How I Got Out of Sunday Jail

Naturally, at 54, I am no longer at all upset with my mother for the many and numerous cruel acts she perpetrated on me when I was a tiny, vulnerable child.  By “many and numerous cruel acts”  I mean, of course, every damn time she sent me to Sunday School.  Which was almost every Sunday of my early youth.

Almost. Every. Sunday. of. my. early.youth.

I know it was almost every Sunday of my youth because I still have that oak stick I took to notching each time she sent me to Sunday School.  Nowadays, the stick hangs on the most prominent wall in my apartment. In the most visible place possible.  To remind me that I am no longer upset with my mother, of course.

I am positive I’ve gotten over it because I no longer sputter when attempting to pronounce the words, “Sunday School”.  In fact, I haven’t sputtered even once when pronouncing those words for lo these many years now.  Indeed, at least five or seven years.

Yet, despite that I am now fully recovered from her “many and numerous” acts, I still regard my mother as a rather strange woman.  A rather very strange woman.  You see, she sent myself and my two brothers to be indoctrinated by the creepy old folks who taught Sunday School even though she was raising us up as freethinking agnostics.  We would ask, “Mom do you believe in God?’  But she would never tell us whether she believed in God.

I was never satisfied with that.  I would all but actually stomp my little foot and demand, “Why won’t you tell if or not you believe in God, Mom?”

“It’s not ‘if’ but ‘whether or not’, Paul.  ‘Why won’t you tell whether or not you believe in god’.”

“Mooooooooom!  No!”

“Listen to me, Paul!”  Then she would speak slowly, pronouncing her words carefully,  “I won’t tell you whether or not I believe in God because you would decide to believe exactly the same way I believe.”

“No, I wouldn’t!”

“Don’t!  It’s not polite to interrupt me.  Yes, I know you, Paul, and you would because you’re a child. And I don’t want you to blindly follow me.  I want you to decide for yourself whether there is a God  — when you are old enough to make that decision.

We had the same conversation several times growing up, and she always emphasized, “when you are old enough to make that decision.”

Of course, I would ask when I would be old enough.  And she would tell me, “When you are an adult.  It is simply too important of a decision for a child to make.”

Inevitably, that short exchange would end the intellectual portion of our conversation.  The remaining forty-five minutes were simply filled in by me demonstrating to her my obedient grasp of all she had said.   “Please!  Please, Mom!  Please tell me!  Please! Please! Please!”

Looking back, I see how I actually did take her words to heart and was quite careful not to recklessly indulge myself in any firm conclusions about God until the very first moment after I became an adult.  That is, at age 40.   And, by that time, I had thought about and thought about the problem of deity for years.  I had read books about it.  I had studied it both on my own and in college courses. I had discussed it with people whose opinions I respected.  I had discussed it with even more people whose opinions I should not have respected.   And — just as Mom had predicted — I was able to make a somewhat better informed and better reasoned decision then than I ever could have made as a child. But that’s not why I am not upset with my mother these days.

I am not upset with my mother these days because she felt it was necessary to send me to church — as she would sometimes put it — “so that you will be exposed to that part of your culture and heritage.”  That was confusing.  And it was confusing not only because I could not back then comprehend what “culture” meant, but also because I was just beginning to learn that “exposure” was what the Spartans did to children they didn’t like.   So, to my simple mind, it was: Sunday School = Exposure.  Exposure = Death.  What could be more obvious?  Or obnoxious?

Reinforcing that conclusion (Mom never said I couldn’t make conclusions about Sunday School.  Just not about God.  Like any kid, I worked the loopholes for everything they were worth) reinforcing that conclusion was the Great Truth that I passionately resented every last stupid old dumb second I had to spend in Sunday School.  For one thing, the creepy old folks who ran the joint had an agenda.  I wasn’t entirely sure what their agenda was, but, like most kids, I could sense when adults had one.  Moreover, I knew, with the same kid’s uncanny insight, that their agenda in this case was designed more to please them than designed to please me.

Another reason I hated Sunday School was that it was fundamentally unfair.  Each and every week, I spend five days sacrificing myself by dutifully going to regular school when I could have otherwise been playing in the creek, riding my bike, painting, modeling things in clay, sketching, dreaming of galactic empires, swimming, building robots out of Lego blocks, blowing up my basement laboratory, or a zillion other things.  I profoundly felt that after five days of sacrifice, the world owed me both Saturday and Sunday off.

But instead, no amount of begging my stubborn mom could get me out of being forced to sacrifice my Sunday mornings, too.  And, as I reasoned it out back then, if it was darn unfair that Christ had to sacrifice himself just once, then what else could it be but darn, darn, darn, darn, darn, and a half-darn unfair that I had to sacrifice myself five and a half times each week.

QED. The case was proved.  And I wasn’t listening to anyone who said anything different.

There were other reasons I hated Sunday School in addition to the certain risk of death by exposure,  the creepy agendas, and the obvious cosmic injustice of it all.  By the time I was eight or so, I had no end of reasons.  Most of them well founded.  But the biggest and most important to me were the agendas and injustice of it.

I have long forgotten exactly how old I was when I finally got through to Mom, when she finally relented, and I no longer had to go to Sunday School.  Maybe as late as age 10, though.  I vividly recall how it came about.   I was arguing with her about going — and once again getting nowhere with her — when I abruptly had a flash of insight that shot out of my mouth so quickly it must have been greased.  “Mom, the only reason you make us go to Sunday School is because you want the time we’re gone to yourself.”

Looking back, I think it’s possible that I had overheard her saying something along those lines to one of her friends so, perhaps, that’s where that insight really came from.  Or, perhaps I was precociously able to see the significance of the fact she was a hard working single parent with little time for herself except the time we were in Sunday School.  But wherever the insight came from, it was effective.  She almost took a step backwards.  And then everything changed.  Her look changed and her voice changed, and instead of arguing with me, she was reasoning with me, proposing a deal.

The deal was that I would be on my best behavior during the time I would normally be spending in Sunday School, and that I would play outside, rather than inside, unless the weather was awful — and if I would promise…

YES!

And that’s how I got out of Sunday Jail, and began the quite understandably long process of forgiving my mother for her “many and numerous” acts against me, and against the rightful and just order of the universe.  And I’m glad I did get completely over it and forgive her.  And, now, when I mention it to her — as I only do once or twice a month these days — the two of us have a good laugh about it.

Even though, it’s still mostly her doing the laughing.

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18 thoughts on “How I Got Out of Sunday Jail

  1. My father was an atheist and my mother came from a relatively irreligious family so I’d had little exposure to the thing.

    However, we were living in a rather backward and hypocritically religious region, on the high plains which I choose to call the Midwest — and I sensed that it might be politically expedient to learn about Christianity. My mother’s religious roots were Lutheran and she didn’t mind doing the Sunday and Bible school routine and I absorbed the Lutheran doctrine like a sponge.

    We had a rather progressive old Norwegian pastor who aired some of his private thoughts to an indifferent catechism class which never listened, except for me.

    I embraced the continental European religion with fervor at that time — and its teachings about the history of Christianity in Europe was nicely open-minded and comprehensive.

    I learned about the various doctrines floating about in radical minds at that time and was completely entranced.

    Oh my God! Luther nailing the 95 Theses in protest in 1517, inflaming Zwingli in Switzerland, the Anabaptists, the debate over free will, the romantic story of either the founder of the Mennonites or the Hutterites tossing his cloak upon the ground and exhorting his followers to throw all their belongings on it to share in common, the precursor of communism.

    Later on, indulged in this wealth of theology, I deigned to sneer at the inferior island religions, Anglicanism founded in the foul reign of an adulterous, murderous king, the stinginess and self-righteousness of Calvin and Knox, the worship of royalty, the rigid order of classes on the Isles.

    Although I now consider myself an atheist, I am fond of old Luther for all his faults and failings, and I can easily argue any religious bigot right down into the ground.

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  2. I think that what grabbed me about my branch of Lutheranism was its complexity. There was no simple doctrine to which you answered yes or no. It was a teaching of belief systems, what was believed, why it was believed — and I was twelve or thirteen and I was definitely given a choice in the matter.

    And very little about values, what was right or wrong.

    It was as if it was assumed that you knew what was right or wrong, you just had to have a look at the reason and history behind it.

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  3. Our church didn’t believe in Sunday School. They felt that fathers should be indoctrinating their kids themselves, preferably every day, with boring family church at least once a week.

    I ended up going to the Alliance sunday school and then biking across town to get to our own church after. Our Sunday School was fun and full of farm kids who knew things. We played Mission Impossible in the church and were allowed to ask any question we liked. I have memories of writing and acting out plays, mock fights when learning biblical history (ok, that was when I was teaching Sunday School and they never let me do it again)
    music and outdoor adventures. The teachers were the parents who believed that if Sunday School was fun, other kids would come and bring the parents to church.
    Basically, it was Scouts with bible stories instead of ghost stories. And who is to say which stories were gorier.

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  4. ‘We had the same conversation several times growing up, and she always emphasized, “when you are old enough to make that decision.”‘

    A decision or a realization?

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    • Interesting question, Audrey. The more I think about it, though, the less certain I am how to answer it. But, given the absence of any conclusive logic or material evidence for deity, isn’t it something of an aesthetic choice what one believes?

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  5. :).
    This write up Paul, is endearing though I do not understand the rigor.
    I do not know about Sunday school.We grew up with no obligation to a school on a specific day.

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  6. I never got out of Sunday Jail as a kid. In fact, the indoctrination took so well that I continued inflicting the punishment on myself for a couple of decades after I got married. But, I’m out of jail now, and I’m staying that way.

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