Friday, November 21, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1094 - Spirituality (#2)


One of the things that I probably most took for granted in establishing my own religious viewpoint was that the context was unequivocally Christian. On neither side of the family was I exposed to individuals of different religions. There were no Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Taoists, or even admittedly atheists. About as far removed from the overall family Christian context one could get was to be Roman Catholic. Instead, it was the Congregationalist and Methodist denominational background that prevailed, especially as embodied in Canada as The United Church.

I was baptized as an infant at Central United Church, the church closest in proximity to the Royal Victoria Hospital where I was born in Barrie. But again, on both sides of the family, although that was the church of choice, it didn't seem to matter much. Attendance was irregular, there wasn't (as far as I can recall) much talk about religious issues - just weddings, funerals and a very occasional Sunday service.

So when Mom took me to Emmanuel Baptist Church, she strayed only minimally from the family standard. The deviation was small, but it was in a direction towards the religious right. The next deviation she took, and which I followed, was even further to the right.

My Mom's friend mentioned a church she had started attending near the Barrie City Hall on Mulcaster Street that was part of a small but fast growing denomination called the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Theologically indistinct from evangelical Baptists, the central feature of the denomination was this business of being baptized in the Holy Spirit and the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues", something which my Mother's friend encouraged Mom to investigate more closely.

We started attending while I was still in primary school. It was here that I quickly started making friends who were different from my neighbourhood friends, all of whom were planning on graduating from Codrington Public School after grade eight into grade nine at Barrie North Collegiate. But both my Mother and Father had attended Barrie Central Collegiate and were big fans of the school's famous Barrie Central Collegiate Concert Band, led by the inimitable W.A. Fisher. One of the first friendships I made was with the son of my Mother's friend, someone whose plans to attend Central Collegiate and to be part of the concert band interested me.

I also recall wanting to start fresh in high school with new friends and with the socially advantaged and privileged kids in our neighbourhoods who played musical instruments with this social phenomenon of the Central band. In a way, it was my Father's musical tastes which helped shape this interest. I distinctly recall listening to Al Hirt and a whole host of big bands that he would play on the stereo system he had in our workshop downstairs. The trumpet was always the star item in the musical universe of the big bands, so I opted to play the cornet/trumpet when I applied to be part of the band.

Another friendship that was cultivated and that has last a lifetime in that church was established shortly after starting high school. M. has been one of my closest friends ever since. So as I began to develop independence from the constraints of neighbourhood friends, music and friendship were compelling aspects.

In addition, the services at the Pentecostal church were a lot of fun for young people. The music has upbeat, loud and emotional. Not only was there an altar call at the end of each service - similar to the Baptists but with far more emotional fervour - there was this very vocal and ecstatic business of speaking in tongues, people laying hands upon one another in attempts to "get" others baptized in the Holy Spirit. There were claims of miraculous physical healing too, with other mysterious "gifts of the Spirit" talked about in hushed tones - things like "interpretation", the ability to take a message delivered in "tongues" by someone else and translate it into an English message direct from God to those in the service; there was discernment and exorcism as well as baptism of adults by immersion in a water tank in front of the entire congregation.

To put it succinctly, there was a "cool" factor for a young person in attending the Pentecostal church, especially for someone finding his independence not only from his parents and other family members, but from the constraints of neighbourhood cliques and status groups.

Young people were highly valued in the Pentecostal church. In fact, at the same time I was establishing these new friendships, becoming immersed in music, attending a different high school with the "cool" and rich kids from across the city, the church had decided to build a brand new building on Anne Street. The church elders wanted the young people to help during the year or so when we moved to a temporary location on Collier Street, doing things like setting up and tearing down for Sunday evening services (those were the most exciting services of all!), and getting involved in using hammers and nails and assisting in the actual building of the new church.

So apart from the apparent disdain on my Father's side of the family for "holy rollers", the juxtaposition of music, excitement, independence, mystery, and most importantly, new friendships conspired to make the choice for Pentecostalism compelling.

(Next, college, university, betrayal, opportunity, and movement from the right to the liturgical centre.)


Anita (Mix) said...

My mother also had a friend with a similar Pentecostal bent. I recall in pre-school days going with Mom to small group prayer meetings hosted by this friend. I could listen from the next room where on special days I got to play with the old style of linking logs (real wood they were and very grown up for a little kid like me to play with). I would often hear various women praying in tongues, and as any child might do would pretend I could do the same ... mimicking the sounds as best I could.

I am not sure exactly what led up to this, but one day I found myself with my Mom's friend (alone as I recall it) and she explained that she was going to pray for me to receive this gift. I knelt in silence, waiting for whatever it was to happen and soon realized that the desired results weren't happening. So I did what I suppose any kid my age would do. I uttered the same sounds I had mimicked while playing alone outside the room. My Mom's friend was clearly pleased.

I've never forgotten it. In later years I believe I have had legitimate experiences with that gift ... but it has always been quite personal and I leave it at that.

That experience as a child convinced me of how easy it is to force and generate spiritual experiences and proclaim them as truth. It is small wonder that integrity becomes a huge issue and challenge in any spiritual debate. I hope I walk honestly.

I have appreciated your sharing of this aspect of your journey, Don. Realizing that we don't see these things eye to eye, I still look forward to the other 'chapters' if and when you're feeling up to it. Thanks for taking the time and making the effort. It is appreciated.

I hope today has been a good day for you.

Don Spencer said...


I might surprise some friends and family when I talk about the authenticity of glossolalia ("speaking in tongues"). The truth is that in many cases, I have no doubt whatsoever about the spontaneity and therapeutic "spiritual" value of speaking in tongues. Notice, that I did not say that I believe speaking in tongues is communication. I don't think it is, so by default "interpretation" cannot occur the way Pentecostalists say that it does. But I do believe there is an ecstatic, psychological benefit to the individual in releasing the control of the ego over speech patterns. In effect, speaking in tongues is a kind of physical expression of faith and trust to what AA members would call "a higher power".

In all my years in Pentecostal circles, there were some claims of spiritual gifts which I was never, ever able to verify:

physical healing - some strange things happened, but I discovered not a single case of a cure, especially those in which no other explanation that a miracle would suffice - no re-growth of limbs among amputees
interpretation of speaking in tongues - this was one I fully expected should be available to me as a student in Bible College; but the closest I ever got was when a minister suggested that I "make it up" using truisms, statements from the Bible, and articulations of faith that were appropriate to the situation; I never felt this was acceptable; my personal integrity never allowed me to just "make it up"
prophecy - not once did I confirm a prediction of a future event event that could only have occurred because of some kind of foreknowledge bestowed on an individual
miracles - no walking on water, feeding of thousands of people, etc; not a single authentic example ever came my way
discernment of spirits - sure I encountered some clinical wisdom, but nothing that ever demonstrated angelic or demonic, disembodied spirits
The other spiritual gifts were generic - wisdom, knowledge, and faith - and didn't require anything supernatural. Consequently, they weren't valued much within Pentecostal circles.

I, too, encountered people who were clearly "faking" it in speaking in tongues, either to mock the phenomenon or to try to please someone else. I found the first disgusting and the second misguided.

Pinch come to shove, I can still speak in tongues upon demand. Not that I do, but I think it demonstrates a kind of learned behaviour that cannot be denied. I also think that there are better ways to engage in spiritual experiences.

Ironically, one of the best discussions of Christian meditation and dream analysis was introduced to me while studying at the University of Waterloo. I attended a weekend seminar at the Grand River Hospital led by Morton Kelsey, author of The Other Side of Silence. I was more interested in Jungian dream analysis even then, but Kelsey did talk about speaking in tongues too. He clearly saw some psychological benefit in the prayer experience especially one in which speaking of tongues as a private meditative exercise figured prominently. I'm not sure I would go that far, but I think I could confirm some benefit to private prayer and speaking in tongues from personal experience. was a good weekend after we got most of the pain under control.