- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

No matter how many times I shout through the house that it’s time to leave for church, the moment of departure seems to come at us like an early-morning freight train.

Instead of peacefully donning coats and shoes and climbing cheerfully into the van, my children typically race through the kitchen in varying degrees of undress, wet hair flying behind them as they search frantically for the “good shoes,” which are, in all likelihood, right where they were left last Sunday after church.

I’m pretty sure this is why so many folks come to church only on Christmas and Easter. They avoid the weekly stress of screaming from the garage, “Get out here before we miss the homily.”

I sometimes wonder, as I deliver my weekly lecture on the way to church about the importance of being on time, what my children will remember about Sundays. In my heart, I would like them to have idyllic recollections of attending church as a family, followed by big, home-cooked breakfasts and leisurely days reading newspapers and taking long walks.

Life being what it is, they’re going to remember our breathless arrivals at church, slipping into a pew in the back of the sanctuary and later heading home for Froot Loops and toast.

Because today is Easter Sunday, we’ll lose our usual parking space, and the area where we generally sit in the sanctuary will be packed with well-dressed churchgoers eager to celebrate the most important date in the Christian liturgical year — the day of Christ’s resurrection.

We know our chances of getting a seat are better if we’re early, but we’re never early, and we’re loath to break with tradition. Besides, we’re there every Sunday. I figure that because it’s a holiday and there are so many visitors, we should be polite.

According to an ABC News-Beliefnet poll of 1,008 adults conducted Feb. 19 and 20, 83 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, but just 38 percent report attending religious services once a week.

Not surprisingly, regular attendance at church increases with age. The poll doesn’t explain why this is, but I suspect that it’s because going to church may be the only “life insurance” some older folks can afford. The poll says there’s a gender gap in religious practice, too — women are more likely than men to attend church regularly. Being a woman, I probably could explain this statistic.

If believers are even sporadic about church attendance, today’s the day they’re bound to make it to services.

Big religious holidays such as Easter aren’t my most spiritually enriching days of worship. I get distracted by all the clothes, hats, purses and shoes. Easter Sunday is like Fashion Week in Paris — a parade of spring ensembles. Never mind that spring won’t arrive in much of the country for a month and that the women in those pretty pastel dresses hide under down coats the color of granite. It’s Easter. We pretend.

Not only is the Easter Sunday congregation well-dressed, but many are children who got up before dawn to look for Easter eggs and eat chocolate bunnies and Peeps marshmallow chicks for breakfast. They wiggle. They fidget. They get up several times to go to the bathroom. This doesn’t make for a solemn hour of worship.

Getting children to behave in church is a weekly struggle — not something you can accomplish on holidays. When mine were little, in an effort to avoid the stage whisper required to get their attention when they misbehaved, I snapped my fingers — loudly. This meant, “Everyone look at Mom now.”

Hearing the telltale “click,” four heads jolted in my direction. Only the offender’s eyes were met with my maternal gaze, unmistakably communicating my expectations for improved behavior. It worked so well that I sometimes did it for people as a parlor trick.

Those days are gone. Thankfully, going to church is so ingrained in our weekly rhythm and my children’s participation is so habitual that discipline is not an issue, only discipleship. After all, being in church is just an expression of something much deeper and more demanding — faith. And like nearly everything that’s good for children — vegetables, soap and water, adequate sleep — a life of faith must be offered early and often.

Easter Sunday is big, no question. But so was the Sunday a couple of weeks ago when, a few pews ahead of me, a little girl no older than 2 stared back at the congregation behind her family, gently running her chubby toddler fingers through the hair at the nape of her mother’s neck.

Rocking from side to side, that young mom conjured a flood of memories for me — moments spent in a silent prayer that the child in my arms would be safe and healthy and happy — moments when the cadence of the sermon or a hymn sung softly by the choir lulled one or another of them to sleep in my lap. These were the moments when my children learned to be at home in church.

These days, we stand shoulder to shoulder in the pew every Sunday while I pray they understand that simply being there with my husband and me is the best we can offer them — and maybe all we can offer that ultimately matters.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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