18 January 2009

Alpha Retreat Group Discussion

After the end of weekend sermon #2, the whole group of 60+ people moved over to the big chapel attached to the main building at the bible camp. There, in a big circle of seats, we started into a discussion about what was being shown in the sermons and any holy spirit/salvation questions anybody had. The discussion was lead by the church elder. I didn't contribute to any of the discussions.

One thing I've realized about Alpha is that the group leaders are provided with suggestions for leading questions to ask to get the discussion going. These questions are always the most inane, grade 3-style fluff questions imaginable. For instance, the elder started by asking "is the Holy Spirit available to all?" immediately after a sermon in which Nicky Gumbel said, "the Holy Spirit is available to all; every Christian has the Holy Spirit." This is not helping my opinion of the average Alpha attendee.

After this, we moved into a tangent. Many people didn't like that really bad people such as mass murderers could become Christians and get into heaven. The elder reminded them that repentance is a core belief of Christianity; as long as you truly believe in Christ and say sorry and try, not necessarily succeed, to not continue with your evils ways, then you're good. Still, a couple of guys would have none of it.

This segued nicely back to the topic of the Holy Spirit and how you receive it. Many people in the group, though very strong, emotional Christians, had not felt anything they would describe as "being filled with the Holy Spirit," and this was worrying them to no end. This question would actually be the main concern of the discussion; how do I know if the Holy Spirit is within me?

The overwhelming majority of the group hadn't had these manifestations of the Holy Spirit; no speaking in tongues, no overwhelming burning feelings or falling down in elation, no visions, voices, etc. And they were wondering, "why not?"

Grasping for answers, many of these people fixated on (what they felt were) their sins and if these were holding them back. As one woman said, these people struggle with their sins, but don't feel like they can be forgiven. I feel that many of these people have adequacy issues, failure issues, and concern themselves unhealthily with justice and guilt. However, the elder had a different theory: he said that Satan was placing within them doubts about the ubiquitousness of forgiveness to cause them to doubt God. Oh, goody. That's helpful.

Time for the next leading question from the elder: what is "born again?"According to him, it's when you accept Jesus and and ask for and receive the Holy Spirit. So how can you know if you actually have received the Holy Spirit? Some people experience a lot of change right away while others can't even notice. According to the elder and several group members, this is because God a) only gives you the Holy Spirit when he chooses and b) fills you with the Holy Spirit only so much as you can handle. So, according to them, the group members who haven't felt anything since becoming Christian are just wimps.

So this brings us back to the main question, "how can you tell?" I recorded several people blurting out "you just know" or "you feel it" while the more articulate members of the group explained that it was a unique feeling full of anxiety and an adrenaline rush. The skeptic in me says that this seems like a very physical, biological response that we should be able to analyse. The skeptic in me also says that it sounds like a perfectly normal biological response to any other highly emotional, new, and exciting occurrence. But I'm utterly materialistic, so what the hell do I know?

Anyway, they conclude that the stereotypical little old lady falling down on the floor, convulsing and speaking in tongues is unnecessary for the reception of the Holy Spirit. You can have your doubts, just "give them to God," and he will remove them and give you the Holy Spirit (What the hell does that mean? If you have doubts, just pretend that they don't exist and everything will be okay?).

Next, the guy in my group obsessed about the question of deep African tribals and other people who honestly never get a chance to hear about Jesus and what happens to them asked the same question again, this time with the twist of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who does not have the tools to learn about a complicated abstract thing like religion. Here, the elder I think pulls something completely out of the ol' ass, and explains that he's sure God somehow contacts those that Christians fail to evangelize to, be it deaf, dumb, and blind kid or jungle-dwelling tribal, explains the Jesus deal to them, and allows them the same choice as the rest of us. Sounds nice. But why do they get God proselytizing to them while I have to make due with a terribly flawed system of Alpha sermons and discussions. That's not fair. And it's not really biblical, either. I decided I would have to ask the elder about that if I ever got a chance to have an argument with him (hint hint).

There was one line of discussion that I think illustrates the emotionality of the Christian thing, at least for some believers like the elder. He had a rhetorical question and answer with himself Q. Who is God? A. He's the king of kings, the greatest king. Q. What happens when we accept Jesus as our saviour and receive the Holy Spirit? A. We become the children of God. Q. What are the children of kings called? A. Princes and Princesses. So we (meaning Christians) are all princes and princesses. "Doesn't that feel good?" he exclaimed. "When people are getting me down, I can say, "Hey!" as he points confidently at his chest, "I'm a prince!" That makes me feel great." Now, to their credit, most of the group members just thought that this was hokey.

As time was winding down, a bunch of questions were quickly asked but with very little discussion or resolution:

We know suicide is bad, probably lands you in hell. But what of suicide before the age of reason? Consensus was that it's probably treated similar to the non-suicide death of a little kid, whatever that is (heaven? limbo? whatever the thought of the day is).

Someone cheerily explained that God's way of thinking is very anti-"human thinking." Which is not very helpful, eh?

Why did Jesus come to Earth during a credulous age instead of during a more skeptical time?

Becoming children of God also comes with responsibility. "You will be attacked." Man, they really have a persecution complex. I also note that it's the elder who brings this up. The stronger and older the Christian, the fiercer the persecution complex perhaps?

Finally, they returned once again to people who are still worried about not feeling filled with the Holy Spirit. A couple of people said that they've asked for the Holy Spirit but haven't felt changed, and this has led them to be worried and doubtful about the existence of God. The elder reiterated that doubts come from Satan. "Satan attacks you because you've selected God!" He also reiterated that there are less dramatic manifestations of God. One recent convert explained that for him, his change was realizing that he now behaves differently: "Wow, I would never have thought/acted that way before receiving Jesus!"

{snark} Wow, that's so compelling! A few months ago, I never would have bothered keeping plants in my house, but now I've got seven. Must be the Holy Spirit changing me! {snark} Well, no. People change and mature, and develop new priorities and ways of thinking based on their influences and experiences. It's not magic; it's life.

Come on, Holy Spirit, where are the tongues of flame that you exhibited back in the bible?

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At January 20, 2009 2:22 p.m., Blogger C. L. Hanson said...

Here, the elder I think pulls something completely out of the ol' ass, and explains that he's sure God somehow contacts those that Christians fail to evangelize to, be it deaf, dumb, and blind kid or jungle-dwelling tribal, explains the Jesus deal to them, and allows them the same choice as the rest of us. Sounds nice. But why do they get God proselytizing to them while I have to make due with a terribly flawed system of Alpha sermons and discussions.

Ok, this part literally made me lol.

Great stories!!! :D

At January 20, 2009 3:55 p.m., Blogger Carlo said...

The rhetoric is terrible. They've got an untestable, easy answer for everything don't they? If you don't feel the bullshit, then it's SATAN!!! Church bores me to tears and makes my intestines twist in knots. Thus I get gas - the holy spirit perhaps?

At March 02, 2012 1:04 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again commenting on posts from the distant past...
@Carlo: The Holy Spirit moving within you! Pfft... lol, a leak.
For a more serious subject, the same way that atheist scientists cannot explain everything in the theory of evolution, neither can Christians explain everything in their faith. In fact, that's the case with most any belief systems (read the Torah to find out how peaceful a religion it is compared to what certain Muslim's may tell you). It's because of this that ideas sometime fly out of asses, kinda like the (probably not holy)spirit that flies out of Carlos's.


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