The place is not important

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

A strange thing took place last week in West Africa, Sierra Leone I think. A man who was suspected as having the Ebola virus had been placed in quarantine. That meant he was not permitted to be in a place where there were other people, and preferably confined to his home.

However, a BBC reporter who appeared to know the man stopped him in an attempt to interview him.

‘Are you not in quarantine?’ he asked.

‘Yes I am’, said the man.

‘But did I not see you leaving the mosque just now?’

‘Yes you did.’

‘Why do you risk infecting others?’

‘Because I want to pray,’ said the man, trying hard to sound reasonable.

‘Why don’t you pray at home?’

And the man answered, ‘I don’t know how to pray.’

That’s quite shocking, not just that the man was prepared to place the lives of his fellow believers at risk, but that he felt he could not pray other than in a designated place. But is that so outrageous?

I worked for Derry City Council for a time in the early nineties while still living at home in North Down, so I commuted at the weekends, and lived with an old couple in the Waterside during the week. The old boy was as deaf as a post, so there wasn’t much opportunity for conversation. But the lady? Full of life and opinions and meaningful debate.

Each morning at breakfast we would be found locked in verbal jousting; always an inspiring, challenging debate, sometimes keeping me late for work.

Several years later, I thought I would drop in to see her on my way back from Donegal, overlooking the fact that it was Sunday morning. I could see that the front door was open, and there was Kate making her way up the hall, now with the aid of a Zimmer frame, and I she fairly shot past me, muttering, ‘I have to get to church!’

I’m not suggesting she should have taken time to see me than go to church, but doesn’t that tell you something of the mindset that you can only worship God in his house? Odd, when the Bible says of him, ‘...the Most High does not live in temples made by human hands’.

It’s a very long time since I first became acquainted with my Creator and over the decades, our relationship has changed, deepened, broadened, matured I suppose, but I’m not sure that our communion was ever restricted to a place.

As I have often said, there is a certain arrogance in organised religion that tricks its adherents into believing that somehow they have a monopoly on his presence. I am convinced that God himself finds that hurtful. I am equally convinced that he wants to walk and talk with his people without geographical restriction, and without the need for an intermediary.

Tragic as it is that the Muslim man in Sierra Leone could not pray in the quietness of his home, make no mistake, it is a fallacy that is repeated millions of times right across Christendom, day and daily. The prophet Micah asked the question, and answered it; ‘What does the Lord want from you? walk humbly with your God.’ Walking implies a journey, sitting does not.