Friday, April 27, 2012

An Atheist At a Church Retreat

When they first started talking about calling forth the ancestors, I didn’t realize that five minutes later I would be saying “I love you” to a man I just met.  But there I was, staring into this man’s eyes, trying to be a spiritual vessel for his long-dead father, trying not to crack a smile, saying to this stranger, “Son, I’m proud of the man you’ve become.”  I can’t remember what else I said, but it was all bullshit, made up on the spot, winging it.  It was all just filler to get to the “I love you” and the hug.

I was at the annual men’s retreat hosted by Mile Hi Church, one of the more prominent New Thought churches in the state.  Aside from serving as the futuristic McDonald’s in the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, it also serves as a place of worship for practitioners of Religious Science, as explained by Ernest Holmes in his book The Science of Mind.  I’m not a follower or an adherent or a practitioner, but my brother invited me and, aside from the churchy stuff, it seemed like all pluses.  Take some time off, get up into the mountains, hang out with my bro.

So there we were, a roomful of men hugging each other, calling forth the ancestors.  Later there would be a drum circle and opportunities for meditation.  On the last day, just after breakfast and before the final service, we would fall silent like monks.  And of course, music.  A singer-songwriter was brought in just for the occasion, and you know, he was pretty good.

After the opening ceremonies and such, we were split off into clans, picking them randomly out of a basket.  My pick:  The Squirrel Clan.  I saw that and my first thought was WTF?  Squirrels?  Man...I hate squirrels.  Turns out the Squirrel Clan was a joke played on my Clan Leader, an old timer and an all-around jovial guy.  Big tall white guy in his sixties calling people “Dawg.”

At one point we were broken off into our clans doing this “process” thing, and I just zoned out.  I couldn’t focus on the mumbo jumbo, so I started writing story notes instead, sketches of people in the room, that sort of thing.  One guy stood out, we’ll call him Dick Franklin.  Tall guy, fat with a huge belly, leg in a cast, walking with a cane.  Bald but with gray hair down to his shoulders, big mottled hands, age spots on his forehead.  His face looked like Dick Cheney, but the haircut and the bearing looked like Benjamin Franklin.  Dick Franklin.

When we had to discuss our journaling in our clans, I just faked it.  I took the “talking stick” early and only held it for a little while.  What was I going to do?  Tell them about Dick Franklin?  I kept it vague and kept it short.

But still, there were some interesting people.  There was a former Dead Head who claimed his career was “this philosophy,” as in Religious Science.  Okay.  There was a guy who lives up in the mountains and follows the “Red Road,” Native American religion.  He offered to host a sweat lodge and let me borrow a drum for the drum circle, so you know…he’s alright in my book.

And then there was the former sportscaster for a local TV station, a real jovial guy who seemed to like me and my brother quite a bit.  Once we told him we were from Thornton, every time he saw us, it was, “Hey, it’s the Thornton boys.”  He was good friends with my Clan Leader, and we all had quite a few laughs at the bar and during mealtimes.

Yes, there was a drum circle.  Yes, there was a tribal circle dance.  There was also an embarrassing moment when I had to get up and sing this song, complete with hand motions, while looking in the eyes of another man.  “You are the face of God.  I hold you in my heart.  You are a part of me.  You are the face of God.”  Over and over, dude after dude. 

Not exactly my first choice of things to do on a Sunday morning, but I did it.  I probably serenaded fifteen guys, never quite making it down to Dick Franklin.

All told, I had a good time.  It wasn’t something I’d normally do, or even seek out to do, but I think having an open mind about it made the whole thing go smoother.  Not sure I could have done that at a retreat at any other church to be honest.

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