Sunday, May 5, 2013

Rituals for the seasons of our lives

Text: John 14 23-29 (the Holy Spirit will teach)

How do we mark key passages in our lives -- events such as birth, death, and the transition from youth to adulthood? I ask this question today because of the baptism this morning of Hudson Trethewey in Coronach, as well as the funeral service for Beatrice Skundberg in Big Beaver last Friday, the funeral for Kae Thompson in Coronach this Tuesday, and the graduation ceremony of the Grade 12 class last night in Coronach.

There are many reasons why I am glad that Megan and Robert brought Hudson to be baptized today. One of them is the fact that more and more people no longer turn to church for rites of passage. Today, many people rely on secular rituals, or forgo rites of passage altogether.

I read a column on this trend in the January issue of the United Church Observer magazine by Toronto journalist Larry Krotz. Here is how it begins:

"Last spring in Edmonton, I attended a graduation for my grandson. It was exactly as you’d expect -- excited anticipation as families and friends scrambled with cameras and bouquets of flowers for the graduates who sported mortarboard hats and who filled the first rows of the theatre. In the background, school staff with corsages pinned to their best outfits, prepared to take students and their guests through the highlights of their time in school before handing out the coveted diplomas.

Sitting back for this spectacle, I realized that I now like rites of passage, which wasn’t always the case. I belong to the generation that skipped our college graduations and wrote our own wedding vows -- that is, if we got married at all. When I was young, the more time-honoured the convention, the more I wanted to flout it. But now that I am older, I have changed my tune . . . "

He continues, "for many Canadians, there’s no rite of passage quite like a graduation. It takes the individual on to the next stage of a prescribed journey. It signals to a family that everything is normal; their child is keeping pace.

Here I should point out that the graduation we attended in Edmonton was graduation from kindergarten. It was the first rite-of-passage ceremony my grandson Timothy had experienced since neither he nor his brother had been baptized as infants.

The church used to have the corner on life ceremonies. The very terms 'rite' and 'ritual' are in fact church definitions. For Protestants, baptism and confirmation stood for many generations as the main markers in early life. However, as everyone knows, people are not turning to churches for the traditional rituals as much as was once the case.

United Church numbers, for example, tell us that baptisms dropped from 66,000 in 1960 to 10,000 by 2009. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean our need for rites and rituals has disappeared . . . [But] what the church once gave us -- and still gives to many -- is often now found elsewhere in secular society."
Larry goes on, but I think you get the point.

Grad last night in Coronach is an example of the trend. Nothing has impressed me more about Borderlands since I moved here almost two years ago than high school graduation. I am blown away by how big an event it is.

As a rite of passage, Grade 12 graduation strikes me as combination wedding, debutante ball, and perhaps even funeral. I worry for the grads since the stress must get quite high. I also worry that the grads might get the mistaken idea that Grade 12 is the high point of life.

On the other hand, I am pleased at the spotlight grad puts on our young people and at the exhilaration and joy they express there.

Personally, I am OK that many rituals now occur outside the church. The important thing for me is that the rituals actually work; that they help us move forward; that they satisfy the spiritual hunger we have in moments of change; and that they connect us to God's Spirit.

And as much as I like church worship and rituals like baptism and communion, I know that the Holy Spirit is not contained by the church. The Holy Spirit -- which Jesus promises to his disciples in today's Gospel reading -- moves where it will.

Sports provides an example. Last Sunday, I saw a report on the PBS TV show "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly." It was about a new book called "Baseball as a Road to God." The author, John Sexton, argues that baseball is quite spiritual. The ballpark can be seen as a sacred place of community. The game itself can become a sacred meditation on time, blessings, curses, and miracles.

Sexton argues that God is something we experience more than we understand. Religion can become bogged down in dogma and ideas. But what we often want more than religious understanding are experiences of community, of shared moments of beauty, and of the search for something greater than ourselves.

To translate Sexton's book into a Saskatchewan context we need only shift the focus to football and the Roughriders. But this is not to say that sports always satisfies our spiritual needs.

Like a grad ceremony that contains more stress than joy, a ball game can become a failed attempt to experience God's Holy Spirit. But then the same could be said about a Sunday worship service, a wedding, or a funeral. Ministers and those who gather on Sunday or for a funeral are only human, after all. We may come looking for God, or consolation, or a moment of authentic community, but we may not find them.

I hope that many of us feel a connection to God in our worship services, but I can't be sure. Being up here in the pulpit may distort my view. Nevertheless, I believe we can sense when the presence of God's Spirit is felt.

For instance, I enjoyed last night's grad in Coronach more than the one in 2012. Perhaps it was the tears shed by Belinda Spagrud at the end of her keynote address. The 17 grads had been in the same class with each other for 13 years, and for three consecutive years Belinda had been their teacher. The bond felt by children who study and play together for that length of time must be very strong, and I felt some of that bond last night.

I hope that at key moments of our times in worship we also feel the bond with each other and with God.

The changing role of church and the rise of secular rituals provide some of the background for the conversations we will hold in church this spring. At the Presbytery workshop in Moose Jaw this Friday and Saturday and in our meeting with a facilitator trained by the United Church's Comprehensive Review group on June 4, we will express our feelings and ideas as to how our congregations are responding to this moment. I am excited to discover what we will say at these meetings and what guidance we might find.

A rite of passage in which church continues to play a prominent role is when we face the death of a loved one. Gatherings at funerals continue to be large, and church-led worship is often central. That being said, I am also concerned that more and more people are foregoing funerals. I believe they can be a crucial part of the mourning process for both families and the wider community.

On the other hand, funerals are stressful and difficult. And we have all probably attended funerals that contained elements we disliked or that didn't seem to quite "work." Still, we can only try our best. We rely on God's Spirit to do the rest.

The same is true with all aspects of life. Each breath is a chance for us to remember our connection to God's earth. Each loving moment with a family member is a chance to encounter a divine spark within ourselves and them. We don't always find God in each moment, of course. But then another moment appears, and another, and another . . .

In a few minutes, we will celebrate again the holy sacrament of communion. Perhaps this time when we take the loaf and cup, we may not be reminded that Jesus lives in us. But we may.

We celebrate communion for the same reasons that we bring our children to be baptized, or that we celebrate their graduations, or that we gather to mourn and celebrate the life of a loved one who has died. We do it because we seek to touch God's Spirit every chance we get.

And often -- just as Jesus promised -- God's Holy Spirit comes to us: in a celebration of the birth of a new baby; in a sports stadium; in a loving encounter with a spouse; in a moment of wrenching grief; or at the Lord's Table. God's Spirit can felt during any moment in this wide, wild earth and in this pain- and joy-filled life.

And so we say again, thanks be to God.


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