I must have been a strange child. I was happy to be with people, happy to be alone, happy to sink or swim – it really didn’t matter. I wasn’t competitive, if someone else wanted to win, that was fine. Prizes or parties meant nothing to me. I hated loud noises; the sounds of fireworks and celebrations startled and frightened me as much as gunshots and fights. But through everything, I struggled to make sense of the world. I needed things to be organized – not in my closet, or even in the sense of neatness – I needed actions and words to match, I needed ideas and ideals to coincide. The disconnect started early.
I went to Sunday school. I don’t know how old I was – I was preparing for my first communion. We learned about Jesus, about God, and already I was confused. One of my first picture books had been about Greek myths. Where were Zeus and Hera? Where was Heaven? Was it the same as Mount Olympus? My questions were met with a patient smile. “Greek myths,” the priest informed me, “are fake stories made up by pagans. We are studying religion, the Christian religion, which was founded by Jesus more than a thousand years ago. He believed that you should love one another, and his religion is founded on brotherly love.”
I loved the sound of that. A whole religion founded on caring for people! I was on board. I didn’t question the priest any more until we started learning our first song. “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I suppose the tune is catchy enough, but the words confused me. Wasn’t Jesus against war? Why did Christian soldiers have to carry swords? If Jesus preached love, and God said, “thou shall not kill”, then who were these Christian soldiers going to kill?
This time, my questions were met with less patience. “There are people who will try to go against God’s teachings. They will try to turn you against God. You must arm yourself against them and be Jesus’s soldier in the war against Christianity.” I wasn’t convinced. Killing someone to make them believe in something didn’t sit well with me. I was the original “live and let live” kid. I raised my hand. “If someone wants to believe in Zeus, and tries to get me to…” I was cut off. The priest was starting to sound exasperated. “I told you, Zeus does not exist.”
But I had a book with all his stories in it, and I’d seen statues made of marble of him. I had a book with illustrations even – it showed a bearded man holding lightning bolts. And all I had of Jesus was a book with his stories in it, and a painted statue (not as imposing as the marble) and a folder that the priest had given us showing a man sitting under a tree with a child on his lap and a lamb lying by his side. Timidly, I raised my hand again. “How do we know God really exists?” I asked. “Can I talk to him?”
To my relief, the priest smiled broadly. “Of course you can talk to him! It’s called prayer, and the first prayer we will learn is ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. It starts off ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…'”
I caught the word ‘art’, and thought that if they did drawing and painting in heaven, it must not be a bad place. And Jesus wanted everyone to love one another, so that was nice too. But talking to God through prayer wasn’t proof for me. I asked if he would answer back, so I would know for sure he was there, and the priest finally lost all patience and pointedly ignored me until the end of the class. Then he took me aside and told me to stop asking questions – that the next time I asked a question or even made a sound, I would be removed from the class – was that clear? Perfectly. Well, until the next session. Then, I forgot I was supposed to be quiet, and I got into the story of Jesus calming the storm and made the sound of whooshing wind and thunder to go along with the tale…and got kicked out of Sunday school class.
I was sitting on the back steps of the church alone – waiting for my Dad to come pick me up. I was content, as usual. The sun was shining, the steps were comfortable, there were birds in the sky and dandylions growing in the cracks on the sidewalk. I didn’t mind getting kicked out of Sunday school. My father was livid. He came early, saw me sitting alone, and stormed into the classroom, towing me by the arm, and grabbed the Sunday school teacher (it wasn’t the priest this time – it was one of his minions) and said if he saw me sitting outside alone again, he’d really lost his temper. My father’s eyes were very, very pale blue. At that time, he had reddish gold hair, and looked like Robert Redford. When he was angry, which was rare (he was one of the calmest persons I ever knew) his eyes narrowed and practically glowed. He snarled, and the Sunday School teacher sat down and just nodded.
I continued my studies, sitting in the very back, as quiet as a mouse (I was good at pretending to be something else – but mice, I reasoned, didn’t understand human speech, so I didin’t listen to a word the teacher said).
My brother, me, my sister – the day of my firsst communion – ( I was clueless)
When the time came for the First Communion, I had no idea what was going on. I’d day-dreamed my way through the rest of the classes and found myself dressed in a ridiculous short, white, fluffy wedding gown type dress, complete with veil and white gloves. My grandmother gave me a pocket sized bible – also white – with a cunning cross encrusted inside the front cover. You could pop the Jesus out, and it clipped on a rosary, which she also pressed into my hand. I had no idea what to do with the rosery. We filed in and I simply imitated what everyone else did. I sat, kneeled, stood, got in line, opened my mouth llike a baby bird, got some sort of bready disk stuck on my tongue, said “Amen”, and went to kneel down again. Everyone was quiet. I stared around until I met the priest’s stern gaze. Then I realized everyone else had their heads bowed. I put my head on my hands and waited. I fell asleep. My neighbor, as she got to her feet, jostled me and woke me up. I yawned and got in line. Now what? We went into a little box, where, I realized, a man was sitting across from me, hidden by a wooden screen. This, I realized belatedly, was a confessional and I was supposed to confess. The priest repeated his question – what did I wish to confess? I had no idea. I hadn’t killed anyone. I didn’t lie, cheat, steal. I wasn’t jealous of anyone. I made up a story about pushing my sister into a mud puddle because I coveted her comic book. Oh, and I didn’t eat my string beans because I hated them (Actually, I hated everything – I ate only three things – peanut butter, toast, and apples). This seemed to satisfy the priest who told me to “say nineourfathers and twelvehailmarys and God bless you my child.”
I had no idea what nineourfathers was, or twelvehailmarys could be. I knelt, like everyone else was, and put my head on my hands, and fell asleep again. I was eternally exhausted. I was insomniac (since I was born, it seems) and as soon as I put my head down anywhere during the day, I slept – in school, on the bus, sitting on a swing… just not when I was lying in bed. Too many monsters at night!) So, I slept until the priest tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up, bleary-eyed, and realized everyone else had left. I was mortified. I thought he’d scold me, but he was beaming. “You prayed longer than anyone else,” he said. “I’m so happy for you, Jennifer. Did you say all your Our Father prayers and the Hail Marys, like you were supposed to?”
I blinked at him – and finally realized what the “nineourfathers” and “twelvehailmarys” were. I got to my feet and smiled back. “Yes,” I lied. I had a feeling my entire First Communion had just been silently revoked in heaven, but I didn’t mind. I’d already decided that I liked Jesus well enough, but the trappings of the church hid his words more than they enhanced them. My father’s anger at finding me on the chuch steps fortified my decision that from then on, I’d believe in what I felt was right – and not what other people would tell me to believe.
But that day, I also put the Greek myths to rest in their place. The world had changed. The old gods were dead, a new god had killed them. But that didn’t mean I had to worship him. I would not be a Christian soldier bent on killing anyone who didn’t believe in Christ. People could believe what they wanted, I decided. Any anyhow, I was more interested in Jesus as a person, because that was when he was most beloved to me. Years later, when I saw “Jesus Christ Superstar”, I had the impression that Andrew Lloyd Weber had read my mind. It’s still one of my favorite movies (I only saw the movie, I would have had loved to see the play).
But my disconnect still continues; and today, I see the major religions gearing up for a nice little war with each other, even within the same religion, like Islam, there are factions fighitng for power – because that is what it’s all about, isn’t it? The power to control the most people as possible in order to be the king of the block. It goes against everything any god has ever said, but people are hypocrites.
Right now in the USA, Trump has the support of evangelical Christians – how huge a disconnect is that? They consider him a “good moral person”.
And, “according to Bill Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, the context to white evangelicals hitching their wagon to Trump is “panic at the precipitous decline of Christianity” in US society.”
For more reading about that – here is an interesting article:
‘Toxic Christianity’: the evangelicals creating champions for Trump, The Guardian, 21 October 2018.
PS: I don’t mind religion. I actually loved my book on Greek myths and thought Jesus Christ Superstar was one of the best films ever made. But I don’t want to have power over anyone except myself. I want to be able to decide who touches my body and when, I want to be able to eat good food that isn’t full of chemicals or made of tortured animals, I’d like to be able to get education and healthcare, I’d to be able to get a job that pays decent wages. And I wish that for the entire world. That’s all. Not mansions or swimming pools or diamonds – just good food, good wages, good education and healthcare. Oh, and art, music, and books – lots and lots of books to read. Maybe that is heaven on Mount Olympus?