Monday, 9 August 2010
A trip to Manchester city centre can sometimes be entertaining and thankfully a visit last Saturday did not disappoint.
Mrs PM told me that she planned to go to the city in the morning in order to buy a couple of things, in particular a new watch for her fortieth birthday courtesy of her mother. She wanted my opinion and so I agreed to go.
Regular readers will know that I have always suffered when shopping with Mrs PM mainly because she is a woman.
Shopping with Mrs PM can be particularly irritating because I am usually dragged around shop after shop and left standing looking like perverts in the middle of the lingerie section while she tries on the umpteenth item of clothing.
However, in this case, Mrs PM promised that we would only be a couple of hours and that all she wanted to do was to buy the watch and for me to help her choose it.
We decided to go early to beat the crowds and a miracle occurred; Mrs PM chose her watch in the very first shop we tried and it only took about twenty minutes. She was happy and I was elated.
“Can I just look around for a handbag?” she asked. I was buoyant after the success of the watch purchase so I agreed.
“While you are looking for your bag, I’ll pop into HMV,” I suggested.
After browsing through the CD’s on offer and the new releases, I decided that HMV was too expensive and that I could get what I wanted cheaper via the internet. I left HMV on Market Street slightly early and decided to watch the crowds while I waited for Mrs PM.
And I was in for a treat.
First there was a guy playing a guitar just like Hank Marvin. He had a small crowd around him and entertained them and me with his rendition a song by the Shadows. A bit further down the street, a young couple were salsa dancing, which was very brave considering the drizzle that was drifting down from the heavens. Even further, a guy sitting a massive green umbrella played a mixture of songs by Dire Straits and other similar artists; he had a great singing voice and played a mean guitar.
I saw Mrs PM approaching and as she did, my attention was drawn to a man standing in the middle of Market Street who was shouting at everybody.
“What’s he saying?” I asked Mrs PM who had walked past him.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I wasn’t listening.”
“Can I just walk past him?” I asked.
“You attract nutters,” she warned. “Keep your distance.”
As I approached, I began to smile. He wasn’t a nutter at all but he was very brave and very foolish.
He was a normal looking guy in his late thirties with black hair and a few grey tinges and was wearing a black coat and jeans. He was clutching a well thumbed Bible and bellowing at anybody and everybody who walked past.
I wanted to go closer as we approached but Mrs PM pulled me to a distance that was close enough to hear him but far enough to make a quick getaway in case he made a threatening move.
“You! Yes you there!” he yelled at a particularly sweet old lady. “You are EVIL! Your wickedness knows NO BOUNDS!”
“SSSHHHH!!!” hissed Mrs PM.
The old lady and others ignored him; yet I was fascinated that this man had the balls to chastise every person passing. He looked into his Bible for guidance and then starting screeching scripture at people accusing them all of being fundamentally evil and committing a major sin by merely existing.
I caught his eye.
“Your EVIL is beyond measure,” he bellowed across at me stabbing his Bible with his finger. “You seek reward in this life. You will not be rewarded in the next.”
I smiled at him and was very tempted to go to him and find out why he was having such a bad day and to advise him that he should perhaps stop accusing every person who passed of being evil personified. After all, somebody might just punch him.
Mrs PM dragged me away before I could act. But this man did get me thinking – and that is a dangerous thing. It got me thinking about religion and people’s interpretation of it.
I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, something I abandoned as a rebellious teenager. The problem I found with being a Roman Catholic was that no matter what I did, I was in the wrong. My soul was stained with Original Sin (through no fault of my own) and as a consequence I had to live my life in a constant state of repentance, confessing my sins on a weekly basis to a priest who would punish me by making me recite thousands of prayers.
And at the end of all that? I would end up in Purgatory being tortured before I was worthy enough to pass through the gates of Heaven.
I know that one or two readers of this blog are very religious and that they feel it is their solemn duty to spread the word of the Lord to the fallen, like me. I’m okay with that – I am fascinated by it in fact and I will do absolutely nothing to stop them from preaching the Word to me. In fact, I actively encourage it.
I don’t mean to belittle the beliefs of anybody who is a Christian at all but I would like to know how certain people can be so convinced that because I am sceptical of their words that I will burn in Hell. I was told that as a child even when I was religious – so what’s changed now that I am not?
When I was in the sixth form at school (aged about seventeen), there was a sudden surge of religion amongst my friends. One or two, like me, had decided that going to church was not for them. A fairly large number, however, travelled the other way and became “Born Again Christians”.
What is a “Born Again Christian?”
It is a person who has been reborn spiritually and sees spiritual life and belief in a completely different way. I was fascinated by this and at the time I actually started to interrogate friends who had undergone this transformation.
In those early days, my tone came across as scornful as if I were making fun of them. These guys didn’t help themselves. One guy who had been reborn a week before accused me of being Satan in human form because I listened to heavy metal. Another said that I was not a Christian even though I was a Roman Catholic. I would have to be baptised AGAIN if I wanted to become a “true” Christian.
As you can see – the lines are clearly blurred between the various Christian factions. I didn’t help myself because I was cruel in those youthful days.
One guy, a very intelligent lad who ended up at Oxford University, stood up in front of the school at assembly and told us a story that his pastor had told him that illustrated his beliefs and explained why he had begun to follow the Lord. He said:
Two men were on an island with the tide rising. If they didn’t leave they would drown. A man appeared on the water and held out his hand. “Follow me,” he said, “ and you will be saved.” The first man was sceptical and had no faith. “I will not follow you – if I do I will drown.” The other man had faith and took the man’s hand. He departed leaving the sceptic behind. And what happened to the sceptic? The water got him.
All of this proves that you must have faith in the Lord. If you have faith you will be saved. If you don’t – the water will get you.
Nobody argued – except me. After the assembly, his fellow Christians congratulated him on his speech.
“Hang on,” I said. “What if the man who suddenly appeared on the water had been Satan and had tempted the man to follow him? Wouldn’t he have followed the man off the island straight into the Gates of Hell to have red hot pokers stuffed up his arse for all eternity? How can you use that story to illustrate faith?”
The problem was that because he believed his story without question, he accused me of doubting the word of the Lord and consequently I was embarking upon the road to Hell itself.
“But how do you know that the man in the story wasn’t Satan? How would you know? Didn’t Satan attempt to tempt Jesus?”
That did it – they all refused to even consider my argument and walked away proud, yet sorrowful that I was going to become Satan’s plaything for all eternity.
This is what irritated me about certain groups of Christians; they refused to argue and debate about it.
Many years later, in Birmingham, I was sitting outside the library on a bright sunny afternoon when a Christian came up to me and told me that I was going to Hell.
“I beg your pardon?” I said. “How do you know?”
“Do you acknowledge that our Lord is the Way the Truth and the Light? Do you embrace Him without question? Do you have faith?”
“I’m a Roman Catholic,” I replied. “What are you exactly?”
“I’m a follower of the One True Lord,” he said.
I tried to debate with him but he, too, told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to Hell.
“Hang on,” I asked finally, now very annoyed with him. “How do you KNOW? How do you actually know that I am going to Hell? What proof have you got? Who told you?”
“God,” he declared as if that were proof enough and sufficient to end the discussion.
“So God has just told you that I am going to Hell, has he? How did you hear Him? Did he come down and tell you? Am I not privy to this secret conversation between you and the Lord?”
“It’s not too late,” he said mellowing slightly. “Come with me and you can be saved. Open your heart and let in the Lord.”
“The Lord is in all of us,” I said fighting back. “You have no right to declare that I am going to Hell just because I don’t walk the streets talking to strangers about Satan and his minions.”
These days I am much more relaxed about it, having met and chatted to quite a few born again Christians. I welcome their input and I can have a good conversation with them about their beliefs. They have faith that I don’t but they do not seem to scare me into believing that I am going to Hell.
I have noticed a trend though and I don’t really want to say that this is why people are “born again”. A lot of people who suddenly find the Lord seem to do so when they hit rock bottom and are embraced by a crowd of friendly and supportive people at a Christian gathering. It is that support that lifts them up and breaths new life into them. Not all people hit rock bottom but when they get involved in the church, the support of the congregation can be mesmerising.
This was certainly the case for Mrs PM’s grandparent, Tom and Paula; they never hit rock bottom but they became Christians when they were welcomed by an Evangelical Church in their early sixties.
When I first met them, about fifteen years after their rebirth, I thought they were wonderfully happy people. I had no idea that they were seriously religious until Tom died.
I saw Paula shortly afterwards and said “I’m really sorry to hear about Tom. He was a lovely man.”
She said “Thanks very much – he’s with the Lord now.”
And then I realised something – her faith helped her cope with the loss.
The funeral was very sad for the family but I realised that Tom belonged to a much bigger family than his own flesh and blood: the Christian family at his church. The pastor led a celebration of Tom’s life in a packed church full of friends that they had met through religion and many of them shouted out prayers asking the Lord to look after Tom and guide Paula through the hardship. Songs were sung and Tom’s life was celebrated – it was almost a celebration of his passing into Heaven.
It was pretty much the same when Paula died a couple of years later All this has taught me that, if nothing else, belief in the Lord and faith makes people happy and guides them through life with no fear of death.
I think that is a good thing, which is why I try not to mock devout Christians.
There are a few bad eggs though and it is those who annoy me. A man standing in the centre of Manchester telling everybody who passes that they are evil is, in my opinion, wrong.
We should embrace life and be tolerant of those whose beliefs differ from our own.
Even Jehovah’s Witnesses – I am one of those people who love discussing religion with them. Most people slam the door in their faces – whereas I will chat about the differences in our beliefs until the cows come home. Perhaps that’s why they don’t call anymore.
Anyway – I will leave you with the words of a much loved Irish comedian who was one of my all time favourites – the late great Dave Allen. Here he is:
Thanks and may your God go with you.