The Lord of all creation, has chosen to reveal Himself to us slowly, piece by piece. He started by revealing himself through his very creation, then his power, his Word, his law, his temple and tools for religious worship, and the story of his people, getting it right (and getting it wrong) through history. He has revealed Himself through his Spirit and finally through his person as Jesus.
Depending on your perspective, the story ends or it begins, when we are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” And he added, “These are true words that come from God.” Revelation 19:9
This is the greatest invitation ever offered to any man or woman. To eat at the Lord’s table is mind blowing, really, because it is an invitation to royal immortality and a place at the Lord's table for eternity. With this in mind, is it ever too early to start teaching table manners?
I say this somewhat in jest because so very few people take me seriously when I talk about teaching toddlers table manners in the church nursery. But the profound spiritual truths that God himself set out to teach mankind started with a holy place, a table and 12 loaves of flat bread.
Place the bread before the Lord on the pure gold table, and arrange the loaves in two stacks, with six loaves in each stack. Leviticus 24:6
The ancient Israelites must have been completely baffled about the meaning of the table and the bread. But it was their obedience that became our understanding. It is the same with our children. Our obedience will become their understanding. I can’t think of anything more powerful as a teaching tool than imitating God’s first tools for teaching Truth to our children: a table and some bread.
I do not suggest teaching the complex spiritual algebra that exists in church doctrine regarding the elements of the bread and the wine, but rather that we keep it simple, by letting our children know at the earliest possible age that they have a friend, a savior, a king and a future with Jesus around his table. This can be done quite effectively in a way they can understand with a tea party. Imagine many small chairs around a long, low table with plastic dishes and a lot of napkins. This spirit filled snack time takes a lot of energy, emoting, patience and love. Oh yes, and help… One adult can manage 10-15 toddlers with 3-5 trained, helpful 10-15 year olds.
Table manners also teach without words one of the most profound early childhood lessons and that is the fruit of the spirit called self control. Imagine being able to influence a child's first experience outside of the family with "others" in a way that teaches sharing and self control. Consider the Stanford Marshmallow Test. In short, children who had developed a sense of self control at an early age were much more successful and happy later in life. If there were a single non verbal teaching that could make a lifetime of difference in a child, and it could be taught easily at a table during snake time in a church nursery, this would be it, self control.
When setting up the table, let your imagination take over. Go all out to make it beautiful and get into the spirit of serving these precious children.
Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves. Luke 22:27
Pray and or sing over the food. Keep it very simple. A thank you song repeating the words thank you to any tune is sufficient. Here is one we like:
Thank you Lord for giving us food. Thank you Lord for giving us food. Thank you Lord for giving us food, right where we are. Hallelujah praise the Lord. Hallelujah praise the Lord. Hallelujah praise the Lord, Amen.
Have the children participate or, at least, quietly waiting to be served food after the prayer of thanks. Start to share the food from a common plate or several common serving plates in the center of the table. When the children see that there is an abundance on the table, it is easier for them to share.
We use goldfish and animal crackers and cut slices of apples. Be diligent to enforce the "no toys at the table" rule. Be diligent to keep little ones in their seats and hands only on their plates. Don’t force them! Just keep redirecting them, talking to them, telling them what to do. If they truly do not want to sit, direct them to the play area. Do not let them play at the table or bring food with them to the play area! Be kind but don’t relent. Be firm! The table is for eating and talking and sharing books about Jesus. Teach manners, "eat only off your own plate and share with others." Remember, they have to see that there is an abundance of crackers in the community plate for them to more easily engage in sharing. Keep the community plate full by assigning that task to one of your helpers.
Let the children experiment with pouring their own water. Half of the time they will not spill, but the other half they will fully make a mess. Don’t make a big deal about it. Use small cups. Have fun cleaning up the mess with them. You can assign that task to another one of your helpers. You can teach some of the little children to get the paper towels to clean up the mess themselves. Of course when you see that making a spill has become a game, cut them off. No more self-watering privileges. Enjoy! This is snack time and what a profound learning time. You have their full attention. Once the little kids each have a small cup of water and some crackers in front of them, have someone start reading aloud a big book as they share the pictures.
There will be those moments when it all comes together and the children all want to see the pictures and they are asking questions and pouring water and sharing food. You will hear or feel a small joyful voice…”Well done, good and faithful servant.” You will have those other moments, as well, but, with practice, patience and persistence, the children all learn sharing, self control and pouring water and they learn what not to do. When you have new students, the other children start to teach them. This program is worth all the energy it takes to get it rolling in any nursery.
You may, at a separate time or at snack time, call them for The Lord’s Table. Now, enjoy the fruit of your labor and watch how they share the Bread from Heaven! Use a real loaf of fresh, uncut bread that the children can break off and share. (They love this part!) Laugh, Sing, Love... with talking and with reading books aloud and sharing God’s Words. Talk about Jesus and explain over and over again how He is the Bread from Heaven and how we will sit in Heaven and share this bread with Him at His table!
The Lords Supper is a deep spiritual subject. It took His disciples a lifetime to understand the depths of what Jesus shared at the last supper. We don’t suggest that we try to teach the details to 2 year olds, but this command is easy to follow and act out. Learning and revelation often come by doing. It is never too soon to start the habit of recognizing Jesus as the Bread from Heaven and recognizing the invitation He has given us to join Him at His table in Heaven. It can be as easy as, “when we eat Him as the Bread from Heaven we learn to share and become kind like Him.”
How much will a 2 year old pick up? We will all be surprised when we find out the answer to that question in Heaven. Train up children when they are young and when they are old, they will not depart from that training. (Proverbs 22:6) If all they pick up is the good habit of sharing bread with each other and that Jesus is good, it is worth every minute of the exercise. The seed is good and when it is shared with the very young, it is planted deep and in good soil. -David Gerhard
How can nursery age children discern the difference between sharing and generosity? Sharing is the joint use of a resource or space and it is a basic component of human interaction, responsible for strengthening social ties and encouraging a person’s membership within a group. In it’s broad interpretation, it is associated with giving, but in it’s narrow sense, it refers to joint or alternating use of an inherently finite good. Generosity, on the other hand, is the habit of giving without expecting anything in return. It can involve offering time, assets (toys or food) or talents to aid someone in need.
Picture, if you will the snack table in our church nursery. The class is comprised of individual children from 1-4 years of age. The children assemble in cute little chairs around a table set with colorful plastic cups and saucers from toy store tea sets. Pitchers contain drinking water. The children anxiously await the distribution of cheesy fish crackers and animal crackers and the celebration of the Lord’s table begins with a prayer. All goes well as everyone has enough snacks to begin with and, as the fish begin to disappear, some of the children request more crackers. Discontent mounts if the older children who serve as nursery aids are slow and they do not respond quickly enough. It is only moments before minor attempts at thievery crop in, resulting in the mayhem of grabbing, crying or crawling on the table. Attempts to teach the children to share their food are unsuccessful. Chaos reigns. That is, until…
We began to experiment with having the water available at all times during the nursery service. The children gravitated toward the tea sets and they would amuse themselves with pouring (and spilling) an unlimited amount of resources. There was plenty of water for everyone. We set out the crackers of both kinds in large communal bowls in the center of the table from which to refill their plates. Unlimited amounts of resources.
We were not particularly aware of the cultural change that this was inducing until one day, as we picked up some of the bread crumbs off the floor, we noticed something peculiar. One of the 3 year olds was taking a cracker from his plate and putting it onto the plate of another younger, more recently enrolled student. The younger boy immediately gave it back. The older student tried again and again. Finally the new boy got it! He received the gift with pleasure. It became clear that the concept of generosity was being communicated.
Could it be that, until we truly experience that the Lord has unlimited resources for each one of us, we cannot really be generous with our time, our finances or our food. These things are natural resources and we naturally think of them as finite, but the greater resources that He pours into us each day have no end of supply. Such fruits as love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, or self control are inexhaustible. If we do not try to share them communally, but give of them freely, we are rich indeed.
The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it. Proverbs 10:22 KJV
The Lord's Table
The Subtle Difference Between Sharing and Generosity