It’s the last day of my impromptu visit to Southern Ontario, and I’m ready to head home. The sky yet hangs in tattered rags above, a skiff of snow fell overnight dusting the asphalt trapped earth in white.
My father invites me to church.
He is a believer.
I am too. But not in God, or Jesus, or the Holy Ghost, at least in the way that he is. He knows this, but wanted me to come to church to witness first hand something that is so important in his and Mabel’s life.
It was a decade ago now that he informed me that he and Mabel had been born again. I think it was a preemptive move on his part to keep me from launching into one of my regular tirades about organized religion. I wonder how many of these he and Mabel had to endure after they had joined the Alliance Church and invited Christ into their lives? I’ve never asked, but I hope not too many.
I agree to join him for the Sunday morning service.
The last time I was in church was in 1993, the year my grandmother died. Before that, it was when my grandfather died the year before. And before that, when my Nana died.
Get the picture?
We enter the hall and people greet my father and ask about Mabel. A man at the door shakes my hand, welcoming me. It’s nice to be welcome. We move towards the Sanctuary and my father receives hugs and handshakes and there are offers of food and other assistance. Finally we are seated, towards the front, where he and Mabel always sit.
This isn’t the church that I attended on Christmas Eve and Easter as a child. Instead of an organ, there’s a youth-led rock band. Instead of a cloaked priest, Pastor Brian wears Dockers and a golf shirt. Instead of symbolism and ritual erected as a barrier, there is a down to earth belief that you can speak directly to God with your heart.
I believe that. But my definition of God is very different than the one celebrated here.
The service starts and the band launches into a couple of rock and roll spirituals, including a vaulting version based on Amazing Grace. They lyrics are projected via a Power Point projector for all to sing along with. Hands and voices are raised. Indeed, I can feel the power of the music, and tap my feet as I might at a concert I was just beginning to enjoy. And why not? Music is one of the shortest routes we can take to connect with the miraculous. And maybe that is just another word for God.
When the band takes a break I lean over and tell my father that if they had played music like that in church when I was a kid, I might have gone more often.
Next the children are hustled from the Sanctuary downstairs to where they will attend Sunday School. My only memory of this ritual was attending a few classes where we did a lot of colouring. They had the big 64 packs of Crayola crayons at my Sunday School – the ones with the built in sharpener – which was alright by me. I don’t remember anybody talking with me about God or Jesus there, although I might not have been paying attention (why would Sunday School be any different for me than, say, regular school?). Or maybe we were colouring pictures of God or Jesus.
I recall that over breakfast that morning my step-sister’s son Ian talked with his Alice about various passages from the bible. I think he might have quoted some scripture. He’s six.
Rio, who is also six, can quote Scoobie Doo. He’s an expert at finding crabs under rocks. And he can sing most the lyrics to several Jim Cuddy songs. Different priorities, that’s all.
After a few announcements, there are prayers for members of the congregation. I like the way these folks pray. It’s conversational. There’s none of the Latin chanting that I recall from my early experiences in the Catholic Church. Its just, “God, we’re asking that you look after Mabel and Bob,” and so on.
I can feel the power of the words, and of the congregation’s intension on my father, and I can sense him feeling alone, his wife still in the hospital, and absent from his side at church maybe for the first time. I take his hand and hold it tightly while Pastor Brian finishes his prayer.
Do I believe in the power of prayer to heal?
Damn right I do. But not for the reason’s anybody in this congregation might give. As I have written elsewhere, prayer focuses our intent, and through that intention we are able to tap into the mysterious field of energy and information that swirls around us; that is us. The energy that combines to create mater is susceptible to the energy released through the power of our intention. Loving intention is the most powerful of all, because love is pure energy, and when directed towards another person’s well being, can create miracles.
When the congregation of the Burlington Alliance Church prays for Mabel’s swift recovery, hundreds of people’s loving, heart felt energy is directed towards her. Yes, it has been proven that prayer makes a difference. So does meditation. The universe responds. I’m not the one to explain how, or why, and I don’t need anybody to provide the overly simplified explanation that “God responded.”
It will never be proven (or disproven, I suppose) that God or Jesus intervene, unless you expand your definition of God or Jesus. And then all we might be able to say that if God is the field of all possibilities in the universe, and our prayers and meditation are a means by which we consciously influence how energy and information is assembled, then our “prayers” call “God” to organize energy into matter in a way that heals. Enough loving hearts willing someone to be well evokes a powerful response in the quantum field, which again, might be just another way of saying “God.”
It’s no stranger to contemplate the power of the human heart and mind to make this kind of change in a person’s health than it is to believe that an omnipotent being has control over how someone’s heart responds to quadruple bypass surgery.
The service continues with Pastor Brian delivering a sermon on charity. It’s a good topic, and I believe almost everything he says, except for the parts that say that it is God who wants us to be charitable.
Again, unless you expand your definition of God or Jesus.
And therein lays the problem for me. It’s always the central challenge I have with religions that focus their praise on a deity. “You shall have no other gods before me,” the bible says in Exodus 20: 2-3. What about after?
What if God wasn’t simply an almightily entity, but the creative power and energy of love in the universe?
The problem isn’t that there are different definitions, it’s that there is no possibility of discussion. God is God; the bible tells us so, and that’s all there is too it. End of conversation. To not believe is to condemn oneself to hell. That seems a little harsh.
The day before my father and I discussed this while sitting in the cafeteria of Hamilton General Hospital while Mabel slept in the ICU. I ask him my standard questions about God: “If he made me in his image, then why would he be so upset if I question him? Isn’t the very intellectual curiosity to question Him a gift that He would have bestowed had he fashioned me in his likeness?”
And: “if He is a merciful God, it seems a bit of an over reaction to condemn someone to eternal damnation for questioning His existence. Where’s the mercy in that?”
It would be proportional to Santa Clause carpet bombing your home if you wondered about his existence. Or the Easter Bunny doing something unspeakable to the family pet instead of leaving chocolate eggs. Or the tooth fairy…well, you get the picture.
The answer always seems to be the same: it’s about faith. God asks that we believe in him without question.
Despite these transgressions, my time in church is enjoyable. While the congregation prays, I meditate. I focus my heart on Mabel and envision her well, her own heart whole and beating. I focus my heart on my children, so beautiful and so far away. And I focus my heart on Jenn, also so beautiful, and also so very far away. I aspire that my meditation should be pure love, for that is what prayer could be. Selfless, pure, unconditional love. I’m trying.
It occurs to me as the service ends why people gather this way each week, aside from the question of faith. Simply put, it feels good. The room is alive with the energy of so many good people thinking so many kind, loving thoughts. It is alive with music. It is alive with what Christians might call the movement of the Holy Ghost, and what I call bliss: the mysterious connection between ourselves and the swirling field of energy that combines to create everything, both material and spiritual. That energy is love, and when we are a part of it, it feels heavenly.
These are my thoughts as we leave the church. I step out into the dark Southern Ontario morning, and breathe a sign of relief. (Later I check the web site of the Canadian Lighting Detection Network, a service of Environment Canada, and am relieved to see that no lightening strikes have been recorded in the vicinity.)
It is in the act of giving praise that we connect with something so much greater than ourselves, so much more vast and beautiful and lovely. If we have to call this God and accept His word without question in order to see ourselves as part of something miraculous, fine. But that’s not my way. I don’t need the answer handed to me so neatly packaged, all the questions answered without any room for doubt. The universe is far more complex, and far more strange, that the notion of an unseen creator controlling all of human destiny.
But praise is what connects us. All of us. We might all praise creation, in its myriad forms, and its myriad explanations, as the life giving, love sustaining force on earth and throughout the skies. In that praise – be it in church, through meditation, song, dance, physical and spiritual love, art, or communion with nature – we find harmony with the essential fabric of the universe.