9) Six Nights In Sabah (also, thoughts on Praise and Worship, hysteria and 'miracles')

 

Praise the Lord, ye bright angelic choirs with Holy songs of joy...

During the retreat, there was much Praise and Worship. Most sessions started and ended with Praise & Worship. Indeed I sang so much my jaw hurt from all the unconscious dropping of it - a habit inculcated in my 4 years in the RI Choir.

I've never really liked Praise and Worship. For one, it is musically uninteresting. The simple melodies are short and all sound similar, most Praise and Worship songs sound like Country Music and the songs can be classified into one of 2 groups - happy and sad. All the songs end the same way - by repeating the last lines of the last stanza or chorus. Perhaps what's worse is the gestures - clapping, raising of hands, turning around and jumping (though there was none of the latter in Sabah, perhaps in deference to the Middle Aged people. The tunes were so boring that I started trying to harmonise with them (but not very well) - I never thought I would ‘degenerate’ to the level of Zhuomin and friends!

The priest conducting the retreat scolded people who dislike Charismatic worship, lauding it, but everyone has their own way. What makes raising your hands and clapping to Country Music tunes more virtuous or pleasing to God than wearing hair shirts and standing in the middle of rivers like the Irish monks used to do, Gregorian Chant, sitting alone on a pillar in the middle of the Egyptian desert for 20 years, or flogging yourself like the people who, during the Black Death in the 14th Century, used to go from town to town practising self-flagellation?

I was thinking about the purpose of all the song singing, and the shouting the priest did from his pulpit. The former is meant, through the ‘fun’, loosening up and relaxation to break down your defences and inhibitions and make you more receptive to the messages preached, and to implant suggestions into your head which you will now be more susceptible to, and the latter is meant to wear your defences down and likewise plant suggestions. The shouting was nothing compared to BMT, though, so I have a degree of acquired immunity to this sort of thing and was happily unaffected (I think). Alternately, the songs and shouting were meant to prepare the retreatants spiritually, so it depends on how you look at it. Probably both answers are correct.

 

Mysterious Sessions

Most of the retreat consisted of talks and Praise and Worship, but there were some sessions where the Power was turned on. The Power of mass hysteria.

Many times, the retreatants were whipped up and encouraged to "talk and pray to the Lord", and a ear-shattering cacophony ensued. People cried. People screamed. People shouted different things at different tempos at the same time. People talked nonsense ("tongues"). All in all, it sounded like what Hell is supposed to be. Or maybe everyone was possessed by demons. I think the Chinese Communist Party would be overjoyed if it could tape a session like that - it’d just claim that this was a Falungong session, and vindicate its branding of it as an Evil Cult.

While trying my best to participate fully in these sessions, hoping in vain that my years of semi-belief would be gloriously vindicated, I couldn’t but help make some observations. The pastor conducting the retreat was skilled indeed. He wore at our resistance throughout the day, yelling diatribes and abuse, planting suggestions and admonishing us, tiring us with long hours, hinting at things, and scheduling Praise and Worship before and after most sessions to soften us up so our resistance would be lower, making us castigate ourselves and each other to implant a sense of shame, and the Spartan environment didn’t help the Rational-o-meters. During the sessions themselves, he manipulated the volume of the microphones, whispered for emphasis so we had to listen more carefully, co-ordinated his actions and words with the band, and the band sometimes played discordantly to stun us or sung the same lines again and again to hypnotise us with their soporific effect.

Somehow, I was put in mind of that case a few years back, when children throughout Japan suddenly went into fits because of a sudden series of bright flashes during an episode of Pokemon. No one blamed Satan then, as I recall.

 

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Not to be outdone by Saddam, the Priest had some Weapons of Mass Destruction of his own up his sleeve, each more powerful than the last, not least in making people cry.

The first was when he got his helpers to lug a giant cross into the prayer hall, and asked all of us to write a letter to Jesus confessing our sins, even dictating how it should go, and then to go to the cross on our knees, prostrate in front of it, tear the letter up and reflect. I could not, in good faith, write the letter he dictated, so the one I wrote was slightly... different, asking for faith, and all through the ceremony I felt nothing.

The second WMD was a forgiveness ceremony, where people had to bathe each other’s feet and pretend that they were bathing the feet of people whom they had a long-standing grudge against. On reflection, I decided that I did not have any outstanding grudges and did not hate anybody, though some degree of dislike is inevitable, so I declined to participate, but it was quite touching to see some of the people taking part in the ceremony, especially when one Brother bathed one Priest’s foot and when one nun from Hong Kong was asked to act as a surrogate for 2 Hong Kong-ers, but bathed their feet back in return and kissed them to boot. 2 of the Priests, however, were not asked to act as surrogates for the ceremony. I guess they weren’t charismatic enough.

On the last full day, the third WMD came out. Well, it wasn’t exactly a WMD, but it was something other than the usual talks, mass, prayer and Praise and Worship - morning meditation. Except that most were sleeping during it.

 

Crucifixion

The next-to-last WMD that he unleashed came on the last full day. For 40 minutes, we had kneel while holding our arms out horizontally, like we were on the Cross, all the while in front of the Blessed Sacrament and hearing someone from the Music Ministry reading out the 12 Stations of the Crucifixion, with music sung in between each station. The pain was horrible. Now I know a tiny, little bit of what crucifixion is like!

People cried. I sort of cried too, a half-cry with no tears - not because I was overwhelmed by emotion, but because my arms were hurting too much, and a few times the boundary between half-crying and laughter blurred and I laughed, kind of like the times I fall down and, though my tush hurts, I start laughing. I was very tempted to slay myself and end my misery, but during the many times I looked around the room, no one had collapsed, given up or been slain, so I didn’t want to feel pai seh (embarrassed). To distract myself, I started jerking around and swaying wildly - jerking to and fro, back and forward and humping the air, among other things - in some part to redistribute the weight on my knees, which wasn’t that bad really, but more to distract myself from the terrible aching in my arms, especially around the shoulder, and to uncramp the area. I did cheat a little, though, by wiping my sweat 2-3 times, looking around the room to see if anyone had given up, drooping my arms very low on occasion and letting my arms down to massage them once. This went on for at least 15mins, and apparently all this while the priest was looking at me as if to ask, "What is this fella trying to do?". Others who saw me said after they saw me they felt like laughing, even if they had been about to cry, and some asserted that if not for my antics, they wouldn’t have been able to keep in that tortuous position.

After the whole thing was over, people told me that I was in a trance, and that I looked like a "tan kee" (medium) in a Taoist temple or I had what the priest had referred to as a "Muhammad Ali" spirit in me. Since I was in full control of my actions, was conscious of them, felt nothing inside of me and did not smell, taste, see, hear or touch anything special during that time, I naturally didn’t believe them. How does one tell if one is in a trance anyway? However, they were so insistent in their claims that I suppose there was some modicum of possibility. However, if I truly was in a trance, the fact that it was a Taoist trance doesn’t bode very well, does it? :) Later I asked a priest how someone could tell he was in a trance, and he said that that person had to be pure of heart and had confessed all his sins. That didn’t describe me, so I suppose it wasn’t a trance! Perhaps it was an, err, experience.

 

Saving the best for last

The priest’s final weapon was powerful indeed. It involved the priests going around to bless people, and by the end of the session between a third to a half of the room had been felled and was out cold on the floor, and some people were running around the room chattering in tongues. I didn’t experience anything, though *shrug* I think I’m condemned :)

 

It's a miracle! Praise the Lord!

People love to look on the incidences of "miracles" and other "experiences" as evidence of Divine touch and presence. Indeed, "experiences" are an integral part of the religious experience, to show adherents the power of their God. However, why do these mystical experiences seem to be available for so many religions? Does that mean that all of their Gods have power? Heck, even atheists or agnostics have weird dreams, or Out Of Body Experiences. People with brain damage or on drugs are also known to have experienced strange and wonderful sensations. In laboratory experiments, researchers have managed to induce religious experiences in test subjects by stimulating their brains. Do these experiences necessarily come from a God, then?

In addition, many of them can be easily explained (see below). What are the implications of this for there being one True religion? Or none, even?


- Healing

This is a perennial favourite. Notice that most times, the miraculous healing is of a most subjective ailment - pain. Now, as all knows, pain is all in the mind. To a large extent, pain is psychosomatic - if you think you're going to hurt, you will. One could get a hypno-therapist to plant suggestions in your head, and a similar result would be achieved. The power of this placebo effect is recognised by scientists, which is why in drug trials, the control group is always given a placebo. Now, if the promise of a mere drug can dull and deaden pain, imagine what unshakable, firm faith in one's healing can bring?


As for the more visible types of healing, Bien Kiat told me that he saw a show exposing fake Healings, and it was rather shocking how the tricksters managed to fake the regeneration of a hand, gore and all. All in all, I will not totally dismiss this ‘miracle’, but I must make the observation that we hear so much about those who are healed - but what about those who aren't? Ah, it must be God's will that they are not healed. And that the people who go to faith healers, trusting in His Power and casting themselves at his feet but later sicken and die should die.


- Tongues


From time to time, people will begin spouting gibberish. They are said to have been given the "Gift of Tongues".

A cursory analysis of the tongues spouted reveals that they follow a certain pattern, the tongues actually consist of a very few words (one I heard just consisted of "Lalalalala") and that certain words and phrases occur very often. This makes me wonder what they are actually saying, and how extensive their vocabulary is. Perhaps it is just "Praise the Lord", and if that is the case, this gift is not very good, for what good is a language if your vocabulary is limited? I might as well learn curse words from various languages and then proclaim that I know a million and one tongues!

Cases have been documented, I believe, of people suddenly speaking weird languages when they suffer brain damage. One case I am certain of is of this Chinese scientist who, when he suffered brain damage, suddenly lost the ability to speak in English and reverted to his native Mandarin. In any case, when someone is emotionally overwhelmed, it would not take too much for him to suddenly spout a few nonsensical words and imagine that he was speaking a new language.

Perhaps the simplest explanation for Tongues - possession by demons. Tada. So much for it being a divine gift.

- Slaying


I suppose people’s minds can become overwhelmed by everything, or they experience a sudden release of built-up tension. And they thus collapse when touched by the Priest but my choir junior - a non-believer - told me he got slain at the Festival of Praise at the Indoor Stadium, and my room mate Clarence told me he got slain before the retreat too, so I will accept that Slaying might not be due to personal, internal influences.


- Walking on Hot Coals

This is not a miracle attributed to Christianity, but can be used as an example showing how so-called miracles can actually have a rational explanation.

Basically, people can walk on hot coals yet not get injured because of the Leidenfrost effect. When liquids are placed onto surfaces at high temperatures, they do not vaporise as quickly as one might think because the part of the liquid in contact with the hot surface vaporises and acts as an insulator, protecting the liquid from the heat of the hot surface. Globules of water can thus remain on the surfaces of hot skillets for up to 3 minutes. Now when the coal walkers run across the hot coals, they either wet their feet or, because they are nervous, sweat around their foot area. Thus, when they run quickly across the hot coals, they can escape injury.

- An unworldly sense of peace and calm

This seems to be experienced by people of numerous religions. Many atheists and agnostics, too, feel this - when they give up their faith. Would it not be reasonable to assume that this sense of calm comes from within, rather than without?

- Sights and Sounds during adoration

Nightly adoration was supposed to be the most powerful time of the retreat. People related being healed, feeling various sensations and smelling scents.

Now, adoration was held at odd hours during the night, when the retreatants were dazed, tired from a lack of sleep and disoriented after waking up. They’d have been psyched the day before, and all the proceeding days, and in the quiet of the adoration chamber, who knows what they might have thought they saw?

One woman claimed that, during mass adoration, she smelled roses around the Blessed Sacrament. Bah. The Sacrament was surrounded by bowls of scented oil!

Others claimed that they experienced many things during mass adoration. Perhaps they were short of oxygen, or affected by the mass hysteria and all the psyching. See below also for more on how we were emotionally and psychologically manipulated.

 

- Possession and the Power of God

Why has much religious experience, demonic possession and influence been found to be caused by disorders such as temporal lobe epilepsy, other forms of epilepsy, schizophrenia and head injuries? How come stimulating areas of the brain with electro-magnetic waves has been shown to result in religious or spiritual sensations? Why have Francescan nuns and Buddhist meditators shown similar patterns of brain activity when praying and meditating, respectively?

Additionally, does not the fact that many people have experiences while fasting or otherwise weakening themselves, concurrently psyching themselves, thus opening themselves to hallucinations, not raise some suspicions?

Apparently, possession by demons and/or other evil spirits was common during the time of Jesus, but hardly mentioned in the Old Testament.

It seems that God has become less powerful in recent years. In the Bible, God is recorded to have shown his power freely, but now he is reduced to making people utter nonsense. In 1 Kings 18:17-40, Elijah invoked him to set a pile of wet wood ablaze, to show that Baal was a false God. [NB: What happened to "free will" here, then, since he showed the priests of Baal his unmistakable power?]. Or how about the Fish and Loaves, which fed hundreds (though, strangely enough, none of these hundreds recorded this miracle independently)? What gives? Why is it that major, incontestable shows of his power are not visible nowadays? Many claim to have seen "signs" from him - but what makes them so sure that these "signs" were not natural occurences, or figments of their imagination? I can claim that this God gave me a sign that I was to massacre all the blondes in the world, but would this claim hold water? Perhaps if fiery words were written in the sky in front of millions, but what if the "sign" came in the form of a divine conviction that I found? All the miracles attributed to him have been becoming steadily less powerful and observable. Coincidence, or conspiracy?

 

Other odd occurences

And how about non-religious miracles, aka 'magic'? Here, I refer not to cheap parlour tricks, but to seemingly incedulous feats, like those performed by David Copperfield. Surely going through the Great Wall of China, making the Statue of Liberty disppear and flying could not be pulled off with mere sleight of hand? And I think no one in his right mind would accuse magicians of being aided by the Devil, so it must be illusion. If even something like "flying" is achievable, mere tongues pale in comparison.

And this is to say nothing of ESP, clairvoyence, psychokinesis, magnetic manipulation and assorted strange occurences documented worldwide.

 

Finally, for the unconvinced who argue that God "works in mysterious and strange ways", I reply that the human brain has been shown to work in mysterious and strange ways, especially when the person is stressed and being prodded, with a multitude of suggestions seeded and in a heady environ where everyone is caught up in fervour - which is more than I can say for their god.

 

Luohan Lee

The priest conducting the retreat, whom I have referred to many times, likes to refer to Luohan in his sermons, so some of us called him ‘Luohan Lee’ affectionately.

He bashed some topics merrily, but evaded others. One of countless examples: if murder is bad and we should love our fellow men, what about conscription? As an aside, I really admire the Jehovah’s Witnesses for standing up for their faith even though they have to go to DB for 5 years.

He kept impressing on us that he had a lot of experience and had seen a lot of things, but does that mean he has a monopoly on the truth, as he led us to believe? According to him, this god is rigid and inflexible, and he justified his preaching by taking certain passages from Scripture and then interpreting them as he liked. The ossified beliefs and fundamentalist stances alienated people like me who were not mindless sponges for senseless rhetoric, a pity really.

A roommate and I decided to corner him one night to ask him pertinent questions. Unfortunately, we came away disappointed due to his non-committal, non-intellectual, politically correct answers. Apparently he didn’t look at other religions more than cursorily, yet he was convinced of the superiority of his own, dissembling about how the others were somehow lacking. He claimed that one must search to find the truth, and gave his 2 criteria for a true religion - holiness and love. Which hat he pulled these 2 subjective and contentious rabbits out of he didn’t say, naturally. He said that you must believe - but then belief presupposes God’s existence, so you’re proving something by assuming it - a circular argument. He said what mattered was not doctrine but sanctification - but then the criteria for sanctification seems to be whether someone or something conforms to the doctrine he practices (to him, everything is a sin!). He also revealed that he desired women and wealth too, but he held out for eternal life, something which rather disappointed me and a few others. And in the end, for all his evasive answers, he was still able to preach fierily.

Other priests were a lot more helpful. Most appeared open minded, and the consensus seemed to be - God finds everyone in his own way and in his own time. Well, good for him. If he ever needs me, I’ll be where I always have been. If he doesn’t want me, then I’ll just mind my own business. If he’s so merciful and loving, then why torment people looking for him?

At the end of the retreat. Luohan Lee was asking for testimonies. I was thinking of offering mine, but I didn’t want to be a wet blanket, get stoned or get shouted off by him for being ‘off point’, so I refrained. Bien Kiat, however, managed to give a testimony while deftly avoiding the issue of religion or ‘god’ so praise be to him :)

 

Other thoughts

It's been a while since I had vigorous debate, and I wish to thank all who engaged me, most notably my room mates :)

One reason why this retreat was supposed to be so "powerful" was that there were many people praying and fasting for it and interceding on behalf of the retreatants. That brings to mind the question of why this god requires people to fast and pray to him to work his stuff. If he is so good, kind and benevolent, would he not do the same regardless of the number of intercessors? This all puts me in the mind of magical rituals, where dozens of channelers are needed to power the sorcerer, and once the Mana is depleted, nothing can be done.

It seems that a lot of people go through their own crises of faith. I'm hardly unique. How dismaying :)

The priest talked about this guy who killed a Japanese soldier who was raping a villager, and related how this tormented him for 40 years. I got the impression he didn't condone the killing, but I would think that not stopping the rape would have been worse - and a worse sin.

People went there to get healed. I got injured - my right shoulder and my lower back hurt for a few days after carrying the biggest cross (there *are* disadvantages to being big).

We were told that St Paul said we should have no more anger - but we were continually railed at. Hmm.

One Indian Priest said that we should choose the religion most comfortable for us. For example Gandhi wanted to become Christian, but was disgusted by Apartheid in South Africa, but he included elements of Christianity into Hinduism. So I ask - what’s the point of religion, and of doctrine, then, if we go shopping for one and choose the least ascetic one, say? Especially since most religions are exclusive and condemn the others.

I did learn some things about forgiveness, letting go and reflection at the retreat, but that wasn’t really the purpose of it. The feeling of liberation is, however, quite unique.

 

Picayune Details

It seems that most people who went were middle aged Chinese - from Singapore, KL, Hong Kong, Miri and Labuan. Before and during the flight there, I was thinking that me and 2 others (one a Raffles Guy GEP) who were born in 1982 were the only Singaporean participants under the age of 40! While flying, it occurred to me that I've been on Ma-laysia Airlines flights so often that I recognised 1-2 of the Air Stewardesses on either trip.

F&N apparently does not wish to unleash its full Alliteration line of Drinks (e.g. Freaky Fruitade) on Singapore - Smashing Strawberry (which tastes like Cough Syrup) and Lucky Lychee are only available in Malaysia. They are all advertised as containing "Real Juice" but most only have Grape Juice. Bah.

Adrian pointed out that from our vantage point on the fourth floor of the Retreat Centre, Mount Kinabalu looked like Mount Doom, sans the Eye of Sauron and the brimstone. And being in the middle of a cloud (when the weather conditions are right) is just magical!

Most of the people who were on the bus I was assigned to send us to the Retreat Centre and back to the Airport were very religious. So religious, that they prayed for even the simplest of things - namely, a bus ride. "We pray that you may keep us safe on our journey to the retreat centre..." This left me speechless. To pray for such a simple thing would be insulting, to say the least. I wonder if any of these people pray before going to the toilet in case a snake comes up the sewage system and nips them while they are sitting on their throne. I would imagine that God isn't a babysitter and we do not need to go to him for every trivial matter, or he wouldn't have put us on this earth.

I could have jotted many quotes down, mainly of Bad English, as I am wont to do, but I already had too many notes for this essay, so to have gotten the quotes would have driven me crazy. :0

The vegetables we ate were not bad, the meat less so. The fruit, especially the Sabah Pineapple, was excellent though! Many priests (especially the Indian ones) ate bread at every meal though, so maybe they didn’t like the food (or else we now know why they mostly are quite plump).

I was discussing with one roommate how very religious and devout people can be the most horrible of people - hypocritical, mean and backstabbing. I guess it's Real Life, causing them to rationalise and ignore their actions.

Tim had remarked before that Priests have bad senses of humour, and from the few times I'd heard priests or pastors joke, I got that impression too. Perhaps the reason why they make lame jokes is that they are not supposed to make crude or vulgar jokes - it's sinful to do so!

It seems bass guitarists like genuflecting. And female ones like humping their guitars too :)

"I’m always right" - Elaine. She sounds like my sister!

The Music Ministry people played a song during the Last Dinner, and it was the song that Auntie Mary at Monty’s always listened to! I’ve finally found out that it’s called Jambalaya. And they also played the song used for the Singapore Kindness Movement - I should have known the government would never have composed a new song for the Campaign. Later, one group at another table (rather, floor mat) started singing the Zurangeni (I’ve no idea how to spell it) song that they Malays and Indians in my BMT platoon liked so sing so much. I noticed that they did omit the English lyrics though - ‘Once the papa met the mama under the mango tree. Then the papa asked the mama, "Will you marry me?". Then the mama said, "I don’t want". Then the papa rape the mama under the mango tree.’ I related the lyrics to one of the middle aged Chinese aunties, and she was quite scandalised :0

Paul, Timothy’s Uncle, was among those most helpful to me. His efforts seemed to have failed, but I appreciate them, and at least he introduced me to Super Milo - Milo where more than half the cup is filled with Milo powder. Oh, this stuff is potent.

I and some others were at one of the shops near the retreat centre when we saw a male dog nuzzling a female dog, and a drop of liquid fell from its member. Ooh.

Clarence told us that he’s actually featured in the Total Defence commercial that has people in a large group making an arcane symbol near the end. Heh heh.

There were adoration sessions held nightly, but on the first night, my whole room didn’t go due to miscommunication, on the second I fell asleep for most of the adoration, on the third I slept through my alarm, on the fourth I felt like shit for most of the session and on the fifth I was apparently woken up but sat up and went back to sleep, though I have no memory of this at all. I suppose it must be, ah, "God’s Will".

The priest recalled this email he got, about the importance of not being consumed by work. BUSY - Bound Under Satan's Yoke. How kind of him to offer such a cute acronym. In return, I have a proverb for him - "The Devil finds work for idle hands".

At the airport, I saw the Millennial Edition of the Malaysia Book of Records being sold. I’d always wanted to get this so I can have a picture of the guy who walked backwards, the woman who lived in a room with snakes and the Oldest Man In The World (older, in fact, than the Oldest Person In The World according to the Guinness Book of World Records, but whose claim is recognised only in Malaysia). It was 99 Ringitt but I didn’t mind spending that sum as I was in an impulsive mood. Too bad the book was damaged when I opened it to have a look. At least I saw that there is a record for the first Palm Oil Based Cosmetics (and many other Palm Oil related records too). Malaysia Boleh!

At the airport, too, there was this bookstore with an Islamic section. None of the books had informative blurbs on the back, telling the browser what they were about - especially important since the books were all wrapped up. Instead, the back covers listed the authors’ credentials. Bah. There was also a book savaging Evolution, and called Evolutionary Theories ‘prverted’. Bah x2. Actually I was thinking of getting ‘Islamic rules on Menstruation and Post-natal Bleeding’ but it was 18 Ringitt, so.

 

The Sabah Song

This was actually supposed to be performed by the Singapore group, but we withdrew at the last minute to avoid offending sensibilities.

To the tune of ‘Jesus Saves’:
Lyrics by Clarence :)

Father Lee said My People
Come to Sabah
Leave ‘Sex’ Centre
When we come here, find no water
Aiyoyo! should have brought Newater

We thought we were sharing Queen-sized beds
Instead we shared toilets
Although we had a clear, cool wide view
The cow dung stuck to shoes

Chorus:
Monkey see, monkey do
That’s how sin ensnares you
We are healed, blessed and renewed
Jesus saves our people, God bless you

We waited for 72 positions
But we were taught only one *singer kneels*
We stirred and moved when we felt the spirit
Till he said ‘Hello’

Chorus x2

 

Contents:

1) Introduction and disclaimer

2) Me and Religion

3) The Value of Scepticism and Science and Religion

4) Why do people believe? and other questions about Faith

5) Metaphysical questions

6) Basic tenets of Christianity

7) Bible literalism and knowing what to believe

8) Catholic Doctrine

9) Six Nights in Sabah

10) Miscellaneous thoughts on religion

11) So what happens now?

12) Further reading