Artists in the Nursery
I should probably confess my bias at the outset: I love kids. As a kid myself, I loved babies. When I left childhood, I realized that I would always love kids and I would definitely want to have some of my own. As early as elementary school I told my mother that I couldn’t wait to be a dad. Somewhere around junior high, 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, whom we barely knew. Our children would not suffer the same fate.
In late high school, my plan was to get married in my early twenties, then to start having babies by twenty-five. It was a perfect age to bring little people into the world, I thought. You’re strong, you’re handsome, you’ve got a good job on hand, you’re married to the wife of your seventeen-year-old-self dreams, and it’s a nice-sounding number. As it turned out, in a reversal of providential fortune, I married just shy of thirty-six, passably fit, with a beard turning white, on my way out of a secure job, wedding the woman my seventeen-year-old-self didn’t know I needed but God did, and thank heavens for that.
By God’s grace, I saw my first baby at thirty-nine.
While very little of my life has turned out according to plan, and as an INTJer I am hopelessly obsessed, I confess, with ten, twenty and thirty-year plans, and while I’ve had to figure out what to do with an extraordinary amount of emotional grief along the way, most of which I’ve had no real clue how to share with others, I take hope in the lot of Charles Wesley and William Wilberforce. Both eighteenth-century gentlemen married late (Charles at 42, William at 37), both brought a considerable number of children into the world (Charles’ first of eight at age 45, William’s first of six at age 39; though tragically only three of Wesley’s children survived death). There is still hope for me to complete my end of the sibling deal, made nearly three decades ago.
While I wait for God to give us more children (and, ahem, do my part, accordingly), I enjoy the children God already has given me. For fifteen years I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my sisters’ children, four of Christine’s, two of Stephanie’s. They are a complete delight to me. 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 yesterday.
As I mentioned on Facebook, 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.
My three most frequently used phrases all morning long were:
1. "It's ok, it's ok." (to soothe frayed little people nerves)
2. "Please be gentle." (to encourage less semi-savage behavior as some of the more enthusiastic kids made a grab for another child's toy)
3. "Excellent tea!" (as we celebrated our never-ending tea party)
One of my favorite parts of the morning was leading the children in a rousing version of “The Wheels on the Bus,” as they gnawed their Cheez-It and cookie snack. I could have played musical theater director nonstop.
A few years back, at a conference I had organized in Austin, Texas, for artists, pastors, theologians and educators, a mild argument broke out between a panelist on stage and a member of the audience around the question of an artist’s responsibilities to the church. Long story short, the issue of whether artists should volunteer in the nursery came up. One person argued strongly against it, the other person bravely argued for it. The former maintained that artists should be allowed to serve the church otherwise, mainly by letting them do what they do best: make art. The latter insisted that artists might in fact produce better work, or at least become better human beings, if they spent more time serving “regular” folks in a local congregation. They might also learn a thing or two, even if indirectly, about good art from babies and toddlers. Or they might just learn humility, which is a reasonably good condition in which to make great art.
To put my cards on the table, I’m with the latter. I think serving in the nursery does wonders for your character, and not necessarily in an onerous way. They’re fun. They’re cute. They cry and laugh in the span of ten seconds. They’re curious. They don’t care about the things that often make us feel insecure—what school we went to or didn’t, what our family lineage is or isn’t, how impressive we are or are not, or what phone numbers are stored in our smart phone. They’re present to you with a guileless immediacy, unless a cool Tonka truck suddenly steals them away. They’re sweet kids. 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.
It’s also an incredible way to love their parents, or grandparents, or foster parents, or adopted parents.
While it’s 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: either as a stress reliever for a crying child or a pretend arable field for an imaginary farmer.
I love these kids, and I’m looking forward to my next turn. But you probably knew that from the outset.
(Since photos of children in the nursery are not possible, I've included a pic of my own child above and of my nephew Cormac below, as he built an architectural wonder at the Life & Science Museum not long ago.)
As to the question of artists in the church, I get tired of hearing artists try to create a category for themselves which is somehow beyond human. Get over yourselves people! You might have a knack for moving words around a page or throwing pottery, but that doesn't make you too special to change a diaper in the nursery or peel potatoes for a church supper. All it means is that you *think* you're so special that you never learned how to do some of these mundane and useful tasks.
Be human. Be Christian. Then be an artist.
And God bless those artists, I love them, I really do, and I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing here at Duke if I didn't want to enable them to flourish, but there are some pretty dysfunctional ideas floating in the art world that deserve a sound spanking (if I may indulge a wee bit of violent language). These notions are not just bad for the church, they're bad for artists too; and it's not that artists are inherently bad for thinking these things, it's that they need to be inspired, nudged, encouraged (and, if need be, admonished) by a much better vision for a flourishing life.
If you ever make a t-shirt out of your last line, let me know. I'll buy it.
PS: Micah, thanks for the kind word.