Popsicle Stick Theology

There was absolutely no doubt about it. I was going to Hell. I was only eleven, but I had done the unpardonable.

During the pre-communion hymn, when the children were dismissed with instructions to follow our teachers out of the sanctuary and down the steps into the church basement for Sunday School, I ducked out the side door of the narthex. The choir was still belting out "The Church Is One Foundation." Bobbie Thomas, the pint-sized organist, thumped away so hard on the old organ I swore I could feel the thick stone walls of the tiny white church vibrate like a runner panting to catch his breath.

I slipped along the narrow, asphalt drive, half-running as I passed between the church and the big, white brick mansion next door. I cut across the wide back yards that fronted the main street of my home town, breaking into a flat-out, escaped-convict run. I sprinted straight to the forbidden Promised Land for heathen eleven year-olds, Guinta's Drugstore.

Guinta's had a soda fountain counter that ran the entire length of the building. A mirrored wall behind the smooth, Formica top showed every inch of what seemed at the time to be a colossal pharmacy. Monday through Saturday afternoons, the stools that lined the counter were filled with the big kids, high schoolers like my baby sitter, Judy Olson, the head cheerleader and her boyfriend, Curt the Quarterback.

Judy was the one who taught me that if I pushed off hard with one hand, I could spin completely around on my stool- as long as I didn't do it over and over again. That was what little kids did. Big kids only took a turn or two around before turning back to their Vanilla Sodas or Root Beer Floats.

No doubt about it, in my mind I was a big kid. None of that baby, Sunday School, popsicle-sticks-glued-together religion for me. I wasn't even sure I believed there was a God. Furthermore, I was supposed to memorize the Prayer of Confession before the Bishop came for our first Communion but I had decided not to.

Why would I memorize a prayer that was supposed to earn me forgiveness for sins I didn't even think I'd committed? If I was really sorry for something, why would I just give God a cookie-cutter "dog ate my homework" excuse? Wouldn't I tell Him straight up what I'd done and then why I was sorry and then mean it when I asked Him to forgive me?

I figured a Vanilla Soda was just what a big kid would go for if she wanted to set the tone for the rest of her sacrilegious but honest life.

Too bad I was the minister's daughter.

The minister's daughter sitting all alone at the counter in Guinta's, showcased by the plate-glass front window, was like a neon billboard advertising sin.

Still, for three consecutive Sundays I sat drinking my Vanilla Soda at Guinta's, careful to return to St. James in time to merge back in with the other goodie-goodies as class let out and they rejoined the adults in the Fellowship Hall.

It wasn't until the afternoon of the third Sunday, when the other parishioners had gone home to their hard-won Sunday dinners that my father finally found the appropriate time to speak to me.

Dad was not a fire and brimstone pastor. He was more Buddhist- a paragon of unconditional love and total acceptance. However, as I look back over that talk with adult eyes, I have to wonder was it really a coincidence that he chose to confront me on the steps leading up to the altar while still wearing his white robe?

"Kid," he said in his casual, off-handed manner. "You're old enough to make up your own mind about church and what you believe. So, if you don't want to go to Sunday School, you should just say so instead of sneaking down to Guinta's. That way, Mr. Greenleaf wouldn't have to worry about whether you're all right down there by yourself."

Great. I just know I've been busted by "Big Ears" Greenleaf, the Sunday School Superintendent. Could I do nothing in this town without some nosy busy-body calling my parents and diming me out? Apparently not…a lesson I learned over and over again throughout my childhood.

"I'm sorry, Dad," I remember managing to say. "I just feel like this whole church thing is so phony. When we say the confession, I look around and I think- Hey, I didn't even do anything! And if I did, what does it mean that I can just say one little prayer and I've got a free pass to be bad until next week? Is that what all the other people do? Say they're sorry and then yell at their kids all week?"

We sat on the steps beneath a towering stained glass window portraying Jesus carrying a lamb in his arms, and talked for a long while.

"I understand what you're saying about the liturgy," Dad said. "Sometimes I don't really believe in all that stuff either."

This totally shocked me. "You don't?"

Dad smiled. "They are comforting words and sometimes people need things to be organized. They need to be able to look in a book and say familiar words because it makes them feel better." Dad shrugged. "That's not really so bad, I guess. I think we all create the God we need." Dad said, "Life is a scary place and God is a concept we can use as an anchor, to help us to be less afraid about living and about dying."

Dad stood up and removed the notes from his sermon from the pulpit. I watched as he crossed himself before turning away from the gold cross on the altar and walking with me back down the red-carpeted aisle.

"If the ceremony and the words are troubling you, take a break from this. Wait until you want to be here to show up."

At the time, I didn't think about what difficulties my "tuning out" might create for my father with his parishioners. Dad wasn't the type to live up to anyone else's expectations anyway. He was the sort to honor his own beliefs, even when it led to conflict or controversy.

Dad taught me by example over and over again- by campaigning actively for civil rights, by protesting against the Vietnam War, by taking in any and all who were in need or pain, by loving others selflessly and with unflinching devotion.

I never went back to Sunday School with any depth of heart or conviction but I did and still do my best to follow in my father's footsteps. And to this day I do not regret my decision.


Teena said...

Your dad sounds like a good man.

Da Nator said...

Your dad sounds a lot like my dad.

Aren't we lucky? :o)

Anonymous said...

Nancy, your dad must have been an amazing person! Sounds like he really led by example.