Friday, September 20, 2013


I’m sure things have changed now, but 60 years ago attending our Seventh-day Adventist church was a dress-up affair, and even small boys like me were expected to wear a jacket and tie, if not a suit.  Everyday school clothes weren’t an option.  Our family was poor and I was the only boy, so all of my clothes were either bargain basement or secondhand castoffs that my mother purchased for pennies at rummage sales.  I don’t remember all the various outfits that I wore, of course, but I do recall one brown suit that had missing buttons.  My mother had jars of random buttons of all kinds--color, composition, size, and shape--and she had found some that were “sort of” like the remaining ones of my suit.  “No one will notice,” she said.  But of course I noticed and what made matters worse was that she had sewn the buttons on with thread that bordered on orange.  Was she colorblind? 
She probably thought I didn’t really care, but to me the buttons and orange thread might as well have been a sign on my back, and they made me extremely self-conscious.  As for ties, my mother came up with clip-on bow ties.  The one of those I recall was made of brown leather.  Rather sharp, actually, except that it had been handled so much that it was badly discolored with skin oils.  The thing is, none of this was really my mother’s fault; she was just doing the best that she could.

Sabbath school for kids meant being shuffled into one of several rooms in the basement of the church, depending on age.  It was pretty much free babysitting for the parents who were attending the services for adults in the main auditorium of the church.

My earliest memories of the church are probably from when I was a kindergartener and we were taught,

Jesus loves me; this I know, 
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.

A bit sappy, perhaps, but easy for us to learn.

In later years we were divided up into small groups of maybe five or six each, with each group led by one of the volunteer adults.  The groups were always all girls or all boys and the kids in each group were within a year or two of being the same age.  Each group sat in a semicircle around the leader.  My recollection is that I generally didn’t know or particularly like the other boys in my group.  That probably says more about me than about them.

There were weekly lessons that we were supposed to have read and studied, usually an account of one of the Bible stories, such as Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jonah being swallowed by a great fish, or Daniel in the lion’s den.  The stories were always kept on the light side and usually were used to illustrate the importance of obedience to God.  The lesson also always included a “memory verse” that we were supposed to have learned before that morning.  Of course, most of the time none of the kids had studied the lesson in advance and no one had learned the memory verse.  

Sometimes there would be a plenary meeting where the leaders made general announcements or there were larger group activities.  One of these was a sword drill.  Everyone was supposed to have his or her own Bible (the sword) and during the drill we were given the cite to a specific verse.  All the kids were then supposed to look up the verse as fast as they could and the first to find it stood up and began reading it out loud.  Often the verse was from a lesser known book like Colossians or Habakkuk, just to make it harder to find.  I never won these contests.  But I’m blaming my Bible, the one I got for my eighth birthday that had a zipper binding that kept getting in the way of my fumbling fingers.

There was generally a 20-30 minute break between sabbath school and the regular church service that everyone was expected to stay for.  My mother usually left after sabbath school, though, perhaps recognizing that our patience was waning.  Ordinarily, we took the bus back home.  However, on occasion my mother would treat us to an early lunch at Schrank’s, a cafeteria that was located a block or two from the church.  Technically, going to a restaurant and buying a meal on the sabbath was considered a violation of the Fourth Commandment to keep the day holy.  And I recall feeling a bit furtive as we would enter the restaurant, hoping that no one from the church saw us.

Because I was so self-conscious about my clothes, because I didn’t particularly like the other kids in my group, and because I was generally unprepared for the week’s lesson, I found myself looking for ways to avoid sabbath school.  I would feign a “stomach ache” or claim I was just too sleepy, waiting in bed until my mother left the house to catch the bus.  And of course not going made it even more difficult to go the following week, as I was sure to be admonished by my group leader and be asked by him or the other boys why I had not been coming.  The more weeks that I missed, the more difficult it was to explain my absence.  It was a vicious circle.

Moreover, there were secular attractions to not going.  There were games I could play with my sisters or with neighbor kids, as well as Saturday morning TV shows to watch such as “Captain Video,” “Sky King,” and “Fury”--all things that were considered clear violations of the Fourth Commandment and that our mother would tell us we shouldn’t do.

Now here’s the thing.  In all of the times that I failed to attend sabbath school and played games or watched TV instead or when my mother took us to Schrank’s, each clearly a sin in my mind, I do not recall being particularly afraid of God’s judgment.  Rather, I was only afraid of what others might think--the judgment of others who might see me going into Schrank’s on the sabbath or the judgment of my mother in knowing that I had played games or watched TV.  My sense is that for most people actions are governed more by their relationships to others rather than by their relationship to God.  Or maybe it was just me.  I would be interested in learning of others’ experience with respect to this matter.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. John, so many memories come to my mind reading your article on the Sabbath. The one thing I did enjoy was going to Shranks after Sabbath School. Sure didn't bother my conscience. My clothes always bothered me so much. They still are a dressy bunch of people. Where I go now is no problem what I wear.So much enjoyed your writing this morning.

    1. Thanks. It was fun writing it. I'm still puzzled by my memories of being more concerned about what others thought of my "sinful behavior" (Schrank's, playing on the sabbath, etc.) than about God's condemnation. Was that just me or did (do) others have the same experience?

    2. I guess I never felt gullity about Shranks or other thing to "break" the Sabbath. I think that all of the rules concering the Sabbath were ridiculous even back then,. I also could never understand seeing a movie in a theatre was sinful. You could back then watch TV and it was fine. Many rules from the SDA. Many foolish rules and they still try to keep them now.

  2. You are right, we judge, we have expectations...I just recently read about a minister who dressed like a homeless man and came to church and was mistreated by his congregation... and near the end of the service got up on the platform and revealed himself to the church. I thought of how often we judge and condemn and yet have no idea of what that person may be experiencing from day to day...unfortunately we look to others for our example of what a christian should look like...when we should be looking to Jesus. He was constantly "breaking" the sabbath and eating with sinners and touching the untouchables. What we forget is that church is for sinners and some of the biggest sinners lead out and stand in judgment...they are the hypocrites that when Jesus returns will be the ones that are told, "I never knew you." So don't look to church members for perfection...there are some of us that realize we need Jesus and that is why we are there to be healed and changed, and not to judge.

    1. Your comment about the minister is an interesting one. I sense that standards of dress in church have been relaxed substantially since I was a kid. I think, though, that everyone judges others by their appearance, whether it is their demeanor or their clothes. It's just natural to do that--we are built to have initial impressions of others based on appearances, attire, and accoutrements.

  3. So the Good Book says, Jesus was despised and rejected by men...there was nothing in His appearance that we should be desire Him and we deemed (thought) Him smitten of God...but I was satan that killed Him though the control of the minds of men. Yes, we are "taught" to look at the masks people wear and "judge" their worth.

    1. I agree that we are taught, either expressly or by inference or example, to judge others by appearances. I think we are also genetically "built" to judge others by appearances, because doing so was to our evolutionary advantage way back. Unfortunately, this is one of those genetic remnants from long ago that has largely outlived its usefulness.