A little child shall confuse us

by John R. Stiles

I was in church not long ago and there was a young couple in the pew a few rows behind us with a little girl who obviously had someplace else she wanted to be. Either that or her religious experience leaned a bit more toward the Pentecostal wing of Christianity, in which case it was the rest of us who were out of step.

Anyway, the scene reminded me of a story about myself at much the same age, that my mother still dredges up and my grandmother, God rest her soul, told until the day she passed away.

It's not near as easy to prepare youngsters for Sunday mornings in church as those of us who don't have such things to deal with would believe. And you have to be very careful just how you make the point. Children hear and understand things a lot differently than we adults. For weeks before my religious coming out at St. Patrick's in Galesburg, my devoutly religious Irish Catholic grandmother had impressed upon me that I was not, under any circumstances, to talk in church. No matter what the provocation, ''If the Di'vel himself were to light on your little toe with a thousand pound weight,'' as she used to put it, there was no reason for any sound while in the House of God. Now, when you're four and five years old you tend to take these sorts of things quite literally. There is very little to no subtlety in the mind of a youngster.

That is a lesson I no doubt taught my grandmother and, 50-some-odd years later, my own grandson has enlightened me in much the same manner. As the story has gone in my family for the last five decades, my first trip to church was on the arm of my grandmother, who liked to sit second row, right. My mother, who played the organ at St. Pat's for better than 40 years, was seated at the keyboard in the balcony at the back of the church, so my grandmother's job was to take me in tow. I don't really remember much about the event except that it would end up causing my grandmother a near death experience and give her a very unique way to remember me above all of her other myriad of grandchildren. I supposedly was doing just fine until the priest, one Father Murphy -- an Irishman fresh off the boat -- moved toward the pulpit for the Gospel. No sooner had he uttered the first couple of words and there was the commotion of little feet scraping on wooden pews coming from the second row to his left. Yours truly had reportedly scrambled to his feet and shaking a finger at the imposing rostrum and the man who stood startled behind it, shouted out; ''Father Murphy! Father Murphy, you're not supposed to talk in church!''

Needless to say, it was an experience he never forgot along with my grandmother. And the only thing I recall about the incident is that Father Murphy would bring it up every time he saw me for the next 10 or so years.

That brings us back to the present. Well, by comparison, as it occurred during the Mississippi River flooding earlier this spring. I had taken my 4-year-old grandson, Jakey, down to the Davenport, Iowa, riverfront to catch a glimpse of the high water.

From his perch on my shoulders he looked out over the deluge and promptly asked Grampa Rich just how the flood got here. I tried to explain, in the simplest terms I could muster, about all the snow melting upriver and how the ''water just kept getting higher and higher until it spilled out over the bank.''

A half hour later we're headed back to the car to move to another spot and Jakey, still on my shoulders, points out a building with ''a big clock, grampa!''

''That'sthe bank building, Jakey,'' I inform him. And he shoots back, ''Oh, that's where the flood come from, huh, grampa?'' A few minutes later, we're making our way past the Davenport YMCA and there's an enclosed playground.

''Can we go in there and play, huh, grampa?'' he starts in. ''No, Jakey, grampa can't take you in there; he's not a member.'' ''That's OK grampa, I remember.''

Yes, there's a big difference between how we mean something and how children hear it.

And after feeling like I'd just ventured into a Marx Brothers routine, playing straight man to a 4 year-old, I can't really say that it's the kids who have it all messed up.

As for me, I've taken to sitting a little farther back in church these days.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online June 6, 2001

Back to The Zephyr