Following the previous blog, I would like to look at one of Aesop’s fables that I came across.
Aesop relates the story that once upon a time the Fox invited the Stork to dinner and put before her some soup in a very shallow dish. The Fox could easily lap it up, but he Stork could only wet the end of her long bill in it, and left the meal as hungry as when she began. “I’m sorry that the soup is not to your liking”, said the Fox. “Pray do not apologise”, said the Stork. “I hope you will come and dine with me soon and I will show you what a real feast is.”
When the Fox went to dinner at the Stork’s house, she also served some soup, but in a very long necked jar with a narrow mouth. All the Fox could manage to do was lick the outside of it. So he too left a shared meal hungry and dissatisfied.
We can easily recognise Aesop’s point that both the Fox and the Stork were very bad mannered to offer someone hospitality in a way in which they were unable to receive it. In the story it appears they both acted this way on purpose, but it would be almost as bad mannered to act in such a way through sheer ignorance or thoughtlessness. To invite someone to share a meal and then to serve it in a manner to which we are accustomed, but without taking any account of how they normally eat, demonstrates that we have little regard for the other person and it makes the sharing of food a meaningless gesture.
I was recently reckoning up how many different churches I had visited. Certainly well over a hundred, and between them representing a few dozen different denominations. It has seemed to me that the majority appeared to serve up spiritual food according to their own cultural or denominational background. There is probably not much wrong with that – soup is soup whether it comes in a shallow plate or a long necked jar, and if either suits you, then fine. However, I have noticed that problems appear to arise when churches come together and serve spiritual food without taking account of each other’s normal eating habits. It can be as equally unsatisfying to be given a service book without help, explanation or page numbers, as it is to have to stand by, while others sing songs off by heart, especially if they are in an unfamiliar foreign language.
There have been rare occasions when folk from differing church traditions have come together and seem to have had a genuine desire to learn from each other and to serve each other, but they have been the exception rather than the rule.
I was once asked whether I had held a particular view about some churches out of arrogance or ignorance. It was actually a valid and perceptive question. After some reflection, I had to give the honest answer, “both”. I had allowed my limited, narrow experience to shape my thinking about others who were different from me. I do not believe that most Christians are deliberately bad mannered, but it does seem to me that an awful lot of us fall into the trap of being arrogant or ignorant, when it comes to sharing together at God’s table.
This does not mean that any and every way of doing things must inevitably be acceptable. Worship and the things we do in church can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. The Israelites were constantly admonished to flee from false idols because they picked up bad habits from those around them. The task we face is to discern between what is wrong (and avoid or admonish such) and what is merely a matter of taste, style or habit. Even if it is only a matter of style, it does not mean that we should just ignore it on the one hand or embrace it on the other, but that we should seek to understand it so that we can act appropriately in a spirit true fellowship.
I trust that I am not so naïve as to think that the pathway of understanding others is either comfortable or easy, but I do think it necessary. My wife and I have been married for nearly forty-eight years and we still do not always understand each other. But apart from the benefits which accrue from working at it, we have no option because we agreed to do so those forty-eight years ago. If we are all in covenant relationship with Jesus Christ and hence part of the same body, then I fail to see how we can treat the pathway of understanding different parts of the body as an optional extra.