Ordinary Significance

"New" Old South Church at dusk.
Sunday morning in Boston. I stepped through the door of the 19th Century cathedral to catch my breath amidst a stimulating academic conference and get a glimpse into church life in this historic city. I chose the closest old cathedral (I wish I had more profound reasoning…)  

I was met with an empty space - did I read the service time wrong? - and wondered if perhaps what was left of this congregation was merely an architectural relic of the past. I looked around at the beauty of the space - stone pillars, carved woodwork, and colorful stained glass - and then prepared to leave. Upon my exit I saw a small sign: “Thanksgiving Service: meeting elsewhere.” I was then invited to board an old school bus, which promptly chugged its way through the crowded downtown Boston streets to what to me was an unknown destination. Little did I know I’d be stepping into a place of significance for this congregation, but also for the city of Boston and the United States of America.

Old South Meeting House.
The congregation I visited is Old South Church, one of the original churches in Boston, meeting since the late 1600’s. The building I was in, it turns out, is the location of religious and social significance. It was a place for faith formation for significant American leaders (Benjamin Franklin was baptized there) and a gathering spot of rebellion as the Boston Tea Party was formed in the very room I found myself. During the worship gathering, we remembered some of this significant past. We sang hymns, including the Battle Hymn of the Republic, making this Anabaptist Canadian more than a little uncomfortable. We prayed for the congregation, the city and the country. This congregation had been part of big things in a big history in a big place. My immediate response was one of awe at the significance of where I found myself.

But awe is a funny thing. I found myself getting caught up in the significance of this historic church, only noticing the big things. And I do think there’s great value in the significant moments of history. A sense of wonder at history can continue to shape our lives today. We are part of something bigger than ourselves and this current moment. Yet finding myself amidst such significance was overwhelming in ways. Basking in the awe of others can lead to doubt. Who am I? What could I possibly contribute to a world with such examples of significance?

Inside the Old South Meeting House
In her homily, Reverend Nancy Taylor alluded briefly to some of the significant history of Old South Church, a regular part of the congregation’s Thanksgiving service is reminding themselves of their storied past as a way to inspired a storied future. Yet she didn’t dwell on the significant. Benjamin Franklin and the Boston Tea Party were only mentioned in passing. Instead, Taylor told stories of lesser-known leaders and times of struggle in the church's past. In looking at history, She invited us to ponder the “interstices” - the little things between the big things - to see the importance of the insignificant in between the significant. It’s in these times of ordinary life in the world, often full of struggle and conflict and challenge, that we find God and the church faithfully present to the place in history they find themselves. Patience in times of affliction. Reconciliation in moments of conflict. Comfort in periods of sorrow. A few moments of historical significance are paralleled with countless moments of ordinary significance.
 
I left the experience still with a sense of awe - it was surreal to be in that space - but also with a deep sense of comfort. God is not only present in the significant moments, but in all moments -  “I am with you always…” (Mt. 28:20).


"Let's Talk About Whiteness"

I'm convinced we need to speak more openly about the ongoing realities of racial segregation in the places we inhabit. In my own town of Abbotsford, BC, there are glimpses of hope, such as the Rally Against Racism and Bigotry and the ways some local neighbourhoods are becoming more culturally integrated. But lack of understanding, latent racism, and a uncertain way forward often leads to inaction.
 
As one in a place of cultural privilege in Canada, I often experience guilt, frustration, or helplessness when facing these realities. What does this have to do with me? But instead of withdraw from the discomfort, I'm finding that when I engage it, new understanding and new behavior often results, however difficult that engagement is.
 
To this end, I highly recommend this recent podcast from On Being as valuable insight to move engagement forward: "Let's Talk About Whiteness"
 
Could we learn to talk about whiteness? The writer Eula Biss has been thinking and writing about being white and raising white children in a multi-racial world for a long time. She helpfully opens up words and ideas like “complacence,” “guilt,” and something related to privilege called “opportunity hoarding.” To be in this uncomfortable conversation is to realize how these words alone, taken seriously, can shake us up in necessary ways — but also how the limits of words make these conversations at once more messy and more urgent.