I should probably confess my bias at the outset: I love kids.
As a kid, I loved babies. In middle school, I told my mother that I couldn't wait to be a dad. My sisters and I vowed with no small amount of chutzpah over against Providence that we would each produce four children. (This, in part, was a way to address the certainty that the Almighty had unjustly dealt us only one first cousin. Our children would not suffer the same fate.)
My plan was to get married in my early 20s, then to start having babies by 25, which, I thought, was a perfect age to bring little people into the world. As it turned out, I married just shy of 36 and by God's grace I saw my first baby at 39.
While I wait for God to give us more children, I take pleasure in the children God has already given me and my sisters' children, four of Christine's, two of Stephanie's, whom I have thoroughly enjoyed 15 years now. I also enjoy pretty much anybody else's kids, which is why I had the time of my life during my first stint of service in our church nursery.
As I mentioned to some friends afterward, while half the 1 and 2-year-olds regarded my beard warily, the other half used plastic farm and kitchen utensils to comb it. I'm not exactly sure why that made me so happy, but it did; it was kids being kids and my beard being put to good use.
All morning long, I repeated, "It's ok, it's ok" (to soothe frayed little people nerves); "Please be gentle" (to encourage less semi-savage behavior as some of the more enthusiastic kids made a grab for another child's toy); and "Excellent tea!" (as we celebrated our never-ending tea party).
One of my favorite parts was leading the children in a rousing version of "The Wheels on the Bus," as they gnawed their Cheez-Its and cookie snack. Seriously, I could have played musical theater director nonstop.
A few years back, while on staff as an associate pastor at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, I organized a conference for artists, pastors, theologians, and educators. At the event, a mild argument broke out between a panelist on stage and a member of the audience regarding artists' responsibilities to the church. It was a question I had felt keenly, as someone who had worn not only a pastor's hat but also an artist's hat (chiefly in the theater arts).
Long story short, the issue of whether artists should volunteer in the nursery came up. One person argued strongly against it, the other argued boldly for it.
The former maintained that artists should be allowed to serve the church in other ways, mainly, by letting them do what they do best: make art and by that to invite us to revel in the abundance of God's creation. Artists are there to imagine the world otherwise, as God does, and, in a manner unique to the language of the arts, to advance God's shalom throughout all parts of society, including the life of the church.
It was hard enough, he argued, for artists to make work, let alone make good work. The fact that fellow Christians often dismissed the vocation of artists as largely irrelevant made it more difficult for artists to fulfill their God-given purposes. So the usual sentiment went: "Set aside your silly artistic preoccupations and do something spiritually useful: Help out the kids ministry." Our panelist thought this sentiment was theologically wrong-headed and disastrous even to so-called spiritual matters.
The latter, fully supportive of an artist's calling, insisted that artists might learn a thing or two about human nature from babies. They might recover a sense of wonder from toddlers. Their imaginations might be ignited by the playful spirit of the little people that surrounded them.
More importantly, theologically speaking, to serve in the nursery was a way to love the most vulnerable and least able to return the service. It was a way to die to a false sense of self, a sense of being "special," removed from the ordinary, often tedious, context of the Spirit's work in the church, and to discover a new self, a fuller sense of self, found within and not despite the motley body of Christ. To perform such "family chores" allowed us to be family, no longer isolated and alone. Artists might acquire the virtues of humility and generosity in such service, which, this person thought, could be a reasonably good condition in which to create.
I'm with the latter, while profoundly sympathetic to the concerns of the former. I think serving in the nursery, as ho-hum as it might feel on some days, is a win-win for artists and the church, for all the reasons mentioned above. It has helped me not take myself so seriously. The kids are fun, crying and laughing in the span of 10 seconds, not caring about the things that often make me feel insecure—what school I did or did not attend, what my family lineage is, how (un)impressive I am, or who I know and who knows me. They're present to you with a guileless immediacy, unless a cool Tonka truck suddenly steals them away.
They're sweet kids most of the time, and there is always somebody else in the room who can change a poopy diaper if you're not ready for that kind of scatological fellowship.
Serving in the nursery can also be an incredible way to love their parents, or grandparents, or foster parents, or adopted parents, but especially their mothers, who often live lives of quiet desperation.
While the church nursery is certainly a change of pace from the life that I live Monday to Friday on the fourth floor of the Perkins library at Duke University, as I plow away on my dissertation, it's a welcomed change.
And while I realize that not everybody is in a season of life or in a condition where nursery service is viable, I do think these wee ones deserve the best. Whether it'll enhance my dissertation-writing powers, time will tell (ditto for my artmaking powers). Whether I am the best or not for the task, I can take comfort that my beard will somehow prove useful to the nursery ministry, either as a stress reliever for a crying child or a pretend arable field for an imaginary farmer.
I have loved getting to hang out with these kids, and I'm looking forward to my next turn. But you probably knew that from the outset.
W. David O. Taylor is a Doctor of Theology candidate at Duke Divinity School. He blogs at artspastor.blogspot.com.