“1-2-3-4-…no… one more- 5!” This was my little sister’s ritual countdown in church before we were shuffled off to our Sunday School classrooms. She always sat next to me, her knobby knees swiveling in position as her ever active legs swung up and down. Her lacy white ankle socks were always a constant flash complimenting her patent leather good shoes. My spunky sibling simply could not sit still for very long. She knew I was much the wiser and older by five years…probably too serious for her temperament. This was the impetus for her finding ways to distract me and attempt to get me to giggle in church. Sometimes it worked and totally blew my quest for being devout on Sundays. The worst timing of said ritual would be when she instigated these shenanigans during a somber hymn solo. We were supposed to sit quietly and stoically, displaying reverence for word and song. As kids, we could only take so much seriousness, and then we just had to explode in some way. If the hat counting didn’t work, then she would try fidgeting with her little purse. She would pose it on her lap and make little movements with the bows or the flowers as if they were animated in some way. Other times she would purposely slide her bum-dee-ay into mine to jolt me out of my mesmeric stupor. But the worst to control would be my sister’s pretending to cough or sneeze. Of course I knew they weren’t authentic! I just could not get past the silliness of it, because without turning my head, I could see and feel her hot red-cheeked, blue-eyed, freckled-nose face crowned in strawberry blonde locks. She was the epitome of effervescence in both visual and deed. Half a century later, I can report that my appreciation for her “apple-cart upsetting demeanor” remains strong and sweet.
Almost everybody attended church in our community. At one point we had 14 different denominations calling their flock to their pews. It is what you did on Sunday. Then you’d come home to have lunch or once in awhile go out to eat with family. Following that, depending on how the week had gone, the goals still to be reached, and the health status of everyone; whole families would be commanded by their dad to pile into the car to get going on a “Sunday Drive”. This could mean EVERYONE, from the tiniest baby to the visiting grandparents. It was a way to be entertained together. Once home, mothers would stir the stew or baste the roast, maybe even bake a pie. After dinner had been consumed, the entire clan would converge on the one television in the living room to watch either “Wonderful World of Disney”, “Bonanza”, or the “Ed Sullivan Show”. Sometimes it was the “Jackie Gleason Show” reiterating “How Sweet it is!” But, this piece is not about after church, it is about going to and being IN church.
They say church attendance is way, way down in the United States. Lots of reasons are given. Nowadays, with both parents working, children involved in multiple hobbies, clubs, sports and interests; the ritual of going to church at the end of a week seems an exhausting task. Additionally, the time-stealing homework loads coupled with heightened use of social media are also likely culprits. In other words–a lot of competition for one’s weekend time. But, back when I was a youngster we had our own relative “busy-ness.” However, come Saturday night, we laid out our Sunday best ready to wear the next morning. My mom or dad would give me a bath with either my brother or my sister-and wash my very long hair. Afterwards, once I had survived the near violent head shaking from my dad’s expert towel drying of my hair, my mom would proceed to tackle combing it out. Next, she’d roll my long tresses into clean socks from the “socks without partners” sock drawer. I would go to bed wearing probably ten socks all wound up in dampness, which by morning would be dry. Once they were unraveled, the curls would not disappoint. I would skip out the door in a fancy frock, shiny shoes, lace-trimmed white gloves or ones loosely knit, and a ribbon in my hair. Oh I loved those ribbons! Sunday School hats would come out of the mothballs in time for Easter, and were helpful the whole hot summer. When I was a tad bit older, I graduated from bobby socks to lace stockings. It was the trend for girls and I sported a Twiggy haircut and mini-A-line shift instead of a frilly sundress from younger days. The point here is: one would not dare go to church without being “dressed to the nines”. It simply wasn’t done. This was how to show our respect to God. We displayed our very best! With our behavior, too! (Now you know why it irked me so– to be instigated to laugh whilst being seated in presumed reverence).
I wasn’t always a “goodie two shoes”. There are famous reports of me making dramatic demonstrations outside the Church entrance when I was barely old enough to read. I remember throwing my Bible down on the pavement in order to get the “giants” surrounding me to pay attention. One girl who was about four years older, had a crush on my big brother so she hung around us all the time. She would warn me not to do it again. Then I would! Much to the reactions of the taken aghast masses, this flagrant impudence of mine became evermore enjoyable. I have been told and also recall vividly, only singing the one hymn I approved of: “Onward Christian Soldiers”. It did not matter what the rest of the congregation was singing. I would still sing THAT one. Again, the stares of shock, query and disapproval were high entertainment for this little manipulator. I’m sorry….I think I just liked the marching rhythm of the song…what kid doesn’t love a good march? At least I didn’t venture out of my seat and start marching up and down the aisle!
In defense of my reputation, I must uphold the fact that once I was seated in my little circle corner, I was most pious and well-behaved. Now, I did often stare at the paintings on the wall. My first Sunday School classroom was in the church which was no bigger than a minute on a street in our town’s historic district. The rooms were very small, and this is the church where my Bible-throw-downs took place. But, my Sunday School room had windows framed in dark brown wood and white-washed walls. I always liked sitting in the seat facing our teacher directly. She thought it was because I wanted to really be attentive to her, but in actuality, I loved gazing at the painting that hung on the wall behind her. It depicted a youthful Jesus amongst a flock of lambs in a pastoral setting. One lamb was in his arms, his face peering lovingly down at the gentle creature. This painting is the origin of my affection for laemmles I have felt all my life. So if anyone ever says paintings are unnecessary, just don’t believe it.
My little sister and I weren’t the only rebel children in our family when it came to church-going dos and don’ts. In my preteens, my older brother now had his “Green Bomb” 56 Chevy. My father would ask him to take one of us kids to church with him in his car. Big bro liked taking me. I think it’s because I never argued with any of his ulterior motives. I seem to recall several Sundays where we completely never even made it to church. He would turn around after the family was down the driveway, and say, “Wouldn’t you rather stay home and make Bisquick biscuits with me? We’ll eat them up all ourselves!” Of course I’d comply. Biscuits hot from the oven, with slathered butter and dribbled jam? Holy Moley they were good! We did this naughty detour, time and time again, and this might be where I further cemented my often times obdurate behavior. But, I must admit I took my “just desserts”. One of the reasons he liked staying home was for the express purpose of watching “Chiller” or “The Twilight Zone”. He seemed obsessed wth scary stuff. (Yet, he would insist I sit right next to him). He was the one with whom I watched “Hound of the Baskervilles” and a most memorable Hitchcock thriller,”The Birds”. I believe he is the one who forced me to endure “Psycho”. I close my eyes and tremble just conjuring up the look that kills made by those Anthony Perkins’s eyes. Well, truth be told, I to this day do not like watching fright movies. They flood my visual way too impressively and the sounds can be even scarier. If I read something terrifying, I can have control. I can snap the book shut and regroup. Sitting in front of a screen I can’t. Forever paying the price, unfortunately. Should have gone to church in the car with Dad!
I too am to blame for at least trying to play hooky from church. Our esteemed patriarch always came in our room early Sunday morning and would wake us in a sudden swish of movement. He did not beat around the bush. He would throw off our covers, blankets, sheet and all. Simultaneously he’d chime loudly: “Up and at ’em!” One time I would not budge, I kept grabbing for the blanket. I tried telling him my outfit had holes in it. He countered with: It’s good to be holy on Sunday!”. Of course he won dominion over that protest.
Our father was reared in the Midwest. He raised us exactly how his parents did. He knew having church in one’s life was wholesome and character building. But, I think he was even more attuned to his Bible teachings than our mom. Granted, she knew her Beatitudes as well. But, my father was the one who would ask if we had read our Bible this week. I might go looking for him in the evening and he would be upstairs in his bedroom chair under a lamp reading and studying. I know it was important to him because his pat answer to almost everything was: “If you can follow all of the 10 commandments, you are doing better than most people.” So, I studied those 10 commandments a lot. And even though much of the Bible is meant to be interpreted, I grew up and still take the Ten Commandments literally. How did I come to be so permanently affixed to this line of faith?
My dad. For a good many years, he was MY Sunday School teacher. I was assigned TO HIM. Just as if I were any child in my little class, he expected me to memorize and learn verses straight from the King James Bible and to learn what they meant. I did. I was scared to not do well for him. I knew it was very close to his heart. Dad would also invite us to take turns reading aloud. I learned a lot from performing my best for him. My father also was great at answering questions we would have and they were usually straightforward. From him, I learned the essentials and they still stick with me today.
It bothers me that Sunday School is not a huge thing anymore. When my own kids attended Sunday school, the simplicity had already changed. In present times, children might learn part of a verse or one message and then recreate an art project to remember it by- merely duplicating the teacher’s example. Over time, will they remember that watered-down message? Sure, my sons loved learning this way and were proud of their little masterpieces, but, it was a lot like regular school. If Sunday School remained focused on memorizing, reading and discussing the Bible, it might have brought better results than we witness today. These adults now, most likely don’t have the verses safely tucked in their mental pocket. I do, and will pull them out to bring comfort and clarification whenever necessary. It just seems that my own children’s era of church going was less entrenched in the actual study of the Bible. Maybe this is where the fraying has begun. If you don’t have the words held in your heart, then how can you have an affinity for church? A recipe of duty, devotion, compliance, study, toil, angst and glee with a stirred-in sense of honor for something omniscient and loving is what worked for my generation. We need to somehow circle round back to how it was. If nothing else, the community felt safer because most youngsters knew right from wrong.
I am very grateful for the times in which I grew up. I thank my parents for accompanying us to church and being good examples themselves. I thank my public schools who thought nothing wrong of putting on Christmas Pageants and calling Spring Break Easter Break. Even in public classrooms our teachers let us have moments of silence when we could pray. The stories we read might have characters who went to church, because these stories were a mirrored reflection of what society was doing. I always knew there were many different faiths. I knew some peers who attended church on Saturdays not Sundays. I knew some churches varied in their idea of what God is. Never once did I feel it was inappropriate to talk about going to church. Never once did I think my church was better than another. We went because we were obedient. Our elders knew better. They had lived longer.
It is quite sad that the modern world has quite saliently advertised the ills of some of those who are in religious power. The result is widespread skepticism and utter dismay to the point that going to church must mean you are a “radical”. You must be close-minded. Worse yet, you must be gullible. You must be oblivious to the fact that churches are institutions who are siphoning your money and brainwashing your mental state. Ironically, churches that take on a psychological focus are more and more popular. Less and less God is in the sermon and more and more “taking care of Me”. These churches are usually immersed in contemporary music which easily draws the public in. Attendees may come in whatever garb they wish. Play clothes, jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, rumply just rolled out of bed looks does not matter. Attendance is all that matters. Is it? Really? I thought learning, giving and pushing oneself to know and do more is what’s important. I thought thanking God with respect-yes- in how to dress and act, I thought those things were paramount.
In a world where we have poverty and homelessness I believe we need a resurgence of teaching those same lessons taught in my youth. We need those Bible verses to remind us of what to do and think. We don’t really learn these things from feel-good it’s all about Me “sermons”. We improve the world by remembering to say and follow “The Golden Rule.”
I thank my parents for every Sunday they overlooked their stressful lives and took us without fail, to church. I thank my grandma for teaching me to wrap and twist-tie my tithe coins in a hanky. Every time we opened them up and meted out our coins in our Sunday School circle, it felt like we were truly giving to something. I thank my Grandma, too, for “showing us off” at her church, holding us with her suede-soft gloved hands and later driving us in our “Sunday Best” to her local grocery store. She always made certain that we all went to church and loved God.
Where I first defied.
Then spoke. Then memorized, recited and read.
Then ruminated and spoke again, on a higher level.
Church, where I came to love God and pay tribute through not only proverb and verse, but also music and song. The enveloping organ chords and music literally shook my soul. The meaningful lyrics were sung again and again, punctuated by gulps of emotion and are imprinted in my brain…even five decades later.
I wish we were still counting old lady hats and fondling our own lace gloves. I wish our legs were still dangling in chairs and pews, as our eyes catch the subtle yet wondrous spectacle before them–the dazzling sheen on our shiny shoes.
I hope more “lambs” come back to the fold and smile inwardly,
as they turn the rice paper paged Bible before them,
ready to make real the printed word.