“Are there any visitors?” We are at that point in the service when we can choose to identify ourselves and so I stand and do so. We are visiting a suburban United Church in central Canada from our island home on the West Coast. The service follows a familiar pattern; the readings, the sermon, the hymns and the collection at the end. Familiar, yes, but strangely like a time warp for my wife and I who have not attended a service for over a decade.
We have been out sailing the world’s oceans, visiting many different cultures, gaining a wider perspective and personal revelations that felt at odds with what, once we were home again, seemed a too circumscribed religious observance. Once safely home, we stayed away from church. I observe this ceremony, this mostly grey haired congregation, like a visitor from Mars and begin to cautiously revise my far-too-pat opinions.
The readings and sermon today revolve around the need to trust in and follow God and that faithfulness will bring rewards in our personal and community lives. I am tempted to take a cynical view ( 'Be good, do as you’re told' ) of all this until I remember how true this was for us far out in the Pacific where all the skill and preparation in the world was not enough for us to survive in a hostile environment. Only when we accepted that we alone could not control our fate, that we must allow ourselves to become part of the great oceanic wilderness and pass our ultimate fate over to another dimension did life flow smoothly.
All these folks in the pews around us have led parallel lives, worked conscientiously to raise their children, buy their own homes, contributed to their community and have envisioned their church community as reaching out to the whole world. Life was not easy for them either, but religion provided the 'back story' that made sense of their lives and their faith community gave them real support. And they, en mass, have formed the essential roots that hold a larger society together. While some may rebel, take all they can, question all faith and all religions, a certain base must exist for us all to stand upon.
Civilization, as Kenneth Clarke writes, only survives if people are in general agreement about its values. What we are seeing acted out before us in church today is the underlining of a value system that goes back thousands of years and is built into our governmental and legal systems. Somehow, no matter what, we know that we are our brother’s keeper, there is right and wrong in human relationships and that we must learn to love our neighbour and not just if he is of our race, religion, or economic class. Powerful stuff, if acted out in our daily lives.
We leave church today, welcomed and hand shook, with the thought that perhaps there is a place here for us after all. That our experiences in the wider world may be of value to this community and not be rejected as 'unchristian' or something that 'we do not believe'. It would be a struggle though, to fit into a too narrowly defined 'faith' tradition again. The world is too big for a fortress mentality, the needs of the earth and its living communities far too urgent for a narrow interpretation of Christianity or any other religion. To be our 'brother’s keeper' may well require we all stretch ourselves individually and as religious communities and gain the confidence to move forward towards a dangerous and uncertain future. After all, Christians and others have been doing just that for two thousand years or more!