The teachers never checked the area between the gym and the cafeteria — the perfect place for high stakes penny pitching. Fifth grade boys lined up during recess and threw pennies at a brick wall. Whoever’s penny stayed closest to the wall won all of the pennies. This was the most fun anyone had ever had, but I knew it was gambling.
I took a pocketful of pennies one day just in case I succumbed to temptation, but I was not like most children. I was afraid that if I threw a penny against the gym wall, I would end up destitute in Las Vegas, sitting on the sidewalk begging for money to lose at the blackjack table. My refusal looked like following rules, but it was really about being loyal to the team. My team was made up of people who do not gamble. The reason I have never, ever, not once, bought a lottery ticket is that I was taught, “You’re better than that.” “You’re better than that” is not far from “You’re better than them.”
One Saturday afternoon, our church softball team defeated some Baptist church that had not won the associational crown three years in a row. Jeff Pittsenberger saw a friend two fields over playing a pick-up game, so the two of us went to join in. Their cooler was different than the Baptist coolers to which I had grown accustomed. Theirs was filled with Miller High Life. The scene was a beer commercial — people playing ball, laughing in the sun, dropping a cold one. Jeff was downing his second so he was not going to tell. No one would ever know. I could taste the High Life! I was afraid that if I took a sip I would wake up on skid row with an unkempt beard. I stayed sober because I was on the other team. I had my first drink of wine — I know how provincial this makes me sound — when I was 30 at an Episcopal Communion service.
When I was in high school a group decided to go to a Bruce Springsteen concert and — this is the surprising part — I was invited. I was not invited by my church friends. Someone in Algebra II, who showed signs of being an atheist, invited me. I heard stories about marijuana smoke drifting through the arena at rock concerts. It would be in the very air I breathed. I was sure that if I inhaled, the second hand smoke would land me in a folding chair in a church basement at Narcotics Anonymous. The reason I sat at home and listened to Born to Run on my 8–track was that the rock and rollers were not on my team. I did not make it to a Bruce concert until I was 42. By then the air was filled with nothing but air.
My parents used to say, “Brett never got in trouble — not once” while I hung my head in shame. What kind of person follows every rule? I was an Amish kid without the rumspringa, sure I was missing out.
I am not suggesting that we need more gambling, drinking and smoking. My sheltered upbringing has advantages. Staying out of trouble is not the worst thing that can happen to you.
The prohibitions with which I grew up seem silly to most teenagers, but this column is not completely out of date. We are still tempted to believe that sin is being on the other team. We divide people into “us” and “them” — Democrats and Republicans, Americans and foreigners, rich and poor. The people outside the church have figured out that sometimes people in the church think of themselves as “us.”
What if instead of being taught that sin is playing with the other team I had been taught that sin is not loving? How much better would it have been if rather than feeling superior to the gambling, drinking and smoking crowd, the church had pointed out that Jesus ran with that crowd? What if we had not been so penny-pinching? What if we had played ball with anyone who wanted to play? What if the church had bought group tickets for Springsteen? What if Christians were known not for prohibitions, but for caring?
I am not sure I would have been a better person if I had thrown a penny, taken a drink or inhaled, but I know I would be farther along if I had not been taught to feel superior to those who did.