Friday, 16 August 2013

Love, Vast as the Ocean

WE’VE recently moved house and city.

Our new flat is looking good, we’ve had pleasant walks around the local area and, all in all, as a venue to write my thesis this will do just fine. But we do not know many people in the local area, so are not yet settled. Our schedules have permitted us only three free Sundays since the move, and on each we have visited a different church in order to find a new community. Our hunt is only beginning, but it has taught us a lot of our likes, dislikes and the issues that challenge us.

For the past four years we have had the pleasure of belonging to the Pavilion Christian Community, a free church in Bournville that owns and runs a community centre — a conveniently picturesque community centre with its origins with the Cadbury dynasty. Its heart for the community was evident from our very first visit, and it was a heart without agenda, which is something I think is important. In my opinion, using good deeds to lure people towards exposure to faith is deception; one’s motives in such a scenario are not to do good for the sake of doing good, but to trick somebody into a scenario they must approach of their own volition. Even worse is to not do good at all for your community.

Only one of the three churches we have visited so far appeared to outwardly provide for its local community. In a video shown to the congregation to introduce the scheme, a quote (I do not know who by) particularly caught my attention:

“If a church is not caring for its local community… it is missing something.”

It’s hard to disagree with this statement. But for me, a church that is not caring for its local community is not missing something: it is missing everything.

On another church visit, everything seemed to be going swimmingly. We were abundantly and exuberantly welcomed, the sense of community was immediately apparent, the size of the congregation was just about right for us, and the worship was lively and enthusiastic but without the weird people waving flags. I could almost imagine the piano player standing mid-song, stooping over his keys and taking the music off-piste, with full-blown jazz solos, such was his passion for worship.

But then it was time for the intercessory prayers.

Intercession is a strange beast. As a body, a church does have common issues, points of praise and concerns, and intercessory prayer is a good time to address them. But it is also an ample opportunity for whoever has been granted the responsibility of delivering the prayers to impose their own views, the assumption being that everyone is praying along with them. This makes me uncomfortable. Thus, in the middle of prayers of thanks for local marriages and prayers for healing for congregation members came the following, now paraphrased, clanger:

“As the House of Lords prepares to vote on the same sex marriage bill, we pray that Your definition of marriage, that it is a union between one man and one woman only, is preserved. We will continue to love our gay brothers and sisters, but we pray Your definition of marriage will not be changed in law.”

I opened my eyes at this point, and refused to participate in the remainder of the prayers. I do not intend to address the theology of homosexuality or marriage here — others have done so with far greater expertise than I elsewhere all over the internet. I know many (both gay and straight) on both sides of the argument, and you, the reader, may agree with this prayer, and that's fine. I simply disagree with being told how to think, especially when I think this particular prayer breaks that most basic of commandments: to love your neighbour as yourself.

So, what is love?

Love is friendship.

Love is empathy.

Love is sharing.

But love is more than that. Love is dropping everything to care for another. Love is placing others before yourself. Love is selflessness. Love is utter devotion to another, even when that other has unintentionally hurt you, or disagrees with you or pushes you away. Love will get in your way. Love will take you in directions you had not previously prepared for. Love is letting others have everything you have — and being further prepared to give more. Such behaviour does not come naturally to any of us.

Love, in short, is difficult.

To me, that prayer was a contradiction. It is not love if you offer mere pleasantries to somebody whose lifestyle you agree or disagree with. Indeed, it is not love if you quietly disapprove. And it is certainly not love if you claim to love someone, yet deny them of something that you can have — in this case, the ability to commit to another for life, to publicly declare love for another.

I have long been impressed by the Canvas house project in Birmingham. It is run by a Christian group but is not a church, and if you were to visit you might never know it has the backing of a religious organization. It is a refuge for students, a lifeline in the desolate student world of Selly Oak, where many find loneliness and sadness. The Canvas staff includes students. Canvas is literally a house, whose door is always open for a cup of tea, a chat, a game or a musical shindig. All are welcome. If you don’t ask about Christianity, Canvas won’t talk about it. It does not evangelize: that’s not what it is for. Instead, it is simply a place for companionship.

Canvas’ ethos contains the closest definition of love I have ever found.

“Our Christian faith pushes us to really want to take care of the people around us, not with strings attached, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s it.”

Love, vast as the ocean, is the right thing to do.

Our church hunt continues.