Erin

Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Belonging

In Erin on February 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

When I was a teenager, I–like many people, I imagine–wasn’t a big fan of apologizing, particularly to the people closest to me.   I wanted to “be myself” and “speak my mind,” and all the other cliché-ridden things that I learned from Teen magazine and MTV.  At least, I thought I wanted those things.  I also, somewhat paradoxically–and again, like virtually everyone who has ever been to junior high or high school–desperately wanted to be liked, to be interesting, to be cool, to be quirky-yet-fascinating…and, through a magical twist, to be really, really good.  At everything.

This overwhelming desire to be someone who was worth knowing, envying, loving, rather geekily played itself out in some typical “Type A” ways: with extra-curricular activities and honor-roll grades, and also in a way somewhat less typical: an obsessive involvement with our church’s Youth group.  I (and for a time, Sharon as well) was regularly in church 3 times a week, attending Sunday School, choir, handbells, and drama ministry group in addition to worship services.   I liked church–in large part because all of my friends were there–but I also really, really liked doing The Right Thing.  Mainly because when you did The Right Thing, people told you how Good you were…or, at minimum, didn’t point out all the ways you messed up.  So I plugged along, spending most of my non-homework-filled free hours at church or with people from church, all the while trying to maintain an “interesting” streak by rebelling in inconsequential ways–most of which involved professing to be a Democrat (horrors!) and refusing to wear khakis, or anything else that might be procured at The Gap.

What’s really amusing, in retrospect, is how effective this was.  I was usually awash in approval from adults who admired my academic and Bible-related diligence, while simultaneously being treated–at least at church, where things were decidedly capital-V Vanilla–as quirky and daring…and maybe just this side of dangerous.

But there were moments in which things broke down, when I was not the unique and valuable snowflake I had hoped to be, and those are the times that interest me now, because they were also times in which apologies featured prominently, when “sorry”–or some approximation thereof–had to be dragged out and brandished like some sort of self-respect-preserving weapon.

Around the time that I turned 14, things started to feel a bit different in the Youth group: I noticed that a particular group of kids, including my friend Alex and the boy that both of us had recurring crushes on (I’ll call him Jeff), were becoming something of a clique.  They had private jokes and seemed to have spent significant time with one another outside of church–and, worst of all, from my perspective, Jeff began hanging around Alex, asking her advice on serious Churchy questions and suggesting that they pray together, alone.  Only a year prior, Jeff had gone “with” me to the 8th-grade dance out of pity–he was significantly more popular than I was in our public school, but when I asked him, I think his church-related sense of obligation was too much to ignore.  By now, I had transferred my interest to a different boy, but the idea that Alex was getting Jeff’s attention, and that both of them were involved in some kind of exclusive group of which I was not a part was almost too much for my insatiable, approval-requiring teenage brain.  I’m sure you can guess how subtle my attempts to rectify the situation were.

“Alex, what are you guys all doing on Saturdays, anyway?” I whined one day, after realizing that, yes, closed gatherings were being regularly held.

“We have a special Bible Study with Sam,” she said, “at his house.”  Sam was one of the Youth leaders, a gawky, awkward middle-aged engineer who drove the world’s oldest minivan.  He seemed to care deeply about us, but showed it in odd ways, like charging interest on loans of a dollar to “teach us a lesson” about…either being prepared or capitalism.  It was never totally clear to me which.  I thought about all of this as Alex told me about the Bible Study, which involved both matching workbooks and rotating lunch-duties.

“Can I come?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I think it might just be us.”

Around that time, Jeff showed up, coming around the corner from the boys’ Sunday School room.  He put his arm around Alex, playfully.

“I want to come to your Bible Study!” I blurted.

Jeff just smiled his regular, cocky half-smile and explained, “It’s already started.  You can’t start coming now.”

“But how did you even know about it?  I never heard about it!”  I was getting desperate.

“Sam asked us to be in it,” he said, his arm still around Alex’s neck, “He might ask you next time.  If he didn’t ask you now, he probably thinks you’re not ready.”

I felt the words fall on me.  Jeff left to find his friends, and I looked at Alex, jealous and embarrassed.  I remembered the time I had just barely stopped myself from saying “fuck” in an argument just outside the Youth room–who else had heard me?  I looked at my blue nail polish and ill-fitting  baggy pants.  I remembered, a few months before, declaring to Sam–with Sharon–that we would like to be known, henceforth, as “Abrasive Liberal Feminist Democrats.”  (I swear I am not making that up.)

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he’d said.

For some reason, at the time, such a response was totally unexpected to me.  I knew that most people in the church were conservative–indeed, that most people in our city were (I vividly recall, for example, being the only kid in elementary school who rooted for Dukakis in the ’88 election)–but usually, my politically rebellious declarations were met with some mixture of amusement and indifference.  Sam seemed genuinely horrified and disappointed…a fact which I had, in true ALFD fashion, brushed off before running off giggling with Sharon about “protests” we would stage at the next church picnic.

Until now.  Now, Sam’s disapproval meant something more than that I would owe him an extra ten cents on the dollar.  There was a group that was both Good and Cool, and I was Not Invited.  I have the sense, now, that my being excluded from the Bible Study had less to do with my espoused political views (such as they were) than with my goofy, teenage need to broadcast them–like my clothes–as a marker of my difference.  It was church, after all, and Good kids, especially Good Girls, might be different, but they were above all to be respectful and humble and outspoken only about how great Jesus was.

I had learned that lesson, in a way, on my first-ever Sunday in Youth group.  I was in 6th grade, an 11-year-old whose sheltered existence had left her  ill-prepared for interacting with teenagers.  That day, the Youth Minister entered the gathering carrying what he said was a letter he had received from a member of the congregation expressing concern over the behavior of some of the church’s Youth.

“I’ve blacked out the name,” he said, raising the letter aloft so that we could all see it, “but I want to read part of it to you.”  The letter-writer, he explained, had witnessed some teenagers engaging in several forbidden activities while outside the mall.  “Not only were they all smoking,” he read, as my heard began to pound, “not only were they all swearing, but one of the girls – who was wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen – was from our Youth group.”

I was descending into panic.  Is this what happened in Youth group?  The older kids were less horrified, but more eager to exonerate themselves: “It was totally you, Shelly!” one yelled.  Shelly, half-laughing and half-aghast exclaimed that it was not, and and shouting match ensued amongst the girls, who were each desperately attempting to out the others as shameless sluts.  Finally, one of the older girls who Knew All the Answers raised her voice to exclaim over all of them, “Y’all, it’s not important who did it; what’s important is what we’re going to do about it.”  The Youth Minister nodded approvingly.

And then he confessed to having made the whole thing up.  The letter from the congregant was a fake, designed apparently for the dual purposes of slut-shaming and teaching a lesson about how Good Girls were to behave publicly–whether that public were Sunday School or outside the Mall.  Be demure, be respectful, be sensible, and for Chrissakes, cover up.

Of course, parts of that message had failed to stick with me, and thus, my 14-year-old self was on the outside peering in, wanting to belong while at the same time struggling to have my “independence” recognized and valued.  I began to try and prove my Christian devotion to everyone at church (and probably to myself): I volunteered to go on mission trips, I wrote Jesus-poems, I bought t-shirts with Jesus-related slogans.  And, somewhat counter-intuitively, I also started hanging out with some of the “freaks” at school.

How I got involved with them is another story entirely, but my short-lived Lindsay Weir-esque time only encouraged my fantasy of being both Cool and Good–a blue-haired Bible-thumper who loudly professed her love of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Youth group.  The summer after our Freshman year of high school, I took the opportunity of a Youth camp trip to show off my (poseur-rific) “freak”-ness by wearing a fantastic outfit-and-hairstyle that is best expressed not in words, but in this photo:

(And yes, I cut it up to make it look more awesome before hanging it on my wall.)  Before heading to church camp, we were on our way to a wholesome, fun-filled day at Six Flags over Georgia, followed by a laser show at Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta.  Needless to say, my outfit was a fantastic success–until the log flume ride.  In a departure from my general baggy-pants style, the shorts I’d worn that day were some of my mom’s old cutoffs from the 70s (they were vintage, you guys, which meant that they had to be cool), which were tight and a bit mid-drift-exposing.  After the log-flume soaking, I was getting more than a little uncomfortable, as both my tight stripy top and the vintage cutoffs chafed against my skin.  Ever the sensible one, Sharon suggested that I change out of my mall top and into the sweet Led Zeppelin t-shirt that I’d bought earlier that day for my “freak” boyfriend (who shall, for the moment, remain nameless).  This wasn’t a perfect solution–I still had to wear the cutoffs, after all–but it made sense.  So, before long, I was sporting a much-too-big black ZoSo t-shirt with my braids, and ready to watch some freaking lasers already.

Stone Mountain was crowded, as it was apparently the place to bring Youth groups on their way to various church camps.  It was also, unfortunately, ridiculously boring, and by the time it was time to load up and leave, I was hot and tired and cranky.  As we were walking back to the bus, Jeff appeared over my shoulder.

“Justin is here,” he said.  Justin was a friend of his from our hometown, who I had “gone out with” for a total of 3 days in 8th grade.  “You should say hi to him.”

I didn’t really have much of a desire to say hi, but I did, and Justin gave me a hug.  We chatted for a moment and then left to rejoin our respective Youth groups.  As we were walking back, Jeff said to me, “see, he was nice to you.  You didn’t have to worry, he’s a nice guy.”

I tried to interrupt an explain that I wasn’t worried; I just didn’t give a shit, when Jeff cut me off.

“Besides,” he said, “I had already prepared him.  I said, ‘Look man, Erin’s here, but she looks like a freak today.  She doesn’t normally look this weird, though, I promise.’  And he was cool with it.”

And with that, he slipped away and caught up with his friends.  I looked down at myself, was simultaneously embarrassed and enraged.  My shirt was enormous, and my braids had gotten frizzy.  But who the fuck was he, to “prepare” someone for my appearance?  And what the hell did I care about what some dude I held hands with in the hallway when I was 13 thought of me, anyway?  I sulked on the bus and talked to no one.

Later that week, when we had finally been at church camp for a few days, I showed up to the evening worship service to find our Youth group’s resident odd girl, Dawn (who Sharon mentioned in her last post), wearing my clothes.  I had been recruited to room with her–maybe because I was a little odd myself, or maybe because I’d made such a show of being Good over the last few months–and she had borrowed my favorite vintage Mickey Mouse t-shirt, jeans, and Airwalks.  Without asking.  I was livid, in that incomparable teenage way that shrieks (if only internally) those are mine, and people will think that you had them first!

I wish I’d had enough self-awareness then to realize that Dawn, too, only wanted to belong.  I wish I’d realized that neither she nor I needed to prove anything to anyone, least of all a group of judgey church kids.  But that’s what you do when you’re a teenager, I suppose…at least, that’s what we did, or tried, desperately, to do between the moments of self-preserving apology.

After the week at church camp was over, I never got to give the Led Zeppelin t-shirt to my boyfriend, who broke up with me to head to greener–and probably, less Vanilla–pastures.  I still remember what Jeff asked me after he found out:

“So, are you going to stop dressing like a freak now?”

And a peacock too!

In Sharon on October 16, 2009 at 10:26 am

I have seen the video, my friends.  We don’t get all that many opportunities in life to confirm our memories with hard proof, but in this particular case I have a VHS tape full of proof, and the main point I want to make, based on this footage, is that our elementary school was often PROFOUNDLY RIDICULOUS.

I am referring to a tape my grandfather must have made of our 2nd/3rd grade Christmas musical.  I’m sure all of you were in Christmas  plays at one time or another.  In the South they’re unavoidable, even if you attend a supposedly non-sectarian public school.  (My friend Sarah, who is Jewish, has a great story about the Christmas-Around-the-World pageant she was required to perform in during 1st grade.  The teacher was going around assigning countries for each student to represent.  When it was Sarah’s turn, she tried to protest, telling the teacher, “but I’m Jewish!”  The teacher said, “That’s perfect, Sarah!  Then you can be Christmas in Israel!”)  Everyone did a Christmas play.  I’m sure most of the ones we did had the basic Jesus-Mary-Joseph theme, with a backup cast of wise men, shepherds, and angels.  But this one year, our music teacher decided to put on Angels and Lambs, Ladybugs and Fireflies – a performance that in the end required a literal ton of fabric, sparkles, and fake feathers.

Angels and Lambs is actually a fairly popular children’s Christmas musical written by a man named Fred Bock.  I mention Mr. Bock because when I lived in California, I was often confronted with people who believed that intense religiosity was the strict provenance of the deep South.  What I learned from living in both places is that each has its own brand of religion.  The difference is that California’s is more televangelism than ours.  SoCal is home to Mr. Bock (who was music minister for the Hollywood Presbyterian Church for enormous numbers of years) as well as the weird weird weird world of the Crystal Cathedral – whose yearly Christmas play completely outdoes anyone else’s standards of absurdity.  (Their angels actually “fly” in from the super-high vaulted ceilings using Hollywood-type props – and with looks of sheer fright on their faces.  Their stage has a hidden fountain, and they use real animals during production – including a couple of camels.)

The basic plot of Bock’s work is that a population of wild creatures – bugs, birds, lambs, and for some reason a peacock –  are present during the shepherds’ conversation about the birth of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  They (meaning the creatures) then have a discussion about whether they should go to the birth too.  They eventually decide that as creatures of the air and field they can spread the good news about Jesus’ birth, and that they will head to Bethlehem, telling everyone they meet along the way.

What I remember most about this play is the costumes.  We had a huge contingent of kids spreading across all classes of two grades, and the stage was filled with little ones dressed as creatures of the earth and sky.  Now, if this had been a public school production, the costumes would likely have been fairly simple – affordable.  But we were not a public school, and most of our student body had money coming out of their ears and other orifices.  So our teacher (whom I actually remember liking) decided she would follow the VERY PRECISE instructions on costume-construction that come from the booklet accompanying the play.  (This play is available for purchase through Amazon, by the way.  It comes with sheet music, a play booklet, and detailed costume and set designs, should any of you want to put on your own production.)  Erin and I had to go to a professional seamstress to have our butterfly wings sewn onto our little black leotards.

So the first thing that struck me as my mom and I watched this old home movie were the crazy costumes.  The back of the stage was lined with birds of all types – eagles, parrots, flamingos, and one poor kid sporting a peacock’s outspread feathers made from cardboard and taking up 3/4 of rear-center stage.  Whenever he walked to the microphone at the front of the stage to deliver his one line, he had to move sideways to keep from hitting anyone.

Secondly, I really was very tall.  I am by far the biggest butterfly.  Also, somehow in a cast of probably 80 kids Erin and I still managed to get placed right next to each other on stage.  We’re both butterflies and we’re standing next to each other the entire time, even though I’m on the back row with the tall kids and all you can see is the top of Erin’s head.  I am always amazed at how much time we were able to spend together.  In most cases good friends get separated during events like this, mostly because teachers are afraid they’ll talk and cause a ruckus.  I guess our reputation as Goody-Two-Shoes prevented this.  In fact, I am SUCH a Goody-Two-Shoe that I get cast as the butterfly who eventually argues that yes, all creatures great and small SHOULD go to the birth of Jesus.  This seems on par with my childhood go-with-the-flow philosophy.   (I was also the angel Gabriel – wrongly gendered – in numerous Christmas productions.  My niche in these plays seems to be as the figure of ultimate Good.  Interesting.  I think maybe it’s because I had a pretty loud, clear voice for a kid.  If there’s one line you want people to hear, it’s the line about how “God has sent his baby son to be a savior for everyone!”)

Thirdly, I remembered something about the powerful politics of school plays.  We’ve already mentioned that Melissa was part of our school’s elite.  And Erin mentioned a few posts back that Melissa’s mother was very young and pretty.  But she was also a member of one of the local Baton Rouge theater troupes.  In Melissa’s words, she was an “actress” – the sort of person who was always talking about doing “legitimate theater”.  And it’s true that Miss Annie* always seemed to have costumes and props lying around the house when we visited.  Once Miss Annie and her Junior League friends decided to throw an elaborate tea party with a 1920’s theme for one of Melissa’s younger sisters.  Melissa and Erin and I were somehow recruited to serve tea at the party, and Miss Annie dressed all of us up in authentic Roaring 20’s garb.  I have no idea why this happened.

At any rate, Melissa constantly bragged about her mother’s theatric connections.  And somehow, some way, she always managed to get appointed as the “star” of any school play.  During Angles and Lambs, she played Mary, one of the only two actual human characters and the ONLY one who got to sit down through the entire production, while the rest of us had to stand for hours during rehearsals, trying not to twitch or fidget.

I was complaining to my mom about this as we watched the video.  And then she reminded me of something I had completely forgotten.

(Beware: cheesy moralistic ending fast approaching…) At the end of the performance that night, I was standing around getting hugs and congratulations from my parents and grandparents, who all attended our one-night show.  (My dad even attended despite his bronchitis.  You can hear him coughing during the video.)  Melissa walked over to us and started talking to my parents, shaking hands with my grandparents, ever the big adult girl.  Then, still in complete Mary regalia, she said, “Can you drive me home?”

My mom was puzzled.  “Melissa, aren’t your parents here?”

No.  They were not there.  My mom continued questioning her for a few minutes, just to make sure she had full grasp of the situation.  “So your mom told you to just grab a ride with someone else?”  She had.

So Melissa rode home with us that night.  And my mom reports that, even in the car, she was still the consummate actress.  She delivered an extensive monologue on the pains of working with Mike, the very sweet boy who had been her Joseph.  He was NOT an adequate Joseph, and he had NOT listened to Melissa’s various directives.  My mom says that this really was a monologue – that Melissa was already more grown up than the rest of us, and that she knew how to work an audience.  She was self-aware in a way that most of us wouldn’t be until years later, when we started grasping the border between fantasy and reality.  Melissa was a girl who always knew EXACTLY what she was doing.

So, as cheesy as this is, it’s nice to realize that even though I hated her star power at the time, my whole family was at that play.  Hers left her to find a ride, even though she had a solo and was ostensibly the star.  I guess they needed to sit around and try on short robes again, or something else equally important.

*again, not her real name.  But it should be noted here that we did refer to all mothers by their first names, with a “Miss” prefix.  This is just what you do in the South.  Only teachers were known by their last names.  And although I am now a full fledged adult in my late twenties, if I ran into Erin’s mom on the street I would probably still use her name with “Miss.”  I just can’t do it any other way.

I Can Make Anything True

In Sharon on September 26, 2009 at 2:00 pm

There’s this new show on TV – you may have seen it – called Community, about a lawyer who loses his license and has to go back to community college.  In one scene, the lawyer is talking to his friend (the college dean) about why he doesn’t feel bad when he cheats or lies.  “Look,” he says, “I learned when I was very young that I could make anything true or false just by talking long enough.  Either there’s no god, or I’m god.  Either way, Booyah!”

It’s a silly scene, played for laughs with the host of E!’s The Soup in the lead roll.  I doubt the writers really meant to hit on anything transcendent when they wrote the line.  But for me, that moment sticks out about as much as Erin’s realization about Mormonism.  And it’s interesting to me now to trace the different lines our lives took, and to wonder how many of those lines were nudged along by our different religious backgrounds.  Because while Erin was experiencing what she calls her moments of “egregious religious zealotry,” I was experiencing moments of a different sort of zealotry.  As Erin grew more devoted in her religious practices, I began to have a looser and looser hold on the things I’d once believed as “right” and “wrong.”  I was developing very quickly into a moral relativist – and one with all the passion and conviction possible in a teenager.  And this determined relativism began blossoming back in the early days of my education at the Unnamed Religious Private School.

As far as I’m concerned, 3 very different things were happening at that school, to 3 very different groups of kids:

1. The school’s religious elite – the kids whose families believed in the precise doctrine practiced in our halls, whose faith was based in the same fundamentalist ideals – were having all their beliefs and worldviews confirmed for them.  They were growing stronger everyday in the values their parents had taught them, and they were growing more and more self-righteous as they confronted those of us whose beliefs didn’t match their own, pointing us out as wrong, the same way you might point out a kid who thinks “cat” is spelled “qvx.”

2. The kids like Erin (and I imagine we had quite a few) were having to confront the differences in their family’s beliefs and the beliefs espoused by our teachers and administrators.  Their brains had to process gray areas and matters of difference, and in some cases had to choose sides between a parent and a teacher.  They were learning about negotiation.  They were learning about feeling outcast amongst people who ought to have been like-minded – people who were coming from the same basic faith, the same basic system of rules.  Some of them likely lost confidence then, only to (hopefully) regain it once they began to understand the strength of their own position, to rely on their ability to choose their own path.

3. Kids like me (I felt like the only one, but somehow I doubt I was) were learning that there is no such thing as truth.  Everyone gets to make up whatever they want, and then you get to fight it out to the end.  “You can make anything true or false just by talking long enough.”  You’re right, guy from The Soup.  Or at least, that’s what I learned at religious school.

Now keep in mind that my father is a scientist and would hotly dispute the idea that there is no such thing as truth.  I never learned that from him.  And I didn’t exactly learn it from my mother either.  I’m sure if I called her and asked her right now, she would say that some things are definitely good and others are definitely bad.  But what I did learn from her is that ideas will change over time.  There are several issues she sees differently now than she did when I was in high school or middle school.  And she sees no shame in that.  Ideas are constantly in development.  We grow and learn, new people come into our lives, and those people help us see things differently.  But there is still right and wrong.  She has a values system, albeit a self-created one.  But if you asked them what my values are, I bet they couldn’t tell you.  What they could tell you is that I have always had a very loose grip on the truth.  And I believe wholeheartedly that this came from my early education – exactly the opposite effect that evangelical education hopes to have.

I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, so I’m going to try a different method.  Bare with me here.

When you come from an a-religious background, these are the things that strike you about fundamentalism when you first encounter it:

1. Words are magic.  Literally.  You close your eyes and bow your head to pray, and those prayers are made up of words.  And the words go somewhere.  They go to God, and they are supposed to get results.  Something will happen.  All because of words.

2. Interpretation is everything.  This is a division of “Words are magic,” because part of their magic is that they mean lots of different things.  They are slippery.  This is NOT the lesson you learn about words during regular school, where you are drilled on definitions.  It IS the lesson you acquire accidentally when you memorize verses each week out of context.

Think about this for a second.  When you’re in second grade, you learn words like “through”.  You learn the definition of “through.”  You learn how to use it in a sentence.  You learn that you have no choice but to use it in the precise way it is intended.  During the same years that I was being asked to memorize precise definitions of simple words, I was being asked to parse out complex concepts that had no previous meaning for me.  When a second-grader encounters a Bible verse at home or in church, they are usually also taught what the verse means by their parents or a pastor.  No interpretation is necessary  No interpretation is possible.  But when you learn a verse as part of Bible drills, and you are a child who has never attended church, those verses are a bizarre form of archaic language you’ve never encountered.  You are left to interpret it for yourself, however you want.   You have power over language for the first time.

One of the first verses I remember learning was Romans 10, verses 9 and 10: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart God raised Jesus from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation…”  (NIV, I think).  That’s a verse that probably any evangelical could recite for you.   It’s part of the “Roman road,” the series of scriptures that outlines for non-Christians how they can be saved.  It makes sense that it’s one of the first I’d learn.  But imagine encountering these words without ever having heard of the Roman Road, or the concept of “salvation.”  Imagine encountering this at the age when so much else about education is hard and fast, concrete and definitive.  2 plus 2.  A,B,C.  With the heart man believes.  With the mouth he confesses.  What you end up learning is, “If I believe something in my heart, it must be true.”

Let’s try another of the Roman Road on for size.  Romans 10:13: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord shall be saved…”  Again here words act like magic, an incantation that saves us from ourselves and our sins.  Stir the pot a little, add a spell.  Words are what make it happen.  If you say the words, and you believe the words, nothing can touch you.  You are invincible.

That’s a dangerous thing to teach a kid.  I know a lot has been said in the incredibly leftist community (of which I am a part, keep in mind) about the dangers of indoctrinating children as religious zealots.  But what about indoctrinating them as just general zealots, with no real anchor?  That seems awfully dangerous too, and I’m pretty sure it’s what happened to me.  I can make anything true just by talking long enough… and loud enough, and with pretty words.

I have lots more to say about this topic, and I’ve been holding this post for the last two days, just mulling it over.  But instead, in the spirit in which this blog is intended, I’m going to post it as-is, with a more open end.  Because I think we can take this to some interesting places.

And so I’ll tack on instead a story, because I’m curious to know whether this is something Erin experienced differently the first time she heard it:

We are in chapel.  This is probably around the 2nd grade, although it might have been even earlier, in 1st.  Our principal (a woman with short blonde hair, I think) is talking about the verses in the New Testament wherein Jesus tells stories to little children.  The disciples ask him if he really wants to spend his time doing that, if he couldn’t be teaching the adults how to behave instead.  Jesus says the quote that’s famous even outside of religious circles, “Suffer the children to come unto me.”  Our pastor/principal talked about this section for several minutes, reminding us that as children we were the absolute treasures of God, that we were seen as untouched and blameless in the eyes of the Lord and the world.  We were automatically righteous.  And I remember so clearly thinking, “Then I just can’t grow up.  Because if I grow up, I won’t be right.  I’ll be broken.”  Words were magic, but they were more magic for children than for anyone else.

Dad, Do We Believe in Jesus?

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2009 at 3:06 am

Erin’s post reminds me of something I’ve been wanting to address but haven’t found the proper segue for yet: the religious beliefs of our school.  Because even though I had countless moments of “learning the facts of life” like Erin mentions, none of them are as memorable for me as those involving religion.

As much as we had in common, there was one other major difference between the two of us.  Erin’s family went to church.  And at our school, this was an important factor.  As we’ve mentioned, this school was a fairly religious institution.  It was founded by a church, and “Bible” was a subject covered in every class.  We went to “chapel” every Wednesday – basically a big church service where the school’s principal (or was it someone else?  I don’t remember) gave a sermon and we sang Bible songs, some of which were cleverly set to the tune of old significantly-less-holy standards.  (My personal favorite was the song about Jesus set to the tune of “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor.”)  The school had some (fairly) extreme beliefs.  I can’t speak to how much what Erin learned in church or at home fit with or contradicted what we learned at school, since that wasn’t really something we talked about as kids.  But I can tell you that her family actually attended a church.  Mine hadn’t been since I was 3, and I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in school with that fact hanging over her head.

My parents aren’t exactly irreligious.  It’s hard to explain – or at least more complicated than a single blog post can get across.  Suffice it to say that the reason I was in the school had nothing to do with God and everything to do with  the fact that forced busing in East Baton Rouge Parish would have had me getting on a bus at 5 am at the age of 6, being carted halfway across town, CHANGING buses, and then finally arriving at school for 7.  I wouldn’t have made it home until well after dark each day.  My mom was having none of this, and she and my dad put me in private school.  As far as I know, there were no nonsectarian private schools in the city, at least not then.  And the Catholic schools certainly weren’t likely to take me, so non-denominational Christian school it was.  ( I also now recognize what I didn’t then – that while I was priviledged enough to be able to afford private school, my cohorts from the neighborhood – those who weren’t in Catholic school – would have no choice but to get on that bus at 5.)

There’s a lot I could say about this, but any point I could make can be summed up with one story:

In elementary school I loved getting the right answers.  I was a teacher’s pet and used to being told how smart and clever I was.  (You know that episode of The Simpsons where the teachers go on strike and the schools close?  Lisa can’t handle it, and she runs up to Marge saying, “Please please please grade me grade me!  Evaluate and rank me!”  I was Lisa Simpson from age 6 until around age 12, when I started studying mostly just the things I liked.)  And I was NOT used to being uncertain of an answer.  Usually religion class didn’t pose a problem with this.  After all, there’s a book.  All I had to do was read it.  But occasionally a teacher would ask a real stumper, and I would panic, afraid that my non-church-going status would be revealed.

The first time this happened was in Not-Tina-Turner’s class.  We were all sitting in a semi-circle (probably “Indian style”, with our legs folded in front of us) in front of her chair, and she was telling us about Heaven.  (Teachers at unnamed religious private schools LOVE talking about Heaven to little kids.  Obviously.  I’m always floored by those tv shows that portray religious teachers discussing hell with 5-year-olds.  I don’t remember this ever happening.  They stuck with Heaven until we were closer to 10.  Got us hooked, then told us what would happen if we didn’t stay that way.)  “And what is the only thing you have to do to get to Heaven?” she asked.

I knew this one.  It was in the book.  “Believe in Jesus!”

“That’s right!  So how many of you will go to Heaven when you die? Raise your hand if you KNOW you’ll go to Heaven.”

I had no idea what to do.   I mean, technically I knew what she wanted was for us to all raise our hands.  But somewhere in my very young brain, I understood that a belief is different than an answer.  I had no idea if I would go to Heaven.  I had never thought about it.  But as every other hand in the room shot up, so did mine.

Still, that night I remember vividly walking up to my dad and asking, “Dad, do we believe in Jesus?”

I have no idea what answer he gave.  Whatever he said, though, I came out of it understanding that when it comes to believing things, there is no right or wrong answer.  Belief was something personal, and it was up to me to decide what I believed.  And I didn’t have to tell anyone at school – teachers or students – what I believed if I didn’t want to.  One of the things I love most about my dad is that he never talks down to anyone.  He never shied away from complicated questions, and no matter how young I was, he would provide me with a truthful answer, no equivocation.  I mentioned before that he’s a scientist, and I think that has something to do with his belief that inquisitiveness should be rewarded with knowledge.

I never asked him if I would go to Heaven when I died.  I guess somehow I already knew what the answer would be.

I went back and forth about what I believed a lot over the course of those years.  I wanted very badly to be “good,” and it seemed that believing in God and Jesus made you “good.”  But I also thought my parents were good, and I knew that they didn’t believe exactly the same things that the teachers at school did.  In many ways, though, I’m grateful for the confusion.  I learned early on that ideas are constantly evolving, that questions should always be asked, and that beliefs are something that have to come from within.  If they come from outside forces – from parents or teachers forcing them down your throat – then they’re never really beliefs at all.  They’re just more facts for you to stuff inside your head.  Whatever you’re told about God as a child, it doesn’t really hit home – doesn’t really MEAN something – until you decide for yourself whether you accept it.  (The same is true, by the way, for rejecting a belief.  I don’t cotton to forcing children to reject beliefs anymore than forcing them to hold one.  Just for the record.)

I would also like to put in here that I’m certain Erin’s parents must also have had an attitude at least resembling that of my parents.  I don’t ever picture them as indoctrinators.  And they never reacted strangely to the fact that my parents weren’t church-goers, the way that many of the other parents did.  I know my mom often felt uncomfortable at school events, but she was never uncomfortable with Erin’s family.  She can speak to that better than I can, obviously.  I just wanted to mention that I have only positive memories of them in this arena.