As a child, I can’t say I enjoyed going to church much. I was a busy little boy, always yearning to be on my bike gliding down a hill or slipping out the back door for pick-up games of football with my neighborhood buddies. The hard, narrow pews were just too small of a pen to keep my wildly active body happy. The best I could do on those Sabbath mornings was to try not to embarrass my fundamentally serious parents too much.
I did enjoy the actual building, though. It was a solidly built, brown brick one with stained glass windows that extended all the way up to the beamed ceilings. The windows were trimmed in dark oak, the altar and pulpit were hand crafted, and the floors were polished wood that shined in the sun. On clear Sunday mornings, the whole building filled with a warm, clean light that spread all the way up to the ceiling and into the darkest corners of the church. I secretly believed back then, maybe even today, that Jesus would find this sanctuary a warm and welcoming place when he returned to finish his business.
My father taught Sunday school in the tiny classrooms tucked away behind the balcony, and during my teen years I was in his class. My recollections of those classes are random and sketchy, but I do remember one thing clearly. He had a small box filled with hundreds of Bible verses printed on business-sized cards. At the end of each class, we picked a card out of the box, read it to the class, and then discussed the meaning of the verse. Then we could, if we chose to, memorize it and receive a star to put on a chart. When our chart was filled, we received a trinket-sized prize.
This memory game was a step above the routine Sunday school activities. It added a competitive edge to the almost unbearable tedium inherent in middle school bible classes. Still, it was just rote memorization, and many of the verses were cryptic, confusing, and contradictory to my fog-shrouded teenage mind. They would have had little lasting impact except for one thing: the red verses.
The red verses were those from the New Testament that were the words of Jesus. They were the real deal, the closest thing to a primary source you can find. They carried more weight than the others and consequently received double points in our memorizing game. Twice the value for the same effort — I was on this one in a nano-second.
It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that the extra points weren’t the only attraction to these verses. They had some relevance to them and were easier to shoe-horn into my already over-crowded mind. This was a guy who over-turned tables and threw the evil-doers out of the temple. He changed water into wine and fed a whole mountainside of people with a small basket of fish and bread. He even raised his best friend from the dead. I could relate to Jesus, and immediately placed him with my top-shelf heroes alongside Batman and Spiderman, Maris and Mantle, and Elvis.
The attraction wasn’t just hero worship, either. The verses had a whole different tone to them than the bellicose call to action of the post World War II and Cold War years. They were softer, rounder, and placed peace makers up on the pedestal alongside the warriors. They called for preferential treatment for the poor and instructed us to think of others before ourselves. This was tonic for my soul after all those years of saber-rattling and posturing. They also wrapped their message around a pretty strong role model. After three years and hundreds of these verses, I had a pretty clear idea of what it meant to slap on a pair of sandals and follow him down the dusty path.
Jesus wasn’t the only role model to come out of that class. My father was a corporate executive, and a very conservative Republican in a very conservative state. He was a member in good standing of Nixon’s silent majority, except he wasn’t so silent. He was not shy at all about expressing his opinions, and during my college years in the late 1960s and early 70s we tip-toed around each other, avoided confrontation and left things unsaid for the common good.
My father also believed, however, that Christianity was not a spectator sport. He did not sit in the bleachers and lob big, fat value judgements down on the heads of others. He rolled up his sleeves and put his beliefs into practice. He held every office in his church from deacon and board president right on down to usher team captain. Not once did he ever let an opportunity to serve on a building, fundraising, or membership committee pass by.
My father was equally involved with community activities. He was president of the board for a summer camp for disadvantaged children and founding member and long time scout master of my Boy Scout troop. I can still remember the stinging cold and frozen fingers on icy December mornings standing next to my father ringing bells for the Salvation Army. We may have disagreed on everything politically, but he believed in those red verses just as much as I did and did a pretty good job of showing me how to put them into action.
So this is what I learned from all those Sunday school lessons. From the red verses, I learned what it meant to have a compassionate heart. I also developed an appreciation for the difficulty of applying those Christian values to a cold and materialistic world. And from my father, I learned that, while my family was not even close to being rich, we lived a relatively privileged life surrounded by others in real need. Looking the other way was not an option. Social justice was not a spiritual exercise. Look around you, he modeled, and when you see opportunities to help, step in and put your compassionate heart to use. Anne Lamott, in her fine book Small Victories, likens this type of Christian activity to being a member of the ski patrol who cruise up and down the trails looking for people in distress. She writes, “I thought of people from my church and political circles who are doing a kind of psychic ski patrol in the world, noticing when people are in trouble, refusing to look away, offering an ear and their own warm gloves to wear.”
Observe the world closely, be ready to offer comfort and aid when you can, then ski over and lend a hand. A pretty simple and straight forward message, one that even a befuddled teenager could wrap his mind around. And it only took three years of Sunday school lessons, a box of Bible verses, and a very conservative Sunday school teacher to get the message across.