Welcoming children is a mission and a call. Jesus modeled it for us when he threw his arms open wide and gathered up an armload of sweet, giggly, precious children. As a young college student (who felt called to be a summer missionary and lead Vacation Bible School for the rest of my life), I elaborated on this scene with my mind’s eye. I saw Jesus wrapping strong arms around children whose parents had dressed them in their Easter Sunday best and politely taken them to see Jesus, much like we line up in the mall to catch a glimpse of Santa with our tiny tots.

Forgive me for my inexperience. Not only did I miss the reality of the very Jewish context in which Jesus taught, I missed the essence of the real life stuff that happens when we fling the doors open wide and welcome real life children (and by the way, adults) into the embrace and lap of God.

When we lay out the welcome mat, we are saying EVERYONE IS WELCOME, and guess what, everyone is going to come. And then, the real work begins.  Real life children come with runny noses, skinned knees, scuffed shoes, and sometimes no shoes!  Real life children come with enough to eat, with empty tummies, with all that they need and with nothing at all. Real life children come with cancer diagnoses, learning disabilities, and medical needs that stagger the minds of the most brilliant physicians. Real life children come with two parents, with one parent, and with no parents.  The thing is when we throw wide our arms, like the arms of God, REAL LIFE CHILDREN COME!

So, here’s the question, when real life children (and their adults) come, what in the world are we going to do with them? What will we do when your child with autism runs from the children’s Sunday School wing?  What will we do when my child with sensory integration issues hides under the handbell table during Sunday morning worship to shield himself from the lights and sounds that threaten to overwhelm his system? What will we do when my child with a mood disorder explodes and scares your child sitting beside her half to death? What will we do when your ten-year-old has a melt-down reminiscent of a two-year-old temper tantrum, and my child laughs? What will we do when a child visiting our church for the first time calls the medically fragile child raised in our midst a scary monster? What are we going to do when your child loses it and hits my child? What will we do when the cold my child doesn’t even notice threatens your child’s fragile immune system?

These are the real life issues involved in answering the powerful call, “Let the little children come to me.”  I hope we won’t be afraid to talk about them with each other. When we gather up our own real life children (with whatever gifts and challenges they bring) and carry them tenderly into the arms of God through the church . . . we are reaching out to Jesus for a blessing. You and I both come hoping that Jesus will touch the little ones we carry and that their lives will be marked forever by this embrace.

So, now, I imagine the strong arms of Jesus, the carpenter’s son, reaching to embrace your child and mine . . . arms broad enough to handle the load that loving all of God’s children can bring and gentle enough to rock the most fragile of our children through the day and through the night. So, let the children come and let the conversation begin: What will we do with them?

Stacey Buford is an ordained Baptist minister, having worked extensively in pastoral care, hospital chaplaincy and  building families through adoption/foster care. She lives and works in Duluth, Georgia, where she and husband, Jon, are raising three amazing children.