Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Church School

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the subject of religious education or, as we’ve started calling it lately, “religious growth and learning.”  When I was a kid, we simply called it “church school.”  But then, as comedian George Carlin has said, sometimes we soften our language with euphemism to the point where we can ... overcomplicate things.   As time goes by we sometimes, with the best of intentions, add more syllables and less immediacy.  Less emotional involvement, if you will.

The late, great George Carlin used the example of how “Shell Shock” became “Battle Fatigue”, which then became “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”  By those rules, I guess I’m a pre-elderly, gravity-impaired, follically-challenged male individual -- not a middle-aged, fat, bald guy.  Anyway, a rose is a rose is a rose, and I’ve been thinking about what kids experience on Sunday mornings while the rest of us are upstairs in the sanctuary.

My first church was the Italian Roman Catholic parish of St. Anne’s Church in Raritan, New Jersey.  Being half-Italian and half-Irish, I expected this to be my church home for the Rest Of Forever.  Church school was conducted by the nuns attached to our parish, and was run by one Sister Virginia.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Blues Brothers”, you might remember the character of the Mother Superior nun who runs the Blues Brothers’ orphanage.  She was a tough old bird who brooked no nonsense and wielded a wooden yardstick the way a samurai warrior swung a Japanese katana sword.  The Blues Brothers called her “The Penguin.”  Well, Sister Virginia made The Penguin look like Mother Teresa.

When our church caught on fire, it was Sister Virginia who broke into the Sanctuary, cracked open the tabernacle, grabbed the chalice full of consecrated communion wafers and dove out head-first through a stained glass window, in order to save The Body of Christ from the fire.

I swear I am not making this up.

Here’s just one example of what my early religious growth and learning was like:  On the subject of prayer, Sister Virginia would tell us the story of a little crippled boy with a withered arm who every night prayed to God to “please make my one arm like my other arm.”  Finally, one morning he woke up with TWO withered arms.  Nice lesson for eight-year-old kids on the power of prayer!

Needless to say, my own daughter has found a lot less emotional trauma during her Sunday experiences here.  My involvement in the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg's children's program has probably been about average -- more than some, less than others, and not as much as it probably could be.  I’ve done storytelling in the classes; I’ve helped with the odd Children’s Message and Christmas pageant; I’ve been a Mystery Friend on a couple of occasions; I’ve chaperoned a sleepover and worked the spaghetti dinner fundraiser -- in other words, I’ve usually -- not always, but usually -- helped out when I’ve been asked.  So even though I’m not a regular presence in the classrooms downstairs, I feel pretty comfortable saying that I’m very pleased that my daughter is going to her classes at my church.

If I had one thing that I’d want to share with you more than anything, it’s this:  You will never be sorry that you said “Yes” when you are asked to participate, or sign up, or somehow play a part in our children’s Sunday experiences.  Tell a story sometime.  I can tell you that it’s a very cool experience.  Help ferry the kids in a class on a field trip.  And you don’t have to have kids in the program to get something out of it for yourself.  The connections I have made, both with kids as well as with the adults I’ve shared my time with, have added immeasurably more to my church experience than I have words to describe.

And I believe that the example I set by participating will someday pay off in my own daughter being active with the children in HER church home when SHE grows to adulthood.  I feel a great deal of satisfaction, and even pride in that legacy.

I wonder what Sister Virginia would have to say about that.

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