As a teenager I volunteered as a counselor at a local Bible Camp. It was my favorite week of the Summer. One evening, a few days before we would leave, the other counselors and myself gathered at the house of our Youth Pastor so we could go through the list of children who had signed up to go.
One by one we would choose the ones we each wanted on our teams. The children who were athletic or had proven themselves in years prior to be good at memorizing scripture, were fought over. The competitive nature about it was all in good fun and we were all enjoying the process, but as the lists became smaller it led to questions about the remaining kids.
A conversation had started about one of the little girls. At the moment she was nothing more than a name on a paper, but from what I gathered, this young girl was quite the handful and her parents were going through a very nasty and gossip ridden divorce.
I was surprised by the responses of my friends and mentors around me. Instead of this little girl (we will call her Annie) being fought over; it was clear that no one wanted her on their teams. That is the moment Jesus planted a seed of love for Annie in my heart, and without consulting my fellow team leader, my hand went up and I exclaimed “We choose her!!”
I am no longer a teenager counseling at Summer camp, but the lessons I learned from that experience, from loving Annie, shaped who I am today and showed me the importance of a willing heart.
Today I am a parent. I’m the parent who gets anxiety over sending my child to Sunday School. I’m the one who has grown numb in isolation because I know regular volunteers would not be able to handle my daughter, who has Down Syndrome, or my son who struggles with impulsive behaviors at MOPS. I have children whose attention will not make it through a whole Bible story or craft.
The raising up and nurturing of any child is not an easy journey, but there are certain children who seem to require more unconditional love, grace and patience. What better place to find these attributes than the church though, right?
Sadly that is not often the case. I hold my own story, but I’ve heard from countless other families who have, and/or are currently struggling to find their place in the church. These are families of children with disabilities who are in desperate need of respite, but who are expected to remain with their child during children’s ministry making it impossible for them to get spiritually fed in the way that they need.
These are families who have a child, with a diagnosis or not, who struggles with behaviors. Instead of this child receiving the extra love and attention they need they are often labeled as “naughty” and sometimes even removed from children’s ministry because their behavior is a distraction to the other children. Many families, even though they love Jesus, have been so hurt and rejected by His body that they stop going to church all together. I know there is not an easy answer. I know that children’s ministry is often under staffed and untrained to handle children who “require more”, but I am saying that just because it’s harder doesn’t mean we should give up.
We go to an incredible church where we have found open arms and hearts. I’m often asked, “How can we love your family better? I’ll be honest it’s still hard for me to know the answer, but here’s what I’ve found to be a good starting point, a willing heart!
I promise you we do not see our children as a burden or a project, and we can spot it from a mile away if you do. We are looking for people who will not just tolerate our children, but who are willing to choose them and seek out their hearts, because that is what Jesus does.
Jesus was most comfortable in the honest mess of life, and He proclaimed that His church should be too.
When the teachers of the law and Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples:“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.Mark 2:16-17
Now I do not believe that my children are anymore sinners than the most well behaved child, but they have unique struggles that require a recognition of our human weakness so that God’s strength and relentless love can flow through us and do a work internally in spite of whatever may be happening externally. I believe those of us who are parents, who have willing hearts, and who work in children’s ministry must ask ourselves the questions, is the goal to just raise good, well behaved kids?
Jesus didn’t seem all that interested in the people who looked good and religious from the outside, instead he chose to spend his time with those who carried labels and were rough around the edges, those are the ones whose hearts he sought out. What if that was true in our churches?
I sought out Annie’s heart that week. We bonded through piggy back rides and saved seats. On one of the last days of camp, I got to tell her of a God who wasn’t pushed away by her behaviors, a God who knew her heart and saw her pain.
I got to share with her that it was no mistake that she was at camp, ended up on my team, or that we had become such good friends. On that night I introduced her to my best friend, Jesus. When we arrived home I got to know her family and I began to pick her up each week for Church and Awana.
I had six flower girls on my wedding day, but Annie was the oldest and she was the only one who wore a dress identical to mine. She was special to me, I believe, because she is special to her Heavenly Father. So often we think we need the answers before we can be equipped to love and serve, but I truly believe it all starts with a heart that’s willing to say, “I choose you.”