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Why I go to church
Rev. Katie Stein Sather, September 7, 2003I would suggest that the meaning of our existence, our fulfillment, and our happiness depends on our relatedness to others. Cooperation, motivated by our interest in others, is the basic means for achieving this relatedness without diminishing our individual integrity and freedom. It is when we begin to think that we don't need others-that we can be sufficient unto ourselves-that we begin to frustrate, distrust, and eventually hate each other. If we could come to understand that we are interdependent beings in a great cooperative venture, I am certain that we-that humanity-could be a great deal happier and healthier than we are today and that we would have a much deeper understanding of what life could mean.
"The Meaning of Your Life"—Eugene Pickett
So, why are you here today? Why did you come to church?
I've just spent a number of hours figuring out my answer. My answer for today, anyway.
Perhaps you have been asked the question, 'If you Unitarians don't believe in God, why do you have to go to church?' Or, maybe, 'You go paddling, or hiking, or camping, outdoors. Isn't that like going to church?'
What kind of answer did you come up with? I encourage you to reflect on your answer, or answers, as we continue. Why do you bother to get up early on Sunday morning? Some of you come very early indeed to help set up the room, or make the coffee, or welcome folks as they arrive. Keep your answer in mind as we move along.
I'm going to speak of my answer, and my story to start with. Like many young people, I skipped church for a number of years. I knew I didn't fit into the church of my youth, but I had given up searching for one that fit me. I was having too good a time with the canoe club. A big, loosely-knit, group of us spent many weekends together, especially in the summer, paddling the waters of the eastern slopes of the Rockies.
The thrills and chills of whitewater paddling necessitate friends. Not only is it easier to do a car shuffle with another couple or three, but it is essential to have other canoes along on the river to pick up you, and your boat, should you go over. Since we were challenging our skill limits much of the time, we all used the services of our escorts. The risks and the cold water wettings were bonding experiences, which we reiterated over the campfire at length at supper and in the evenings. The tales became legendary, and were used to introduce neophytes into the club. I could still tell the stories about the hypothermia trip-that was in 1974-or the ursine visitor to our weekend camp who stole the raspberries hanging on the tree.
The Red Deer Canoe Club was our community for a number of years, over ten, in fact. Like many volunteer groups though, its membership changed, and its activities waned, as folks moved elsewhere in their lives. Some of our friends went to university in Edmonton or Calgary; others found jobs out of town. The main spark plug of the club moved away from the centre of town into a neighboring one. Things were definitely not the same any more. Some of us tried to maintain the club and its activities, but without the success it had previously enjoyed.
That was about the time I saw a little classified ad in the local newspaper. The Unitarian Fellowship of Red Deer was advertising their weekly service; it happened to be a travelogue about a trip made by one of the members. What impressed us most was the nature of the community. Their support for the somewhat tentative presenter was palpable. Their interest in us as newcomers was most welcoming. We felt at home there, and indeed joined the Fellowship a few months later.
I didn't know then exactly what I was looking for. They had probably advertised previously in the Coming Events column. Somehow, I knew I was searching for something, and the time was right.
I have been asked 'why do Unitarians need church? Can't you just go paddling or hiking and commune with Nature? Isn't that enough?'
My response, by my actions at first, and now I can put it into words, is no, it is not enough to be out in nature, much as that is important to me. My masters thesis was on the connections between wilderness and spirituality; Al and I lived in our cabin in the Newfoundland woods for over a year, immersed in nature. Yet, yet, there was something missing. I needed something more. Nature was not enough.
The time I spent in Newfoundland was a time of discernment for me. In some ways, it would have been much easier to just stay there. We wouldn't have had to move, with all the work and disorientation that entails. I wouldn't have had to go through the search process, which is months and months of emotional roller coaster ride. I could have remained in the Newfoundland woods, a place I treasure.
What was missing for me was the sense of community. The same kind of community I was searching for back in 1984 when I told Al, 'I'm going to this worship service. Would you want to come, too?' I think I knew I needed the kind of community a church would provide, if only I could find the right one. I was back on the quest I had left off 15 years earlier.
I think I wanted to be a part of something larger than myself. With friends beside me on the river, I could be a bit more daring, challenge bigger waves. With friends at church, I could more bravely face the challenges life presents. At a particular point in my church quest, my father told me about how he valued his community. His is a traditional rural church, and he was on the board for years and years. His great grand-father was one of the three men who went off in search of a minister so they could start up the church. He lives only a mile or so from it, less if you walk through the fields and woods as I often did. He told the story of how my mother, a nurse, helped neighbors with minor medical needs. And I know how other friends and neighbors helped her when she needed transportation home from the nauseating chemotherapy sessions 40 miles away.
Community provides support when you are sick, in body or in soul. Several times during this past winter, as I was making the decision to enter the search process again, I had the opportunity to see a church community in action. I knew then that what was missing from the Newfoundland woods was that participation in community.
Being in a community isn't always easy, and isn't always about receiving benefits. There have been times when my community has challenged me. Like when some friends told me they were going to march in a rally. I don't remember the issue. I do remember being surprised that one would express your opinion in such a way. Marching in any kind of parade or rally had been a long way from my experience. My community transformed my way of thinking about the world, and, my way of thinking about my place in it. I could have a voice.
I was much more conscious of my search for my individual religious beliefs. I knew the church of my childhood didn't fit me, but I was still working out what I believed about God, and church, and the place of humanity in the world. Once I tried out a Unitarian church, I realized that, like our canoe trips, numbers not only meant safety, it meant I learned faster. And more, whether through organized classes or casual conversation. We know why we bring our children to church school-so they will learn something about religion, and ethics, and how to be a good person in the world. We adults learn this stuff too. On and on. Learning doesn't end when we leave school.
Learning about religious disciplines or beliefs other than the one I personally prefer is a spiritual discipline. Presenting, in my case, or listening to someone else's spiritual quest, can be felt as a challenge to your own. Are you thinking properly? Or, it can be experienced as more information that may in the long run strengthen your own set of answers to those eternal questions. This kind of diversity of paths is not as common in other churches, but many of us find it liberating to know it's okay to change paths, or cross paths. If you happen to think that your way is the only way, or that one other way in particular is absolutely wrong, this may not be the right place for you. Here, we know we all have different answers, but choose to walk together in life anyway. That's our unique spiritual path.
During my time as a chaplaincy intern at the University of Alberta Hospital, I asked an elderly farmer what gave his life meaning. His reply made so much sense to me that it has stuck in my mind. Echoing Eugene Pickett, the author of our reading, he said that it was his family and neighbors and friends that gave his life meaning. They were why he wanted to go home from the cardiac Intensive Care Unit, why he wanted to get up in the morning. They mattered to him. Pickett's words were 'the meaning of our existence, our fulfillment, and our happiness depends on our relatedness to others.' In church, we have the opportunity to connect and relate to others beyond the superficial level at which we know most of the folks we see at the checkout counter, or at work, or at school. Not only do we know others here, we are known by others here. We know we are not alone in the world. Feeling lonely is all too common today, and that's why we try to pay attention to the cares and concerns and celebrations of each other, as we do.
Some of us go to church for the ritual, ritual that may well begin at home as we get dressed. At the church I served in Detroit, there was a couple who always dressed to the nines. One Christmas, she wore a bright pink suit, with hat, very stylish, and he wore an African style shirt, with that same pink in it. Their teen aged daughters joined in the color coordination. Their presentation made a statement, 'we are HERE!' Yes, they were black, and brought that 'dress UP for church' ethos. They did so to honour their community, and themselves as part of the community. They dressed up most of the time; dressing was part of their church ritual.
Our Unitarian ritual often includes a time for meditation. One man's comment made the point about how important it was to him. He said that his whole week turned on those few minutes of silence and then music.
Church as a constant among the chaos of our busy lives is one of the primary functions of ritual. Once, returning to my wiccan ritual group after a number of months away, I was struck by how much the familiar ritual helped me center and ground myself. The world seemed to stand still for a moment so I could focus again, and then step back on the merry-go-round. I don't usually feel this so concretely, but there it was, that evening.
Theologian Thomas Driver speaks about ritual in an academic way in his book The Magic of Ritual. He writes that ritual indeed serves these three functions: making and preserving order; fostering community; and effecting transformation.
When you add that all up, it comes to the point. The ritual of church gives our lives meaning. We know we have relationships with others, whether family or not. We are comforted when we are sick at heart, or sick in hospital; and, we are challenged to be the best person we can be, whether when comforting others, and not being quite comfortable doing it, or when thinking about or even more so, praying with someone else in their fashion.
This all must be worth it. We come back, week after week. We spend a lot of time and effort and money on maintaining our administrative organization and all that entails. For we don't want it to collapse, like my canoe club did. Johnny and his sister and mother and father, and their whole community searched for something quite similar in that green stone. Johnny needed their presence in his search to recognize how important they were to him.
Sometimes, it's said that the devil is in the details. Well, I say the holy is in the details, the relationships. To me, religious community provides support for our search (as well as our times of hardship and grief), a sounding board for our insights and ideas, a touchstone, an anchor, a group of people to remind us that our theology and our ethics need to include compassion, respect, healthy boundaries, and a realistic view of ourselves and our world.
And so that's why I come to church. To find my community, and the divine.
We stand at a new doorway,
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