Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Journey, Part 4: Of Flannel Boards and Sunday School

As I have written before, I am on a journey. As of today, I am on day 28 of 40 reading Rick Warren's A Purpose Driven Life.

Reading that book has caused me to examine my beliefs and my faith more deeply that I expected. I have found myself reaching for other books about faith and spirituality, seeking paths others have traveled before me.

Two books I read recently have moved me deeply: Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner, and a work I just finished, The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Towards God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. In the days to come, I plan to write more about The Spirit of Food. I just finished it last night and want to start it all over again. As I emailed Leslie this morning, I am uplifted, I am deeply moved, and I am hungry!

A third book that I would add as having moved me deeply, which I read last fall and plan to reread again in coming weeks, is Every Day is a Good Day:  Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women, edited by the late, great Wilma Mankiller. (It is very interesting to note, as I link back to my post about Wilma Mankiller, that I titled it "Journeys.")

All of these works, and others, are helping guide me on my journey.

This current path has been an interesting one. I am not always enlightened by Rick Warren's writing. There are sections that I disagree with, sometimes strongly. It's not a perfect fit - it's not even a comfortable fit sometimes. I just finished several chapters about churches and the need of believers to join and invest themselves in a church. Those are issues that I struggle with for lots of reasons, starting with my upbringing in the land of flannel boards.

This is not my Sunday School class, but this is a 1960s era class that looks a lot like the ones I attended as a child and about which I write below.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up and teach Sunday school.

Not because I was particularly religious, but because I wanted to use the flannel board.

I loved flannel boards. I would sit spellbound in class while Mrs. Sunday School Teacher would tell a Bible story and press the characters onto the board as she recited the tale.

(A sociological note: This was the 1960s. Sunday School teachers were almost always "Mrs." The only unmarried Sunday School teachers at our church were the two adult daughters of the minister. In their case, their unmarried state was so engrained in us that they were always known as "Miss," even after one of them went and got married. "Ms.," of course, did not yet exist.)

There was a box of flannel pieces to use on the flannel board. Some pieces were characters, some were animals, some were scenery. Sometimes Mrs. Sunday School Teacher would press a palm tree onto the board so we would know it was Galilee and not Delaware, Ohio she was talking about as she told us a story. Sometimes she'd pick up Jesus and press him right onto the board while she told us all about the loaves and fishes.

That always seemed a little chancy to me, handling Jesus so casually. 

Once in a great while, if you sat really, really still and didn't whisper to Kristi Barber sitting next to you and you raised your hand without shouting "Me! Me!" when she asked a Bible question, Mrs. Sunday School Teacher would let you put a piece on the flannel board for all to see. But that rarely happened (and you never got to press Jesus up on the board).

I know why, too. The flannel board was so much fun that Mrs. Sunday School Teacher didn't want to share it.

Not all of the Sunday School teachers used the flannel boards. Maybe our church didn't own that many. Perhaps some of them thought flannel boards were a bit silly.

Miss Lois (one of the two aforementioned daughters) didn't use a flannel board. She taught the nursery room (3 year olds and younger) and was famous for having the only straight line of silent children following her into the sanctuary for the Sunday School closing service. She didn't use the flannel board because she was too busy teaching the little ones how to sing "Jesus Loves the Little Children" in their infant voices. Besides, there were no children colored the four colors of the song to press up on the flannel board. Only shepherds and disciples, all of whom looked remarkably Caucasian for being Israelis.

(An observation: It took me a long time to realize it was fear of Miss Lois, not fear of God, that made those little feet walk so neatly and silently every Sunday.)

As we grew older, Sunday School got more serious. We moved into catechism age and set aside childish things like flannel boards and simple songs. Our Sunday School teachers were now male and we spent our junior high years being taught in Sunday School what we had already supposedly just memorized in catechism class.

(Another  sociological note: This was the 1960s. After you got to 7th grade, the Sunday School teachers were all married men, often church deacons or elders. Maybe the Church Council, which also was all male, thought a man's firm hand was needed to control a group of wild teenagers.)

In eighth grade, I got into a serious argument with Mr. Sunday School Teacher over the doctrine of transubstantiation. When he said that the communion wafer and wine literally became the blood and body of Christ, I came back with "so if I take communion and then immediately have my stomach pumped, you're telling me they will find human blood and flesh in me? And if that's the body and blood of Jesus, why doesn't someone get their stomach pumped and analyze it?"

Eighth grade was not a good year in Sunday School.

Fortunately for me, due to a lack of willing male volunteers, all high school students were consolidated into one class taught by Mr. Springer, who was a ray of sunshine and free-thinking in an otherwise buttoned down, conservative congregation. We had a lot of leeway in his class to discuss religious freedom, religious doubt, and current events, all of which were more pressing in our minds than the three attributes of God.

If Mr. Springer had used flannel boards, his pieces would have included drive-thru churches (for those in too big a hurry to stay), "Sunday Pills" (for those who were looking for an easy way to get their religious "dose" for the week), and a crowd of young people looking for more meaningful ways to worship, including those that weren't Lutheran. In those days at that church, that was practically the same as announcing you were a communist and moving to Moscow.

(Another observation: Even though Mr. Springer was a church elder, I think there were some in the congregation who saw him at best as a troublemaker and at worst as a reprobate.)

It has been a long time since I have seen a flannel board, but they are still out there. Google "flannel board" and you will get over two hundred thousand hits. For a price, I could purchase my own flannel board and my own box of pieces. If I were feeling particularly plush, I could buy several different sets and let Jesus feed all of Noah's animals with loaves and fishes. (Not saying I would - just saying it could be done.)

But in my heart of hearts, I know it wouldn't be the same. I'd need to be sitting on a hard, wobbly wood chair, wearing a scratchy petticoat under my dress, my head sore from a night of sleeping on curlers. I'd need to have an offering dime clutched in my fist while we all sang "Jesus Loves Me" in off-key voices that were as wobbly as the chairs on which we sat. I'd need to have Kristi sitting next to me.

Kristi's been dead for many years now, killed in a hit-skip auto accident when she was a young mother. Mr. Springer is dead, too; he is buried very near Warren's parents and I think of him when I am visiting them. I don't know if they still sing "Jesus Loves the Little Children," with its Crayola colorings of the world. I don't know if the flannel boards of my childhood still exist at the church, perhaps tucked into a closet somewhere.

I do know I'm on a journey, and I'll be on it long after I finish A Purpose Driven Life in a few more weeks. It's a journey of hope and of love, of faith and of searching, of seeking and of finding.


Terri said...

I remember the flannel boards too and I went to a Disciples of Christ church. I also know where I could find a flannel board with a Jesus in every color if that's truly what you want. Just yesterday, noting that another Baptist church has closed in my little town, I found myself thinking about how the methods of teaching too often harden into rigidity and the church dies as a result. One wonders why that spirit of questioning...can't be encouraged from a young age. Fewer people would fall away.

see you there! said...

Wonderful flannel board memories. I attended Sunday School in the basement of a church and sat on those same wobbly chairs.


Alise Marie said...

I can say that one of the most rewarding things I took on during my year in Montana was teaching Sunday School. Though I am about as close to an agnostic as you can get while still believing in the Creator, I really loved teaching kids about Jesus, and hopefully making them think about how to live their lives on a good path.
And being called "Miss Alise" by pre-schoolers just makes me smile.

Jackie said...

Hi April,
I have memories of those flannel boards too. So looking forward to your next post now about change.


underthebigbluesky said...

april, as always, i loved this post.

oh how i remember those flannel boards at the methodist church i was first raised in. your line about casually handling jesus made me laugh into a coughing spell. though i would say there are far to many in religous functions handling jesus too casually these days.

but i loved this and i loved sunday school when the lessons were easy and kind and not disturbing as you find later.

we were lucky too though, when i was a teenage we switched to an episcopal church, where we studied other religions as well as our own and watched Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" and made social commentary (or as much commentary as upper middle class white kids from a rural farm town could)

but i am thankful for those years, for the nasty apple juice in paper cups and the flannel boards, and the teachers.

sometimes i feel my girls are missing out by not having church in their lives, but most times not.

they did however have a flannel board donated to us by my ex-husbands mother who was a day care director. though this one had houses and schools rather than jesus and animals and big rocks to roll over at Easter time.

thanks for bringing out those memories for me today.

and good luck on your ongoing journey.

Donna said...

Thanks for bringing back the memories of flannel boards and scratchy petticoats. We went to Souls Haven church on west William Street (then Marysville rd). Loved the flannel boards, hated the petticoats. Luckily I had curly hair so didn't have to go through the torture of sleeping with curlers. Thanks for sharing these wonderful memories and stirring up some of mine.

Ken said...

Hi April

If you're interested in a liberal religious response to conservative Rick Warren I recommend "The Reason Driven Life" by Robert Price:

Ken Hoffman