Many of you will remember Rev. Mary White, who filled in as minister during Rev. Kim’s sabbatical. She gave us the calm assurance that we needed at the time. But what I remember are her words as we hacked our way down the eighth hole at Sparrow Lakes. I had told her what I was discovering from reading authors like Tom Harpur and Bishop Spong from whom I had discovered a whole new way of viewing the stories and parables in the Bible. Mary knew where I was coming from and where I was trying to go and she simply said: “Ann, it’s not about belief; it’s about spirituality.” And I’ve pondered over those words ever since. What exactly is spirituality and how does it trump belief?
Is this just a question of Sense and Sensibility, Reason and Emotion, the head and the heart, Science and Religion? My mind jumps back to my mother, my go-to person in matters of faith, belief and how to live.
During the Christmas vacation of my freshman year at Western, I regaled her with what I had learned about Darwin and evolution in Zoology 101. She listened attentively, then told me that she had been reading too, and that she knew that in the evolution of humans, there was a missing link. Then she put forward her thesis: for her, the missing link was Jesus. I was thunderstruck; what could I say? In l961, my mother had successfully reconciled science and religion in one fell swoop. Not only that, her cheerful contribution as president of the U.C.W. and then as first woman elder demonstrated faith in action and her commitment to serve others. During my high school years, my mother endured a triple whammy of adversity, a radical mastectomy followed by the unexpected loss of her husband and then her mother within a few months. Yet she took on total responsibility for our family and the family business without complaint and rather enjoyed her status as business woman and a leader in the church. Her faith enabled her as she seemed to relish the challenges of life . Now, I wonder if this was spirituality expressed in my mother’s terms.
The following story might reveal something about what inspires people to do remarkable things. It’s called “Heaven.” DOUG: Obama, Hillary and Trump are standing at the throne of heaven. God looks at them and says, “Before granting you a place at my side, I must ask you what you have learned, what you BELIEVE in. “God asks Obama first: “What do you believe?” Obama thinks long and hard, looks God in the eye, and says, “I believe in hard work, and in staying true to family and friends. I believe in giving. I was lucky, but I always tried to do right by my countrymen.”
God sees the essential goodness of Obama, and offers him a seat to his left.
Then God turns to Hillary and says, “What do you believe?” Hillary says, “I believe passion, discipline, courage and honor are the fundamentals of life. Like Obama I believe in hard work. I, too, have been lucky, but win or lose, I’ve always tried to be a true patriot and a loyal American.”
God is greatly moved by Hillary’s eloquence, and he offers her a seat to his right.
Finally, God turns to Trump and says, “And you, Donald, what do you believe?” Trump gazes back at God and says: “I believe you’re in MY seat.”
ANN: It’s only a joke but we can see how the words and actions of these three American politicians have been shaped by their beliefs. Looking back, we can see that Obama and Hillary worked for the people. Now, every day, a new tweet makes us wonder just what Trump believes in—beyond himself and his brand.
If we grow up in a church, we absorb the particular set of beliefs of that institution as well as that of our parents. The church buildings, adornments, services and rituals are expressions of what the people believe. The following story illustrates symbolism in various churches.
A kindergarten teacher gave her class a “show and tell” assignment, asking each student to bring in an object that represented their religion.
The first student stood in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin. I’m Jewish, and this is a Star of David.” Another student stood and said, “My name is Mary. I’m Catholic, and this is a rosary.” A third student walked to the front of the room. “My name is Tommy,” he said. “I belong to the United Church of Canada and this is a casserole.”
I think that Tommy’s casserole is a symbol of the importance of fellowship in our church and an expression of spirituality—as we share with each other and the community.
While religious dogma, rites and ideas set in stone may be comforting to some, they can stand in the way of forward thinking and effective action in a church. The following story demonstrates this problem. DOUG: During an ecumenical assembly, a secretary rushed in shouting, “The building is on fire!”
The Methodists prayed in a corner.
The Baptists wondered where they could find water.
The Quakers quietly praised God for the blessings that fire brings.
The Lutherans posted a notice on the door announcing that fire was evil.
The Roman Catholics passed the plate to cover the cost of the damage.
The Jews posted symbols on the door in hopes the fire would pass.
The Fundamentalists proclaimed, “It’s the vengeance of God.
The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson to form a committee to look into the matter and submit a written report.
The secretary grabbed the fire extinguisher and put the fire out.
ANN: Jesus saw that the scribes and Pharisees were too set in their ways—that they held the rules and protocol of the Hebrew church above the needs of the people. In His actions and parables, Jesus dared to defy some of the prescribed rules as he preached tolerance and forgiveness over obedience to the temple and its rituals. Moreover, he opened the door to the idea of serving not only your own tribe, but also the outsider . Jesus simplified things as he consistently encouraged his flock to love the Lord, your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. In many religions of the world, the concept of the Golden Rule underlies the human quest for spirituality. When we connect with others, with nature, with the arts, we often feel God’s spirit. There is great value in church, a place where we have the opportunity to do much more for others than most of us could do alone; it’s a place to develop our spiritual path.
Like belief, spirituality can be different things to different people. It is a very individual matter.
Tom Harpur defines spirituality as “the inner journey with its lived-out results.” …”the most relevant, riskiest adventure life affords.” Harpur refers to the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness and Jesus’ time spent alone and facing temptations as symbols of the quest of every soul. This is where we go when we leave the safety of our old ways, our comfort zone as we travel the pilgrimage of our life—our own spiritual journey.Finding our spiritual path is very individual—there is no standard prescription. Belief systems are more easily discovered and adopted or adapted. Naturally, as reason collides with sentiment, as the head over-rides the heart in our current scientific age, some people choose to be atheists. One of my oldest friends announced to me a few years ago that she and her husband had chosen that route, and when he died, she threw a celebration of life that he would have enjoyed and gave him a big send-off. Interestingly enough, she asked a Salvation Army Chaplain, a worker for the Army of God, to lead the celebration. That choice tells me that while my friend has taken the atheist path, she has not abandoned spirituality—whether she realizes it or not.
The following story pits a determined atheist against a rock-solid believer in God and demonstrates how difficult it is to reconcile rigid beliefs.
DOUG: Every morning, an elderly woman would step out on her porch, raise her arms to heaven, and shout, “Praise God!”
An atheist happened to buy the house next door to her, and over the months he became very irritated with the religious woman. After six months of hearing her morning “Praise God” ritual, he went outside on his porch and yelled, “There is no God!”
The godly woman wasn’t put off in the least. She continued to praise God every day. One cold winter morning the atheist heard the woman shout a different message.“Help me , Lord,” the woman prayed. “It’s very cold and I am out of food and money.” When the woman went outside the next morning, there was enough food on the porch to last her a month.
“Praise God!” she shouted.
The atheist stepped out from the bushes and said, “There is no God! I bought all of those groceries.”
The woman raised her arms to the sky and said, “Praise God! You sent me food and made the devil pay for it!”
ANN: There are many obstacles to achieving spirituality and it is an ongoing process. We have to look beyond the foibles of organized religion and hold onto the part that enables us. In Christianity, the resurrection
gives us the hope that we can transcend our limitations, rise again from trials and achieve personal renewal. Whether we take the resurrection of Jesus as fact or symbolism or both, it has a deep meaning for us and sustains us in our quest for a spiritual life. For us, the pioneer of Faith is Jesus. His call to God’s service is our great example to follow. The next story illustrates the pitfalls of blind faith and it is called “Walking on Water.”
A priest, an evangelist, and a minister are in a row boat in the middle of a pond fishing. None of them has caught anything all morning.
Then the evangelist stands up and says he needs a washroom break, so he climbs out of the boat and walks on the water to the shore. He comes back ten minutes later the same way.
Then the minister decides he also needs a break , so he climbs out of the boat and walks on the water to shore. He, too, comes back the same way ten minutes later.
The priest looks at both of them and decides that his faith is just as strong as his fishing buddies and that he can walk on water too. He stands up and excuses himself. As he steps out, he makes a huge splash and sinks down into the water.
The evangelist looks at the minister and says, “I suppose we could have told him where the rocks are.”
We all need to discover where the rocks are so that we don’t sink. I think that the people in this congregation are rocks for each other as we all try to live in a diverse world full of surprises and contradictions. However, our individual quests for a spiritual life grounded in faith are enabled by knowing God and by the warm support of each other.