Though I did not grow up in the church, per se, I do recall attending a funeral in my family’s faith of origin at a young age. I admit I do not remember for whom the ceremony was held, though I have some recollection that it was unusual for children to attend such rituals in the Syrian Orthodox tradition. What I recollect, vividly, are the wailers, who were professional mourners. They wept and cried in what I remembers as an undulated sing-song. The rhythmed cacophony embodied lament in that space that was a visceral part of the ritual. Even now, if I close my eyes with deeply drawn breath, I can still hear those women …
For millennia, the church has provided ritual and ceremony that have marked life’s minor and major milestones. From the biggies – death, birth and marriage – to lesser, though no less important – such as graduations to pet and bike blessings – Spirit has often threaded these events into community. In fact, such events have often created and maintained identity, whether that has been as the dominant faith or as an oppressed and marginalised community of believers.
The church’s rituals have historically made sense, even in contexts where not everyone shared the same beliefs. We know, however, that is no longer the case in this ever growing pluralistic and globalised planet. The richness that can be found in diversity also presents problems for a all organised religions, not just the Christian church, as we attempt to understand ourselves in an ever changing world.
It occurs to me to muse – therefore – in this changing cultural landscape, how might those who find solace in organised Christianity translate these rich rituals for a primarily secular world? How might faith communities offer consolation and celebration for life’s milestones without an agenda intent on filling pews or confusing the Good News with ideologies such as conversion and colonisation? How can the church go out into the world to help those who are hurting and joyfully celebrating, yet who often have to cobble together – consumer-style – practices that speak to the deep import of life and death?
We who find ourselves drawn to the rich history that embodies Spirit through the Christian tradition are now finding ourselves innovating and dreaming. We are translating and creating ways that ancient forms of ritual might make sense to the world outside of our walls and with whom we do not currently have a shared vocabulary. This can be anxious making, it can also be exhilarating when we listen to where Creator might be calling us.
In this generative time, therefore, imagination can be unfettered to inspire. What I think this means is that each particular context – whether that’s from a local faith community to denomination and even interfaith friends – will find no cookie cutter solution. But I think there will be common threads that help imagine how historically powerful rituals might find new ways of expression.
I recently sat with a Sister from The United Church of Canada. She shared a group with which she has been working. In particular, locally, she and others are imagining ways to incorporate a Threshold Choir into a Winnipeg context. This choir accompanies those through the stages of grief and dying with dignity and beauty.
The power of this choir, from what I understand is not bound to a particular faith or ideology: nonetheless it speaks to the rich longing that communities of faith have always tried to embrace. If this – but one example – speaks to how institutional Christianity might find ways to go out into the world in ways that honour Jesus’ mandate to go forth into the world to meet people where they are at, then I have great hope … and that seems like Good News!