Thursday, May 11, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

It’s nice to have someone “come forward”

Going through some old things my mother had saved, I found my baby book. In it Mama had written of my first visit to church. She said, “Milton went to church for the first time today, and stayed in the nursery. When we went to get him afterward, we found he had cried the entire time.” Who, then, would ever have thought I would grow up to be a minister?

Churches and little ones have always existed in close proximity, and it is in this department that I think some of the church’s most essential work is done.

Often I say to myself in frustration on a Saturday afternoon when my preaching preparation derails that I would gladly keep the nursery if only someone else would mount the pulpit and give a sermon for me on Sunday morning.

Of course, I know not whereof I speak, for the nursery keeper has by far the harder task, and in many ways, the one that is more spiritually important. By the time a preacher gets a congregation of adults before him, he can’t tell them much. The little ones in the nursery, however — they’re all ears!

I like the way that modern churches are constructed with the nursery in a special room right off the front entrance hall. These nurseries have plate glass that lets the nursery workers see what is going on in the church, with the sound piped in electronically. There is heavy insulation, so that the congregation does not hear what is going on in the nursery.

In olden times babies and small children came right on to church with their parents, and if somebody got the colic, the preacher would carry on above the din. In many congregations they still do.

In pioneer days Presbyterian churches had “session houses.” These were one-room cubicles off to the side of the church where the elders would meet “in session.” During services, nursing mothers would gather in the session house to care for their babies and catch what words they could of the sermon from the open windows.

Considering that as late as 1860 a Presbyterian sermon could be two hours long, they probably heard enough to get by.

I am not sure when church nurseries actually began. I know that Sunday schools had “cradle rolls,” and infant classes, but I confess I still have mixed emotions about segregating any class or category of people from the house and worship of God. It is a convenience to the parents, I know, and perhaps even an inducement to harried mothers to come to church.

In Cleveland, Miss., the First Methodist and First Baptist churches are side by side. As time has passed, they both have grown and added on to the original buildings several times. Now they sit there cheek to jowl.

A new couple came one Sunday, intending to worship at the Baptist Church, but mistaking the Methodist Sunday school building for one operated by those loyal to John the Baptist, they placed their baby in the Methodists’ care.

(I will say this as politely as I can): In Cleveland, at least, Baptist preaching goes on longer — considerably longer — than a Methodist sermon does — and all was cleared out in the Wesleyan crib room, except for the aforementioned (but not then identified) Baptist child.

When the surprised parents finally arrived, the Methodist workers were thinking, that like the high-priest Eli of yore, they had been given a baby “Samuel” to rear in the house of the Lord! Better signs were immediately procured and placed at both churches, clearly indicating whose space was whose.

Occasionally we have “escapes” from our nursery, and little ones come over and find their mamas and daddies.

More than once a toddler has bolted free from a distracted parent and come down the aisle to stand with me as I have preached. It is nice to think that someone will “come forward” in a Presbyterian service!

In the meantime, my offer still stands; I’ll gladly keep the nursery if someone else will prepare and deliver my sermon!

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