Once there was a man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rise and that it would soon flood the town. The report said that the whole town should evacuate immediately. But the man said, "I'm religious, I pray. God loves me. God will save me."
The waters began to rise. A man in a row boat came along and he shouted. 'Hey! Hey you! You up there. The town is flooding. I can take you to safety.' But the man shouted back: "I'm religious, I pray. God loves me. God will save me." A helicopter came hovering overhead. A guy with a megaphone shouted. 'Hey! You there! The town is fully flooded. Let me drop down
a ladder and I will help you to safety.' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God would take him to safety. The man then drowned.
When he got to the gates of heaven, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord,' he said, 'I'm a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a row boat. What on earth are you doing here?'
Throughout this month, we have been talking about spirituality. We have considered what it might be and I have offered a very Unitarian way of thinking about it. I said that Spirituality is a process - a process that can be taken through many different paths. And we know that the process is right and that it is 'true' in a very pragmatic sense if helps us grow more human -
toward the people we long to be. Good spirituality - true spirituality - develops in us a set of qualities that are the ingredients for all others. These are the basis for happiness and peace and equanimity. I gave you an easy way to remember these four: 'CoFFee MuG' - Compassion, Faith, Mindfulness, and Gratitude. Today, in the final instalment of this series on spirituality, we consider a big objection to all of this nice spirituality stuff - "what happens when the bad times come? What use is our spirituality then?"
Today is a Jewish observance called Tisha B'av - the 9th day of the month of Av. On Tisha B'av, Jews are called to remember and mourn the great catastrophes that befell their people. One of those times was the exile of the people in Babylon. Our first song today - "By the Rivers of Babylon" - is a reggae song written with words from the Hebrew Scripture. Those words speak the despair of people who felt bereft of their home but more - the home that was tied to their life-sustaining faith. They asked why. They sought comfort. They questioned how they could continue to live their faith in the torment of foreign captivity. It is an ancient introduction to a theme that has persisted to this day: "What is our spiritual life in the face of great trials."
The story I told a few moments ago about the faithful man and the rising river illustrates one way in which some think about spirituality and the trials of life. That view is that spirituality is first like armour and then like an insurance policy. Nothing can happen to me - I'm spiritual. And if anything should happen around me, I will be rescued from it.
One memory that has stayed with me very vividly from my time in hospital chaplaincy training is of a woman whose son was desperately ill. The son was in his twenties, and although I did not know the details of the case, his prognosis was obviously very grim. The doctor took me aside to tell me that, in fact, the son had no brain activity - he was being kept alive by machines. Nonetheless, his mother - a traditionally religious person - was convinced that he would recover. She had prayed for days on end, she told me. She fully expected a miracle. She knew that God would not abandon her in this time of need. I was present when the doctor explained to her that he would remove the son's breathing tube as a test of whether he could recover. We both left the room as the procedure to remove the tube was performed, and when we returned, the son's condition had worsened. A few minutes later, he was gone. This poor mother was devastated not only by the loss of her son but by the total loss of her faith - a faith based on a belief in spiritual armour and insurance.
While that kind of faith may sound a bit extreme to most of you - those who hold a more limited perspective of the worldly effects of religious faith - this attitude is not only about believing that a mighty hand will defend you from your enemies and pluck you up from amidst danger. We can be tempted to see spirituality at least as emotional armour and insurance. If a deeply spiritual person suffers a bereavement or a serious illness or a terrible relationship break-up, we might expect them to sail through it unperturbed. We might imagine someone like the Dali Lama laughing off such terrible things and continuing on, unaffected. We might expect too - no matter what our attitude toward the supernatural - that such a person will become unwell less often and will heal faster. Is this true? To some limited extent, yes. Studies have certainly shown that we can become more resilient to adversity and that religious people are - on the whole - happier than non-religious ones. And we also know that the connection between our physical and emotional health is strong. Depression lowers the functioning of our immune systems. Being upset can literally make us ill - or at least reduce our chances of a speedy recovery. But being spiritual does not protect us from the terrors and traumas of life. Deeply spiritual people get assaulted. Their loved ones die. They get cancer. They get injured in earthquakes and tornados and tsunamis. They weep and wail and get angry like the rest of us. And if you were hoping for spiritual protection from suffering, the news gets worse. Growing spiritually means being more engaged with and more fully embracing of life. It means be more grateful for the good things that come and more faithfully hopeful that the future can be brighter. But being more fully engaged with life puts us
more in touch, not only with the happy moments. With greater compassion, we feel the suffering of others more profoundly. With greater mindfulness, we are more present to our own disappointments, our own sorrow, even a sense that our lives are not where we want them to be. It can be much easier to go through life in a distraction-induced fog - to live for the pub, for shopping, for pseudo-intimacy, and for packaged entertainment delivered up on screens of many sizes.
I have given you the disappointing news that spirituality will not protect you from harm, or illness, or even from emotional distress - and that, in fact, it may mean you suffer more from the mundane woes of existence. What then is the role for spirituality in difficult times?
I will give you two answers. The first is found in our readings this morning. Mary Oliver offers us one crystalline beacon of a word: "meanwhile."
"Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on."
Meanwhile the sun and rain are moving across the landscapes. Meanwhile, the wild geese are heading home again. Spirituality is seeing things whole. It brings a gentle recognition of the larger view. It is recognising that as one flower is fading on its stem, another is bursting into full bloom. It is feeling all of the joy and all of the sorrow together and knowing that it is worth it - that this whole messy business called life is worth it. It is feeling joy and gratitude and love so strongly that we know that pain also has its place.
And the second answer is best expressed in a Buddhist tale about the mother of a small child.
Kisa Gotami, a young woman, married a man who loved her very much. In time, she gave birth to a son. She and her husband were joyful and lived together quite happily. Sadly, two years after their son was born, the child became quite ill and died quickly. Kisa Gotami was devastated; her heart was broken. She was so stricken with grief that she refused to accept that her son had died. She carried his small corpse around, asking everyone she met for medicine to make her boy well again. Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him if
he could please cure her son. The Buddha looked at Kisa Gotami with deep love. He said, ‘Yes, I will help you, but first I need a handful of mustard seed.' When the mother in her joy promised to collect the seed immediately, the Buddha added, ‘But the mustard seed must be taken from a house in which no one has lost a child, husband, wife, parent or friend. Each seed must come from a house that has not known death.' Kisa Gotami went from house to house asking for the mustard seed, and always the response was the same: ‘Yes, we will gladly give you some mustard seed. But alas, the living are few and the dead are many.' Each had lost a father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter. She visited one home after another, and every home told the same story. By the time she got to the end of the village, her eyes were opened, and she saw the universality of sorrow, Everyone had experienced some great loss, each had felt tremendous grief. Kisa Gotami realized she was not alone in her suffering; her sorrow had given birth to a compassion for the larger human family. Thus,
Kisa Gotami was finally able to grieve the death of her son and bury him, and she returned to the Buddha to thank him and receive his teachings.
With spirituality, we grow more compassionate - more aware of and connected the suffering of others. And that compassion gives us one of the greatest of insights about this universe. We are not alone. We are not alone in our struggles. We are not alone in our suffering. We are part of everything that is and our own suffering is but a tiny thread in a vast tapestry of living. We are a part - an integral part adding to the beauty of the fabric - but a part equal to a myriad of others.
Spiritual growth brings us in touch with ourselves, with the beauty of this world, with the suffering of this world - with everything. In the final analysis, spiritual living should perhaps
simply be called living. Anything else is a walking sleep.
May you live long and live fully - every moment of your life.
May it be so.