Have you ever walked into an unfamiliar place and felt welcome?
What was it that was welcoming?
I would suggest that it is often an indefinable quality that may be summed up in the words "This place has a welcoming feel about it".
Welcome and our Relationships
My mother always said that if there was a picture hanging crookedly on a wall when you entered the house, then there had been a recent argument in the house. So dont be concerned if I straighten the paintings on your walls when I visit!
Welcoming is fundamental to human relationships. It includes rituals of welcome shaking of the hand, a kiss on the cheek or a hug.
A friend of mine always bows and says "Namaste" which means "the spirit in me greets the spirit in you" In Canada and the US a waitress will often end the conversation with "youre welcome " But for a welcome to be genuine, it must be freely given and unconditional.
Believing, Behaving, Belonging
In the past, the church would welcome you if you believed the same things they did. I have often spoken about the fact that there are beliefs that are significant, but many beliefs are also arbitrary and obscurely theological.
Today the emphasis must be on belonging. You are welcome to belong if you are serious about walking the road of life together, and in the process of our conversations and ruminations we will form and reshape each other.
Of course a true welcome is the one that comes with love. I feel welcome when I can be who I am, and not pretend I am someone else. I suppose what I mean by that is a place where "the better angels of myself can emerge."
When I was considering coming to TUC, I visited the first time with Anne and we had lunch at the café with Catriona who was in the JNC - the search committee. I remember getting out of the car and noticing the reserved sign for the ministers car very important. No, what really impressed me was that I noticed that the front door of the church was open. It is in our day and age unusual for a church to be open during the week. But that was important to me because it spoke of this being a welcoming place: even from Monday to Friday these open doors welcomed whoever would like to enter.
There was also the sense that these people at Toorak Uniting Church are not a fearful people. What if someone steals something? Of course we do have good security, but what a shame if fear of some possible wrongdoing or fear of the unknown stops us from being welcoming.
Unfortunately, our scriptures and the history of the church have at times given us a very unwelcoming view of God. But fortunately we have an example of the unconditional welcome we find in the life and message of Jesus. The outsider is welcome; the refugee; the moral reprobate; and even the religious bigot can belong.
Belonging can change us and I think we should have more confidence in the power of community to transform us. It is the spirit of Christ within us, not just individually, but collectively. "We are the body of Christ", that is, the physical manifestation of the life and teachings of Jesus. The community not only welcomes, it also forms and shapes us.
The story is told of William Penn, the founder of the Quakers in the USA. Knowing that the Quakers were pacifists, a soldier approached Penn and asked him what he should do, on becoming a Quaker, with his sword? Penns reply was to "carry it as long as you can".
Belonging can shape how we behave and what we believe. It is the power of Gods presence alive in the community when a welcome is extended to all who come seeking rest for their souls and nourishment for their spirit.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.