Meaning, Healing & Belonging

A Sermon Preached on Nov.15th by Christopher Lind

Dr. Michael Hryniuk is a theologian from the Ukranian Catholic side of the family, the Christian family that is. He is a former Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society of Canada and a specialist in spirituality. Spirituality is a famously hard concept to define and I was present at lunch one day when a friend asked him boldly: “Can you define Spirituality in 10 words or less?” Meeting that bid and raising it, he replied: “Sure! I can define it in three words – Meaning, Healing & Belonging”. I have thought a lot about those three words in the last year, and tested them out in a variety of contexts. Every time they have passed the test in flying colours.

Meaning, Healing & Belonging.

Meaning in the context of spirituality refers to a person or a group’s “whole way of life in response to what they perceive to be of ultimate meaning, value, and power”. It is the orienting principle in their life. You find out about a person or a group’s understanding of ultimate meaning either by studying their declarations (their Creed or Mission Statement if you like), or by studying their behaviour. They don’t always add up. When they do add up we call that integrity. When they don’t add up we call that hypocrisy. The Anglican Church of Canada has been struggling with this issue over the question of equal marriage. When we say that all persons are created equal in the eyes of God and ought not to be discriminated against on the grounds of race, class, ability, gender or sexual orientation, are we speaking out of both sides of our mouths? Or are we acting with integrity?

As a congregation we are also grappling with this dilemma. We don’t include the ancient creeds in our Sunday liturgy but we are stumbling slowly toward a mission statement in our strategic planning process in spite of being surrounded by them. We have them painted on our walls, stained into our windows and after a fashion, printed on the front of our bulletins. The meaning of our lives has to do with the purpose and direction of our lives. We are moving slowly because we want to achieve congruence between our behaviour and our beliefs. If we are serious about that direction, you will be able to see it with your eyes as well as hear it with your ears.

Meaning, Healing & Belonging

Healing in the context of spirituality refers to overcoming the inner split between our true selves and our false selves. It does not refer to curing a disease but to rediscovering the undivided self. We all have these memories, sometimes vivid, sometimes vague, of an innocent childhood that becomes damaged by a corrupted world. For some, this memory is the earliest memory we have. It is also the most powerful and the most damaging and we call it abuse. For others it is not fatal, and we still spend the rest of our lives trying to overcome the distance that has been created. In both cases we have a sense of the sacred being assaulted and it is our own experience of the divine we are trying to recover. In the fifth century, the North African theologian, St. Augustine, captured this idea when he wrote “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

The split that needs to be healed is the split between the presence of the Divine and the absence of the Divine, between our truest, purest self and our damaged, defeated and disoriented self. Our damaged self can be a deceitful self. This self doesn’t want to know what is going on. It wants to hide from the truth. It wants to stay unconscious because the burden of consciousness is too heavy to bear. Groups can be like this – political groups, university departments, nurses unions, corporate boardrooms, even religious groups (especially religious groups). We can ALL be like that. It is a form of original sin, and we are all guilty from time to time. We are broken and we need healing.

Meaning, Healing & Belonging

Belonging in the context of spirituality refers to a recognition that human beings are in their essence, social beings. We are born into and made for community. In the last three or four hundred years, western culture has made progress in affirming the rights and unique character of the individual. This has allowed us to remake society to be a more equal and more just place. One of the costs of this progress has been an obscuring of our mutual interdependence, of our communal nature. From the very beginning, we are born into relationship with others. Before there is a me, there is a we. Another way we have obscured this truth is by confusing belonging with belongings. In a society of great material wealth, we focus our energies on acquiring ever more belongings instead of asking the question, to whom do I belong? Anybody here seen the bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins”? How about a new banner hanging from the wall of the church outside that says: “We all belong to God – Church of the Holy Trinity!”

Today’s Epistle is from the letter to the Hebrews. Hidden in the middle of today’s reading we find the following snippet 10:15-16):

And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,”

This is a quotation. In Deuteronomy (6:4-9) we find the great Hebrew Creed, the Shema which reads: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

(We remember that part for reasons I will explain, but we don’t remember what follows)

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

Keep these in your hearts … fix them on your forehead

You might connect this to Mark’s Gospel (12:28-34). There we read about a Scribe who asks Jesus to name the most important commandment. He replies by quoting the Shema. “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Now if you grew up in the Anglican Church you will remember this from the Book of Common Prayer. In every communion service the prayer book calls for reciting either the 10 commandments or this Summary of the Law. If the worship committee were to ask me for input into revisions of our Sunday liturgy, I would recommend a recovery of this Summary of the Law, which contains the ancient Creed. For me, this represents the core of the spirituality that I want us to be about. It is about integrity, it is about inclusion, it is about meaning, healing and belonging. If, as a congregation, we could adopt this as our mission statement, then I would say with Jesus “[We] are not very far from the kingdom of God”.

I recently attended a memorial service for a woman who died, after a full life, at the age of 92. The service was held at a funeral home and led by an Anglican priest the deceased had never met. I learned at the reception that while the 92 yr. old had identified herself as an Anglican, neither of her children (both in their late 50s) could ever remember her attending church. They speculated that she had stopped going to church after the death of her first child. Her first born, a boy, had died at the age of 9 months of pneumonia. That was over 60 years ago. At that same reception, I met this woman’s daughter-in-law who still had not picked up the ashes of her late husband who died tragically in a car accident, 16 years ago, in his late 30s. Both of these women have experienced, and shared deep tragedy. In different ways, their injuries went unhealed. These injuries are material and corporeal – two people died. But their injuries are also spiritual. The sacred has been profaned and the image of the divine has been violated. They came to experience distance where before they experienced unity. They seek reunion, yet don’t know how to achieve it. They struggled with issues of meaning, needed healing but weren’t sure how to achieve it, knew they belonged to their biological family but had an ambiguous and confused sense of belonging to the Christian family. This funeral was an opportunity for the church to say “You belong to God” and however painful your life has been, Jesus has gone there before you.

Today it is common to hear people describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. I get the ‘not religious’ part. It means they don’t attend church, or synagogue, or temple or mosque, but what does it mean to be spiritual? I think it means they are seekers after meaning, seekers after healing, and seekers after belonging. That means they are just like you and me.