I’ve tried to write about this before, and have never felt that I’ve been able to do it justice. Now that it’s 3:00 a.m. and there’s a virus keeping me awake, maybe I can form the right thoughts a little better. You can be the judge.
When you grow up in a fairly strict Roman Catholic household, you learn early on that every new minute is a new opportunity to sin. As a child you learn to scramble and remember those multiple sins committed during the week so that you can vomit them all out to the priest at confession time on Saturday night. As an adult, you wonder how the priest ever kept a straight face, as he listened to the tortured guilt of six, seven and eight year olds, as they detailed their nefarious deeds. Those whispered confessions of stealing that cookie, or of sticking their tongues out at the teacher when her back was turned.
We learned guilt, and we learned it well. I was of the opinion that, from the moment I left the confessional on Saturday night, absolved of all of my sins, I had only a short time before they began to accumulate again. I did the math. I knew that the most I could hope for, if I wanted to go directly to heaven at my death, was to be killed within ten minutes of my confession. After that, there would be residual sin on my soul, and so, being baptized and confirmed, I could maybe expect to sit around, burning just a little bit in the cleansing fires of purgatory. I hoped there would be loved ones who would continue to pray on my behalf so that I didn’t get too roasted for too long. A few centuries maybe.
Death therefore had a more ominous meaning to me than merely the cessation of life.
Of course, the priest had a much harsher opinion of my destination, I think, when I became a Protestant. He was angry and red-faced when I quoted scripture at him, refuting the idea that we need to go to confession at all. “There is one mediator between man and God – Jesus Christ” I told him. “It doesn’t say that we need to talk to a priest”. Confident in my belief, I stared at him, daring him to contradict me.
“Who the hell are you to read the Bible?” he roared. “You’re not qualified. It takes years of seminary and study to understand it.”
The priest was not a nice man, often given over to rage, especially at the pulpit. And now, at me.
I left his place that night, more confident than when I walked in, that I was right and he was a false teacher.
I learned, from that experience, and from many sermons from the Baptist pulpit of the church I attended, that there is only black and white. Either you’re for truth, or you’re listening and believing lies. There was no in-between.
It was comfortable. Safe.
The Catholic Church taught me guilt. The Baptist Church taught me intolerance. To be fair, maybe neither of them intended it, but that’s what I learned.
Now that I knew I could confess my sins directly to God, I no longer had to wait for a week to get free of sins. I just had to remember to confess right away. It seemed to me that God barely tolerated me, sometimes.
I don’t know how it happened, but someone invited me to a night time youth gathering in a large Anglican cathedral in Toronto. The architecture of this place was immense, almost overwhelming. You could get lost, trying to see the ceiling.
The first thing I noticed, I think, were the dancers. Girls who flitted up and down the aisle dancing with wide open smiles of joy. The next thing I noticed was the music and singing. There were stringed instruments: guitars, violins, and a bass. There were trumpets, and a saxophone, and a few others. There were drums. There was a pipe organ with a thousand pipes. And there were some singers, and an amazing pianist. Not all of the instrumentalists were up at the front dais; many of them were scattered among the congregations in the dark stained oak pews.
From my first visit, I was intrigued. Maybe “intrigued” isn’t the right word. “Hooked” might be closer. Better yet: it was like I had been eating only peas and carrots and lettuce all my life, and all of a sudden someone introduced me to steak and chocolate and wine.
The music, the singing, the dancing was rich.
And then there was the preaching.
Once the music stopped, I expected the normal session of discussion from the pulpit, where I’d probably learn a few more rules for living. There were so many, it seemed. I wondered what this guy – his name was Jim McCallister – would have to say. In a way, I almost resented the fact that there was a sermon at all. The music – by the way, almost of all of it was created by the singers and musicians there – was so welcoming and so different. There was hardly anything particularly religious about any of it. The styles were all over the map, and included even jazz. I frankly could not believe it – and to this day, I have yet to find a gathering that has such freedom.
Still, when Jim spoke, everyone quieted down to listen to him. His voice was mellow and rich, and it resonated. His message was nothing I’d heard before. He spoke of acceptance, of not just tolerance from God, but joyful enthusiastic involvement. His sermons planted a seed in me that took years to nurture before anything obvious became evident.
I learned that mankind was not an aberration; that I was not a mistake. That, if we are created in His image, then that must mean that our basic nature comes from him. The desire to love our families and each other is our natural birthright. That our needs: to eat, to read, to have sex, to laugh, to party, to be irreverent sometimes – comes from Him.
As years went by, I took that a few steps further. Our penchant for seeing God as a brutal dictator who holds very little tolerance for us seems to me to be a construct of mankind’s need to codify our behaviours. It’s not real, and it’s not true.
I remember seeing a few people around that amazing youth gathering, who I was pretty sure were gay. And I remember being confused at how welcoming everyone was to everyone – including the gay folk. It bothered me, on the legalist level, because it conflicted with much of what I’d been taught thus far. It’s only in hindsight that I see that it was merely behaviour that was consistent with how they truly felt about God and about mankind’s relationship to Him in general.
In particular, it became evident to me that there was no “us” versus “them” at all. There was no need to pick sides, because we – meaning all people, not just church goers – were in this together. It was a revolutionary thought for me, and at the time, it was too much to process.
In looking back, I’m still kind of amazed at how forward thinking this group was.