In an earlier post I mentioned that I am trying to regularly attend church services again. One of the reasons I alluded to is that—whatever one might think of “church people”, or the vagaries of a particular denomination—I had a personal revelation which would preclude me from giving up on the entire enterprise.
In this morning’s service there was a quote from John VI 56-69, which deals with the Eucharist (i.e. communion, taking bread and wine) specifically, but contains a statement from the Apostle Peter that I can identify with:
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
On May 31st, 1988, my mother became a Christian. She had prayed to God, received forgiveness, and described the experience as like “a weight being lifted off your shoulders”. I must admit this is a description which struck me as odd, if not nonsensical. How can you not know you are carrying this weight? How many pounds would you estimate this unknown weight to be? How was the weight distributed; like a rucksack’s shoulder straps and waist belt, or something else? Mom had no answers to my prosecutorial examination; she didn’t think in such analytical terms.
While I was generally on board with Christian morals, I was not a big fan of church. There was nothing particularly wrong with the church that we went to, except that to my 15-year-old mind it went on far… too… long. When the service got out, the lobby and various other areas would be jammed with the thousand-strong congregation. And it would stay crowded as everyone hung around to chat with each other; after-service socialising was like a sport to those people (including, unfortunately, my mother). This is all fine and good when one is an adult, a Christian, and has many church friends to chat with about the sermon and topics of the day. But I was a teenager, looked upon “church people” as akin to lepers or the mentally deficient, and every moment spent there was a moment not spent playing D&D, or running through the ravine with my buddies (decked out in accurate Canadian Forces Mk 82 camo, helmet and webbing, radios crackling away). Spending up to an hour at church after all official worship ended was virtually intolerable.
I did make some friends at church, mostly guys who also attended my high school. Naturally I gravitated toward gents my age also interested in aviation or military matters, but we tended to exist at the fringes of the high-school-age youth group. Paradoxically me and most of my church youth group pals had not dedicated our lives to Christ; indeed we had no intentions of doing so. Most of the youth group could not comprehend our interests, and we found theirs to be several shades of boring. I saw no point in it.
Some church families did make an impact though, especially one pastor and his family who lived on our street. They were the sort of folk who, if you happened to mention a need, would go out of their way to fulfill it. They didn’t merely talk the talk, they walked the walk as well. So while I was not enamoured of the way this family related the minutiae of everyday life through the prism of God, they did earn my respect through striving to meet the spiritual and temporal needs of the neighbourhood. And when Mom had to travel out of town for a week in October of 1989, I was entrusted to their care.
Since their elder daughter and younger son both attended the church youth group, I was more or less obligated to attend while living under their roof. The youth group met on Wednesdays, and on this one particular night they viewed and discussed a video pertaining to the Book of Revelation. Now this is not an easy book to digest at the best of times, containing much apocalyptic symbolism, and so I came back to the pastor’s house full of questions. When trying to determine if something is worthy or rubbish, I like to gather as much data as I can, and not having had much prior exposure to Revelation there was a lot of ground to cover. I knew from prior conversations that the pastor’s wife had a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible, so I her asked to explain Revelation to me, and the symbolism of the various events and personalities. That simple query became a four hour examination encompassing hundreds of questions, and when I finally ascended the stairs to the guest room, I thought I had a clear picture of Revelation and my eventual place (as a non-believer) within it.
This prompted a thought, not unlike Pascal’s Wager. If I were to reach the end of my life and discover belatedly that God does exist, then I will have missed a pivotal aspect of the human experience based on nothing more than an erroneous assumption. I decided then and there to find out; it’s either true or it isn’t. Now I do not recall the exact words and thoughts that I had, but I know I sat on the edge of the bed and thought something like this: “God, I want to know if you are out there. I do not want to reach the end of my life and find out too late that I have missed the most important thing. If all of this is true, I do not want to perish in meaninglessness.”
And to my amazement, God answered. Not an audible answer, but a sensation unlike any I have felt before or since. It was—just as Mom had described it—like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. (Incidentally, my answers to my own questions would be 1) I do not know why I wasn’t previously aware of this weight; 2) I would estimate the weight at 50-70 pounds; 3) the weight was not like a rucksack with three main areas of pressure, more like a heavy cloak which settles comfortably over everything without putting stress on any particular point.)
On October 26th, 1989, I had transmitted a message in the blind, and God had answered it. I was elated; if it hadn’t been three or four in the morning, I would have whooped for joy and woken the whole house.
Now sadly this experience cannot be validated with instrumentation. There were no witnesses, other than God and myself. Even if there were witnesses, they could not truthfully describe inner thoughts of a mind other than their own, and they could not describe a sensation occurring in a body other than their own. And you as a reader are free to accept or reject this account; I can’t provide any more documentation than I have here. It simply is what it is. But it is why—despite all of life’s triumphs and tragedies, despite its apparent unfairness, despite vile things men and women may claim to do in faith—I cannot turn my back on church or Christianity. I have that memory of first discovery, where God demonstrated His existence to me. Who else could I follow?
And if it all seems highly improbable, my advice is, don’t take my word for it—find out for yourself.
(To follow last week’s tradition, here is a song from this morning’s service—”Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise”, written by Scottish poet and minister Walter Chalmers Smith, set to the tune of “St. Denio” by John Roberts.)