Finger Painting in Church

In Lent of this year, 3-year-old Ruth and I enjoyed the Play & Pray programme at St Ninian’s, over seven Monday mornings. The course was beautifully designed, and gave me the chance to slow down and concentrate on enjoying ‘just being’ with my little girl. The prayer stations and exercises helped me to re-frame the experience of life at a snail’s pace with a toddler. We thought about God’s love while we blew bubbles, squished playdough, tasted fruit, planted seeds, cuddled under blankets to read stories, and painted handprints, all with a generous and hospitable welcome from St Ninian’s.

Following Play & Pray, our family was away for the weekend and attended a service at a large evangelical church. We were awed and impressed (packed pews! cartoon videos! a drum kit!). The service included an interactive response period where we were invited to move up to the high altar and write our names on a invitation to God’s party, or add a paint thumbprint to a heart wall-hanging, giving a big thumbs-up to God. It was fun and highly-organised. Join a queue, and then it was paint, dip, thumbprint, baby-wipe, bin and back to the pews.

They hadn’t reckoned on Ruth, who as a graduate of Play & Pray, knows all about finger painting in church. She rolled up her sleeves, dipped in her whole hand and, with great concentration, made repeated trips to the wall-hanging to make her marks. This continued until the whole congregation was re-seated and the service continued. As we were hidden behind the choir screen, Ruth and I would have been happy to stay on there. However, the supervisors became rather anxious, and when they couldn’t catch my eye, conferred and took the paint away… Fortunately, Ruth happened to be willing to accept this with grace.

This adventure crystallised for me how happy I am that my that my child has the experience of expressive worship in church, particularly through Play and Pray, which made her feel so comfortable, entitled and responsive in a sacred space.

In her book, ‘How to be alone’, the writer Sara Maitland observes the ‘almost mystical, indescribable expression’ on the face of a young child who is comfortable and content, and neither hungry nor stressed. ‘The child can take on a Buddha-like appearance – completely intent and completely relaxed’. The same state of reverie is described by the Psalm writer 4,000 years earlier in spiritual terms:

See, I have set my soul in silence and in peace;
As the weaned child on its mother’s breast,
So even is my soul.

(Psalm 131:1-3)

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