In church this week, the program was provided by the Primary, making it my favorite week of the year. I adore the Primary kids. For those of you not familiar with Mormonism, Primary means the organization that teaches little kids, ages 3-12. So every six months, they take over Sacrament meeting. The kids sing lots of songs, and then, by class, they stand up and recite some churchy thing they’ve memorized.
Of course, they’re little kids. And that’s what makes this so fantastic. The ‘theme’ this week was “I am a Child of God,” which is both a terrific Primary song plus an awesome basis for a theology. And the Primary is about teaching kids really basic gospel principles, which then get theatrically performed for everyone in Church.
But they’re kids. So the ‘message’ that is in fact conveyed is more about the triumph of childish exuberant anarchy over indoctrination. It’s actually sort of the entire plan of salvation in microcosm. We’re here on earth, expected to perform. But we’re bored, we’re excited, we’re scared, we have stage-fright, we don’t actually know the songs all that well. Well-meaning grown-ups keep whispering in our ear, but we’d rather pull our dresses up over our heads (if female), or whap the kid next to us with our ties (if male), or just generally melt-down altogether. And yet, somehow it sort of all does work out, kind of.
It’s also about how it takes a village to raise a child. And yes, I remember when Hillary Clinton wrote her book, It Takes a Village and how many Utah and Mormon conservatives were outraged by it. “Nanny state!” “It takes a family, it takes parents!” But in fact, nobody practices the idea of village-child-raising more than Mormons do. It’s amazing to me, to see all those wonderful children up there, on the podium, and their dedicated teachers, people who genuinely care about them. A few years ago, my wife taught in the Nursery. Little tiny kids, ages 18 months to 3 years. Now those same tiny kids are 8 and 9; they were in the Primary program. And we still care about them. We still get misty-eyed, watching them.
My two daughters, especially, were cared for in the Young Women’s program (ages 12-18). The women who ran that program were awesome; smart, organized, together, confident. And good, you know, with the goodness of true compassion. Because LDS women don’t hold the Priesthood, people outside our community think of them as oppressed. I’m not going to express an opinion on that subject here. But the LDS women I know are amazing, and I could not possibly have asked for better role models for my daughters.
So, first up in the Primary program were the Sunbeams–three year olds. And their teacher is a young woman who is close friends with my youngest daughter. I thought she did a fantastic job, staying calm and kind. Her first kid got up, a little girl, got up to the mic and looked at that scary scary crowd and that was it. She lost it. Next kid, a boy, got up and gave the audience a huge grin. And grinned. And grinned. His teacher kept whispering his line in his ear; he just kept on grinning. He then turned to her–we later learned that what he said was ‘I don’t want to do this.’ And that was that. No one in that class actually said his/her line, but it didn’t matter; the teacher’s endless patient love was the real lesson.
The younger kids generally provided the unintentional comedy. One kid said, “I can pee my carrot. I try my best every day.” That can’t have been his actual line, but it’s what both my wife and I (and other ward friends) heard, clear as a bell. Another kid looked at the congregation and started off by saying, “Jesus. . . .” He then said “Nah”, looking at his teacher for confirmation. Encouraged, he continued skeptically with “performed many miracles.” He was followed by the kid who said, confidently, “Jesus was wreck-erected.”
One terribly tragic and weepy little girl said, with a face contorted with sadness, “I love that I . . . can be with my family forever.” I know that she was probably just dealing with stage-fright, but it did seem like the prospect of eternity with her family was what was troubling her so. I loved the kid who went “I can follow Jesus’ example by being kind to my. . . ” and then the rest of it was lost, as he couldn’t get off the riser fast enough. A few programs ago, we were entertained by the kid who said confidently “in this life, we can be weak, or we can be violent.” (Teacher whispers in his ear). “Valiant.” Maybe he, too, can pee his carrots.
There’s one kid in our neighborhood (which also means ‘our ward,’ since we live in Provo), who I call the Lemonade Stand Kid. He’s a tremendous little entrepreneur, from whom I purchased many many glasses of warm lemonade all this past summer, a dollar a pop. (The listed price was 25 cents, but he did not provide, and did not seem to understand the concept of, change). He looks like Ralphie in The Christmas Story movie; blonde hair, glasses. Anyway, the Lemonade Stand Kid stood up there confidently, began his line, lost his place, started all over, lost his place again, started again, and finished with a flourish, then waved delightedly at his Mom. I love that kid.
And of course, the kids all had to speak into the mic. And some got their faces right up into the mic, so when they spoke, it startled us out of our chairs. And others were inaudible. And others waved their faces in front of the mic, so you basically heard every fourth word, very loudly, and the rest hardly at all.
Of course, the memorized bits were interspersed with music, all of it sung with tremendous enthusiasm, and commendable volume. One little girl (one of my wife’s former Nursery kids) was particularly into the music; she sang like a miniature Kristen Chenowith on Broadway, big beaming smile on her face, almost entirely in tune. The Primary choristers deserve every commendation possible–whatever they’re paying those people, it’s nowhere near enough. (Kidding: we’re Mormons, nobody gets paid a dime).
Then came a moment of transcendence. One of the older girls (probably a twelve-year-old), gave a short talk. She told about a time when she didn’t particularly want to work at the school library, where she was an intern, because she was really tired, but then prayed about it, and felt she should go after all, and found an entire shelf of books that had been mis-shelved, a problem she then fixed without having to bother a librarian. It was so sweet and earnest and lovely. And I could tell that this is a little girl who loves books as much as I do (and did, at her age), someone for whom a mis-shelved book is a very serious problem indeed, well worth God’s personal attention, through her. I teared up, I’m totally not kidding. It was such a beautiful, honest talk.
And then, the closing song, a great Jan Perry song, A Child’s Prayer. And it’s a complicated song, really, for Primary kids, with two competing themes in counter-point. And the kids launched into it with more energy than skill. But in that glorious cacophany, I could hear, faintly, the musicality they were striving for, just as through the dropped lines and actor meltdowns, I could sense the thoughtful articulation of a Plan, with a Father, and know that I too am a Son. Of God.
And then a closing prayer, and the teachers, exhausted after a solid hour of kid-wrangling, got to take their hyped-up minions back to the Primary classrooms, and spend the next two hours back at it, teaching kids gospel fundamentals, how God loves us and also how standing up in front of a crowd and speaking is good for you, builds confidence and prepares you for a mission. For two more hours, the Village continued to help raise the Village children. Good friends, being there, helping. Best Sunday of the year.