"So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore" by Jake Colson: The Sunday School Chapter
June 17, 2007
I haven't had many words lately. I've even found it difficult to talk to family. But I have been enjoying the words of others as I wander the internet. One blog I discovered is called naked pastor. "Naked" because, as the author says, he "artfully bares his soul as he wrestles with all things religious." I'm sure I'll refer to his blog again - as a pastor and also a musician, artist, and writer, he has an interesting and unique point of view.
However, my post has to do with a book that one of naked pastor's commenters mentioned. So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore is a discussion of churches in the form of a novel. It's available to read online (click here).
I jumped into Chapter 3, "Is This Christian Education?" and the book gives a very different view of Sunday School:
As I rounded the corner I could hear the strains of children singing,
We’re all in our places, with bright shining
Good morning to you! Good morning to you!
John was peeking through the partially opened door. Rows of first graders sat facing the teacher in their miniature chairs. As the song ended, there was lots of squirming, poking and laughter. One boy dressed in a bright blue sweater vest turned around to stick out his tongue at one of the girls. When he did he caught sight of us looking at him and immediately turned back around and pretended to pay attention.
We couldn’t see the teacher from our vantage point, but could hear her pleading voice shouting from our right.
"Let’s say our memory verse," she shouted. "Come on! Settle down or there will be no snack later." Apparently that was the threat they were waiting for because the room began to quiet.
"Who knows their memory verse?" Hands shot up throughout the classroom. Let’s say it together. "I was glad when they said to me," the staccato voices never changed pitch. "‘Let us go to the house of the Lord,’ Psalm 122:1." Most voices had faded out for the reference except for one girl who wanted every one to know she knew it.
"And what does it mean?" the teacher shouted above the rising noise.
"Two hands shot up, one of them the same girl who had repeated the reference so loudly. "Sherri, tell us!"
"That’s my girl," I whispered to John.
The girl stood up. "It means that we should enjoy coming to church, because this is where God lives."
"That’s right," the teacher said as I felt my face flush with embarrassment.
I shrugged my shoulders when John turned to smile playfully at me. Then he soundlessly mouthed two words: "It’s working." The look on his face pulled the plug on my embarrassment. He made it so clear that he wasn’t here to shame me.
When we both turned back to the window the teacher was passing out stars for children to stick up on the chart on the wall. We used them for things like attendance, memory verse, and if the children brought their Bibles. The class was in chaos as kids were getting their stars, dodging each other while finding their name on the chart and then licking their stickers in place.
John turned away from the window and walked a little further down the hall, stopping finally alongside the water fountain. His right arm crossed his chest with his left elbow resting on it, his left hand massaging his down-turned forehead.
"Jake, did you see that boy sitting next to your daughter in the shorts and light yellow T-shirt?"
"No, not specifically."
"Well, I’m not surprised. There wasn’t much to look at really. He wasn’t making any noise, just sitting there with his head down and his arms folded."
"Oh, I know who you’re talking about. That must be Benji."
"Benji. Did you notice that he didn’t know one word of the memory verse and he didn’t even go up to get the star he earned just for coming today?"
"No, I didn’t."
"How do you think all that made him feel?"
"I hope it made him want to do better; to bring his Bible, come more often to memorize his verse. That’s how we motivate the kids. Everyone does it."
"But how is he ever going to compete against… Sherri, was it? Are his parents as supportive as you are?"
"He only has his mom and has never seen his dad. She’s a hard worker and loves him a lot, but you know how tough single parenting can be. I can’t even imagine it myself."
"Do you think Benji will go away encouraged?"
"That’s what we’re hoping." I thought of Benji sitting there with a distant look I'd seen so many times. "But I guess we’d have to say it hasn’t worked yet. But it works for most of the other kids. We have one of the most successful children’s ministries in the city."
"Is it your point that Sherri’s feelings of accomplishment are worth Benji’s shame?"
I tried to answer his question, but couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t sound incredibly stupid.
The chapter makes many other good points, but I was particularly struck by this one:
As his words were soaking in, another song drifted up the hallway from one of the classes.
Oh be careful little eyes what you see.
Oh be careful little eyes what you see.
For the Father up above is looking down in love,
So be careful little eyes what you see.
"There’s the worst of it," John said shaking his head in obvious pain. "I hate hearing little kids sing that song."
For a moment I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. The song was familiar. I had sung it since I was a child and had taught it to my own children because acting it out helped them enjoy it. Besides I hoped that knowing God would see everything would help them make right choices. "Are you saying there’s something wrong with that song?" I finally asked.
"You tell me."
"I don’t know. It talks about Father’s love for us and his desire to keep us from doing evil."
"But what does he become in that song?"
"I don’t know what you’re driving at?"
"It takes wonderful words like ‘Father’ and ‘love’ and turns God into some kind of divine policeman, waiting behind the billboard with his radar gun. Who wants to grow close to a Father like that? We can’t love what we fear. You can’t foster a relationship with someone who is always checking your performance to make sure it’s adequate enough to merit his friendship. The more you focus on your own needs and failures, the more distant Father will seem to you. Guilt does that. It shoves us away from God in our time of need, instead of allowing us to run to him, presenting our greatest failures and questions so that we might receive his mercy and grace. Now we’ve invoked God and his punishment to shore up our sense of what it means to be a good Christian.
"Do you see a Father here who understands our bent toward sin, who knows how weak we are, whose love wants to meet us in our sinfulness and transform us to be his children, not based on our efforts but his?"
"I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that."
"Oh yes you have. Every time you sang it you thought of things your eyes had seen and your ears heard that God would disapprove of. It made you feel bad, but feeling bad didn’t make you do any better. So intellectually you are still thinking of Father’s love, but intuitively you are being distanced from him. That’s the worst thing that religion does. Who is going to draw near to God if he’s always trying to catch people at their worst moments, or always punishing them for their failures? We’re too weak for a God like that. We will never be able to do enough to earn his love, and one slip-up and God’s right there looking down from above, ready to heap some calamity on us for failing to live up to his expectations. We use guilt to conform people’s behavior, never realizing the same guilt will keep them far from God."
We had come back to the foyer again. John stopped walking and leaned back against the wall. He looked up at me, and I spoke. "No wonder we’re always checking up on people, encouraging them to do the right thing, and rarely do we spend time helping people understand what it is to relate to a Father who knows everything about them and loves them completely."
Read the rest of the chapter here. To order, you can go to the Amazon link or order it from the authors here.
Wow, yes. We Christians do a good job of distorting who God is sometimes. Sounds like a good book. I added Naked Pastor to my google reader too.
Posted by: Jennifer | June 18, 2007 at 11:14 AM
This use of fiction, and the character who lays it out for us to understand, reminds me of George MacDonald...
I particularly liked (emphases mine): "So intellectually you are still thinking of Father’s love, but intuitively you are being distanced from him. That’s the worst thing that religion does. Who is going to draw near to God if he’s always trying to catch people at their worst moments, or always punishing them for their failures? We’re too weak for a God like that. We will never be able to do enough to earn his love, and one slip-up and God’s right there looking down from above, ready to heap some calamity on us for failing to live up to his expectations. We use guilt to conform people’s behavior, never realizing the same guilt will keep them far from God."
Jesus came not only to save us from our sins, but from our guilt. The Pharisees were just the sort to conform behavior using fear and guilt - and you know what Jesus thought of them.
I'm certainly too weak for a God like that.
Posted by: moominpapa | June 18, 2007 at 10:27 PM