Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How the “Bible Club” Ruined My Life

Here I am, a fifty-one year old college professor, still smarting from the wounds inflicted by the righteous when I was a child. It is a slow, festering wound, one that smarts every day— in some way or another. The pain is deceptive. It manifests itself in many ways, a little voice saying I am not good enough, or a sneaking suspicion that a heavy hand might fall on my life and bring it all crashing down on my head.

I guess it all started with Mrs. Sanders (not her real name). She looked around our lower-middle class neighborhood in Kansas City and saw that we children were heading down the road to perdition. Except for the Catholics, who were suspect with her from the start, our neighborhood was not one of churchgoing families. Mrs. Sanders was about to fix that.

She had impeccable fundamentalist credentials. She had graduated from Calvary Bible College, a true fundamentalist enclave in Kansas City. She attended an extremely conservative Baptist church in the wealthier part of town. Not long before, she had left the Southern Baptists, because they simply had lost their fundamentalist edge.

As a young woman, she married Mr. Sanders, who was lacking in “moral uprightness.” She soon had him “tuned-up” and going in the right (her) direction. They lived a large old house with their three children. They carefully avoided the dominant culture. Although the Beatles had just invaded America, everyone in her household kept their dresses appropriately lengthened and, the son and father had new haircuts complete with whitewalls. They were different.

Mrs. Sanders got the idea of the Bible Club from Child Evangelism Fellowship. They taught women, mostly similar to her, how to use games and other activities to attract the youngsters from the neighborhoods in which they resided and get them saved. They were to sing songs, do arts and crafts, and play Bible games. In my neighborhood, it seemed to appeal to kids around eight years old. I was one of those eight year olds.

In the midst of all the fun, came an obligatory part of the Club to which everyone was required to attend. This was when the evangelistic appeal came. The story went like this:

God loves everybody, especially children! Thank goodness for that! You kids are in luck! God wants to do good things in your life. God wants to make you happy and joyful. Everything God wants for you is good!

Now, God, well, God is really good! God is as good as they come. In fact, God is so good; God has never done anything wrong. You know how you sometimes have a bad thought about some friend, or get jealous, our talk back to Mom or Dad? We all do those wrong things.

But God never does anything wrong. God calls that being “holy.” God calls the bad stuff we do “sin.” God loves everybody; in fact, there is only one thing in the whole world God hates and that is sin. God loves you, but God hates your sin.

God says because you have sinned, you have got to be punished. The way God punishes people who sin is by sending them to hell. Hell is an awful place! A terrible place! You stay in the fire in hell forever. Have you ever burned your finger? Well, that is what happens to sinners, and all of you boys and girls are sinners, so you are all going to hell.

Wait! God still loves you. He hates your sin, but he loves you. God is in a real fix! What can God do? The rules God made said you have to go to hell if you sin. However, God loves every boy and girl so very, very much! God thought about the problem. Finally, God figured a way out of his problem.

God’s son, Jesus, is perfect just like God. Therefore, God decided to make a swap. He would send Jesus down to earth to be tormented and nailed to a cross. If you ask God, God will swap Jesus’ punishment for yours and you can get out of hell and find a way to live with God.

On and on she went— every week the same—a mix of games and toys and hellfire. Every week I got increasingly scared of God. She said God would have to send us to hell for stealing even one cookie. I had stolen a few in my day! That is for sure! I did not understand the mixed emotions God had towards me. Did God hate me or love me?

By the time most of us eight year olds had turned ten, she had lost half of her flock. A few more months and the Bible Club went defunct. Most kids just forgot all about it. A few could not. I was one of them. When I became a teenager, I quit school, moved out of my parents’ house and became a hippie. I thought I would just leave all of that “God loves… God hates…” stuff behind, but not so. Such deep and confusing fear is not easily forgotten. After all of these years it still pops up. It pops up in my perfectionism, my melancholy mood, the years of being obsessed with finding the assurance of personal salvation.

After I was married, and Bible Club was long in the past, I looked up Mrs. Sanders. She told me she was just “doing what she could” in those old days. She wondered if the message made any real difference in children’s lives. By then I was an ordained minister in a liberal denomination, I just told her I was a “preacher” now.

She perked-up and smiled. “Jimmy, I guess I sure changed your life!” I replied, “Yes, Mrs. Sanders, you certainly did.” More then you will ever know.

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