people were trying to listen. The sermon was about the then-impending schism of our diocese (ours is one of the congregations staying in the Episcopal Church) and handling angry feelings about it, and I really wanted to hear it.
I couldn’t. My child’s behavior was intolerable. I dragged him out to the parish hall, and he said, “Good! I don’t want to listen to all that talking! We’ll go in for Communion and then come straight to coffee hour.” I explained for the umpteenth time that we receive Communion after a period of thinking about God, confessing our sins, and hearing the story of the Last Supper; we’re not supposed to just waltz in and take the bread and wine. Furthermore, while coffee hour is a lovely time of fellowship, the real reason we are at church is to learn and pray. Nicholas was not listening; he was whining wordlessly and poking and nudging me.
One sentence from the book of Jonah had managed to penetrate my consciousness and now swam to the surface of my mind. It was, “What right have you to be angry?”
Well! Let me tell you, I had every right to be angry! I mean, this bratty kid was treating me horribly! With the nudging and the nagging and the nonsense and the pinching and the book-banging and the disrespect! And then he kicked me in the thigh, leaving a shoe-print on my skirt, and snapped, “Mama, God is mad at you for being so mean to me!”
I started to cry. I plunked Nicholas on one end of the couch and moved to the far end and sobbed furiously at him that I was trying so hard to be a better mother and not be so angry at him, and here he was being mean to me and not letting me hear this sermon about how! to! manage! anger!!!
After a few minutes, I calmed down, and Nicholas said, in a deadpan imitation of my firm-but-patient mother voice, “Are you ready to go back into church now?” I washed my face, and we went back just in time for Confession. I begged for forgiveness for this, for everything; for a different and better way of responding to this kind of behavior.
Then I turned to exchange the Peace with my beloved child. He frowned at me, arms folded, and said, “Did you tell God you’re sorry for being mean to me?” I said yes. He said, “I said I’m sorry for rolling the ball on Daddy’s face.” (This incident, earlier that morning, had startled Daniel into a painful neck spasm. Nicholas had admitted absolutely no contrition at the time.) We hugged. I turned to the lady behind me, a mother and grandmother of many, who smiled and said, “I’ve been there. I know how it is. Peace be with you.”
So all was resolved for the moment, but I continued to feel angry and burdened by the events of that morning. While Nicholas doesn’t always act so badly, he does it often enough that both Daniel and I feel desperate for solutions, for better ways of preventing his nasty behavior and of handling it when it happens, and we’ve felt this way for months. It’s really getting to us.
Later, I finally got to read the book of Jonah. I was surprised to find that it’s very short, only two-and-a-half pages in my Bible. I learned that God says, “What right have you to be angry?” when Jonah is mad that God is letting the people of Nineveh get away with having been sinful because now they’re repenting. Then God says it again after God causes a plant to make shade for Jonah and then causes a worm to eat it, and Jonah is furious that “his” plant is gone. In the translation I just found online, the question is, “Are you really so very angry?” and I hear that in a gentle, Mister Rogers sort of voice, as the kind of question that invites you to think about what you feel and whether it really has to be that way.
Yes, I really felt angry, and yes, I have a right to feel what I feel . . . but is anger the only or the best response?
I thought about the plant and the worm. Nick’s behavior in church that day was pretty wormy! But what about the plant whose shade he took from me, the loss of which was so upsetting to me? That’s his nice, pleasing behavior, the behavior I think of as normal and expected, the behavior I take for granted when it happens. Too often, I don’t bother expressing gratitude for the things my still-small child does correctly.
This is a kid who learned the meaning of Communion a year ago and immediately set about learning what he needed to do to partake, and doing it. He spent the Advent just prior to his third birthday asking detailed questions about the life and teachings of Jesus. He was baptized in January and since then has been receiving Communion, and it really means something to him. (He also plays at serving Communion, and that can be weird, but at other times he says things like, “Whatever we eat, we should remember God, because God made all foods.”) When a family friend died in March, Nicholas immediately recalled what I’d told him Jesus said, and he said, “John is in his room in God’s house. Jesus had it ready for him.” This summer, he listened in church long enough to hear that the Old Testament reading was something about lentils, and he took an interest and wanted to hear the whole story of Jacob and Esau; I read to him directly from Genesis for about half an hour that day, and he’s since asked me to tell that story in my own words many times. This is a child not yet four years old who understands that, when we kneel and say a certain prayer, it’s time to tell God we are sorry for all the wrong things we did this past week–and who always can think of something he’s willing to repent for. He’s made an impressive amount of spiritual progress for someone his age.
This is a kid who’s been taken to church at least once a week since he was two weeks old, mostly to elaborate and lengthy services filled with words he doesn’t understand. Much more often than not, he puts up with it, entertaining himself by arranging the available objects or playing quietly with a small toy. Other young children in our church, and in other places where they need to be still and quiet, don’t do it nearly so well. I’m constantly getting compliments on his excellent behavior–yet somehow, I seem to forget all about it at the slightest infraction!
Clearly, I need to be more grateful for the shade of the plant and a little calmer about the occasional worm.
I hesitated to write this article, thinking, “This isn’t one of those religious blogs. That’s not what I do.” Then I read, in one of those religious blogs, this article about an excellent tip for getting more out of a religious service. I realized this had worked for me on the day described above, without my even trying it specifically! Through the chaos of conflict with my child, one sentence got through to me, one that I pondered and eventually got around to studying, one that I really needed to hear. What a terrific tip for parents who are distracted from our learning opportunities by caring for young children! We don’t have to attend perfectly to every single word. Sometimes just one sentence is enough.
And if you’re a non-religious reader who was open-minded enough to read this, I hope that these ideas help you, too.
Check out these 10 Things to Try Before You Lose Your Temper with Your Child!