One of the first lessons we children learned in Sunday School was this: The church is not a building; it is the people. Of course, we didn’t believe it. We knew that, if the church was us, it was in big trouble.
We were disciples of crime, disturbers of the peace. We left shards of broken commandments all over the hall. We stole sugar cubes that our own grandmothers had bought; we broke the donated toys. We experimented with four-letter words. We snuck into forbidden places—the basement, the bell tower—and our only punishment was finding them uninteresting. We mimicked the way old ladies sang, gossiped about fat people and nicknamed a foster kid “Dog.”
We broke the spirit of our choir director. The Christmas program was approaching, and “Little Gray Donkey” was in bad shape. We refused to obey. A sudden impulse overtook the Bennett boy: he vaulted over the choir loft, flew about seven feet and landed with a mighty thud on his size elevens. It was shockingly brilliant. Rehearsal screeched to a halt, and we were seriously scolded, but snickered under our breath.
Despite all the evidence, no one clearly taught us about original sin. Apparently, coming down hard on people was not a denominational concern. This deliberate omission actually made life harder when we became teens. Confirmed as members, we were now told that we were “the body of Christ.” This was bad news: our behaviors had only gone underground and worsened. And we didn’t even like each other all that much.
I started becoming suspicious of it all on Easter Sunday, just before I graduated from high school. I was already feeling that there must be a crack in the building’s foundation. Now I was hearing that we were a body without a living head.
The sermon was called “Where Did The Body Go?” The minister used a peculiar logic: the Bible says that Jesus is sitting at God’s right hand. God doesn’t have hands, so that’s impossible. The only interpretation is that the body is simply you and me, here and now, with Jesus’ fine example moving us along.
And so, by the end of that hour, all that was left of Easter was the stained glass window behind the pulpit. I had looked at it every Sunday for seventeen years. It depicted a solid Jesus. The morning light was behind him. He was standing in front of a cave. One hand was up, and there was a shard of crimson in his palm. Mary Magdalene was on her knees with her face lifted. There was no mistaking her expression: she had not expected a resurrection.
We, sadly, had expected one, but it was taken from us. Here we were, getting ready to vault into the world, with nowhere to land.
But back to those naughty children, in their goofiest hour. Mrs. Heston read us the story of Joshua, who led his people against five armies. He prayed for a miracle:
Joshua spoke to the Lord, saying,“O sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and O moon in the valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and
the moon stopped, until the nation avenged themselves of their
enemies. And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not
hasten to go down for a whole day. There had never been a day like it before.
Our class went wild. One whole day, completely missing? That meant the calendar was all wrong! Today wasn’t today after all! Ha ha ha! Christmas wasn’t December 25th-- it was the 26th! The Fourth of July was really the Fifth of July! Everybody's birthday was off by a day, ha ha when’s yours? When’s mine? And oh oh oh, we shouldn’t even be in church right now because today is Monday!
Mrs. Heston never batted an eye. She didn’t scold, she didn’t stop the rioting. She let us go on re-arranging history on the basis of her simple testimony: the Bible tells us so. She was teaching us that its accounts are true; that the cosmos is held together by personal resolve, and its maker, anytime he wanted, could shake it up. The sun could stay or darken, according to His mysterious plan.
It meant, in fact, that anything could come undone: light and darkness, thievery and lies, every kind of mischief and all the ways we fall hard. Even, if he willed it, death itself.