After 47 Sunday services my agnostic faith had begun to fatigue. Not in my mind but in my body. Inflicted with a seasonal cold and cough with aspirations to degenerate into a fever I sought solace in the Evangelical Reformed Church on Laureston Road. After weekly witnessing devout but decrepit bodies summoning the spirit to go to church I had no choice but to leave the confines of my bed for a so called better life. Speechless in fear of the cough within me I sat to the rear of the nave hoping to go unnoticed. Luckily, the restrained and equable congregation respectfully left me to stew in my sickly sin. Unlike the singing and dancing of previous evangelical episodes, all theatrics were reserved for the Northern Irish guest Pastor Samuel Mackay Desperate for the routine ritual to remedy my poor health I was instead treated to a sermon heavy service in which Pastor Mackay provided a lesson in the power and poetry of religious language. My vulnerable state became enslaved to Pastor Mackay, who at the height of his power almost exorcized the sickly and sinful ailments that plagued my body. Physically drained I felt spiritually vulnerable, easy prey for Pastor Mackay, passion to bully me into belief.
Pastor Mackay was not a handsome man. Youth looked forever absent from his face. Pale, balding, portly, bespectacled, he had no physical reasons to be confident. The charisma, the charm and passion were clearly sent from his great Lord. Preaching to a predominantly black congregation, Pastor Mackay’s rough Belfast accent crackled across the nave. Fire and brimstone rhetoric of the old homeland clogged up his throat and transported his followers from South Hackney to Northern Ireland. It was not just God’s Bible that had given grace to his gruff voice but the church created an environment so his words would echo across the hall with glorious gravitas. The church’s exterior suited his small but commanding stature: the late Victorian modestly sized building reached for the heavens with small but defined architectural features. Two extremely pointy spires stabbed the sky with spiritual importance while a large arched front window opened itself to public and potential converts. Originally built by Congregationalists in the 1800s the church has sustained a still feeling of suspense when entering the nave. It was an unknowing suspense like waiting for something intangible, ethereal or predictably something God like. The atmosphere did not transport you back in time like older churches but more created a feeling of stasis outside time which could only come from a building that has been undisturbed from renovation. Waiting filled the anteroom, the belfry, the cloisters, the nave, the surrounding gallery, the sanctuary, and any unseen room or crevice. Amongst this wait came Pastor Mackay standing firm in the pulpit surrounded by a collection of dark varnished wooden pews, stairs, tables, chairs and Holy folly. Pastor Mackay was a king overseeing his kingdom or somebody more prophetic, regardless of the title he was a great orator. Very few priests actually use the pulpit but Pastor Mackay had a traditional and conservative personality that was entirely comfortable with being placed on such a high pedestal. Standing only just below the large but fairly quiet antique organ his voice could not be dwarfed by anyone except God.
A great speaker can get you so lost in the language that you become so impressed you don’t really care about the speaker’s point. TV personalities, politicians and Priests are all guilty of speaking with style to disguise their lack of substance. Not that all TV personalities, politicians and Priests are great speakers, most are sound bite bores but a chosen few have an elegance of elocution that provoke great reaction by saying very little. Pastor Mackay was not only a great speaker but perpetuated the cultural legacy of the Holy Irish man. A religious figure of Old Testament testosterone he mixed words taken from the scripture with out dated language to create a non-existent nostalgic grace. In describing early passages from the Book of Joshua he used some stereotypical but no less powerful religious phrases: “Righteous Wrath of God,” “Calvary Cross,” “The Blood That Cleansed The Blind,” and my personal favourite “The Tale The Tongue Cannot Tell.” These words wore me out and wrapped themselves around my ears that I became so enraptured at the poetry of his performance leading me to completely forget about the Book of Joshua. Despite the overt violence of his words these strangely opaque but didactic statements are to be cherished, just maybe not worshipped. But I fully understand how such powerful imagery from one man’s mouth could inspire such worship. I would be a fully-fledged fan of Pastor Mackay’s passionate poetry if I could discover its source: The Book of Joshua, Jesus or God. Predictably Pastor Mackay’s powerful imagery did not provoke my spiritual side but instead stoked my cynicism.
The Book of Joshua is mainly concerned with the history of the creation of Israel and documenting some pretty savage tribal politics but Pastor Mackay managed to centre on the more palatable opening verses of God’s instructions to Joshua instead of the familiar Middle Eastern conflict. Leaving the more factually grounded history for universal spiritualism is essential for any priest yet often the priest will use the language of the Bible to create phoney authenticity to his words. The very specific struggle of the Israelites became comparable to the everyday struggle of the congregation so that the romantic rhetoric enriched the dull drudgery of modern day life. Amongst all the energy, eloquence and entertaining theatrics Pastor Mackay just wanted everyone “To let Jesus into our hearts,” without even telling us who, why or where. Preaching to the converted naturally breeds complacency but within the predictable praise my body had a violent reaction. The overpowering word play, the suspenseful atmosphere, the calm congregation, something tickled my throat and my cough erupted. Hoarse heckling from the back of my larynx bounced back off the walls of the nave and caused a non-protest to the weekly dogma. As Pastor Mackay encouraged us to get close to Jesus I was wheezing between my knees hoping my badly behaved body was caused by infection and not some unknown demon hidden within me. I tried as best I could not to distract others from Pastor Mackay’s words but charitable Christians are forever looking for a cause. Handkerchiefs, water, Bibles were passed to me but I could not stand the embarrassment and had to leave. Despite the kindness of strangers the word of God did not fill me with pride but persecution and my sickness felt like a strange pagan karma. I did not deserve such charity because I was not one of them I had not let Jesus into my heart and as result I had the flu.
Retired and rested I realised I did not need the kindness of strangers as it did not fulfil my narrative. Much as I had appreciated Pastor Mackay’s word play, the church’s subtle and suspenseful atmosphere and calming congregation that filled it, I desired the role of the outsider. Like the Pastor Mackay I use language to create my own world. However Pastor Mackay wants you to join him in his world for one giant liturgy while my world wants to create the image of an outsider looking into another world he feels he does not belong to. His language continues a tradition of colourful conformity and dramatic dogma while my language is limited in so many ways it can only come from my dyslexic brain. Opposition is where I feel most comfortable despite Pastor Mackay’s promises of eternal salvation. My problem is that I have yet to know from what I need to be saved except the common cold that plagues my body.