I’ve written in Keeping Place about the part of our church’s liturgy that I appreciate most; it’s when someone stands to pray for the church and for the city. This part of the service is where we talk to God about the grit-and-grind realities of everyday life—in our own congregation but also in Toronto. We pray as part of the work of imagining what it could be like for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
Yesterday, my husband, Ryan, was scheduled to pray for the church in the city. In his prayer, he mentioned the recent decision by an Ontario court to force physicians in the province, opposed to physician-assisted death, to provide a referral to their patients despite their conscientious objections. It was a blow to the 4,700 Christian doctors in the province, and as I’ve spoken with some of these doctors in the past, some wonder whether they will continue to be able to practice certain kinds of medicine in Canada in the future. Ryan prayed that these doctors (many in our own congregation) would be given wisdom and courage.
It might not have seemed a very controversial prayer until after the sermon, during the few minutes that are routinely devoted to Q&A. A man from the balcony waved his hand to catch Pastor Dan’s attention. He stood to mention the “young man’s prayer” earlier in the service.
“I personally am very much in favor of physician-assisted death. I think this is a welcome turn in the modern world, and I’m just wondering: What roles do personal politics have to play in the prayers we pray here? And how am I to pray along if I can’t agree?”
When I had met this man, several weeks ago, he was quick to nervously tell me that “I haven’t been to church in more than fifty years.”
It was a moment tense with a great deal of uncertainty—both for him, I’m sure, as well as for us. We waited breathlessly to say what Dan would say.
For those of us who grew up in a pew, we can hardly appreciate the difficulty of walking into a church either for the first time or for the first time in fifty years. Church is a place of so much shared—and implicit—consensus. We share a common vocabulary. We share a familiar understanding of what’s happening during the service. We move in time as if to the beat of some invisible drum. No wonder it’s daunting for people to join us: they feel clumsily out of step.
I think the question remains for those of us who would call ourselves “believers”: what does it look like to welcome a “stranger” among us? How do we make our churches places to safely explore the Christian faith?
We have the seeker-model of the 1990’s, of course. That was about neutralizing the physical environment of the church: taking down the cross, for example. Replacing the pews with theater seats, preferably with cup holders. I think we’ve seen the limited effect those changes have had, and I’ve read in recent years that people today (especially younger people) are longing for a more sacred kind of church architecture. As it turns out, we don’t actually want our sanctuaries to look like movie theatres.
What does welcome look like then? I have a feeling it looks more like the moment from our church service yesterday, when a gentleman who hasn’t been to church in fifty years got up the nerve to raise his hand, and with it, an objection. I have the feeling it looks like a pastor answering that question with a great deal of courtesy and theological seriousness. “A wonderful question,” Dan began, “and I’m so glad you’ve asked it.”
“Maybe we could begin by considering the Christians in Nazi Germany who failed to defend the Jews at the time. In hindsight, we can see that their moral ambivalence proved to be the exactly wrong thing needed at the time. They needed the moral courage to land squarely on the side of the Jews. It’s only later, of course, that we can see this.”
“There’s no doubt that following Jesus will often put us on the ‘wrong’ side of our current cultural moment. People in the general culture will draw what they feel to be obvious conclusions, as in the case of PAD, but Christians, because of their theological commitments, won’t draw those same conclusions.”
“We don’t bring personal politics into our prayers so much as our theological commitments. I think it’s appropriate that we can pray as Ryan prayed today, acknowledging, of course, that there will be disagreement among us. Thank you again for what was a very perceptive question.”
There were other brilliant things that Dan said, and by the time he’d finished the answer, the congregation burst into spontaneous applause. “Why are you clapping?” Dan asked sheepishly, turning his attention to communion.
I wasn’t clapping so much because Dan had brilliantly answered that particular man’s question. I was clapping because he’s answered a much more important one:
Who is welcome here?
You, who haven’t been to church in 50 years.
You, who disagree with our theological commitments.
We invite you among us: to raise your objections, to puzzle over faith, and to come—however fitfully— to Jesus.