I had one of those important conversations with a friend recently which served as a timely reminder that religion, if it is to be true to itself, must be about life. The conversation was about the simple practice of meditation, which each of us practices with others every week in groups that are made up of people of very differing religious perspectives, including some who do not belong to any religious community. We agreed that this very simple, human practice was a way for all of us to explore the sheer joy of being alive and to find ways through the more challenging aspects of being a human person. What could be more liberating than the discovery of our true nature in simplicity and shared silence?
Religion ceases to be true to its calling when it forgets the priority of life. When it imagines its rites, rules, power structures and doctrines to be more fundamental realities than life itself, it can become the dangerous thing we know it can be. When Jesus placed a child in front of his bickering, power-seeking disciples, he was reminding them of this truth. His message was appallingly simple - there is but one truth, and it is life itself. God is the Living One, the One Who Is, not a religious object. 'In him was life, and that life was the light of all'.
So if our doctrines, rites and rules are not at the service of life, we must change them. That is the way we do our theology most truthfully - from life to life, not from theory to implementation. When someone asked Thomas Merton what he did in his hermitage all day long, this is what he said: 'What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.' So we only grow in faith when are truly alive and in touch with life. The walls of our churches need not be barriers separating us off from life, but generous markers describing a space in which life is explored in all its fullness. That means that nothing of life must be excluded from that space - no person, no experience, no fear, no hurt, no celebration.
I wish that words like these were written full clear on every church door:
The One who came that we may have life invites you here,
to bring all of your life into this space
that it may be cherished, healed and celebrated.
The story of your life finds a space for telling here.
There are no qualifications for entry.
There are no exclusions, none at all.
We don't need you to join a club,
we just want you to feel alive.
I know we don't always live up to this ideal and we should find gentle but clear ways to challenge ourselves when we don't. We still exclude people because of their sexuality. We still make people feel out of place because of their income or 'social standing'. We still expect doctrinal or, worse, legalistic conformity. Of course, we do have our own 'house style', our own identity as particular churches. But we must strive very hard to make sure that these things don't become important for themselves. Not everyone will like Palestrina, but no one should be denied the opportunity to discover that they don't like Palestrina! And for those who don't, surely we can make other kinds of space, other opportunities to keep our welcome as wide as it can possibly be.