John Bressler-031111Listen to Dr. John Bressler read his column.
When I was called to the pastorate about 40 years ago — even though it seems like yesterday — Communion was not given to children who were not considered capable of "discernment" insofar as communion, The Eucharist or the Lord's Supper is concerned. Dr. Ben Lacy Rose, the wise old professor of church polity, sacramental education and administration, wrote many an article explaining the theological wisdom of those too young to understand but was always a tad fuzzy when it came to adults who may have been born with a handicap, which truly prevented them from having the capacity to figure out what all was going on during Communion.
It was in the summer of 1981 — if my misty memory is correct — when the General Assembly passed and the Presbyteries approved a section in the Book of Order allowing children of baptized members to receive the Lord's Supper. Years of study and soul-searching taught the church a couple of things: The Passover meal, which was shared by the entire family and most certainly shared with Jesus when He was a child, was one excellent example of how the people of God were taught their history and tradition, and, "At what age do we allow our children to eat with the family, listen to the conversation, learn from the family and begin to understand the whys and wherefores of family life?"
My earliest memories of meal time with the family were to, "Shut up, clean your plate and the starving people in Europe really eat their okra and black eyed peas." I think I was around 12 when I was allowed to eat with a knife and fork. "You'll put your eye out or stab your sister!" While both those observations were possible, I still don't believe the story about the Europeans eating okra.
This past Sunday, I was honored to lead the children's sermon and since it was Communion Sunday, felt like it was the perfect moment to share the story of how the church has grown in its understanding of the importance of teaching children the faith we cherish.
The most beautiful children you can imagine came running down front to sit beside me and listen so politely and ask questions or just share what was on their minds at that particular moment. When I asked them, "How old were you when you first sat at the table with mom and dad?" one answered, "I don't remember." Most nodded their heads because eating with the family just came naturally. I'm pretty sure that they thought it must have been a little odd to ask such a thing. The point was, — and I think everyone got it — children are never too young to learn. As long as adults don't get too technical and are pretty straight-forward, children absorb information like sponges and get the complex message just by watching and copying what they see.
When it was time in the worship service to celebrate Communion, I watched all the children who came down with their parents. They never took their eyes off the plates that held the bread and the juice, looked at the ministers or assistants who passed the elements to them and then glanced up at their parents to see just how to handle this very important meal. Not one child misbehaved or acted inappropriately. They knelt beside their folks, ate and drank with good manners and stood and left together. They knew this was a special time and that this is what church people did. I was so impressed to be a part of this extraordinary and wonderful moment in time.
Teaching begins at birth when mom holds her child for the very first time and that little gift from God hears mom's soothing voice, feels her warmth and waits to find out what comes next. The teaching never stops. This child is thrust into a world full of strangers, sights and sounds, pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow and more questions than answers.
At what age does this child learn about responsibility, accountability, honesty, integrity, Almighty God, church, sacraments and politics to name a few requirements? To be perfectly frank, I am overwhelmed at what I am supposed to know and realize that I don't have enough lifetimes to do much more than scratch the surface.
I do know this: Deuteronomy 11:18-21 demands, "Teach your children." Proverbs 22:6 comforts, "Teach your children the way they should go and they will not depart from it."
At what age do we begin to teach? The moment we first hold our child in our arms and say, "Hi!"