As always, this month’s gathering at the Crask was relaxed, deeply spiritual and most enjoyable; not least because we marked the feast of St Margaret of Scotland who should be seen as such a splendid example to us all. During the course of our post-Gospel discussion, one of our number told a story that she first heard as a schoolgirl from Mother Theresa of Calcutta. This story can be found in many world cultures, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Oriental, Chinese and more.
One version of what is called the Parable of the long chopsticks or Allegory of the long spoons goes like this:
“A curious man once asked to visit heaven and hell. Expecting hell to be a terrible, frightening place, he was amazed to find people seated around a lovely banquet table. The table was piled high with every delicious thing one could possibly want. The man thought, Perhaps hell isn’t so bad after all.
Looking closely, however, he noticed that everyone at the table was miserable and thin.
They were starving, because, although there was a mountain of food before them, they had been given six-foot-long chopsticks with which they had to eat. There was no way to carry the food to their mouths with such long chopsticks, and so no one could eat a bite.
The man was then taken to heaven. To his surprise, he found the situation was exactly the same as he had seen in hell. People were gathered around a banquet table piled with food. Everyone held a pair of six-foot-long chopsticks in their hands. But here in heaven, they were well fed with everyone happily eating the delicious food. He asked what was different. The difference: in heaven they were using their extra-long chopsticks to feed one another rather than trying to feed themselves.”
As Christians, we are part of a community of faith. In fact Christianity is a faith of relationship, focussed on the community and not on the individual. This is very clearly expressed in the writing of the Apostle Paul and is a constant theme in Jesus’s teaching. It can also come as quite a shock to many people in our society, where spirituality is increasingly seen as purely about an individual’s relationship with God, and nothing to do with anyone else. Without the corrective of the community of faith, it’s however so easy to build God in one’s own image – the most common form of idolatry.
In our life as Christians, there are many pitfalls that we might fall into. There are the clearly recognisable sins: murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, but these are fairly easy to deal with, in that you probably know when you’re committing them. The more insidious ones are the ones that come disguised as virtue, these might be described as sins of the spirit.
As Eugene Peterson wrote “It is in our virtuous behaviour that we are liable to the gravest of sins. It is while we are being good that we have the chance to be really bad. It is in the context of being responsible, being obedient, that we most easily substitute our wills for God’s will, because it is so easy to suppose that they are identical.” It is in the course of being faithful Christians that we’re most likely to fall victim to pride, arrogance or insensitivity to what Jesus called “the least of these my brethren”. Ironically, it is those of us in positions of leadership, trust or responsibility that are often most at risk. In all the things that make up Church life, it’s so easy to lose sight of what is at the core of being a Christian – the business of loving God and loving our neighbour, no matter who that neighbour many be.
Even within our congregations or the wider Christian community, individual Christians can’t manage on their own, nor should they try. We’re all responsible to one another for encouragement and support in faith, love, and hope. Others need our support in being Christian, and we need theirs. This Advent, as we prepare to welcome the incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, coming into the world as a tiny, vulnerable baby, it would perhaps do each of us good to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in our congregations and in our wider community, wherever in this beautiful part of the world we might live. The hope that overcomes the uncertainty and anxiety about the future, that few if any of us are immune from, is fostered by encouraging each other in our faith and in the way we live our lives.
As a final thought, it’s no accident that the writers of our liturgies (both those in the Scottish Prayer Book and more recently) finish with a benediction: “And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or Ghost), be amongst you (not upon you) and remain with you (plural) always.”
To you the community of faith in the North-Eastern Highlands: