Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Of cold water, a kayak, and church.

A few months ago Mrs. Caliban bought me a kayak as a birthday present. Spare time isn’t a commodity I have much of, but a large part of what little there is has since been spent paddling in attempt to get fit while exploring the fascinating upper reaches of Sydney Harbour.

As part of this I decided to join a large nearby kayak club. One evening a week more than a hundred paddlers meet to race over a 12km course: while aware my boat (and fitness level) is nowhere near as spectacular as many of the competitors, I’d practiced the course for a number of weeks, and was confident of my ability to achieve a respectable time. I’d spoken with a few club officials, and been assured my boat and times were more than sufficient to join: in short everyone couldn’t have been more welcoming.

So when it was time for my first race I was nervous, but confident things wouldn’t be too much of a disaster. Coming last wasn’t my concern (after all, someone’s got to, and as the least experienced competitor I was under no illusions of my own ability), just the fear of getting in the way of much faster (& less stable) boats. Let’s be blunt about it: I was a newcomer, and like newcomers everywhere I wanted to be accepted, and not upset any new friends.

You can tell where this is leading… despite arriving early, and having supposed to have been among the first group starting (the race is handicapped, so slow-coaches like myself are not straggling back long after the athletes have finished), the club officials couldn’t find the forms necessary for newcomers, so I didn’t actually get on the water and racing until the fastest competitors were scheduled to start.

Naturally they left me far behind in a matter of moments. Alone I set to work, finding my own rhythm as the paddle cut into the cold black water. Since racing occurs at night I’d mounted lights at both ends of my boat as instructed, but just prior to starting was told these were too bright, and could distract other competitors. Hurriedly I covered them over with duct tape until they emitted the same faint, barely visible glow as everyone else’s lights. In the dark this was useless at helping me to see the course, but – as I'd also just learned – most people were using GPS navigation devices, so they didn’t need to worry about seeing obstacles like overhanging branches, or snags. All they needed to do was follow the glowing line on their miniature screens which kept them on a safe course in the middle of the river; the barely luminous lights were more than enough to avoid collisions if boats drew close.

Without any such techno-magic I was on my own in the dark, struggling to hold my pace while avoiding a collision with the fast moving boats already on their returning leg and at the same time avoid carving into the tangled mangrove swamp on either side of the river. A sudden swerve to miss the last group lapping me saw my blade slamming into an overhanging branch, and I was over.

That part of the harbour is called a river, but really it’s an estuary in the middle of a national park. It’s dark, murky, and the kind of water bull sharks love. Since it’s winter here it was also bloody cold. After a couple of failed attempts to get back into the kayak I decided to try dragging the boat into the mangroves, where it could be bailed out and hopefully reboarded. The fleet had long passed, and on my own I eventually managed to this, grateful I’d worn both a pfd and an inflatable thermal vest, despite feeling very nerdy at the start when lined up against the pros clad in nothing more than lycra singlets.

Obviously I made it back to the carpark, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Nobody helped, and in my own middle-aged suburban way I’m kind of proud of my resilience and survival skills: by myself in the dark I scrambled far enough into the tangled swamp to stand, right my boat, and get things to the point where I could paddle back to the start. The cuts on my feet and hands from snags have now just about healed: by fastidiously applying antiseptic for the next few days only a few managed to get infected – the water at that end of the harbour isn’t the cleanest by a long shot, and since I didn’t get a dose of gastro I guess none was swallowed during my dunkings.

None of which is to be seen as a criticism of the club with whom I paddled. They obviously cater for a much more serious league of kayaker than unfit overweight beginners like me in sturdy-and-friendly-but-not-very-fast tubs like mine . Which is fine: top level racers have every right to their own association in which to train and race. Myonly complaint is that they weren’t sufficiently self-aware to realise this. If you’re going to invite hazards like me to join you please try not to leave us struggling alone in the dark after we’ve run into trouble while trying to stay out of your way.

All of which strikes me as a fabulous metaphor for what a lot of churches are like. These days “growth” is the word on everyone’s lips: not many parishes are honest enough to admit they don’t really feel comfortable with newcomers. Yet not many congregations seem capable of realising those of us who haven’t spent years training to become spiritual athletes often feel pretty clumsy when we’re lined up alongside you each Sunday. Saying outsiders are welcome is easy: actually making those whose understanding of the Christian life is not as mature – or maybe just different – to your own definition of Christian morality and experience is much harder.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a church that wants to reach out to it’s surrounding community but failed, and to be honest the responsibility for some of those failures is my own. Yet as I look back on my own scared efforts in the cold muddy water, the feeling I get isn’t very different to that which comes when I think about some of the times I’ve tried to fit in with congregations I never ended up becoming part of. I tipped my canoe over because of inexperience, lack of knowledge of the river, and general unfitness. There’s nobody to blame but me. Maybe the same can be said of those who aren’t able to find their place in our own communities of faith. But somehow I can’t accept that it’s ok for Churches to operate in the same way as a kayaking club.

Our call is to reach out to the weak, lost, confused, mistaken, or just plain sinful. Not just the doctrinally or liturgically adroit, but also to those prone to crash, or to fall out of their boats. Sure it’s fun to go fast, to skim along at the extreme edge of one’s hard-earned ability. Nobody enjoys scrambling in the mud and slime with some clutz who doesn’t have a clue. Except that’s exactly what Jesus did.


Robert said...

I'm glad you made it back safe my friend. And I'm very happy to see you back on your blog as well. You have been missed!

PseudoPiskie said...

Good to see a new post!

Perhaps it is easier to plant a new parish than revitalize an existing one because of the situation you address?

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Welcome back to Blog Land, Alcibiades!

I am going to share this with some church folks. I believe the questions you raise are ones we should keep before us at all times.

I am often told that newcomers feel unwelcome or awkward in the Episcopal Church because they don't know when to stand or kneel, and because we juggle hymn books, prayer books, and service leaflets. I don't know what to do about this, short of printing every single thing in the service bulletin--we are a liturgical people and we cannot change that to meet the comfort level of everyone who comes through the door.

But we ought to be welcoming and helpful. And we need to think about how newcomers experience our worship and our attitudes. Thanks for the nudge.


P.S. The word verification is "epent." Is that the new Web version of "repent"?

Alcibiades said...

Thanks Doxy: I may have been lurking, but don't think you & Dear Friend weren't in our thoughts and prayers over the past few weeks. Special Oz congrats on your recent wonderful big day!

The old canard about liturgical standing etc making newcomers feel unwelcome gets trotted out here all the time as well, and to be perfectly frank I don't buy it.

At Moore College it was drummed into our heads that doing away with these, along with robes, makes church "friendlier" - except down here Baptists have pretty much never worn robes, or used liturgies which involve regular standing, knelling etc - and that didn't stop their attendance plummeting just as fast as everyone else's during the 70-90s. Nor have many Sydney Anglicans used them for almost 2 decades - and they haven't been inundated with a flood of people eager to convert because of "accessible" liturgy and vestments.
Meanwhile two of the Diocese's fastest growing (and among the very few to have achieved - let alone exceeded - the Archbihop's "Vision for Growth" targets) are highly liturgical. One of them, which has a huge outreach into communities with no church background whatsoever, completely disregards the accepted wisdom concern "user-friendliness" - but believe me, people have always been spectacularly warm and welcoming to me (& everyone else I know) when visiting. Which is a thought I'll hopefully revisit soon...

Doorman-Priest said...

Great story and metaphor but I just have to ask: are you completely mad?

Don't stay away so long next time!

BooCat said...

Judging from the comments, there are plenty of folks like me who check back here hoping you are posting again. I am happy to see that you are. It is a beautiful post.
As for the ritual of our litergy being off-putting, cold or exclusive, I found it instead to be calm, comforting and very welcoming. I do not believe that it is the "high church-low church" issue that makes a place welcoming or not, rather the spirit of the people inside, or perhaps it is the "Spirit" inside of the people.