It's Sunday. Like most Sundays, this morning we went to church. As a Christian and someone who knows he has a lot to be grateful for, I want to make sure my family goes to church. I believe church is a place you go to worship God and give to others, not some religious club you drop by as if you're making God's day by showing up or doing Him a favor because you didn't sleep in on Sunday morning. I want my kids to grow up with the conviction that church is important, not as a religious duty, but as a gesture of love and faith. I want them to view church as a place where they go to focus their hearts and minds on Jesus Christ and to encourage other people. I don't want my kids to see church as a place where people go to critique sermons or pass judgment on whether or not the church is doing enough to make their attendance worthwhile. In short, I want my children to understand church the way I believe the Bible presents it: It's about a community of people who love and serve God and each other, not a place to catch up on gossip, judge people who aren't as "righteous", look down on other churches that do things differently, or get attitudes because someone had the audacity to make a decision you don't agree with.
All that being said, getting to church on Sunday mornings is, for our family, often difficult. Gone are the days when it was just Meredith and I. Before kids, we'd get up and enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee before getting dressed and heading out the door. No longer! Now getting to church by 10am is a logistical operation that requires D-day like planning. Quiet cups of coffee have been replaced by shots of caffeine quickly gulped down in between shouts of, "Finish your breakfast"; "Hurry and brush your teeth"; and "Get your hands out of the toilet!"
Of course, I'm just a field commander. The general in this weekly mission is my wife. After doing more than her fair share to get the Howard crowd up and moving in the morning (she makes the breakfasts, lays out the clothes, changes the baby, gets the kids out of bed, and so on), my wife starts delegating so that she can get herself ready for church. Like George S. Patton standing before an American flag, Meredith shouts directives with authoritative specificity: "Emerson, finish eating and get upstairs! William, outta those pee-pee drenched pull-ups! Carson, take Daddy's underwear off your head and put Mommy's tampons back in the box! Daddy, get 'em dressed while I'm in the shower! We're going to church, so move, move, move!" Then, like a dutiful soldier, I attempt to carry out my assignment.
The only problem is, the troops under my command don't possess the same appreciation for military discipline (nor fear of Mommy) that I do. While General Patton takes a shower and does her hair, I'm chasing naked fannies up and down the hall, desperately trying to apply diapers and Incredible Hulk underwear to my two boys. Meanwhile, my daughter drags herself down the hall at zombie-like speed moaning, "Daddy, I'm so tired," and "Daddy, why do we have to go to church?"
Finally, after cornering and clothing my sons, it's on to the teeth brushing. This is a delicate and often gross undertaking that takes time and experience to master. Standing my oldest son, William, on a stool in front of the mirror, I try to hold his chin with my left hand while attempting to brush his teeth with my right. Then commences a series of head-bobs and neck turns not seen since Muhammed Ali retired from boxing. For a while the head-bobs work, leading me to apply toothpaste to every part of William's face except his teeth. Finally, over shouts of "Daddy, no!" and "Daddy, my eye!" I finally insert the toothbrush into William's mouth. I barely touch a tooth before the entire upstairs rings with screams of, "I have to spit! I have to spit!" At last, I get paste to enamel and brush like there's no tomorrow. All the while, William stands in front of the mirror, foam running down his chin like a rabid dog. Once Cujo's done, it's on to Carson. Now I'm done play'n around. I pick little man up like a football and hold him tightly under my arm. Applying paste to his brush as he screams and kicks, I quickly brush his teeth too. I totally ignore his cries for mercy, my heart hardened by the naked fanny chase and Cujo's foaming.
Eventually, we get the kids and ourselves dressed and in the van. After buckling in the kids, Meredith situates herself and secures her to-go cup of coffee. I take a moment to get the nervous tic in my eye under control. Then the real fun begins: the 45 minute ride to church. Sure, there are closer churches, but the people we know and have a history with are at a church 45 minutes away. Plus, the Bible says that Christians are supposed to suffer. That being the case, what better way to affirm my religious devotion than a long ride in a mini-van with three small kids first thing on Sunday morning?
After nearly an hour of hearing Carson scream because he's dropped his milk and refereeing arguments between William and Emerson over whether or not William is a big boy or a baby, we finally arrive at church. Praying the communion planners have replaced the grape juice with actual wine, my wife and I herd our tiny Howards inside, do our best to keep them from getting restless through the first few hymns, and wait anxiously for the speaker to announce that the kids are, "dismissed to go to class." Then, along with about a hundred other parents who've been desperately awaiting the same green light, we rush our kids off to kids' church. When Emerson was a baby, it was hard to leave her in the nursery. It tore our hearts out to see her crying and reaching for us. We'd linger in the hall a few moments, then peek our heads around the corner to make sure she was okay. Now, it's almost like the drop box at Blockbuster. Just drop 'em and go! Get 'em in, and get out! If they're not dying, they're okay. Like prisoners let out of their cells for a few precious moments in the yard, we rush back to the sanctuary for some needed encouragement and adult fellowship. Repenting of the numerous curse words that crossed my mind and, perhaps, my lips earlier in the morning, I settle in for the preacher's sermon and to pray for strength to endure the ride home.
I have great kids. The trials of Sunday morning are just part of parenthood reality. Why do Meredith and I put ourselves through the ordeal of getting out the door to church every Sunday morning when we could stay home? Why do we opt for yet one more hectic morning in a week already packed with them? Because we believe God is real. We believe He created us and He loves us. And we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he died for our sins (and trust me, I have a lot of sins). More than that, I want my kids to grow to believe it too. Is going to church the only way you teach my kids how much God loves them? No. In fact, it's probably not even the best way. The best way is to model God's love for them on a daily basis, showing them the same unconditional love and acceptance that God shows me. But I believe God teaches us about His love as we love and help each other. I believe the church is supposed to be the number one place where we see that love lived out.
I also believe that parents need help. What better place to find help and good role models for my kids than among people who sincerely love God and want to follow Christ? More than that, what better place for me to find the kind of friends who will help me be the man I need to be for my kids. I need to be around men who have faith. I need to be around men who are as serious about loving and being faithful to their wives as I am. And I need to be around men who are working just as hard as I am to raise kids who'll love God.
When all is said and done, it won't be the church that decides whether or not my kids become Christians, as much as it will be what they see in me. When my children look at me, will they see a religious hypocrite who just plays the church game, or will they see a man who finds peace and happiness, even in the tough times, because he really believes God loves him and will always be with him? Will they dismiss faith after seeing a man who merely allows religion to be a part of his life, or will they want to be like the father for whom God is the center of his life?
No, I don't go to church because I feel it's a requirement. I load up the ole mini-van and go each week because I know my family and I need it. So next Sunday, I'll chase the naked fannies and struggle to brush Muhammed Ali's teeth again. I'll make sure my kids are in church on Sundays. My hope is that my kids will believe God is real because their dad lives like He is. Church can't take the place of a sincere faith modeled by a father for his kids. But I hope that by making church a priority, I'll be better equipped to be that living model each and every day of my life.