Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Church Part 2

I peeked left.
I peeked right.
I was both relieved and a little disappointed to find that, no, heavenly hands had not found their way to me.  Rather, in a scene that I am sure would have looked comical to any one of the few readers I have, had one of you walked into the room, all of the youth leaders had gathered around me, touching me and muttering soft prayers in an attempt to intensify the saving effects of ###’s own prayers.  I pushed from my mind the thoughts of how ludicrous a scene it must have been, telling myself “it’s now or never, Danno.” (I call myself Danno in my head, you see) “If something tangible is going to happen, it’s going to happen right now.”

### begged God to show me the way.  He proclaimed that he knew I was lost and searching for answers; that I was looking for something tangible and real tobelieve in.  So far so good, this guy sure can riff.  His fingers dug into my head and he went silent (I remember thinking: “If this were a porno, the money shot wouldbe next.”)  He spoke to me now, telling me to open up my heart and let the lord in, while the youth leaders tightened their grips on me too, and whispered in agreement.  I did as he said.  I cleared my mind and opened my heart… I really wanted this… I really believed in this… something was about to click I just knew it!  I held my breath and waited… their hands tightened on me… I waited… I was sweating from the warmth of all their grips…I waited… I waited… I waited… their grips loosened... I opened my eyes… the group was dispersing… the moment had passed… nothing had happened.  I’d been brought to the brink and left hanging, and for the rest of the night I suffered from religious blueballs.

This entry has already spilled into two parts, and I really don’t want to move into three or four part territory, so I will not be transcribing every note I took.  My notes from a sermon I attended about guilt will be the final chapter in the church series, at least for the foreseeable future.

I woke up early on the morning of this sermon, I think because I was having such anxiety about what I was supposed to wear to church.  I decided against a full suit and didn’t even end up wearing a tie or a jacket, settling on a pale blue dress shirt.  I realized in the car on the way over that I’d gained about 2 stone since I purchased this shirt and buttoning it up was a real problem, so I left it open. I was certain I’d look under-dressed and be judged harshly.
On that same drive over, I hit every green light on the way to the church.  Shall I interpret that as a sign from God?  He’s not really doing much about the poverty and murder in the world, so perhaps he is concentrating on traffic lights instead?  When I walked into thechurch, my fears of being under-dressed were quickly alleviated.  Only one elderly couple were wearing their Sunday’s best, the rest of the congregation were decked out in t-shirts and jeans, and in a way I actually felt a little over-dressed.  I sat with a group of the people I knew from the youth group, who were all wearing sandals, band t-shirts and ripped jeans, and felt like a bit of a nerd in my overly tight dress shirt.
We were all prompted to stand and hear some songs of worship, lead by a 6-piece Christian rock cover band.  The singer had a good voice but, suffice to say, his face would have been improved by a harelip, because at least it would have drawn attention away from his massive unibrow.  Once the bandfinished playing, the pastor informed everyone that they were beginning a “men vs. women” collection competition, to see which sex could raise the most money for the church.  I donated five dollars… not to support the church or anything, but I just hate women SO DAMN MUCH!
The pastor then went into a joke, and although it was a corny church joke, it actually succeeded in making me laugh out loud (or “LOL” as the kids say).  The joke went like this:
An elderly couple at the church, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, had recently celebrated their 50thwedding anniversary and the pastor took a moment out of his sermon to congratulate them in front of the congregation. Polite applause from everyone followed, and then the preacher asked,“Mr. Smith, what is your secret to a long, happy marriage?”
“Well,” Mr. Smith began.  “My wife loves to travel, so for our first wedding anniversary I took her to Beijing!”  This was greeted with more polite applause.  “That was very nice of you,Mr. Smith,” the pastor said.  “What did you do for your 50th anniversary?”
“I picked her up.”
As far as corny church jokes go, that’s the only, and therefore best, one I’ve ever heard.  So far I am not minding this church experience. Casual clothing, live music, jokes… I could see myself doing this every Sunday.  I really have a lot of trouble with my tenses don’t I?  Parts of this are in present tense, parts in past tense, I’m losing heavy marks on the blogging rubric. Also I’m having trouble with my wigwam and my teepee!  Get it?  Because they’re TENTS!  Tents and tense sound the same!  Homonyms, motherfucker!  Now, how about we launch into some quotes from the sermon, shall we?
-The first note I jotted down from the sermon was about the pastor’s take on prayer.  He told us that it was good to pray, but that our prayers would only be answered if they were part of God’s pre-ordained plans for us in the first place.  This begs the question:  why bother praying at all?  If God has already decided what will and won’t happen in our lives, then praying to Him and asking for His intervention seems like a pointless waste of time.
-The topic of the sermon, as I alluded to above, was guilt.  The pastor quoted Mark Twain (who was an atheist by the way, which I suppose is somewhat ironic.  The pastor also quoted Yancey and Kierkegaard at different times in the sermon, which I thought was rather forward-thinking for a Christian church), who said: “Men are unlike animals in that they blush… or need to.”  Then he informed us that guilt is God’s gift to the world, so that we can feel when we’re jeopardizing our immortal souls,and so that people who don’t love God feel bad at all times.
-The pastor then began talking about evolution by doing an impression of a monkey and saying“oohooh aah aah, I’m a monkey’s uncle!” which elicited uproarious laughter from the congregation.  He posed the following questions to us:  “If we evolved from monkeys, where did our guilt evolve from?” and then “If we evolved from monkeys, where did our SOULS evolve from?”  He then gave us a smug little “there, I’ve proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt” kind of smile, and everyone in the church nodded along in excited agreement.  Now look, if I open my mind and try really really hard, I may be able to concede that animals don’t experience guilt (although you could always tell when my old dog, Cameron, had done something he wasn’t supposed to by the look on his face when you walked into the house), but I don’t think I can wrap my head around the idea that animals don’t have souls. A girl’s horse won’t be waiting for her in heaven?  A dog that drags a boy out of a burning house is a heathen creature who isn’t allowed access to eternal life?  I could feel my will to “be saved” slipping at this point of the sermon.
-Next, the pastor revisited his previous statement that guilt is a gift from God to remind us when we are sinning.  But, he elaborated, that does not mean that every time we sin we go to hell. Rather, he said, every time we sin, every time we mess up and feel that guilt, we miss out on God’s love on earth.  I liked this, because earlier in my experience with this church, I was told that any sin without repentance gets you a one-way ticket to hell.  After that, I felt slightly better about this church’s message – that is until he made his final point…
-I am not sure how this ties into his theme of guilt, but the pastor closed by saying: “Joy and peace do not come from within, that’s a phony idea, and anyone who believes that is a phony. Joy and peace must be experienced from without.”
If that’s the drug Christianity is selling, I’m staying edge.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Church Part 1

I've struggled a little with this entry, which is why I have taken such a long time in my revision process before posting it.  I have a tendency to be very sarcastic in my writing style, so I have a lot of difficulty trying to express sincerity in the things I say.  This is not because I am an inherently insincere person, but rather I don't think people believe there isn't an underlying sarcastic agenda when I write something honest.  This entry (as some of my more intelligent readers may surmise from the title) is about Church - or, more specifically, my recent visits to services held therein.

As I have stated in previous entries, I was (and still am) very open to the idea of finding a spiritual code by which to live, and have been leaning towards the ideals brought forth in the Bible.  Although some of you who know me well may find it difficult to believe, I have given Christianity a real chance, opened my mind to many things at which I used to scoff, and embraced with self-surprising enthusiasm the speakings of these local Christian leaders who, not too long ago, would have received only my derision.  However, as the opening paragraph would suggest, my response to many of the things I've seen and heard so far may appear sarcastic overall, so this is something of a disclaimer to say that this entry is in absolutely no way attacking Christianity or the Bible; While I will never again refer to myself as an atheist, the life of a Church-goer is seemingly not for me.

Daniel Goes to Church
Notes and reactions from my time attending Sunday services and youth sermons

I toyed with the idea of ripping off Bill Simmons' running-diary format for my church entries, but as these notes were taken over the course of multiple visits, I would have had to do one unique entry per running-diary which would have been tedious and boring to read (even more so than this entry may end up being).  So, without any more stalling, I'll start transcribing my scribbled notes here!

At the beginning of April, I was invited by the youth pastors to come out and listen to a sermon by a Texas preacher who was touring Canada talking to youth groups.  Apparently he is rather famous in the Christian youth community so I will withhold his name, and he will hitherto be referred to as ###.

Before ### spoke, the youth band that had formed within the group in the months before I started attending played a set of Christian rock covers.  There are a couple of talented singers in the band, one of whom - the piano player - is also a talented songwriter who played some of his solo stuff once.

### stood the entire time the band played with his hands in the air and his eyes closed tightly.  Over and over again he would say the words "yes Jesus, yes" in a loud, Texan stage whisper which I could clearly hear over the 6-piece rock band playing on stage.  He was clearly out-Christianing the rest of us with all that yesJesus-ing.

Onces the band finished playing, ### took the podium, every inch of him looking like a stereotype of an image-obsessed man making a lot of money from his faith.  His hair was greasy and slicked back, and he wore a baggy dress shirt, the size of which, however, was not enough to hide his large belly.  His face was leathery and overly tanned, whether from a tanning bed or the Texas sun, I know not.  Chest hair poked out the top of his shirt, a gold chain lost within it, and he wore a large gold wristwatch on his left wrist, twinkling in the spotlight with diamondlike gemstones.  As you might imagine, my immediate - entirely superficial - impression of this man was not favourable.

He launched into a story about how, in Texas, there are many tornadoes, and the only way to protect oneself and one's family from them was through an early warning system, which manifests itself as a tornado warning siren in his Texas town.  He kept calling wind-felled trees "whacked off trees", but not ONE of the many teenage Christians giggled at the repetition of "whacked off".  Heck, even I cracked a smile after the seventh or eighth time he said it... those kids are creepy little robots sometimes.  My juvenile sense of humour aside, the point of his warning system story was the inform us that our society is in dire, dire danger!

Whereas, in his town, government officials warn their constituents that a deadly wind-storm is approaching through a series of sirens, ### told us that God is warning us that our culture is going to land us all in hell.  But, as God doesn't have a siren system, he warns us with things like terrorist attacks and hurricane Katrina. (I wonder if they had hurricane sirens in New Orleans?)

### told us that we were in the beginning stages of an all-out war between Christians and non-Christians, that would culminate in the rapture at some point during our lifetimes.  He told us of Shamma the hero, a character from the Old Testament.  The story of Shamma is easily googled if you want an in-depth look at all the details, but I'll just paraphrase ### here for our purposes.  We were told that Shamma stood against a heathen army, defending his bean field in the name of the one true God, and that because he was a true-believer, God reached down and vanquished Shamma's foes.  He told us that our generation's "bean field" (which we must defend against the heathen hordes) is all of society, and that we are all warriors-in-training for God's holy army. Normally, sitting in a room while someone informs a group of youths that they are about to fight a holy war would make me feel very uncomfortable, and likely give me the same creeped-out tingling down my spine I got while watching Jesus Camp, or like when a sleep-walker talks to me while looking straight through me.  However, I would be remiss if I did not say that this greasy Texas preacher spoke in a very easy-going, likable way that made his heavy ideas much easier to digest.

Having said that, no matter how smooth a talker ### was, and no matter how wide I opened my mind, there was no way I was going to be capable of digesting the next round of ideas he tried to feed us.  From the Shamma story, he segued into a story of how he, himself, was a hero for a young couple in his congregation.  Apparently this couple (her 17, him 18, both bound for UTexas in the following fall) had gotten pregnant and come to ### for advice.  You see, neither one of them wanted to tell their ultra-Christian families about the pregnancy, so for 6 months they kept it to themselves, the girl hiding it with baggy clothing.  They had decided together they were going to secretly have the baby and put it up for adoption, and wanted ###'s confidential advice on the matter.  ### told them that they would regret it forever if they "gave away" the baby, that he "wouldn't wish adoption on anyone", and their parents would never forgive them if they found out down the line what had transpired.

Well, you can imagine what happened.  The preacher took the kids to their parents and told them about the pregnancy, and everyone was ecstatic about the news!  Rather than attending university in the fall, the pair were married in the fall and got jobs to support their child.  "I had the opportunity to be their hero," he said.  "If not for me, their lives would have been shattered."  I am not even going to make a snarky reactionary comment to the last two paragraphs.  I really think it speaks for itself.  Instead,  allow me to launch into a point form list of a few more of ###'s highlights:

  • We should not allow ourselves to have emotional ups-and-downs, instead we should strive to be like Jesus (or as he pronounced it "Jayeezuhss").  Basically, experiencing anger is a sin, but so is experiencing depression, and the only euphoria we should be allowed to feel should be euphoria brought forth through a relationship with God.  Yes, although the shortest sentence in the Bible ("Jesus wept" [John 11:35]) expressly states that Jesus cried after the death of his friend Lazarus, ### says that "Jesus only cried because he was so intense, not because he was sad."
  • He once attended a huge religious youth rally in Australia, which was being attended by"all numbers of witches, warlocks, and druggies."  Seriously.  That's an exact quote.  I wrote it down verbatim.  Anyway, ###, was overcome by the power of God that night and lost control of himself, and began to "cast devils out of kids", some of whom then began "running outside and howling at the moon."  He then proclaimed that "the spiritual atmosphere in Australia changed 'cause of me."  Just another example of how much of a hero in God's army ### is.
  • The preacher told everyone there to "look around your room and remove everything that isn't Christian" once they returned home that evening.  He also said "don't listen to non-Christian music," and "don't look at bad websites."
  • The final message he had for everyone in his sermon was a callback to his message about striving to avoid emotional ups-and-downs.  ### closed by saying that "the cure for depression is to say NO to it."  To say: "I am going to live in love, joy, and peace, because depression is a tool of the devil!"

He then lined us all up (myself included), and one-by-one placed his hands on our heads, screeching prayers over us, asking God to enter into our hearts and guide us through our upcoming holy war.  He prayed over me last of all, and as he did I felt his hands hot on my head.... and then I felt a hand on my left shoulder blade.... and then one on my right biceps.... and another in the middle of my back.  Were these angels reaching down from the heavens to change my life?  Was the hand of God coming down to fill me with his love?
I peeked left.

I peeked right.

end of part one