We held very simple Advent services on Wednesday evening this year. We used Holden Evening Prayer, read an Old Testament Reading and read a children's story. We worshipped around tables in our Fellowship Hall rather than in the Sanctuary. We had confirmation students bring in the cross and candles and had candles at every table. We had a few small children take the offering.
I loved hearing the congregation singing together in the round, even in a room with not the best acoustics in the world. We know the liturgy well enough now that some people felt bold to sing different parts on the canon, even if they were sitting right next to each other.
We had hoped that the service would be short and engaging for families with small children. But, truth be told, there were only a very few small children (all of the confirmation students came every week).
On the last Wednesday, there were a few more small children. They were all pre-school age. One of them had been coming every Wednesday with her grandmother. Another one was the daughter of our children's ministry coordinator.
Though they were glad to be with us for worship, I could tell that they were also excited and antsy. They had a hard time paying attention to the story. It had pretty pictures, and there were opportunities to count down the Advent candles, but other parts of the story were too hard for them to understand.
Toward the end of the service, though, we began the prayer litany. With piano and violin accompanying, we began to sing, "God of mercy, hold us in love." The soloist also began, "In peace, in peace, we pray to you."
And two of the little girls began to dance.
They put out their arms as if they were ballerinas; they bumped into each other a couple of times. They did not understand the words, but they understood the music. If they had been a little older, I would have said they were tiny liturgical dancers.
Their parents were understandably chagrined. Children need to learn how to behave in church. This was a time of prayer, after all. We were praying for the sake of the world. And their daughters were dancing.
Yet, I thought that their dance was beautiful. They were graceful in their smallness, arms flung out, listening to the violin as if it were the voice of God. They were praying, too, even though they didn't know it. Perhaps we can teach them: not to sit still, but to believe that all of their movements, their tears and their laughter, are sent up to God, as an offering, as incense.
Perhaps we can teach them, but then we would have to know it too: we would need to know that church is for sitting still and for dancing, for weeping and for laughter, and that all of it, all of us, is offered up to God, as incense.
Perhaps we can teach them. Perhaps they can teach us, too.