24 November 2008

Alpha Retreat : Wha' Happened?

An integral part of the Alpha Course is the weekend retreat. During this, everyone participating in the course spends a weekend together at a bible camp, watching sermons by Alpha headman Nicky Gumbel - all having to do with the Holy Spirit, having large group discussions, eating, playing games, etc. In this post, I'll write about what exactly went on over the weekend. I'll write about the contents of each video and the discussions (plus my fight with the church elder) in other posts.

It should be noted that not all Alpha programs actually go away for their weekend. Some are lame - well, lamer than others - and don't actually go anywhere, instead spending the whole weekend at the church where their Alpha is normally held. Also, not everyone in our group was able to go. I almost didn't, just because the thought of spending a whole weekend with all the god-bots disturbed me.

(As an aside, have you ever noticed that, once you take them out of regular, secular society, these god-bot people cease to speak of "thinking" about a problem, and instead "pray" about their problems. Ie. they are perfectly normal most of the time, but surround them with other church people and they turn all religiousy.)

The bible camp where the Alpha Course retreat was held was located near Bancroft, Ontario, so we headed out after work (actually I skipped out half an hour early). I had never driven out that way before, and it was dark and rainy, but we still made it there in good time, in about 2:55.

The camp was located about 8 km outside town in some backwoods area at the end of some really narrow, windy roads. The were pretty big, having come into possession of over 400 acres in the area around town, and in the summer time have canoes, a beach, hiking trails, etc. We were given our room assignment, my wife and I together in a room that turned out to be quite nice, like a new but low-end hotel. Unfortunately, like the old Christian houses that I noted before, the decor was decidedly grannyish. One interesting feature was that the doors could only be locked while you were in your room; when not in your room, the door would be left unlocked. This left us susceptible to lame pranks from our group leader who thinks she is funnier than she actually is. We got a very fake-looking rat in our bathroom, another person for earthworms in the shower, another person got a plastic snake in her bed, except she wasn't the one who found it; her boyfriend discovered it and he's terrified of snakes. That at least went well.

There were a handful of different "motels" as they called them, each built at a different time. Ours was the nice new one. The married couples and the single women were housed there. Another one housed the single guys. Later on we heard from a guy in our group that their building was horrible and he gave us a tour. It was really old and rundown, with a bathroom coated in mildew, small, flat, musty beds, and it smelled like my grandfather's old cottage. Pretty gross. Glad I was married.

The place had other facilities in addition to the lodgings: a lounge/presentation room, a dining hall, a large chapel, and a gym.

After settling in on Friday night, we headed back to the group area for the introductory video. They were very disorganized and technologically impaired, and we ended up watching 20 minutes of the wrong video before my wife noticed the error.

After the video, we were introduced to the church elder who would be helping out with the weekend by leading discussions and prayers and by introducing each video. He was actually not officially a church elder, as the church has a term limit that he has already far exceeded, so I guess he's an elder emeritus or something. He was a friendly old bearded guy and I had been told by both my wife and the group leader that he'd be a good guy to talk to about all my theological questions that I'd stumped them on, as he was much older, knowledgable, and wiser. Little did I know I'd be having a big fight with him, and that the Christian version of "wise" just means spouting the same old crap as every other Christian but more eloquently.

After meeting the elder, we were all called to introduce ourselves by giving our stories of why we were here. I said that I was only here because my wife had "strongly encouraged" me to be here. That drew a hearty laugh from everyone else.

Around 10:00 pm, the official part of the night ended. A large group of this went to play floor hockey in the gym. My wife and I play in a league, and we completely dominated all the other chumps there, who weren't as athletic or skilled. After each scoring 5 goals in the first 10 minutes (no one else scored any), we stopped counting goals or trying so hard, at least until players on our team started to leave due to fatigue, putting us down by 3 players. We played for over 3 hours and I ended up losing a lot of skin from my hands due to the old, frayed wooden sticks, and needed to bandage them up the rest of the weekend. I would have slept well due to fatigue except the thermostats in the rooms seemed to be nonfunctional and the heater was on full-blast the whole night.

Waking up late after a night of little sleep, we made it late to breakfast. Mmmm, bacon.

After breakfast, we had the first of the weekend sermons about the Holy Spirit, called "Who is the Holy Spirit?" I noticed that it wasn't just me who slept through large portions of it. We had a brief break, then head right into weekend sermon #2, called "What does the Holy Spirit Do?"

We then broke for a big group discussion in the chapel involving all the Alpha participants, about 40 people. The discussion was lead by the elder. Man, it was an unpleasantly long hour discussing nothing of much importance. I believe it was supposed to be discussing the sermons, but it only did that barely.

We then had lunch, which was a nice roast chicken breast with sweet potato fries with greek salad. Food was looking good. Dessert was just cookies.

We had a couple of free hours after lunch before the afternoon sermon. We just walked around the grounds a little and played ping pong. The afternoon sermon, weekend sermon #3, was called "How Can I Be Filled with the Spirit?" I think this is where there was supposed speaking in tongues or other bodily manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but nothing ever happened.

After the sermon was dinner, which was a rather poor roast beef with a bun meant to simulate yorkshire pudding and a salad that was very wilted and unpleastant. Dessert was just mint-chocolate chip ice cream. Food quality took a nose-dive with this meal.

After dinner, we took a nap due to excruciating fatigue. We ended up being half an hour late for Fun Night, which was an evening of games lead by the group leader, and including pictionary, cherades, a few other things I can't remember. It was fun, but not great.

After fun night was a free evening of snacks and just hanging out. It was during this time that my wife volunteered me to go speak with the elder, which I will discuss later. Right now, I'll just say that I got very pissed-off at his intellectual dishonesty and frustrated at his self-assured ignorance.

After I had cooled-off a bit and hung out a bit, we played more ping pong and went to bed, ensuring that we opened the window first so we wouldn't roast overnight.

The last morning, we were again late to breakfast, which was disappointing. The only thing worth eating were freshly made cinnamon buns, which they took away entirely too early so they could package them up and try to sell them to us. Way to stay classy.

We had a brief group discussion, which was essentially a way for the elder to recap his points of view from the previous day's discussion. Then we had one more video sermon, actually the last sermon from the Alpha Course, "How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life." Aka, more fluff.

We had lunch, which were sandwich wraps in the style of fajitas. Also known as a way for them to use up the leftover chicken and beef from the previous meals. Again, way to stay classy. Then it was time to leave.

Damn, it snowed. About 10 cm. And I forgot my snow brush.

Some nice guy cleaned the snow off our car for us and I was out of there as fast as I could go.

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At November 25, 2008 1:01 a.m., Anonymous Anne said...

Well don't leave us hanging - What the Fuck Does the Holy Spirit Do?

At November 25, 2008 8:23 p.m., Blogger Eamon Knight said...

....another person got a plastic snake in her bed, except she wasn't the one who found it; her boyfriend discovered it and he's terrified of snakes.

Fundy Christian retreat. Bed. Boyfriend.

In theory, only two of those things are supposed to happen at the same time ;-). (Any two, but only two)

At November 27, 2008 11:52 a.m., Blogger Carlo said...

Ungh. I'm so glad that my gf would've been as against going to something like this as I am. Again, it's amazing that you put up with this stuff.

My only question is this: What do people actually say when you ask them for 'real' evidence? Or when you point out the flaws in their reasoning? Is it all just blank stares or do they get upset?

At November 27, 2008 7:36 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Anne, patience is a virtue ;-) I'll discuss the sermons in a bit, maybe this weekend. Coles Notes version, it's the part of God that actually takes residence in Christians, inspiring them, guiding them, etc.

Eamon, I don't know what he was doing there. He wasn't supposed to be there; he was really lodged with two other guys in one of the crappy rooms.

Carlo, sometimes it's ok. Removed from a religious context, the people are perfectly fine (though a little bland). It gets very difficult to put up with the religion part though.

Re: what they say when I challenge their crappy evidence/reasoning.

Well, when I ask for evidence, they tend to just repeat the same crap evidence they were just told. So I shoot that evidence down again. Then they either (A) shift the subject to my evidence that God does not exist, (B) deny that I have shot-down their evidence without ever giving an explanation as to why not, or (C) switch to other "evidences" such as their own feelings, emotions, and testimonies; 3rd-hand unverified miracle accounts; or other non-sequitur crappy arguments. In all three cases, I end up wanting to scream at them and call them dumbasses.


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