Around 10 a.m. one Sunday, my wife and I wrapped up our quarterly shift supervising the church nursery. For the previous hour, we had chided, coddled and consoled 15 kids (including our own two) ranging in age from 1 to 5, all in a space about the size of a modest living room. We careened through the morning in a whirl of tipping chairs, airborne Legos, broken crayons and smelly diapers I had no intention of changing. Given the circumstances, the morning had passed reasonably well. It was about to go badly awry, but I did not know that yet.
In my experience, successfully managing the church nursery hinges on two key principles: keeping injuries to a minimum and looking at your watch as infrequently as possible. Jaw clenched for the duration, I violated Principle No. 2 only five or six times. As for Principle No. 1, the good news is no bandages were necessary.
When it was all over and we had assured the last parents their little boy had behaved spectacularly the whole time, we headed for the door. There we ran into a rather notorious child of the parish—let’s call him Brandon—whose grandmother was attempting to drop him off in the nursery so she could enjoy a quiet cup of coffee in the adjoining fellowship hall. I couldn’t blame her. I had seen Brandon in action before. He was twitchy, bratty and loud, even by the standards of 6-year-old boys. “Sorry,” I told her rather smugly, “nursery’s closed.” I nearly added, “Why don’t you teach that kid a thing or two about manners?”
Were these charitable thoughts for a Sunday morning? Of course not. Did I deserve what happened next? You be the judge.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my 3-year-old son reach up to grab something on the wall. That was not unusual: he has never met a light switch he didn’t love. But this time it was not the light switch he was going for. It was not art work or a rogue fly. It was the fire alarm.
You know how in the movies, before something bad happens, an actor will sometimes yell, “Nooooooooooooo!!!” in slow motion; and the word emerges not so much like language but as a desperate, terrified, primordial roar? I recall sounding something like that as I swatted my son’s hand away from the fire alarm. But it was too late. The red plastic handle was halfway down. Frantically, I shoved it back into its original position. Two seconds of silence followed. I started to tell my wife, “Maybe it’s….”
And then came the impossibly shrill, irrevocable shriek of the siren. If your son or daughter has never pulled a fire alarm in a highly public place, try to imagine your reaction if it happened. Having trouble? Here’s how I felt: sick. Followed by: cowardly.
It’s bad enough to be responsible for getting a fire truck called to your church, but things were worse than that. A twice yearly sale of handmade goods from our sister parish in Peru was under way in the fellowship hall next door. Scores of addled parishioners, who until moments earlier had been inspecting sweaters from the mountain village of Manazo, came streaming out onto the sidewalk clutching their ears. Overwhelmed by the sudden crush and the relentless wail of the alarm, my first instinct was to run. Very fast. And very far. The only one who knew the truth was Brandon’s grandmother, and she could hardly go around pointing fingers at anyone else’s kid.
It was my wife, a convert to Catholicism (perhaps made more upstanding by her Presbyterian upbringing), who rose to the occasion. Seizing my son by the hand, she marched into the church to take the blame and to find someone who could turn off the blasted alarm before the entire fire department arrived. As I cowered outside with my infant daughter, fittingly enough in the church’s new columbarium, she tracked down Someone in Authority and made my son apologize to her. Meanwhile, I started assigning blame. (Be assured I wasn’t pointing to myself.) “What kind of pea-brain,” I wondered, “would install a fire alarm four feet from the floor in a nursery of any kind?! And if you’re going to do that, don’t you at least encase the handle in glass?! Where was the stinking glass?!” Clearly, I should have complained about this disaster-in-waiting before. But here’s the truth: Up until the moment my son’s hand touched it, I had never even noticed the alarm was there.
Not long after that shameful Sunday morning, I happened to reread a passage from Matthew 13 : “This is why I speak to them in parables,” Jesus tells his disciples, “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” The words took on a whole new meaning. With the hindsight of 2,000 years, it’s easy enough in studying the Gospels to shake our heads in befuddlement at the legions of poor men and women who simply could not see what they most needed to see, the things that Jesus tried his best to put right in front of their noses. You read about one stunning miracle after another and think, “He was raising people from the dead, turning water into wine and curing the impossibly ill—and people still didn’t get it!”
But what you see depends on how and where you look, to borrow a phrase from the design guru Dan Buchner. Most people, including Jesus’ own Apostles, were not really ready to see the humble son of a lowly family as a savior. They looked at Jesus, and they saw what they were trained to see: an eccentric teacher, a rebellious self-promoter, an insidious threat to authority.
Jesus told them precisely how to look at him and the kingdom of heaven: with the eyes of a child. It turns out that’s not easy. If I could see with the eyes of a child, I would have noticed a red box with a large, inviting red plastic handle just a few feet up a wall, and I would have done something about it long before it was too late. It makes me wonder: What else am I not seeing? What miracles and mysteries do I look right past each day?
There is a sign hanging in our church nursery now that’s hard for even me to miss. “Fire alarm out of order. Call 911 in case of emergency.” It is a wicked reminder of just how much I have yet to see and hear and understand.