As I listened to the two funerals I attended last week (and they were quite well run) I could not help but think of how people view the Church. It is easy to see that people would view the Church as that agency who says who gets into heaven or not, and that the purpose of Christianity is to get people to heaven. I suspect there is "life-after-life" but that is not what Christianity is about for me. I don't believe in a God who will allow somebody in, or disallow somebody because they happen to have been or not have been, through the right ritual when they were a baby or even later in life - or because they belonged to the right institution. "The sacred" is bigger than our various religious interpretations. Our religions are "gropings" to try explain the experiences of the depth in life. Good religion helps us to live well here, and to "be present" to our fellow humans, creatures and the world of nature - to live in sympathy with, or in harmony with (The Jewish concept of "shalom") people and the world about us. I happen to find Jesus' teaching helps me to do this, but also discover that same essence in other places too. The frustration I have is that traditional emphases in Christianity, in hymns, ceremonies and in Church expectations and priorities seem to be a distortion of this. At the most recent funeral I was standing with firefighters in the family room of the funeral home listening to the funeral - we could not see what was going on. The hymn "How Great Thou Art" was announced. It was interesting. My guess is that all the firefighters knew the hymn (it was popularised by Howard Morrison in NZ) but nobody wanted to sing, and all but one in this packed room did not sing. Guys around me jokingly said, "Go to it Dave! Come on sing up." (We in Church inflict singing on people for whom it is completely foreign!) The words of the song assumed a certain view of God, of the atonement, the second coming and of heaven that I was not that comfortable with! It simplistically praised God for creation and we were attending a funeral for a guy who died relatively young of cancer? What went wrong with creation?
Living in a small world...
My wife and I were driving through a locality today and talking about a man we knew there. My wife commented that he "lived in a small world, physically and mentally." His conversation is always about himself and "small" things. He has sometimes dropped into Space2B and seems to have no empathy for the poor, the mentally ill or vulnerable people. His attitude is almost one of contempt. He cannot understand our priorities. Life is simple for him, "look after yourself." I said to my wife, "Maybe he's got it right? Maybe we should not care about the people we worry about? Our life would be easier." "If we all did that life would be even more of a mess than it is!" my wife said. "There would be more misery everywhere." .. and I knew that she was right.
"Be present with.."
The Dalai Lama said essentially that compassion could rest on a basis beyond religion. "We are all born the same way - out of our mother. We will all die. We are essentially the same whoever we are and whoever we think we are. Therefore we should care for one another." I keep saying we are, whether we like it or not, on the same journey of life. We are called to help each other make that journey, and journey well. I like the concept of living life being "present with" others. Being present means that as I live I am aware, sensitive to and responsive to the needs and circumstances of others who journey with me. Some examples. I lusted after a nice big Ford station wagon with a 4 litre engine - Power to burn, a man's car. My wife said, "But what are you doing to the environment?" I talked of investing money in a certain investment group. My daughter says, "How is the money used? Does it treat people well?" I want to buy certain coffee for the Church, but my daughter says, "What is buying that coffee doing for the producers? Is it fair trading?" I know and admire a lady who would love to fly back to Ireland to visit her family more often, but she chooses not to. She doesn't because she sees herself contributing to climate change by the excess burning of fossil fuel. She says, "If we all used planes less, it would make a big difference to the level of destructive emissions." There are people on Dunedin streets struggling to cope with life. Most do not see them. Nobody would blame me if I too ignored them. But just maybe I can share some thing with them, my time or food, my resources which will help them have a better experience of the journey of life? - I know that I cannot help everyone. I know that I cannot live a pure life, I will inevitably contribute to some of the problems of the world. But if we all lived, as much as we are able, so that we make ourselves "present" to others about us, more of us would live a fuller more happy existence. Being "present" to others and life about us, ultimately enriches our journey.
I came across this quote I had jotted down in my diary from somewhere. "Be kind - for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." (Philo) Each week I lead in a pastoral prayer. As I think of the members of my congregation, or people in my chaplaincies, I know that each one is "fighting a battle." "He" struggles with getting older. "She" worries about her daughter and her addictions and illness. "He" has "plumbing" problems and ongoing uncertainties about health and the possibility of cancer. "She" feels trapped in an unhappy marriage. "They" struggle with finances and making ends meet is a real battle. "He" still grieves for his wife, they were still so much in love when she died. .. etc. and I could go on listing challenges. ALL OF US in life have challenges to face, and we can link arms in compassion and help each other experience life as best we can - or we can live in a dog eat dog world "looking after ourselves!" It is our choice.
True religion encourages people to have a breadth of perspective, a depth of wisdom and hearts long on compassion. Too much religion these days narrows people's focus and so contributes to the problems of the world. Micah said, "What does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord your God." Jesus said, I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly." John Shelby Spong commenting on this passage says, "Those of us who want to constitute ourselves as disciples of this Jesus have a single responsibility and that is to try to build a world in which every person in that world has a better opportunity to live fully, love wastefully and to be all that they can be in the infinite variety of their humanity."