The scene: a friend's birthday party. A birthday party for a beautiful woman who's happy to be turning sixty is a really wonderful thing, especially if the potluck dinner features The Parade of Fascinating Grains (quinoa, wild rice, couscous...).
Besides the potluck, we also did some Interplay (is this how you say it? "did some?" I'm not sure...) which is an important part of my friend's spiritual life. This is a movement-based, getting-in-touch-with-your-body practice, which generally I'm all for. Although I will say I struggle with things that are for grown-ups and are called "play," since I'm just not sure play is all that it's cracked up to be. Anyway, the kids in attendance (son and god-daughter -both 4 plus) LOVED it.
Still, I left feeling uncomfortable and wiggly because of one little interaction. At one point, Eli was shrieking in the way that let me know that louder and longer shriekings would follow. Everyone else was moving around, and some others were making noises, too. I very lovingly put my arms around him and very kindly asked him to be quiet so we could hear the gentle voice of the facilitator.
"Oh, no," said a passing woman I'd not yet met, "in Interplay we can make noise if we want. " and then to Eli, "You can make noise if you want to." Which left me feeling like a conformist, repressive dope, and an irritated, embarrassed one at that.
I broke a rule I didn't know existed, the rule that You Must Not Silence Children. Even if they are burning that potent, potent fuel at the bottom of the tank and are close to burning out.
To contrast it, consider the Orthodox church where I will go witness my friend being confirmed (called "Christmated!" Isn't that a great word?) in a couple of weeks. I expect it to be mysterious and ineffable. I expect a lot of rules and traditions that I do not understand or even agree with. There will be no shrieking of any kind and I'm prepared for that.
The problem, in an Interplay crowd, and I'm afraid in my own congregational tradition, is that we think we have no rules and no norms, when in fact there are hundreds. For my own church setting, I'm not even sure what they all are, or if I could articulate them, but I know they are there, and I sure know when they are violated. It is very difficult to disseminate the norms of a community - both to visitors and to long-time members - when we are greeted each Sunday with the all-embracing phrase that opens worship at my church, and I think at many UCC churches since it was featured in our TV ads a couple years ago: "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."
I've loved that phrase, and, like my senior pastor, open worship with those words on occasions when I lead. But I can see from my experience at the party last night that they are not true. I mean, we want to say that we keep nobody out, but a person who, for example, doesn't find spiritual growth through community is just not going to be drawn to church life no matter WHAT we say about being welcoming. So just by being a covenant community, we are already exclusive of those for whom covenant or community is not important. Which is actually a good thing! Maybe we should start bragging about it, instead of pretending that something truly all-inclusive is going on.
This experience last night reminded me again that it's time to stop issuing vague welcomes and start being clearer about who we are and what we stand for - not as a way to keep people out, but as a way to authentically welcome both visitors and long time members IN to what is really going on.
What do you think?