Friday, 23 March 2012

Heaven & Hell: To care or to careless?

I came across this story in Rev Bill Darlison wonderful book “The Shortest Distance: 101 Stories from the World’s Spiritual Traditions”. You can find many version of it. I also found a very similar version written from a Jewish perspective.

Once upon a time...long long Japan, a woman prayed that God would show her the difference between heaven and hell. She wanted to know whether there were fires in hell, and whether the people in heaven sat around on clouds all day playing harps. She didn’t fancy going to either place if that was all they had to offer.

She prayed so hard that God decided to answer her prayer, and he sent an angel to give her a guided tour of both places...angels are good like that...first she went to hell. It wasn’t hot at all; in fact it looked quite pleasant. There were long tables laden with food of all kinds – cooked meats, vegetables, fruit, delicious pies, and exotic desserts. “This can’t be hell,” she thought. Then she looked at the people. They were sitting some distance from the tables, and they were all miserable – emaciated, pale, angry. Each of them had chopsticks fastened to their hands, but the chopsticks were about three feet long and no matter how hard they tried, the people just couldn’t get the food into their own mouths. They were groaning with hunger, and frustration, and anger. “I’ve seen enough of this,” said the woman. “May I see heaven now?”
The angel took the woman to heaven. They didn’t have far to go. It was just next door. It was almost the same as hell. There were the same kind of tables, the same kind of food, and here too, the people were sitting a little distance away from the tables with three-foot long chopsticks fastened to their hands. But these people seemed happy. They were rosy cheeked, and looked well fed. They were smiling and chatting merrily to each other. They couldn’t put the food into their mouths either, but they had discovered how to be fed and happy: they were feeding each other.

Last Friday was one of those days when I experienced just about every emotion imaginable. It was also a day when I believe that I witnessed humanity at its very best. I attended the funeral of the partner of a member of one of the congregations I serve.  It was a beautifully moving service and I was particularly touched by the way his friends and family shared their personal experiences of his life. It is tragic that such a joy filled life ended so soon.

That same evening I attended a dinner celebrating Rev Dr Ann Peart’s presidency of our General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. This was a wonderful and joy filled occasion. It was also an opportunity to spend time with colleagues and friends I rarely see these days, some of whom have been central to my journey into Unitarian ministry. We shared fellowship that night as we talked and ate and offered toasts of thanks.

There was a common theme that was threaded through both of these contrasting gatherings, that of human love. I witnessed humanity at its very best at the young man’s funeral as friends and family held one another through the hardest thing that any of us have to face, the death of a loved one. This same love was also present at Ann’s celebratory meal as we came together to offer thanks to Ann for her loyal service to our free religious faith.

I came back from the meal in high spirits and then I received another bombshell. I was informed that a dear friend had been found dead that very evening. We had been close for many years and of course his death has caused me and many people I care deeply about inexplicable pain. Again these last few days I have witnessed humanity at its very best as many of us have come together in support to hold one another in our shared grief. I have witnessed true fellowships; fellows holding one another in their shared ship of grief.

In the story “Heaven and Hell” appear exactly the same and yet they are experienced oh so differently. In Hell all go hungry because everyone tries to feed themselves only, they are purely self reliant. And yet in heaven they attempt to feed one another and are therefore fed in abundance. To me this is as much about the relationships as the food going into one another’s mouths. I believe that we all possess an innate need to serve one another that if we do not do this part of our natural humanity withers away and dies off. By not serving one another we starve our souls.

I think that one of the greatest delusions of the modern era is the myth of self reliance, this idea that as individuals we have all that we need and that we do not need one another. Jeffrey Lockwood in his meditation “to ask is to give” claims that:

“...One of the great blessings of travel is to be put in a position of asking help from others, to be genuinely needful of strangers. Our illusion of self-reliance evaporates as the unexpected and unfamiliar merge into vulnerability. We offer the gift of authentic need, the opportunity for deep trust. We express to another person the most humanizing cross-cultural phrase: “Please help me.”...In our society, self-sufficiency is heralded as a virtue, and chronic dependence on others can be degrading. But never being asked to help another person is isolating, even dehumanizing. In a culture that exalts autonomy, asking for help may be one of the greatest gifts we offer. So much of life has become a calculation of costs and benefits; to ask assistance is to create the opportunity for unconditional giving in raw, spiritual defiance of economic rationality. We become mutually indebted without expectation of repayment. Each person in the relationship becomes a giver and receiver. Each one becomes more human. Each one has something to be thankful for.”

There are several slightly different accounts in the Gospels of Jesus feeding crowds of people. Some people get hung up on the facts of whether Jesus could feed the thousands of people present with just a few fish and loaves, but is this what these stories are about? I do not think so. To get hung up on the factual accuracy is to miss the whole point of the teaching behind the story. Mythological tales are not about fact they are about revealing deeper universal truths. In one of the versions  found in Mark (Ch 8 vv 1-9) there is a key phrase that I believe is rich in meaning “They ate and were filled”.

In this account Jesus had spent three days with the people he feeds. He had not invited them to join him and therefore was certainly not obliged to feed them. I am sure that the crowd were not expecting to be fed by the meagre amount that the disciples brought. But what happens? Well Jesus recognises the crowds hunger and the fact that they have travelled a great distance to be with him, he expresses compassion for all of them. He asks the crowd to sit down and to share a meal with him. He then instructs the disciples to serve the people personally. The crowd eat and are filled. This is not because their bodies were filled, but because a deeper hunger was met. What occurs is a true human encounter between the disciples and the crowd, the people are served face to face and are therefore truly loved and cared for. They were not just physically fed they were personally served and therefore their humanity recognised. Each individuals hunger mattered.

I am someone who enjoys their food and most people know this. Wherever I go people feed me and I do find it hard to say no to them. I find it hard to say no to anybody actually, it is just the way I am I suppose. I am though trying to say no at the moment. I have to otherwise I am going to burst. That said I know that when you go into someone’s home the offering of hospitality is so important. To refuse hospitality is an insult, so yes it is difficult to say no. This is hard when visiting people as a minister. A colleague of mine told me that I have to do it though. She said that when she first entered ministry she couldn’t say no to anyone’s hospitality and as a result put on two stones in weight within the first 12 months. I just need to find a way to accept some ones hospitality without necessarily always eating the food.

The truth is of course that being fed by someone is not really about the food at all. It is about the relationship, it is about hospitality. I recently attended dinner at a friend’s house, the food was magnificent. That said this is not the reason that I was there. I was there to spend time with this friend, something I rarely find the time for these days. The friend made a real fuss; they wanted the evening to be perfect. They spent the whole night popping in and out of the kitchen, just to ensure that the food was perfect. I kept trying to engage them in conversation, but sadly they were more concerned about the food being perfect. I really appreciated the food, it was gorgeous and yet I was never able to engage my friend in conversation which was the whole point of me being there. They had invited me round to talk and yet this is the one thing that we failed to do. I left feeling very hungry that night, even though my belly was full. Yes I ate, but I was not filled.

If I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that I need healthy relationships with others in order to live a full life. While the spiritual life does indeed need times of aloneness to develop it cannot be expressed or embodied in solitude. Lent is very much about preparing in solitude, it is about deprivation on so many levels but that is not its final goal. Its purpose is to prepare the individual for service, for the expression of love one to another. The spiritual life cannot be truly experienced in isolation. Why? Because surely the spiritual life is about relationships; relationships with our true selves, others and whatever it is that we believe is at the core of all life.

Over the last few days I have witnessed true spirituality. I have seen people truly in relationship with one another. We do care. to not care, to careless, is to experience inhumanity actually. It is to become trapped inside oneself. These last few weeks I have witnessed people in excruciating personal agony express deep concern for one another. They have shared their love and have shared their pain. they have fed one another and they have drunk from one another's cup. They have truly served one another and in doing so have experienced something of heaven,                                                     

We all thirst and hunger even in our seemingly materially abundant lives. We cannot feed this hunger in isolation, in self reliance, it is only fed in that relationship that occurs as we feed one another. We all hunger for purpose and meaning. As Viktor Frankl pointed out we are driven by a will to find meaning and purpose. I would go further and suggest that we are also driven to find true companionship in our increasingly isolated and isolating culture. We need to serve one another, or our souls will starve. I have discovered and I keep on discovering  that our deepest pangs are not satisfied by the food that is laid on the table but in the relationship that occurs as we feed one another and as we drink from one another's cup.

"From you I receive to you I give together we share and from this we live."

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