Sunday, August 9, 2015

My Sunday School Memories

This is something I shared at our church's Sunday School picnic on August 3, 2015.

Photo by Stuart Miles (

          I used to be a little boy just like many of you here today. I played with toys, I had pets, and I loved biking and climbing trees. I loved to play with water and get muddy. And I enjoyed admiring nature—the tall trees that whispered when a storm was coming, the colorful birds that filled the trees and the summer skies, and the clumsy tadpoles that swam in a pond or ditch somewhere. And I also enjoyed hearing Bible stories and going to Sunday School.
At home, on Sheldon Ave. in Kitchener, we had a large mirror in the front entrance. I was probably five, and I remember going up to it sometimes, and making all sorts of ugly faces. I would stretch my mouth or my eyes, stick my tongue out, push my nose up. And I loved doing that. Why was that so much fun? I don’t know. But my grandma never liked it when I did it. When she’d catch me, she would say: “Edy, dejá de hacer eso, que te va a quedar así la cara”. (Stop doing that, or your face will stay that way!”) I don’t think I really believed her, but I wanted to behave, because I loved her bed-time stories.
         You know, even if today my mouth does not look like a frog’s, or my nose like a pig’s, there is a lesson to be learned from my grandma’s scoldings. As we grow older, some of the things we do as children can become bad habits that are hard to break. If we lie when we’re young, we will likely lie more when we’re older. When we get used to disobeying when we’re 6, we will likely disobey worse when we’re 12. But the things our godly parents and Sunday School teachers tell us as we’re growing up, can really help us develop good habits, so that when we are 10, 12, 15, it’s easier for us to turn our life to Jesus.
         For example, when I was very young, I had the bright idea that if I bit my finger nails, Mom would not have to trim them anymore. Ridiculous! Isn’t it? And yet today, at 31, biting my finger nails is a habit I have a lot of trouble shaking off. When I read something interesting, I bite my nails. When I’m nervous, I bite my nails. When I’m impatient, I bite my nails. It’s not a serious problem, but it’s not such a great habit. Let’s listen to our parents and Sunday School teachers when we are young. Believe me: life will be much better for you if you do!

My experience with Sunday School is divided into different periods, because our family moved several times. But today I will mostly focus on my earlier Sunday School years.
I was born in Canada, so my first glimpses of Sunday School were at the Apostolic Christian Church in Kitchener. The way they did it there (and still do), on Sunday mornings the young people ages 5 to 14 go to the basement for Sunday School. When you are finished at 14, they give you a thin book with the history of the Apostolic Christian Church, and with your name engraved on it. And then you get to go upstairs, and sit in church with the adults.
         In 1991, our family moved to South America. Argentina was where my Gutwein great-grandfather found refuge for refusing to take up arms in Europe. It was where my grandparents and parents were born. And it was where I lived for over 7 years until I was 14. I went to school there from Grades 2 to 9, and made a lot of Spanish friends.
The other week I asked my grandfather if they had Sunday School when he was young. That would have been around 1938, right before World War II. He said, “Yes, we had Sunday School. I remember when I was six, we had Sunday School and church in the country, which was where we lived.” He listed a few names of people that used to come. I asked him if there were any community people, and he said, “Yes, there were some”. And then he explained that in those days, the church group we belonged to brought their children to Sunday School at 11 am. And while the children had Sunday School, the adults had a member’s meeting. At twelve everyone had lunch, and after that, they had two services in the afternoon. That’s how they did it. You need to remember that way back, travel was more difficult, and it made more sense to do two services back to back, instead of one in the morning and one in the evening. And later they continued doing that for many years. That’s my theory. Later, they built a meeting house in town, where they more or less kept the same service format for many years. In 1991, when I was seven, it was still the same, except for the member’s meeting. And services were held later, starting at 5 pm.
Back in Argentina, a typical Sunday morning probably went something like this:
We got up in the morning and had breakfast early enough to be ready and waiting for the Sunday School pickup truck. Breakfast in our culture was very light. Later, when I came to Canada, it was strange to hear about eggs, and bacon, and potatoes for breakfast. That was like supper for us!! We had hot chocolate, tea, or milk coffee for drink. We were not used to sliced bread like here. We ate a lot of French bread—fat crunchy sticks, with soft, spongy dough on the inside. We ate it at breakfast, and often with food at lunch and supper. For breakfast, on the bread we spread butter, and fruit jam, honey, or as a treat, a sort of caramel milk spread called “dulce de leche” (milk jam). That was it. Milk and bread. Our family rarely had cereal.
         Soon, the Sunday School pickup truck came around. You see, since the Sunday School children were more than 60% community people, and mostly from poor families, the young men from church would drive around town picking everyone up. I wonder how different our Sunday School would be with 60% more children who came from non-Christian families. I remember jumping in the back of the pickup, choosing a spot on either side, and wiping the dust as I sat down on one of the padded benches. We probably piled up to 20 children in there. Sounds crazy, but that’s how we did it!
         Just picture bumping along some dusty road, like a motor-boat in choppy water, in the back of a pickup crowded with impatient, sweaty children. The benches were full, and I remember clearly that at times some of us had to crouch on the floor. It was not the most pleasant ride. I also remember that sometimes, when we could hardly take the heat and the bumps and the dust, the driver and his privileged passengers could hear a cranky little tune from the back that went like this: “¡Chofer, Chofer! Apúrese el motor, ¡que en esta cafetera nos morimos de calor!” (Driver, driver. Rev up the motor, that in this coffee maker we are dying from the heat!” (For some reason, “coffee maker” was used for a rickety old vehicle, but it also did fit the heat and stickiness of the ride).
         When we finally got to our little white church in town, we were ready to jump out, and run in. The iron gate would open. We would run into the small backyard and played until the rest of the children arrived. Down there it is common to see properties surrounded by brick walls, topped with glass shards to discourage people from climbing over. This is how it was at the church too. All sides were surrounded by a 7-foot wall.
         Before Sunday School, all the students lined up on the grass according to their grade. Sometimes we would struggle a bit to be the first in line, and I’m sure it was hard for the teachers to get everyone to stay still and be quiet. Once we were settled, we sang two or three songs. One song I remember singing was, “Soldado soy de Jesús” (I’m a Soldier of Jesus) (Tune: I’m In the Lord’s Army”)
Soldado soy de Jesús
Soldado soy de Jesús
Aunque no ande en la infantería
caballería, artillería;
Aunque en avión no vaya volando,
Pero soldado soy.

         The Sunday School hour was similar to what we’re familiar here. We did some singing, went through our Bible lesson, and gave money for the offering. We sang songs like, “Jonás no le hizo caso” (Jonah Did Not Obey), “Este es el día” (This Is the Day), and “Esta lucecita” (This Little Light of Mine). My teacher would pick up her guitar and we would sing:
Esta lucecita la dejaré brillar 
Esta lucecita la dejaré brillar 
Esta lucecita la dejaré brillar 
Brillará, brillará, brillará. 

En México y Perú la dejaré brillar 
Colombia y Venezuela la dejaré brillar 
Honduras, Nicaragua la dejaré brillar 
Brillará, brillará, brillará. 

We didn’t have individual Sunday School books like we have here. If I remember correctly, as adolescents we may have gotten photocopies of the lessons, with questions for us to answer at home. And then we would discuss them the next class. We sang songs like, “Mansión gloriosa” (I’ve Got a Mansion), “Tu fidelidad es grande” (Your Faithfulness Is So Great), and “Encuentro con Dios” (I Want to Have a Meeting With God). And this song I will leave for at the end.
         Here I would like to pause for a moment, and ask myself the question: What does Sunday School really mean to me? I’m sure my view of Sunday School changed over time, but today, what are my thoughts about Sunday School in general?
         To me, Sunday School is a place where we can find a deeper understanding of God’s will in God’s Word. It’s not really a place for entertainment, or a time to waste away with endless speculations, but it’s a tremendous opportunity to learn absolute Bible truths that cleanse our thinking, purify our speech, and transform our way of life.
         Sunday School is not a replacement for a father and mother’s duty to teach God’s Word to their children. It’s not babysitting (though it may feel like it sometimes). It’s not something we do simply because it’s part of the church program, and we have to labor hard to fill 20 or so minutes of time, and quickly move on to the next thing. 
         It’s a time for delving deep into the things of Christ. It’s a time for meditating on the greatness of God, on the seriousness of disobeying His commandments, and on the peace and joy we have when we live in His will. It’s a time for listening to others, and a time for sharing what God has taught us in His Word. It’s a place for encouragement, commitment, and growth.

         Back to the typical Sunday morning in Argentina: At the end of the Sunday School class, children were given a slip of paper with a Bible verse to take home, in hopes that their parents also would read it. Then, we returned to the church yard, and we lined up again for the second time. We sang a song, prayed, and everyone got a couple candies to eat on the ride home.
         The ride home! As you might have guessed, my brother and I were the last ones to get dropped off. So, at the beginning of the day, we got to see every spot on the bench get filled as we stopped at each house. And on the way back, we saw the benches get emptier and emptier, as everyone was dropped off at their homes, and finally, after one last bump on the road, we saw the big pine tree on our front lawn, the flat little house where we lived, and through the barred window, my Dad cooking dinner.
         Here I should explain that later on, my mom also came along and helped teach Sunday School. (At that time we rode in a nicer Volkwagen van, with comfy seats.) Since all services happened in the evening between March and November, my Dad stayed home while his family was gone, and had some good dinner waiting for us when we returned. Again, our culture was a bit different. We normally didn’t have roast beef and potatoes for Sunday dinner, like here. A delicious dinner was a homemade pizza, or spaghetti and sauce, or meat pie, or albondiga burgers and mashed potatoes. And Dad knew how to cook any of these dishes.
         The other day I reminded Dad about this, and he said, “Yes, I used to cook on Sundays, and at the same time I would take notes for the evening sermon.” I’m not sure if this is how our preachers do it here too. As long as they don’t confuse their sermon outline with their recipe instructions! Or else someone may end up having roast preacher for dinner!
         There would be many more things to say, but I think we’ll leave it at that. And now, the song I promised you earlier:
         The translation goes like this:
         In this happy day, in this holy place,
         I want to have a meeting with God.
         His love is for real, and his peace I will feel.
         I want to have a meeting with God.
                  I want to have a meeting with God,
                  In this holy place of prayer.
                  His love is for real, and His peace I will feel.
                  I want to have a meeting with God.

En este día feliz, en este santo lugar,
         Quiero tener un encuentro con Dios.
         Su amor es real, y su paz gozaré.
         Quiero tener un encuentro con Dios.
                  Quiero tener un encuentro con Dios,
                  En este santo lugar de oración.
                  Su amor es real, y su paz gozaré.
                  Quiero tener un encuentro con Dios.

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