Week by week a collection of small children, clutching toy animals, begin to arrive at the church, brought by parents, grandparents and child-minders. Pushchairs are squeezed through the narrow doorway – or we wrestle with the big, iron bolts, so that both the doors can be thrown wide open. Praise and Play – our Church Service for Toddlers – is about to start – let the chaos begin!
The animals play a very important part in our weekly gathering. Each week we sing about Faithful Old Noah, and the animals that he took into the ark with him. The first verse is always the same, as Noah hammers and saws and builds his ark. We then invent all the following verses (and sometimes it’s a VERY long song) depending on what animals the children have brought with them. Each animal gets it’s moment of fame and we take great care in deciding exactly what noise or action an animal might make as the enter the ark.
Puppies and kittens are popular choices, as are bunnies and teddy bears. Lions and tigers are quite common and we get the full selection of farmyard animals too. But all comers are welcome. Bob the Builder has travelled on the ark now and then (and would be very useful, if we sprang a leak, mid-trip). We’ve also made space for Tweenies and Tellytubbies and mystifying creatures from all corners of children’s television. (I still haven’t worked out who or what a Tombliboo….) It always amuses me when we put dinosaurs in the ark because of various nutty theories I’ve come across, as Creationists wrestle with how dinosaurs fit into the creation accounts in Genesis – but that’s a whole other article – and not one written by me!
And of course, the Power Rangers. When my son was small I would have been told off sternly for not knowing if they were Mighty Morphin, or Megaforce or Dino Thunder Power Rangers (or one of the very, very many other varieties) but those days are behind us now and the knowledge has faded somewhat. But on the Ark they went – and I hope they enjoyed the trip.
I love this part of Praise and Play for many reasons. I love the surreal conversations we have about what noise Minnie Mouse might make, or whether a dolphin would go into the ark, rather than swim alongside it. I love seeing our new members gain in confidence week by week. They are often very shy at first and want to hold on to their toy very tightly and hide behind Mum. As they get used to the place and start to feel safe, they come and offer their animals with great pride.
But I especially love the fact that everyone’s offering is valued. No matter what the children bring, no matter how unlikely, if they bring it to go in the ark, then in the ark it goes. We’ve even driven motorbikes up the gangplank, two by two
For me, this is a little island of Church at it’s Best. No, scratch that, this isn’t just a church thing – this is Community at it’s Best. Every contribution matters however quirky or uncertain and becomes part of what we are creating together. Together we might make a place where the odd and the unexpected and the surprising are valued because we the people who offer them are valued. I long for a place where, like our children at Praise and Play, we would gain more and more confidence in sharing ourselves with one another.