Mar 4, 2020

What My Noisy Toddler is Teaching Me About Lent

By Anna Mussmann

My husband and I try to teach church-appropriate behavior, and my kids are usually pretty respectful and attentive. It’s a joy to hear their voices bellowing “Alleluia” or joining the Sanctus. However, around the age of two, each of them has gone through what we might call a loud period. During this time, they are not respectful. They are not attentive. They are loud, belligerent, and embarrassing. Heavy, too.

I go through a period of negativity myself during this phase. I’m annoyed if the announcements last too long. If my husband tries to discuss the sermon, I’m like, “Huh? Yeah, I guess there was one, wasn’t there?” A twenty-month-old child can make going to church so much work.

Intellectually I know it’s still good to be in church, but that doesn’t mean my subconscious--or maybe it’s just the devil--doesn’t try to suggest that my life as a mom is already hard enough without this, too. 

Not too long ago, my youngest was wiggling and fussing in my arms as we stood in the narthex. He wanted to get down, but I don’t reward bad behavior with increased freedom. I told him no. The organ began to play the Sanctus. My kid paused to warble “Hosanna!” with the congregation. Then he went right back to expressing his disagreement with my parental decisions. 

I hadn’t realized he even knew how to say “Hosanna.” 

And it strikes me that this moment is an excellent illustration of the value of remembering the season of Lent. 

Judging by the Facebook posts I’ve seen recently, Lutherans get self-conscious every year at the beginning of Lent. Some are suspicious of anything that Catholics do. Some fear pietism so much they’ve decided the only safe devotional practices are those that require attendance at church for Divine Service. Many seem afraid that fasting is doomed to encourage the wrong motivations anyway, because who wouldn’t like to lose five pounds or free up time from the vortex of social media? 

In an odd way, it reminds me of a non-denominational girl I once knew. She was struggling with the idea of baptism. She was from a Christian family and trusted in Christ’s death as propitiation for her sins, but she hesitated to be baptized. She was afraid of doing it for the wrong reasons--of being influenced by social pressure or the knowledge that it would please her parents. As far as I could tell, she felt that she needed to experience a personal, inner compulsion to be baptized in order for the act to be legitimate. It was as if she feared committing sacrilege and so she was waiting indefinitely for the right feelings. 

I wish I could talk to her today. I’d tell her that God has already told her to be baptized. It’s right there in Scripture. Those promises are for her, and require no special ultra-personal feelings or motivations, because baptism is God’s work, not ours. It’s a gift to and for us. Practically speaking, it’s also something that Christians just do--something we treat as the norm, not something we need to overthink, even though it is also a rich source of comfort and meditation for the rest of our lives. 

Maybe Lent is a bit like that, too. Scripture refers often to prayer and fasting. The assumption seems to be that this is something Christians just do. Christians throughout history have prayed and fasted. Just as the church has organized our worship practices into seasons and systems that shape what happens on Sunday, historical Christians embraced liturgical seasons that shaped their daily lives and provided structure for personal and family piety. It wasn’t something that had to be over-thought or overly personalized. It was just there. A gift. 

Nowadays, many modern Christians, Lutherans included, aren’t used to these practices. Our sense of what constitutes a “normal Christian life” is perhaps warped by our own era. It doesn’t help that popular culture’s only understanding of fasting is shaped by modern consumerism--minimalism, dieting, and “intermittent fasting,” although potentially helpful, are often just another way to achieve the homes and bodies we saw in an ad somewhere. That doesn’t mean we should conclude that fasting belongs to the world, though, anymore than we’d decide that modern bathtubs invalidate baptismal fonts. 

I think the solution lies in thinking less about Lent and simply receiving it as a gift. 

When I take my noisy toddler to church even though he is going through a loud period, it’s worse than useless for me to analyze how much he is getting out of the experience (or how much I am). It’s pointless for me to examine my own motivations too closely. Am I acting out of habit? Am I bowing to peer pressure? Am I fanning my own self-righteousness with this self-imposed suffering? Actually, it doesn’t really matter. It’s enough to know that going to church is good. It’s what Christians do. 

My toddler isn’t very good at going to church. He might fold his hands and look sweet some of the time, but at other moments he’s busy putting his sinful human nature on full display. Yet church is still doing something to and for him. God’s Word is present there, and my child is being shaped. At the very least, he has learned to sing, “Hosanna.” 

This Lent, I am trusting that “doing what Christians do” is good and helpful. I am trusting that even if I’m not getting it all right, even if I’m not always paying attention, God is at work through His Word. Just being in Lent, like being in church, might teach me too to sing Hosanna.


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.

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