In the church that I grew up in there was a rite of passage that you had to go through if you were in elementary school. It happened in the Winter and Spring of the fourth grade. It was absolutely unavoidable in my day, you simply had to go through it and hope you came out on the other side. No, it's not some kind of hazing or some intense "proving ground" as we prepared for our teenage years. It was Mrs. Gorton's fourth grade Sunday morning Bible class.
Perhaps the worst part of this experience was that the primary teaching method was the dreaded flannel board. This came with a seemingly endless supply of clouds, boats, loaves and fish, and Jesus in the same outfit that he always wore (it almost made you wonder if he had two outfits). The 12 Apostles all looked like brothers or at least cousins and they were all about 2 inches shorter and reasonably less handsome than Jesus. How could a kid like me ever survive six months of Bible class with this inhumane mode of teaching?
Mrs. Gorton was legendary. She had probably taught this class for well over a 1,000 years if not more. Her material never changed, her voice was firm, any form of distraction or not paying attention was greeted with a no tolerance policy. I'm sure she would have sent me out of class back to my parents had they not both been teaching at the same time. (I dodged a bullet there.)
For all the complaining, dread, and clock watching that I did in that cold classroom with the movable wall partitions and table with gum on the bottom I see things a little differently now. You see, this wasn't the last time that I interacted with Mrs. Edna Gorton. A few years older (not many) Mrs. Gorton has fallen victim to an agressive form of Alzheimer's and was in a nursing facility way across town. One week we decided that the youth group was going to go visit and sing hymns to/with Mrs. Gorton and those at her nursing facility. Two confessions here that I still think about: (1) I didn't even notice she wasn't around and (2) when I found out we were going to see her those same feelings of dread and impatience came rushing back. But something happened that night that I will never forget.
It was a cold night and the church van was jammed full. This was one of those nights that no matter how many layers you had on or how long the heater in the van had been running it was still cold. We pulled up to the nursing home and hesitantly went in. We went into this large open room that had a fountain in the middle and rather sizeable trees in large pots all around the outside. It was like a little oasis of life and warmth from the ice world we had just been in.
We finally found Mrs. Gorton and I couldn't hardly recognize her. She wasn't wearing her glasses that I'm sure she had had since maybe before I was born. Her frame had withered to not much more than skin and bones, she couldn't stop drewling, and was completely unresponsive to any engagement whether verbal or by touch. So we just began to sing circled around her wheelchair that she was restrained in because she lacked the strength to keep herself in it.
The first song garnered no response. The same with the second. The third song which wasn't in our music that had been prepared for us was My God and I. We knew it because many of us had just sang it at a funeral. We finished the first phrase "My God and I..." when Mrs. Gorton sat up and smiled. Her jaw began to quiver and her hands curled up. I wasn't sure what was happening. By the middle of the first verse we could tell what was happening. She was singing!! She joined us as we reached these words of the first verse...
My God and I walk through the meadow's hue;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter,
My God and I walk through the meadow's hue.
She lowered her head and went silent for a few moments. The third verse came around and the preacher started it with extra fervor and volume. And again Mrs. Gorton came to life joining us this time for the entire verse although still with eyes that were as blank as before.
My God and I will go for aye together,
We'll walk and talk as good friends should and do;
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly;
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.
A with a smile on her face she took a deep breath and bowed her head and that was the last we were able to really interact with Mrs. Gorton.
I never saw her again. I don't know how long it was before she passed away, but that last time that I saw her, in retrospect, was probably one of the defining moments of my life.
You see I learned something about myself, Mrs. Gorton, and God that night. (Although I must admit I didn't learn it fully that night, but only after time and experience and some serious growing up.) I learned that in my arrogance and impatience I had severely limited the extent to which God was able to teach me and shape me. I learned that God works in ways that seem trivial, silly, or sometimes even downright insulting to our intelligence (Balaam and his donkey come to mind here).
More importantly I learned something about crusty, scary, old, and unpleasant Mrs. Gorton. I learned that in fact she wasn't any of those things (well, except old). In fact, she knew intimately something that I in some ways still haven't wrapped my mind around. For her, Jesus wasn't a white guy who always wore a white robe with a blue sash and brown sandles with his hands always lifted in some unnatural position. Jesus was alive, he was a dear friend and the one who set her heart on fire so that even after her mind had been devoured by her Alzheimers her spirit burst forth at the thought of God as her dearest friend and companion.
I'll never forget that flannel board. In fact, the last time I was at Northwest in the resource room I went and pulled out a flannel Jesus just to remember what she had taught me. An encounter with the flannel Jesus ultimately changed my life.
I hope someday to have the intimacy with God that was so obvious in my beloved Mrs. Gorton. I can't wait to tell her someday how thankful I am for that silly little flannel board.
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)