It’s 10:30 Sunday morning and I’m already late for church. I’m not too worried, though…the church I’m heading to will tolerate my tardiness. In fact, it will tolerate pretty much anything.
Now, I should explain that amongst my many projects this year was the GOD PROJECT, where I said I’d make it to a church service as many Sundays as I could (not EVERY Sunday, as some of you mistakenly believed…Curt). Last Sunday, I thought I’d go long and try out the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a faith I have no connection to whatsoever and whose beliefs I find highly dubious. That was a bad play; I fled the scene – I guess after years of NOT attending church I found it paralyzingly daunting to sit down with people whose views are so antithetical to my own.
I decided to go for short yardage with a church that’s not unlike myself; liberal, open-minded, not overly concerned with trivial religious matters, like sin.
So in order to build up my tolerance, I decided to go for short yardage with a church that’s not unlike myself; liberal, open-minded, not overly concerned with trivial religious matters, like sin. That may sound more like Sunday brunch with your hung-over friends than Mass…but then, you haven’t been to Westhill United Church.
I chose it because the folks at Westhill have a reputation for tolerance. They describe themselves as a progressive spiritual community growing out of the Christian tradition. If you creep their website, it has a statement of faith…oops, it’s actually called “Visionworks.” They thought a statement of faith would produce “rules” that not everyone in the congregation could agree with, so they scrapped that idea. Instead, their Visionworks contains a lot of noble, high-minded ideas, such as “diversity,” “inclusion,” “social justice”, and “environmental stewardship”. After about the 17th paragraph of this I feel like I’m back in university skimming my Utne Reader and pretending I care. Long story short, everyone and everything is welcome at Westhill and not just the usual suspects who used to be shunned by churches, like homosexuals - no, I suspect if you were an alien with a taste for human flesh, you would not be turned away. It seems like everyone is invited to the Westhill party…except, perhaps, God. Visionworks goes on and on and ON, but there is not a single mention of the Big Guy or his Son. The Holy Trinity is pretty much exorcised from the entire site.
I’m hoping for something wildly flamboyant – a cross between a Gay Pride parade and Southern Baptist Revival meeting, perhaps.
Now this strikes me a little like playing hockey without a puck…I guess it’s not impossible, but you have to wonder if there’s any point. I suppose after decades of legalistic Christianity, where most people on earth have done something for which they could be stoned, they figure it’s time to get progressive — so now everything is okay in the eyes of …. you know Who. Westhills is the, “I’m okay, you’re okay” church and at first, I’m okay with that. Such a tolerant, diverse-sounding church should have a righteously interesting service. As I drive over, I’m hoping for something wildly flamboyant – perhaps a cross between a Southern Baptist Revival meeting and a Gay Pride parade.
I arrive (late) and scurry into the sanctuary. It looks like…like ….well, like a regular United Church. Three quarters of the place is empty. Of all the people there, I am easily one of the youngest. This place has been described by some as a “hippy” church and judging by the late-fiftysomethings in the crowd wearing floppy hats and Crocs, stewing in the knowledge of their own mortality, they may not be wrong.
I’ve come in half-way through a hymn. I’m very familiar with the tune, since it was a popular one in the Pentecostal church in which I grew up. However, the words here are “different” and by that I mean there is no “abundant” mention of God and by “no abundant mention” I mean no mention of Him whatsoever. He seems to have been evicted from His own House. Instead there’s a lot of talk of compassion, joy, and love, abstract concepts that might apply to God, but no mention of his name. Call me old school, but I start to miss Him.
The Pastor calls for prayer requests. People stand and announce various needs – an operation for the 90-year-old father of a congregant, well wishes for the family of a recently deceased drug addict who used to attend the church. After each individual plea, congregants at most churches would announce in unison, “Lord hear our prayer.” That’s what I expected, because that’s what I automatically said a couple of times (years of indoctrination) before I caught on that this WASN’T the proper response. This posse’s retort was, “may love be found” or ,“may joy be shared” both of which sound like a lyric from an R. Kelly song.
After this, there is a reading from an author I’ve never heard of on a subject that has nothing to do with faith and finally, the Pastor gives her sermon. She talks about the recent and sudden passing of a relative and how her relative’s neighbours rallied around her family in this crisis. She goes onto talk about the need to build the same kind of community right there in the church, as though it might slip the congregations’ mind to support a family when they lose a loved one. Given their advanced collective age, maybe that’s wise. That’s it – the spiritual equivalent of, “eat your broccoli.” She mentions God once and Jesus once, but only tangentially, kind of the way you’d thank your agent when accepting an Oscar…you have to get it in there somewhere.
There’s nothing wrong with what she said, but I’m starting to realize I may have a double standard here; yes, I may want to be someplace that tolerates my foibles, or at the very least doesn’t frown on premarital sex. I want a church that cares for the poor, that understands things like sexual identity and invites questions and doubts about faith, because that’s part of being human. I love the idea of a church like that, so Westhills is tapping a vein.
At the same time I want hear more of GOD. I’m surprised to be feeling this way – I haven’t given God much thought in the past few years, so to find myself perturbed at a church that treats Him like an uncle who gets too drunk at family weddings is almost stunning. I feel like I need to stand up and FIGHT! for HIS RIGHT! to PARTY! At some point in my Westhills visit, I starting craving word of rules about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour beyond the platitudes found in the Vision statement. I want this church to have a code, even if I don’t agree with it.
This church is like vanilla ice cream, nothing offensive about it and for that very reason, nothing to be super-passionate about, either.
Something is crystallizing here: faith, to me at least, should
be trusting that there are rules to live by, a guide to protect one’s piety and collectively that’s supposed to make the world a better place, in accordance with God’s plan. If Westhills doesn’t captivate me it’s because I can’t see how you can stand for anything when you stand for everything. This church is like vanilla ice cream, nothing offensive about it and for that very reason, nothing to be super-passionate about, either. Rocky Road – now THAT takes commitment.
That’s another thing – all the churches in which I grew up (regardless of how wrong-headed I thought their belief system was) seem filled with people passionate about their faith. There seems to be about as much passion here as a DMV line-up (correction, people can get pretty worked-up in a DMV lineup). This could be THE church to minister to people who’ve never lead a church-y life, or for people whose exposure to faith has been largely negative (that’s me). But by refusing to step out on a ledge and risk offending anyone, by writing a statement that has an opinion on just about everything except God…well, they’ve committed to nothing and defused the passion. Basically, they’ve kept all the stuff that’s boring about church and discarded the things that actually matter.
I stand around for a few minutes afterwards, an invitation for anyone to come chat with me. Given my age I’m rather conspicuous (plus a lone, marriageable-looking male normally gets lots of attention in a church, I find) but no one approaches. People are talking to each other, but as far I’m concerned, there’s about as much fellowship going on here as there is on the subway. Even though I’m not sure they wouldn’t forcibly baptize me, I can’t imagine the JW’s being so ‘”whatevs” about a new kid in the Kingdom Hall.
As I stand there, it occurs to me that I did learn something about my, “I’m okay, you’re okay” church experience….I’m not okay with it. If I’m going to have faith and religion in my life, I want God (yes I said it) to help me become a better man… othewise, what’s the point?
Because I hadn’t eaten, I head out to break bread… by myself. So much for inclusion.