I grew up in a Christian home. I was Christened as a baby at our family church, Timothy Eaton Memorial, in Toronto, a “United” Church with Methodist roots, ringing its bells above St. Clair neighbourhood rooftops since 1914. My grandmother was an Anglican, and my grandfather was Catholic, so perhaps Eaton seemed like a workable compromise for them as a local place of worship in their community. I went to Sunday school at Eaton, and remember being taught about Noah and the great flood, Jonah and the Whale, and of course, Jesus, through colouring books, song, and prayer. “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
My grandmother would encourage us to read the Bible, and on weekend visits to her house, I’d deliver sermons from a makeshift altar made out of old kitchen stools, draped with one of her handmade “afghan” blankets. It was she who introduced me to Jesus. To her, Jesus was a healer, a kind and gentle shepherd, a comfort, and someone that heard her voice when she was lonely, or grieved the loss of her great love, her husband Thomas. Now departed, she’s buried beside him, with her parents, not far from that church. She always believed that she would be reunited with her Tommy in heaven, and passed quietly and peacefully in her sleep with his rosary clutched in her hand.
My grandmother, born in 1913, had lived through two great wars, the depression, watched men walk on the moon, and remembered when telephones, radio, and television were novelties. She had an inner strength that was sustained as much by her faith as by her character, moulded by the desperate and uncertain times in which she lived. She had a special fondness for me, as her grandson, and through her memories, I came to know my grandpa “Tom,” who had passed away on my mother’s birthday, just weeks before I was born. He was a war hero, a carpenter, and a professional wrestler. He made her laugh, and years later, I would come to deeper insights into their love for each other through their letters, exchanged between them during the war. They both knew what they were really fighting for.
Later, in my youth, I would take up her Book of Common Prayer, and attend the Anglican Church on Sundays, and I took the confirmation to explore and affirm the faith. As a young man, I’d also been drawn to the sciences, my imagination captivated by childhood dreams of the space age, other worlds, and an ever expanding universe. My Vicar tolerated my questions, questions that arose from contradictions in the faith that I couldn’t ignore, and as much as confirmation instructed, it also created doubt. One summer afternoon, the Vicar and I sat on the front steps to his church, and we talked about faith, God, religion, and science. I asked, for instance, why there appeared to be two separate accounts for creation in Genesis, and two accounts as to the number and type of animals Noah was instructed to take on board the ark, and how, if Moses wrote the pentateuch, he was able to describe his own death. Questions that naturally arose from the Bible itself. As my questions became more pointed, the Vicar finally ended our discussion abruptly, and asked me not to return to his church. I never did again.
Maybe the Baptists had some answers. A good friend of mine, James, invited me to attend a church he was excited about, in retrospect, I think mainly because of the nice young women that adorned the pews. The pastor of the congregation was a fiery southern preacher, with a beard that rivalled that of Moses himself – Reverend Lutz. I had a crush on his daughter for a while, and on occasion, would be invited to their home for suppers and a night of “black magic.” As sinister as it sounds, the magic of course, was black only in that the parlour trick relied on the naming of something black as a cue that the next item to be named was the sought after article of mysterious divination in what to the uninitiated believed was a psychic phenomenon. It was all in good fun, but looking back, I can’t help but be reminded of the “magic” when I hear news of discredited and disgraced pastors who employ deception on much grander scales, preying on the faith of the sick, the heartbroken, the poor, and the dying, for the sake of some slick suits and a shiny car.
Lutz’s church was based out of the basement of a run down apartment building, where the pool had been during better times. It had been drained, but his vision was to use it for baptisms. In the meantime, they were performed in a large metal tub, filled with a garden hose. The congregation paid his mortgage, and the rent for the church, water bill included, and they were treated with Lutz’s passionate preaching, most of them scared to death by the time Sunday lunch was served. I always thought it a bit strange that a southern Baptist preacher had travelled as a missionary all the way from Florida to the cold frozen north, to preach in the wilderness we called Toronto.
I’ve been to, prayed in, and even spoken to, many churches since those early days. I’ve held lay positions, contributed to them, sang in their choirs, and dished out soup in their kitchens. Many have had good leadership, with priests, pastors and ministers who are dedicated to their community, their congregation, and their faith. Most of the people I’ve encountered in church have been good, decent, caring people, quiet in their beliefs, and content with fellowship and worship in their comfortable surroundings. Some churches have faced crisis, have closed their doors as an aging congregation passes into history, their lights dimmed, and doors locked. Other churches, mainly revivalist or evangelical in flavour, have sprouted up in their place, attracting new generations of young people, and a few of the older generation who remember when their shopping mall sized parking lots were farm fields, while some parishes auction off churches for a dollar hoping to free themselves of leaky roofs and crumbling bricks.
I’ve also been to new churches, small close knit congregations that operate out of the pastor’s home or backyard, in industrial warehouses, or golf course club houses, often with names that imply some sort of global presence or aspiration, where preachers still use an amplified microphone to reach an audience of dozens, with large overhead projectors hooked up to their kid’s laptop. It’s hard not to get the impression that pretty much anyone with a Bible these days can get themselves ordained and open up the next living room church in town, and maybe that’s not a bad thing, but it makes me wonder about one’s real motive for doing so, especially when some of these outfits seem to put more energy into sustaining rumour mills and gossip parties than they do in preaching the gospel.
I think it takes more to be a serious Christian in this day and age than slapping an “I love Jesus” decal on your tailgate, showing up on Sunday for cupcakes and upper body worship calisthenics to the sound of the latest rock out of “Kumbaya my Lord” in someone’s living room, or expecting valet parking and dolby surround sound at your local mega church.
Christianity has some serious issues, and a lot of unanswered questions, most of which we’re asked to just accept and take on “faith.” Those who speak up, ask questions, or present contradictory interpretations, are often shunned, mocked, ridiculed, or worse, by their fellow worshippers. If you’re not the “right” kind of Christian in a particular group’s eyes, you may as well be the devil, as far as some of them are concerned. And yet, that’s not how Jesus, we’re told, would have wanted it. Or Paul for that matter, if you read his letters to the early church, that was just as divided, if not more so, than the one we have with us today.
Thomas, a disciple of Jesus, who loved Him very much, refused to believe in His resurrection until he saw it with his own eyes, and felt with his own hand, the resurrected body of His saviour. Most Christians focus on the admonition that Jesus appeared to give when He said, in response to Thomas’ skepticism, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed,” translated roughly as, “shut up and believe what you’re told and don’t ask silly questions.” What most of us miss is that Jesus did offer evidence to Thomas in response to his skepticism and doubt. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Jesus then went on to perform many “signs” for His disciples, which weren’t recorded, according to John, even though, presumably, they already believed themselves, or at least, were too afraid to ask after Thomas’ doubts had irked Him.
Some of us are reaching out our hands, and poking our finger in places, seeing, and testing, our own faith. Jesus didn’t turn Thomas away, and He won’t turn you away either if you seek answers to questions that, you too, as a Christian today, may have. It took great courage for Thomas to stand in front of his Master, with the other disciples looking on, shaking their heads, to ask for proof. For evidence. For an explanation. Thomas touched the body of the resurrected Jesus, the hand of God, and while it may comfort some to rely simply on hearsay, rumour, or faith, God reveals His truth to those who ask questions as much as He does to those who seek Him through faith alone. For some, those answers come at the small end of a telescope, as much as they ever did from scripture.
Sometimes, the answers, when we find them, bring us closer to God, and to heaven, as we reach out our hand to Him. Remember that, the next time you reach for that cupcake.