Friday, February 15, 2013

# 42 You Gotta Serve Somebody

   I'm in grade five and my teacher, Miss Merkley has just finished reading us The Good Samaritan, one of many weekly bible stories we heard. She reads much better than the Sunday School teacher I see every week. Today, she closes the book at the end, and rather than engage us in discussion, she puts down her book and says, "Now class, I want  you to welcome Mr. Angus from the Gideon's Bible Company. If you are all very attentive, he has an important gift for all of you."  Our eyes light up and I don't know about anyone else, but I think, Wow! Presents!

   So, this middle aged Mr. Angus, dressed in grey flannel pants, blue blazer, and a brush cut walks up and down the isles, placing a small bible with a red cover on our desks. It is emblazoned with gold print and reads, The Holy Bible: The New Testament. Then, he instructs everyone to write their name on the inside of the front cover. I like this book! It's new, perfect size for my hand (it was the size of a smart phone), it's clean and it smells neat too. So, I open it up and carefully write my name in the cover.

   Then, I start flipping through the pages, and frankly, I'm disappointed. The print is so small, there are no pictures, and I can't understand most of what I read. There are lots of words like "Thy", "Thou" and "Ye", this is foreign stuff to me. After, handling it, putting on my desk, looking at it, and a little too preoccupied with my gift to pay much attention to Mr. Angus, I slide it into my pant pocket in preparation for its journey home. Once home, I show it to my mother, then take to my room and place it on my chest of drawers. To the best of my memory, it floated around the house for years, I never opened it again, except for once or twice.  I don't know where it is now. I know at one point I used it to prop up a table in basement.

    Back then religion was part of everyday life in a public school. We stood beside our desks every morning, bowed our heads, chanted The Lord's Prayer before God Save the Queen and O' Canada. We prayed before big family meals, prayed before bed, prayed at Sunday school, and other church services. One time, during an Easter Service, I got lost while marching and singing Onward Christians Soldiers through the congregation. My first church trauma!  I started off OK, but somehow I ended up wandering off into another section of the church. When I returned, my mother looked worried, embarrassed, and disgusted all in one expression. It's remarkable what mothers can do with their faces.
   Don't get me wrong, I don't recall my family as being particularly passionate about religion, but it did seem to permeate my life at the time. The Anglican church I attended was a focal point of the neighbourhood.  I saw my friends from school there, attended Boy Scouts in the basement, charity bizarres, and a few other community events.  Periodically, The Reverend would do the rounds through the neighbourhood in an effort to drum up support for his services. I don't think he got a big pay cheque, and had to rely on the collection plate donations to supplement his income.

    Every Sunday, most stores were shut down, the television played only church services on days like Christmas and Easter. As I got older, I was taught about the Protestant work ethic, "Honesty, Sobriety and Thrift" which served as back drop to the idea of service to the community, the church, school and work. The general message seems to have been that we are placed on this earth to serve somebody.

   In retrospect, the only thing I liked about the whole experience was the bible stories, and let me tell ya, there are some good ones in the New Testament. To me, it was a world complete with good guys and bad guys: saints, sinners, prophets, angels, devils all guided by old man with a long grey beard who was always watching us from somewhere up there in the clouds. Of course, there were all the parables from Jesus, they were good too. I was indoctrinated into this world with rituals about dress, food, celebrations, speech and thoughts. I still have very fond memories of those stories pulled out of the bible for my ears and imagination. So much so, that years later, I studied it at university and found even more great tales in the Old Testament.

   As a child, I listened to these stories with a great deal of interest, similar to the enthusiasm I displayed when I watched Saturday morning cartoons; I was submerged in the state of Suspended Disbelief. I am sure if the public school I attended didn't supplement the lessons from the church, they wouldn't have stuck with me this long. In retrospect, I realize that the central lesson was, Religion is not about protecting the believer from the world, but rather protecting the believer from himself.

  There isn’t much in the way of overt religious acknowledgement in the public schools I have
taught in over the years.  However, as a baptized Protestant I did manage to wiggle my way into a job at a Roman Catholic school once and was spooked by constant assault on the individual spirit. I listened to these morning prayers, and attended a few services where the message always seemed to be, "You are a pathetic sinner...." I felt spiritually dirty afterward. Maybe I was daydreaming, but I don't remember hearing that message at my church.

   In modern public schools there are prayer meetings in various parts of the school, usually at lunch time, but no prayer over the PA, no reading of bible stories. Our public schools have embraced secularism because they are desperately trying to attract customers from all cultures. Christianity has had to move out of the limelight and into the bleachers with all the other religions. Religious education is pretty much left up to the family home and local church. However, that doesn't mean that people don't still crave the same feelings I experienced from participating in the suspended disbelief that religion provided for me.

   There is a new religion in town and it is called Consumerism, a byproduct of our secular society. It has many similarities to the world of religions participation, just not as spiritually romantic. A secular consumer culture has just as many weird rituals about food, dress, speech as all the other mainstream religions. There are sins like: smoking, eating too much salt, fat, and refined sugar.  In days gone by some Christian churches would encourage members to donate 10% of their income to the church regardless of their financial circumstances. Consumerism encourages members to forget the self and go into debt at Christmas and Easter. In return for purchasing more stuff than needed, they are promised to easily appease feelings of guilt by and taking refuge in the false security of credit and low interest payment plans. 

   Consumerism has saints and sinners too. People like Bill Gates and Donald Trump are promoted as so close to the consumer Gods that most of us don’t believe we will ever make it to their heaven. We also have prophets in the form of celebrity athletes, entertainment stars, just to make us realize we might just make it to heaven if we "hang on to our dreams."  The sinners are the faceless banks and other corporations who take advantage of the lowly consumer.

   The majority of the consumer followers don't frequent churches anymore. They've traded up to big box stores on Sunday morning, taking communion at the sample tables or stopping by a local drive through windows for a flaccid confession with their coffee and bagel. Now, public cameras watch them on the roads and in stores to keep them safe from themselves.

   It seems to me that we need to feel like there is an invisible man watching our every move regardless of whether it's a traffic camera, or a bearded old man peering down from the clouds. Our news and entertainment media provide us with a repetitive host of stories about saints, and sinners everyday. We like it and we need it, if only for the sense of security it provides to us.

   As I approach a stage in my life where it is obvious that there is more behind me than in front of me, there is a temptation to revert back to that story I learned in my childhood. The problem is that it is not longer a case of suspended disbelief, there is just disbelief.  My grade five teacher would probably tell me I've lost my way or adopted a the life of a sinner, but I would confess to her, the lessons taught are fixtures in my mind. I have been indoctrinated into the Christian world, my conscience is guided by the ideas taught at home, in church and in the public schools I attended. I can't forget them, even when I want to.