Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sunday School Teacher (Just Along for the Ride)

I have no idea what I'm doing. Or where I'm going. I'm just along for the ride.

Last fall, my then-seven-year-old Katie asked if we could go to church. My step-father had just passed away. He was Catholic, so at the funeral Katie got to witness some interesting rituals and hear some lovely prayers. She got to see how these traditions comforted the family.

She was lucky. Here's what I remember from the few times we went to church when I was growing up: It was either extremely boring or incredibly frightening. The religious traditions I witnessed as a kid were not comforting to me. When I was really young, I begged to go to the nursery so I could play with the kids. 

"You're too old, Becky!" Mom would whisper firmly. "Here, draw something on the bulletin."

When I was very young, the only thing I got out of our religious traditions was good practice for expressing myself through drawing cartoons on the church bulletin, and some really good naps.

Our attendance at church petered out when we moved from St. Joseph to Kansas City when I was almost seven. Mom still read the Bible pretty much daily. My parents would watch "The Hour of Power" on TV most Sunday mornings. I slept in. Occasionally Mom would read aloud from the Bible passages she thought were particularly lovely or inspirational. But she did the same with other works of literature, even Harlequin romances. I thought of these passages from the Bible as stories, metaphors, not the direct word of God, but a translation by some of God's believers. Sometimes, if I were feeling particularly angsty, you could replace the words "a translation" with "propaganda" because that's how I felt about it.

I went to Sunday school once when I was twelve. I didn't like it, so I never went back. I loved the teacher. It wasn't her fault. I even loved the Bible passage we studied. I remember it to this day:

"Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And love your neighbors as yourself." 

I didn't even have to google that passage. It's the only quote from the Bible I've ever memorized. I can't tell you what chapter it's in, and I might have a word or two mixed up or misremembered, but it's kind of amazing that it's stuck in my brain so long--thirty-one years! Wow. 

I know why it's stuck around for so long. I have a knack for remembering bad things that happened to me.

The Sunday School teacher had read us the passage from her Bible. She told us that Jesus had said it. I really dug Jesus. Some of what I knew about him came from my mom reading bits of the New Testament to me, but the majority of my interest in Jesus came from watching the TV miniseries, "Jesus of Nazareth" with my folks when I was six. You know, the religious movie that was directed by a gay man and stars a blue-eyed British guy as a Middle-eastern Jew? It remains to this day one of my favorite films of all time. 

So I was paying attention when the Sunday School teacher asked us to write the passage down on an index card, from memory, as best we could, because she told us that they were the words of Jesus, and I took that very seriously. Then, she asked us to go around the room and read ours to see who could remember the passage the best. I felt a little uneasy. It felt weirdly competitive. Would Jesus have asked his students to play this game? Isn't hoping you win basically the same as hoping the other side loses, and aren't we supposed to love our neighbors and not hope that they lose?

But what do I know? This is my first day of Sunday School. These other kids have been going to Sunday school since they were five, probably. They're going to think I'm stupid. Maybe even sinful. Maybe they'll find out that my mom and dad got divorced and then married each other and, like my Catholic friend once told me, that meant I am a child of sin. I didn't quite understand how or why, but I knew that meant I was going to burn in hell for all of eternity.

In second grade, I woke up one night screaming and crying from a horrible nightmare. When my mom rushed to my side, she asked what I was dreaming about. I told her what my Catholic friend had said about her and Daddy having been married to other people and divorced before they married and had me, and that meant I was a child of sin and I'd burn in hell.

Mom's eyeballs popped out of her head and she laughed, one big, "Ha!"

"No, honey. That's wrong. You're a good girl. She was wrong to tell you that. Jesus loves us, and God forgives."

Mom seemed very certain, so I trusted her. I believed in her. When she said I was a good girl and that I would not burn in hell, I believed her and I never questioned it again, even as I got older and behaved in ways some Christians might call sinful.

I felt that strength my mother gave me, that belief in my inner goodness, when it was my turn to read aloud in Sunday School. At first I was worried that I knew the least about the Bible than anyone else in the class. I looked down at my index card and read the passage without looking up. I was twelve at the time, so long ago, and yet I can picture it exactly in my mind. The black ink, tight and neat cursive writing. I had heard about something called "graphology". Something about how you can tell what a person is like by analyzing their handwriting. I wasn't terribly fond of my handwriting. It was sloppy. I wanted to write like my mom, with those neatly shaped letters and precise spacing. I would take letters Mom had written and unfold them next to a blank sheet of paper as I sat at the kitchen table and practiced copying her handwriting. Later, as a teenager, it came in handy when I wrote my own absence notes for school. But when I was a twelve year old girl, sitting there at our kitchen table, copying my mom's handwriting, it was because I believed it would make me more like her. Kind. Calm. Open-minded. Easy to talk to. Funny. A good storyteller. A good person.

As I sat in Sunday School looking at my handwriting on that index card, I remember thinking to myself, wow, it's really starting to look like Mom's. 

The Sunday School teacher interrupted my thoughts. "Becky, do you want to tell us what you think the passage is?"

I cleared my voice and read the words on my index card: 

"Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And love your neighbors as yourself." 

When I first looked up I saw three girls, perfectly blond, perfectly tan, perfectly skinny, perfectly dressed, all three starring at me like I was a freak.

I didn't blame them. I was a freak. I got this look a lot from my peers. I brushed it off and looked over at the teacher. Her face was beaming.

"Yes! Becky, you got it. Wow, God has given you an amazing gift for memorization. When you get a little older you could join our Bible Quiz team."

The Sunday School teacher's praise left me feeling bashful. I lowered my head and didn't look up until it was time to leave. I rushed out the door, the first one, and ran into the bathroom. I found an empty stall and locked myself inside. It was quiet. Not even the faucet was dripping. I felt safe.

Then the door bust open and I could hear three girls talking--the three girls. I heard what sounded like someone jumping up onto the counter and someone else tugging on the cloth that came out of the machine so you could pull on it and dry your hands on a clean part, but it was fun to keep tugging on it so the cloth would keep going round and round the contraption until your mom told you to stop it you're wasting the good clean cloth.

The three girls were talking and giggling and interrupting each other and giggling some more. We were in sixth grade. I acted the same way around my friends from the neighborhood. Maybe these three girls wouldn't be so bad once I get to know them better.

Then I heard one of them say the word "fuck" and the room became silent for a few seconds, and then exploded with noise from the giggling girls.

I sat on the toilet, completely still, trying not to be seen or heard. I couldn't figure out what they were talking about or why one of them used that bad word, but I was intrigued and scared at the same time. Couldn't God strike us dead for cussing in the church bathroom? I wondered if the church roof had lightning rods on it. Maybe the crucifix could double as one.

The girls finally caught their breath from their giggle fits. They began talking once more, about some girl, who sounded awful, they really didn't like her, who does she think she is, what a teacher's pet--

Oh! They're talking about me!

My heart fell. I was so disappointed. I thought I was going to meet some nice kids at church. Some good kids. Kids who might like to be my friend. Sure, I was a little scared they might think I'm stupid because I'd never read the Bible and this was my first day of Sunday School, ever. I had no idea they'd hate me for reciting a Bible verse. This felt so weird and so wrong.

"How was Sunday School?" Mom asked out in the hall, long after the three girls had left the bathroom and it was safe for me to leave too.

"I don't want to go back, Mom."

Luckily, I have an understanding Mom. She never pushed me to do anything I didn't want to do. Except shave my legs and take a bath and wear deodorant, but what can I say? Mom's a Jesus Freak but she's no hippie.

I never had to go back to Sunday School after that incident, but I did go back to church a time or two after that. One of the last times I ever set foot inside a church was when I was thirteen and my sister Jenny and her husband invited me to go to their new church. It was "non-denominational". They had a band, not a choir. They had drums, not bells. They danced in the aisles and praised the Lord and spoke in tongues and had the time of their life.

It scared the hell out of me. I was used to the boring mainline Protestant churches I had been dragged to as a kid. Talk about being filled with the Spirit and having a conversation with God and letting Jesus take over your body: all that stuff sounded completely nuts to me when I was thirteen. I blame my mom for not knowing that "The Exorcist" is a terrible movie to bring your three-year-old child to see for my phobia of spirits and angels and the supernatural. When people tell me they've got the Spirit inside of them, I can't help but hope it's not the demon that possessed Linda Blair.

After that, I had it with church. And by the time I was sixteen or so, the church had it with me. As my budding sexuality progressed so did my awareness of the rampant homophobia in our culture. Televangelists were shouting on the TV screen about how gay people deserve to get AIDS and die a horrible, painful death and burn for eternity in hell because they could not ignore their biological urges, but instead chose to turn away from God's laws.

My friends and I liked to hang out at this all-ages club known for being the place for gay kids to meet other gay kids from all over the city. I didn't consider myself gay, per se, just open. Bisexual, if pressed to slap a label on myself, but mostly I just felt attracted to people who were kind and funny and open-minded.

One night, as we walked toward the front door of the club, a group of people approached us, not with outstretched arms to hug us, but outstretched arms to hand us a pamphlet.

Repent now and you will be forgiven for your sins! 

My friends walked right past them and into the club. I stayed outside for a few minutes to talk to them.

I like to talk about religious views with people for some reason. I know, I'm weird. Even if I don't believe what someone else believes, I like to listen to them talk about why they believe it. I like stories. I don't apply the moral of all stories to my own life, but I get some helpful hints here and there.

Once some Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door and I welcomed them in and offered them some tea and we talked awhile about God and Jesus and what they believe until things got uncomfortably silent when I asked them why it's a sin for me to love my girlfriend and they got up and left.

I wasn't trying to "win" any arguments. I honestly wanted to know. My gay friends thought I was being brave and my conservative relatives thought I was being confrontational.

"How can I be confrontational when they're the ones who showed up at my door?"

So I have a history of talking to religious nuts, which is why I stayed out to chat with the homophobes outside our club that night. I ended up in tears, in the back of the car, crying to my friend that I just don't understand why people have to hate other people. Since I was a frequent consumer of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill wine, my crying to my friends in the backseat of my car was not an infrequent thing. But that night was way more intense because it wasn't the booze talking. It was God.

You see, I believe we all have God inside us. It's a radical idea, I know. Hitler had God inside him? Osama bin Laden? Dick Cheney? How can this be? I don't want to believe in a God that extends Its grace to the likes of Ayn Rand and me alike. That doesn't seem fair.

But it's the only way that makes sense to me. My husband Will explained it to me once when my brother Pat was dying. Will said, "You know how energy cannot be created nor destroyed? Well, we're all made up of the molecules that have been here since the beginning. That energy is inside us. All of us. All living things. All matter. So when we die, our energy transforms into something else, but it never ceases to exist."

See what I mean about how I'm attracted to open-minded people? What a wonderful explanation.

See, that comforts me. Any religion that can incorporate that line of thinking into its rituals and traditions and community-building activities is good enough for me.

I used to think of religious belief in all-or-nothing terms. I see now that people are much more complex than that. A person can love the community and comforts that religious life brings without believing we're going to burn in hell for questioning ancient texts. For example, the amazing John Green, an episcopalian, is collaborating on this mind-blowing series for Crash Course Big History. I can't recommend it highly enough. Here is part one to get you started:

So when Katie asked me if we could go to church, I said, "Sure, why not?" Let's just make sure it's a good experience for her, I thought. Let's introduce her to something that is the foundation of the Western World. It will be easier for her to pass Western Civ her freshman year of college if she learns about the Judeo-Christian traditions as a kid. Introducing Katie to a religious tradition, to me, was like taking her to the museum and introducing her to El Greco's "Penitent Magdalene" or taking her to the library and reading Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny. Experiences don't require strict belief.

I don't know if I believe in "God" in the traditional sense. I don't believe there is a white Anglo-Saxon protestant man with a long beard floating around up in the clouds looking down upon the earth with judgment. What I call "God" others might call "The Universe" or "The Eternal We" or "The Creator" or "The Dude", or what have you. To me, the word "God" is whatever you call that energy that connects us.

One night at work, I was telling a co-worker who had asked how Katie was doing that she wants to go to church. "So now I'm looking into it. I want to find something that's all about love and peace, not fire and brimstone's and all that."

"You guys should come to my church," Sarah said.

So we did. Sarah's one of the most decent people I've known. She's funny and sharp, easy-going, and kind. I trusted her recommendation.

It's funny how it all turned out. Here I thought I was bringing my kid to church that first Sunday last fall for her edification, for her interest, for her own good. I had no idea it would spark such a transformation in me. Me. The one who questions everything. The one who shuns tradition and embraces creative thought. I thought I was just along for the ride.

I always have the best epiphanies when I'm just along for the ride.

This is all a long, convoluted story--because aren't all transformations (has anyone ever been transformed while following a straight path?)--to explain to you how I ended up in church last Sunday of my own volition. Katie had a sleepover at her grandparent's, so she wasn't around for me to shuttle off to church. Why did I go without Katie if she was the reason we started going to church? What on earth possessed me to go to church all by myself?

Well, people. People on earth, that's who. It wasn't a spirit. An angel. The word of God in my ear. That would honestly just freak me out. I'm much happier communicating to God through my love for other people.

You see, somehow the church accepted me as a member last spring. They let me be the preschool story teller during Vacation Bible School in the summer. And this fall, I'm a Sunday School teacher.

You heard me. A Sunday-freaking-School teacher. Me. Someone who has one day of Sunday School under her belt. Me. Someone who, as I'm reading bible passages to these sweet three to five year olds, I'm hearing them for the first time myself. Heck, most of these kids know more about the Bible than I do.

But I know about love. I know about kindness. I know about caring for people. I know about that feeling that comes from inside me that I'm good, I'm loved, I have no worries, things happen for a reason and just jump in and ride along even if you don't understand the reasoning. It's less about solvable puzzles and right and wrong answers. It's more about loving each other, helping each other get through this struggle, celebrating each other through grace-filled transformation.

I believe that God is the inner energy inside us all. When we love each other, when we help each other, when we enjoy each other, we're tapping into it. I believe that some beautiful souls such as Jesus, and Gandhi, and John Lennon, and Richard Feynman, and Kurt Vonnegut, and my mom, and other saintly sinners and rocky prophets and human lightning rods throughout time are our teachers, our conductors, our molecular engineers and lovebugs all, reminding us we all come from one source.

Trouble is, nobody knows for certain what that source is. A Big Bang or a Supreme Being or a Supreme Being Creating a Big Bang? Or something else? The molecules that make up our brains feel vaguely aware of something, or even nothing, but always with a twinge of uncertainty because they are the same molecules that have been around since the beginning.

So, yeah, I'm a Sunday School teacher now. I have no idea what I'm doing. Or where I'm going. I'm just along for the ride. It's wild and amazing. The kids make great guides.