When Robin and I met to prepare this service he shared with me some of the Hindu wisdom he had gained while working in India. According to Hindus there are four ashrams or resting places on the journey through life.
The first is the ashram of study, of learning and becoming, the second is the ashram of married householder, working in a busy house and raising children,
the third is that of a grandparent withdrawing to a hut in the forest to lead a simple life,
the fourth and the last the ashram of giving up everything to God and living only with a begging bowl, a stick and a cloak.
For a hindu there is no value attached to these stages Robin told me, they are simply resting places, different ways of being. They are not entirely chronological either: in any healthy lifestyle there is room for all four at any time. It is just that at different stages of our lives one of the other will be more dominant. Living in and through those stages we grow, we gain wisdom and peace, and grow closer to God.
While thinking about this, I realised that many of you, like Robin, are in a phase of your lives predominantly third or even the last of these resting places: down sizing to a simpler life and letting go of your more active involvement in life, moving into the modern equivalent of a "hut in the forest" in the shape of a serviced apartment or a smaller house. Or, the equivalent of the fourth phase, even letting go of more than that to become dependent on others for your daily care and support in a nursing home. Through pastoral conversations with several of you I know it is not always easy to accept this. That the process for most of you is one of working through feelings of loss, of sadness, and a sense of bereavement on more than one level. It is not only the downsizing, the serviced apartment or even the nursing home, it is the loss of physical ability, the inability to be as involved in life as you used to be, the children and even the grandchildren living their own life and no longer needing you, society, the Church even, changing into a place that is no longer yours in the way it used to be.
The feelings of grief and loss over this are, I believe, intensified by the fact that the only life really valued in our western society is that of ashram one and two. The life of study, of becoming, of working and raising, of building up and expanding. Not the life of simplicity, peace and deeper understanding ashram three and four offer. And most certainly not a life where a begging bowl, a cloak and a stick and our relationship with God is all we have in the world.
Have you ever realised that that last ashram is exactly where most of Jesus life was lived? That at not even thirty he let everything go the world values and lived his life for God, carrying no more than a begging bowl, a stick and a cloak and advertised it as a good and meaningful life? That this was the life that brought healing, peace and love to many? That he was not running around like a mad hare trying to keep a household organised, or even a church community going? That he actually skipped the bits many of us are so desperately trying to hang on to?
And do you realise the ideal image of the community of Christ, as it is pictured in Acts four, of communal living and days spent mainly in prayer, worship and praise, is not one of building up a million dollar Church or of families making it in the world and dropping in on their way home for a five minute quick devotional fix but an image of people who are mostly spending their life in phase three and four and giving up everything to be with each other and with God every day of the week?
Robin talked to me about how experiences of Christ in India seemed so much more intense than what we hear of here and I wondered if this has perhaps something to do with our belief that achievement, satisfaction and joy ends at stage two. That we value letting go negatively as loss and not as just a different phase with new and different opportunities like the hindu does.
Surely it is inevitable that the transition of one phase to another is accompanied by feelings of loss and grief for what has been and will be no more. Loss of physical ability, loss of control over ones life, loss of ability to be involved and active. In a sense something of what we were dies when we move to a next phase of our lives, especially when we come to stage three and four. And we may feel like the disciples after they lost everything at the cross: like there is no hope, no future, only darkness and a downward spiral until we, ourselves, will die too.
For them that is not where it ended though. And it doesnt need to end there for us either. Our faith tells us that there is a hope stronger than any, even physical, death. That Christ will appear where we are, hopeless and desperate, and will leave us with his peace if we are prepared to receive it. Some of us may have to struggle a bit longer than others to get there, like Thomas who needed to go off on his own and demanded more tangible proof before he was ready. But he got it, and we will get it, if we are prepared to become unstuck and move beyond the cross, beyond suffering and despair to a place where Gods grace and mercy can reach us and we can renew our relationship with him on a different and deeper level than before. Not in spite of, but thanks to the transition we made from one phase of the journey to the next. Until we can do what the letter of John and Acts tell us: walk in the light with Jesus and have fellowship with one another, praising, worshipping and praying as if they are the only things that matter in the world. Amen.