Archive for April, 2009

Friends and Lovers

April 16, 2009

This by Cynthia B. Johnson:

Comes the day when life stops.

Sometimes abruptly. Unscheduled. Unplanned.

The calendar full of appointments for tomorrows not to be.

Large things, like tickets bought but not used.

Like dinner parties for which invitations have been mailed, responses received.

Like speeches scheduled and project deadlines agreed to.

Small things, like clothes at the dry cleaners.

Like a small stack of phone messages to be returned.

Like two lamb chops thawing for tonight’s dinner.

No one’s daytimer lists “Death –

all day Wednesday” as the final appointment.

[“Sudden Death and the To Do List” from A Theophany, Please]

**

Again and again it defeats me—

This reliance on others for bliss.

—John Weldwood

We celebrate the right of all people to marry this day closest to Valentine’s and as we proudly host our GLBTQ friends here at the Interweave Convocation. But we remember that we face new assaults on Love here in California and elsewhere. Thursday was Freedom to Marry Day here in California, a reminder of the legal right once had but hoped to be regained. March 5th the California Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the constitutionality of Prop Hate…er,…8. Of course, assaults on the freedom to love are all the more powerful when the end of life faces us. St. Valentine died in jail, himself in love with the Jailer’s daughter, because he performed weddings of two people in love in spite of family customs of the time.

Love is always more poignant in the face of death. Death brings a certain urgency to love. Dana Lawrence and her partner of many years came to me three years ago to be married. Dana was dying of cancer and she wanted to know that feeling of being recognized by a church in the eyes of love. She joined PUC and was married right here two years ago by yours truly. What none of us realized is how soon the dark angel would come for her. Dana was gone within two months. So few of you knew her. She was quiet but we were here for her. Before she died she told me how happy she was to find such good friends who could love her as she was

Friends and Lovers are each affected by mortality. We often parse friends as different than lovers, but we forget that the best relationships start as friendships, indeed the love of a friend can withstand even death.

In fact, I propose the following distinction: Friends are stout lovers, broad at the base if not always capable of making sharper points –such as sexual love allows. As Cicero (who himself died for his friendship with Pompeii, and not Caesar) noted, “Friendship is the greater love because it involves a constant choice….Friends are another self.” (paraphrased from On Friendship) God gives us friends to fulfill the imperfect love we need even as we seek a more perfect love than there is. How many of us, especially in the face of death, have found lovers abandoning us, but friends at our sides? Think of the end of Jesus’ life; his male followers, lovers of his logos, abandon him at death, while his female friends (who are, ironically, not his lovers) are there beyond the end.

John Weldwood, a Buddhist teacher writes: “While most of us have moments of loving freely and openly, it is often hard to sustain such love where it matters most—in our intimate relationships. This creates a strange gap between absolute love—the perfect love we can know in our heart—and relative love, the imperfect ways it is embodied in our relationships. Why, if love is so great and powerful, are human relationships so challenging and difficult? If love is the source of happiness and joy, why is it so hard to open to it fully?

“What lies at the root of every relationship problem is a core “wound of the heart” that affects not only our personal relations, but the quality of life in our world as a whole. This wounding shows up as a pervasive mood of unlove, a deep sense that we are not intrinsically lovable just as we are. We experience ourselves as separated from love, and this shuts down our capacity to trust. So even though we may hunger for love or believe in love, we still have difficulty opening to it and letting it circulate freely through us…..Similarly, when a friend … is dying, all your quibbles with that person fall away. You simply appreciate the other for who he or she is, just for having been here with you in this world for a little while. Pure, unconditional love shines through when people put themselves—their own demands and agendas—aside and completely open to one another.

“Absolute love is not something that we can… fabricate. It is what comes through us naturally when we fully open up—to another person, to ourselves, or to life. In relation to another, it manifests as selfless caring. In relation to ourselves, it shows up as inner confidence and self-acceptance that warms us from within. And in relation to life, it manifests as a sense of well-being, appreciation, and joie de vivre.

….“ What feels most affirming is not just to feel loved but to feel loved as we are. Absolute love is the love of being. …..

“However—and this is an essential point—the human personality is not the source of absolute love. Rather, its light shines through us, from what lies altogether beyond us, the ultimate source of all. We are the channels through which this radiance flows. Yet in flowing through us, it also finds a home within us, taking up residence in our heart…” (Weldwood in Shambala Sun, Jan. 2006)

All of us have experienced this absolute love. But not for long. In time, the blemishes of life mask the ecstatic nature. I tell those getting married to call me in a year. A year seems to be just about the time it takes for love’s sharp light, her absolute brilliance to settle down. And then? Well, then we go about falling in love all over again but for different reasons. Because she still makes me laugh, even as she drives me mad. Because he remembers to put the toilet seat down even if he forgets the flowers. It’s the daily love between lovers that has to be re-invented over and over again. But that love is there, perhaps more so in friends than lovers…. Who do you call in the middle of night when you have lost your way? The love between friends, while perhaps not as bright, is sometimes much more forgiving. When a betrayal happens between lovers it is very hard to come back from, especially if sex or its emotional equivalent has happened, but friends betray friends all the time, and somehow we forgive them more easily. Imagine the love of a lover, the Eros of the gods, to be vertical; and the love of friends, the logos, to be horizontal… the heights of erotic love are addictive, but the breadth of friends often more sustaining. What Walt Whitman, gay and a Unitarian, once called the “adhesiveness” of a love between friends, such as he had with his own lover Peter Doyle. (See Leaves of Grass, 1860) I have come to believe that we are created with both capacities and it is our spiritual makeup to love both deeply and broadly. The most lasting love I know is if the lover is also your friend. One does not negate the other; despite that my teenage girlfriends told me they only wanted to be friends, as if sex were somehow the next level (which of course to my hormonal mind it was!). Sex is another dimension to love, a deeper one, but it does not make the love between friends second rate. As Antoine Saint d’Expurey put it “Lovers gaze into each other’s eyes but friends stand side by side and gaze into the distance.”

As Weldwood put it “Our ability to feel a wholehearted yes toward another person fluctuates with the changing circumstances of each moment. It depends on how much each of us is capable of giving and receiving, the chemistry between us, our limitations and conditioned patterns, how far along we are in our personal development, how much awareness and flexibility we each have, how well we communicate, the situation we find ourselves in, and even how well we have each slept the night before. Relative means dependent on time and circumstance. ..Ordinary human love is always relative, never consistently absolute. Like the weather, relative love is in continual dynamic flux. It is forever rising and subsiding, waxing and waning, changing shape and intensity. …So far all of this may seem totally obvious. Yet here’s the rub: We imagine that others—surely someone out there!—should be a source of perfect love by consistently loving us in just the right way. Since our first experiences of love usually happen in relation to other people, we naturally come to regard relationship as its main source. Then when relationships fail to deliver the ideal love we dream of, we imagine something has gone seriously wrong. And this disappointed hope keeps reactivating the wound of the heart and generating grievance against others. This is why the first step in healing the wound and freeing ourselves from grievance is to appreciate the important difference between absolute and relative love.” (Ibid, Weldwood)

What is so great about the love of friends, and why I think they should be the baseline to any personal relationship, is that they recover so quickly from life’s mishaps. “Relationships continually oscillate between two people finding common ground and then having that ground slip out from under them as their differences pull them in different directions. This is a problem only when we expect it to be otherwise, when we imagine that love should manifest as a steady state. That kind of expectation prevents us from appreciating the special gift that relative love does have to offer: personal intimacy.” (Ibid, Weldwood) What friends teach us and we as lovers should learn is that love is only possible when two people accept each other simply as they are, not as you would have them be. Frances is never going to make me less bookish and she fiercely defends my time to read, even though she would much rather have me in the yard building a deck. I am never going to make Frances plan out a trip, even though I will do all I can to provide enough empty time to let us explore as the spirit moves us. We are each other’s best friend first, lovers second. Yes, we are disappointed at love. All of us are. So what?

“Love can fail us and it does one of the most fundamental of all human illusions: that the source of happiness and well-being lies outside us, in other people’s acceptance, approval, or caring. As a child, this was indeed the case, since we were at first so entirely dependent on others for our very life. But even if at the deepest level our parents did love us unconditionally, it was impossible for them to express this consistently, given their human limitations. This was not their fault. It doesn’t mean they were bad parents or bad people. Like everyone, they had their share of fears, worries, cares, and burdens, as well as their own wounding around love. Like all of us, they were imperfect vessels for perfect love. ….When children experience love as conditional or unreliable or manipulative, this causes a knot of fear to form in the heart, for they can only conclude, “I am not truly loved.” …..As Emily Dickenson describes this universal wound in one of her poems: ‘There is a pain so utter, it swallows Being up.’” (Ibid, Weldwood).

The point is to remember that to love is human, but to be free from pain is perhaps divine, but ultimately impossible. Whether it is the stouter love of friends, or the vertical love of Eros, what we do know is love is only a means to our humanity. And that humanity is full of ecstasy, comfort and pain. I always counsel those in search for love to stop pursuing it, lest you lose her as Apollo lost his Daphne. “Those who go on a search for love,” D. H. Lawrence writes, “find only their own lovelessness.” Start with friends and let love happen last.

Weldwood writes that “As earthly creatures continually subject to relative disappointment, pain, and loss, we cannot avoid feeling vulnerable. Yet as an open channel through which great love enters this world, the human heart remains invincible. Being wholly and genuinely human means standing firmly planted in both dimensions, celebrating that we are both vulnerable and indestructible at the same time….at this crossroads where yes and no, limitless love and human limitation intersect, we discover the essential human calling: progressively unveiling the sun in our heart, that it may embrace the whole of ourselves and the whole of creation within the sphere of its radiant warmth. This love is not the least bit separate from true power. For, as the great Sufi poet Rumi sings:

When we have surrendered totally to that beauty,

Then we shall be a mighty kindness.

So may it be. Amen.

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WHY WORRY?

April 16, 2009

How will the world change in the next ten years? It’s not easy to know. But consider this: In 2000 gas cost $1.50, there were no iPods, no YouTube, no Facebook, 9-11 hadn’t been seared into our memories, leading us into trillions of dollars of debt and two wars. No Hurricane Katrina. (From Willamette University promotion brochure, 2009) We have no way of knowing what the New World will look like. It may be very different than today, resources and wealth made scarce, but love and compassion on the rise or… it may just stay the same. Trying to imagine what our world will look like next week is hard enough, beyond that it’s as about reliable as last year’s economic forecast.

I come from a long line of worriers. My mother was a real pro, bless her soul. She would be at the airport the day before we had to leave. My dad on the other hand lived by the motto, “there is always another plane”. Coming out of this bi-polarity, I find myself mostly non-anxious unless fear really has me in its grip. . It used to be worse. So much so that my friends bought me a copy of “Mr. Worry”, the story of a little man who worried too much. I had always thought of myself as cautious, a realist, but certainly not a worrier. Naturally, when I received the book I worried about what they thought of me. I was the Boy Scouts’ boy scout, prepared for almost anything. I had not one, but two pocketknives. It was a real ego death to realize I was seen as a worried man. It took me twenty years, but here I am, not worried about almost anything, much to the chagrin of some of you and the amusement of my family.

With the current economic climate we have good reasons to worry. As I mentioned last week, some of us are facing real hardship. What we need to remember is that we are here to help. And since last Sunday, several of us have found help. So with that worrisome sermon behind us let me turn to understanding just how we can tell the difference between what we really need to worry about and what we don’t. That is the more hopeful side of the equation. Discerning the difference is a spiritual practice.

It turns out, according to an article published in the journal Science, that there is a gene for worry. It seems that people who are fretful, crabby, neurotic – what in New York we call Kvetches – tend to have a shorter version of a certain gene. (gene number slc6a4 on chromosome number 17q12, if you must know). If you are worrier (and I know some of you are) it’s not necessarily because you have a lot in life to worry about, but because you are genetically inclined to worry. Feel better? Well, of course you don’t. You can’t feel better; that’s the point. (As published in the New Yorker 1997)

The discovery of the worry gene follows directly on the discovery of the “throw it all to the wind” gene. The bungee jumping, spice of life, novelty and excitement gene. Turns out that many of the people who have this gene are also impatient. The lucky ones become cab drivers and for the rest of us, these foot-tapping people just drive us crazy. (Ibid, New Yorker)

I have my doubts about determining our personality through genes; it’s akin to the defense some criminals in the 1970s used claiming that they had an extra Y chromosome, which made them genetically more aggressive. Perhaps this ascription to genetics is really the reemergence of polytheism. A long time ago, our little quirks and life’s mishaps were blamed quite conveniently on unseen gods; the struggle among the gods and goddesses of war, love, wisdom and so forth. How silly and primitive that was! Now we have a little science to describe the same thing but instead of gods we have our own genes to blame. The gods aren’t angry; it’s in the genes. Of course, in between blaming it on the gods and blaming it on our genes there are many other explanations (God must have his reasons, or Freud’s Oedipus complex, or bad diet and so on). (Ibid. New Yorker)

But whether you call it determined or not, the fact remains that some people worry more than others. Under it all, I find a deeper spiritual message to worrying in our lives. Sometimes it is good to worry, such as when your life depends on you being cautious but most of the time worrying doesn’t change a thing. I can remember one woman who prayed for an entire flight from New York to Chicago. When I asked her if she was all right; she said she would be fine once we were on the ground. “Don’t worry,” I told her, but she worried anyway. And when we got on the ground I said, “see nothing to worry about.” To which she replied, “Only because I prayed the plane down safely.” Reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon I saw once wherein the co-pilot says “Frank, oh my God, Frank, the fuel lights on! We’re going to die!” And then he takes it back, saying, “Whoops, my mistake. That was only the intercom light.”

The spiritual underpinnings to worry have more to do with how we see our world that in what causes our world to falter. It’s like a fight with the ones you love. If you look hard enough you can always find a fault. So it is with worry. If we see the world as half empty we will never be able to appreciate it the half that is full. I am convinced that our ability to transcend the world and live a more joyful life is inextricably tied up with our degree of anxiety about what might happen.

All genes and gods aside, the ability of any one of us to see the glass of our lives as half full has much more to do with how we were raised. Susan Vaughn, a psychiatrist living in New York, (now that is something to worry about) does a wonderful job in laying out a convincing argument and resolution on how we might learn to worry less and laugh at life more. (Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism Harcourt and Brace, 2000)

Vaughn begins with the premise that reality is highly overrated. Now this may come as shock to a few of you who pride yourselves on being “realistic,” but studies have shown that people who consider themselves realists are in fact more worried than those who create another reality for themselves as to what they want live to be. Reality is simply not what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, says Vaughn, people who worry less are more likely to achieve more and live longer. Illusion, while not real, may be psychologically healthier. When studies were done on the levels of anxiety compared to recovery from disease there was a direct inverse correlation: the more anxious you are the greater your susceptibility to illness. Not always, and certainly not forever, but often enough. In fact, those cancer patients whose prognosis was terminal found that the quality of life was enhanced by their ability to find that life was still worth living.

What does all of this mean if you are worrier? Well, for starters, don’t worry about it because you can change. What Vaughn and so many others figured out is that we are taught to worry, not consciously, but subtly. And it all has to do with control. If as an infant for instance, you were left crying in your crib because that was what some expert told your parents to do, you soon realized that your crying had little effect or control over the actions of your parents. Chances are you stopped crying, but chances also are that you began to believe that your actions didn’t change your world. Now crying alone does not a worrier make. It takes time and emotional distance. Worriers tend, as a group, to come from homes in which emotions were not well expressed, meaning that we tended to internalize our feelings rather than testing them out in the world to see what we could change.

People like me began to believe that my actions had little effect on the world. This is not to blame anybody; it’s just the way we put two and two together. “Why bother?” translates into “the world is out to get me.” So what is a worrier to do? How do we transform ourselves from a pessimistic Eeyore to an optimistic Tigger?

Well, the mystics tell us that we begin when we create a better world in our minds. I have been urging our leadership to take a new look at our vision for the future as a church. Some might argue with the worry of the economy that this is a bad time; I argue it is the perfect time. Let’s fill the void of anxiety with positive possibility — not wait around for the worst to come. Imagination. Its God’s second greatest gift, the first being life itself. We dream and we see where it is we want to go. We begin with an end in mind. I dream of this church home, wherein songs are sung, art is shown, children play and people laugh. I still dream of a refurbished hall and a new building at the end of our campus for classes and chapel. I turned the chairs this to use this glass wall as a canvass for our imagination.

Now that is all well and good but what does that mean to some of you who might like to imagine being happy again, surviving your disease, or finding a job? You start with imagination and then you create your reality by gaining control of your world in some way. I have come to believe that love is most possible when we use the most positive language we can find. As our first African American President refrained “Yes We Can.” You have to teach yourself to feel empowered. In other words, as AA says, “You fake it to make it.” I have lived my whole adult life faking it to make it. I have my dark nights of doubt, just like you, but never on Sunday morning. The prescription for worry and the health of your spirit depends on gaining control, as Jean Cocteau once put it, “to massage the organs no masseuse can reach.” Optimism is a learned behavior and it starts by putting reality in its place. “Get real,” one treasurer yelled at me years ago, “we can’t afford that now.” “I know,” I said, “but now only lasts for a moment.”

We gain control over our lives by naming our emotions. Fear is the first great enemy of life and love. Fear is, in many ways, what is running this recession. We can’t possibly know the future, why are we permitting our imagination to see the worst. In our meditation I asked you to name what you were feeling. If we name it, just like Jacob wrestling the angel, we have some power over it. It’s the “Rumpelstiltskin Effect”. When I am angry I try to shut my mouth and say, “hello anger.” You can disarm another that way as well. Next time you are in an argument try telling someone, “I see that you are angry,” and watch the temperature fall. Begin by verbalizing your emotions and then letting them go. Studies have shown that abused children who grow up to be adults have almost no vocabulary for anger or sadness. In fact, they can’t cry. It leads to a silent cycle of abuse that can last for generations.

Next, remember that failure is a perspective. There is always a lesson to what didn’t work. Always. Look for it. There is a treasure in each sinking ship of our lives. Find it. Be careful to not equate fault with a person, including yourself, but with their actions. Right being, taught the Buddha, follows from right action. First act, then become. Not the other way around.

Watch what you say. Words like can’t, shouldn’t, wrong, need to be used carefully. My favorite is, “we tried that before.” So what? Try it again, but pay attention to what didn’t work. Anxiety is caused in large part by our own language, verbalizing what we don’t have control over. Verbalize what you do have control over. When any one of you is facing disease or even death I ask you to find out a little more about your disease and your plan of treatment everyday and then to verbalize it, write it down. Knowledge is power.

Learn to be your own judge. We taught our children to judge for themselves. Even if you received a bad grade, evaluate what you missed, but don’t evaluate your worth by what others say. It’s worrisome to turn over our worth to someone else. Maybe they are having a bad day. Remember you are not the victim, you are the actor. Act like you are in control and you will be.

Limit the domain of your troubles. I used to yell at inanimate objects. “Stupid computers, they never work.” Learn to not extend your anxiety to all of life. Try instead “Today is a bad day for me and this computer.” Recognizing our limitations is not the same thing as giving up in despair. Despair is the greatest disease of the soul, a cancer of negative energy. All of your life is not lost. And even when it seems lost, your reaction to it is still yours. When the musicians played music as the Titanic was sinking they were not mad, or even hopeful, they realized the domain of their troubles: they were going to die. But they played on because the music soothed the last moments of life for hundreds of people. They took control of the smallest part of their life.

Finally, my friends recognize that your mind is your most powerful muscle; all the way from how we look at the world to what constitutes sex, our mind is the spirit incarnate within us. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

But in order to change to a more positive self-image we must first change how we view our reality. Dominique Bauby was a successful editor at Vogue magazine in Paris. While driving one day to pick up his son from school he got into a terrible accident. When he awoke he realized that he was completely paralyzed; no movement in his body, no voice, only one eyelid that he had control over. The horror of his loss was immense, more than any of us could imagine. To be trapped without expression fully cognizant and feeling everything happening to him. Worst yet, he had become a ghost. Even his family talked over him as if he was already dead. He knew first hand what Jean Paul Sartre called ‘the anatomy of despair.’ His greatest anguish and worry was the loss of his voice. (I too have imagined what it would be like) until he remembered what the French philosopher Voltaire once wrote, “your voice is your mind.” Suddenly life changed for Bauby. One nurse, knowing full well that he was alive in that shell of a body, devised a system of yes and no answers using his eyelids. Two blinks for yes, one blink for no. With this the nurse could identify each letter Bauby meant to use, and although painstaking, he could spell words. Bauby went on to write a beautiful book in this way: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, describing the paradox of living life strapped to a diving bell in the ocean of stillness while outstretching the wings of his mind like a butterfly. One day, a physician came in to sew shut his bad eye as the lack of control of it was damaging his cornea. Like some Kafkaesque nightmare he wanted to yell at the doctor to not sew his good eye as well. Bauby blinked away madly. Finally, as a way of meditation he imagined himself returning to the womb, going back into the stillness from which he had come like some journey in reverse. That small imagination kept him from going mad. The doctor did not sew his good eye shut, but Bauby died several months later.

Why worry? Worry, yes, to escape danger and keep yourself and your loved ones safe, but beyond that work towards freeing yourself from worry’s hold. Our imagination, like our memory, is what we make it; and by so being we are free to choose so much more about what our life will become in the short time we have. I believe we are destined, each one of you in this room, to be a great person. A person who laughs loudly, sings fully, loves completely and hopes for something more than we now see. I believe that each one of us in this room is moving not towards death but towards a life if only we could imagine the journey in a different way. Imagine a different world, after the correction, ah, er, recession. Imagine yourself getting younger. Imagine that and you will find little to be worried about.

Blessings Be

Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

April 16, 2009

I want to thank Joanna and the choir for taking my adapted words to this old time spiritual and putting it to music so beautifully! What a treat. The original song was written by Alda Haberson, concerning the death, funeral, and mourning of her mother. (Wikipedia, 2008) The song was meant to be a question of faith: would we be prepared to meet our loved ones in heaven through our atonement with Jesus or to hell because of our lack of faith. Of course, I have a different take on the relationship between the here and now and the thereafter. As I mentioned last week, I believe the real work of making heaven is in front of us right here on earth.

So let me give away the store right up front. I believe the circle is by nature broken, but we have the chance to make it whole. Let me re-tell an old story from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his twin brother Esau are the children of Rebecca and Isaac, the son of Abraham. Jacob, whose name means “to trip up,” is literally holding on to his slightly older brother Esau’s heel. Although Esau is the older and stronger brother, he is rather dim-witted, and while Esau is the favorite of his father, his mother Rebecca favors the more cunning and smoother Jacob. Through his young life Jacob gets his way by wile and tricks, and with the help of his mother, even cheats his older brother out of his inheritance by dressing up in sheep skins and presenting himself as Esau to his blind father for the blessing. Well, as the saying goes, what comes around goes around, and in time, his cheating ways catch up with him and he is finally forced to move away from Canaan. As time went on he was indentured to his father-in-law Laban twice, after having been cheated into marrying his first daughter, Leah, when he thought he was marrying the younger one, Rachel, whom he finally did marry after another term in servitude. Finally, wiser and humbled, Jacob leaves Laban and decides to return to Canaan to face his brother whom he had cheated out of the family estate. The night before he is to cross the Jordan back into his homeland Jacob is attacked by a mysterious being, an angel, and they fight until dawn. Jacob, wounded, is renamed Israel, he who struggles with God. The next day, anxious and worried for his life, Jacob, aka Israel, meets his brother Esau who, rather than striking him, embraces him. The circle is made whole.

What is it that helps us see the hell of our making and turn it around towards heaven? Sadly, we must first suffer our own sins. As a young man I was incredibly angry at the world. Not that I had much reason to be; I had graduated near the top of my class, married, was even given a beautiful home on the shores of a lake by my in-laws at the time. But something in me was raging. I would slam doors, break dishes, scare away customers. Eventually I scared away my first wife and lost my business as well. Then came the drugs and the booze. This was my time to wander in the wilderness, as Jacob had done. It wouldn’t be until much later, long after I had married Frances that I would find my way home and make peace with myself. I can’t say I have found heaven yet, but the circle is not nearly as broken as it once was.

What would it take for you to mend your own circles? How can we be bring healing and holiness to our lives, this long pause between the bookends of birth and death? For me it begins, much as it did with Jacob, with a wrestling of what we believe into what we do. We say we believe in the inherent worth of each individual, but can we really say that human worth doesn’t depend on what we do with it? I don’t think so. In fact, how we live our lives is, for me, the first and most important step to closing the circle of strife and creating a bit of heaven on earth. Here, I hold to a sort of modified version of the ancient Hindu concept of karma, you reap what you sow, so start sowing the better seed.

Specifically, listen to our friends and family as if they were vital to your life. Be sure you are putting into your body what your body needs, remember the mantra of our last Thanksgiving from Michael Pollan, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” and avoid, as I have resolved to do this year, drugs of all kinds. Beyond that, ask yourself is what we are doing is in line with your values, both in livelihood and spare time. “Right thinking follows right livelihood,” preached the Buddha. Is this the year, in midst of turmoil to change your vocation? (I always have to be careful about this: one middle-aged man in a congregation I served wanted to quit his high six-figure advertising exec job to go into consulting, which I urged him to do –his wife didn’t speak to me for a year).

The point is not to shame you into living an integrated life, but to point out to you that our religious understanding of heaven here on earth require us to walk the talk; so that when the shadow of death passes over us and calls us on, we will die as we lived. In fact, Teri tells me, this is a truism of hospice, we die as we lived. If we lived at least attempting to be fair, compassionate and most of all brave, chances are we will die that way as well.

Of course, there is much we can’t change. My heart is breaking over the carnage we are seeing in Gaza this week. This past week during the UU minister’s meeting up here on the Hill, of which I am the convener, I offered a prayer for peace, asking the Spirit to infuse a sense of responsibility into the leaders of both sides that they might remember who they really serve; not ideologies but people, and call for a cease fire. Like the story of Jacob and Esau we are witnessing the struggle between two brothers for the fate of a blessing. May at least one have grown up enough since.

Will the circle be unbroken? Not if we can come to grips generations hence, with the reality that we are all in this together. That the world we have, this broken and wounded world, is still the home of Eden. I don’t believe in Armageddon as a theological necessity, but I do believe that like human worth, we have the potential to destroy what we have created. The question is whether we, here, right now can make that heaven on earth a possibility.

Before I die I want finish the work of integration. I want to live a balanced life, eating right, sleeping well, loving you the people I serve. Before I die, I want to have lived my faith, built up churches that have the potential to save the world, love my family with all my heart, die depleted of wealth (that won’t be hard), knowing I gave it to who needed it most. Before I die, I want to know that I did what I could to make the world a better place, and though I will die incomplete (we all do, I guarantee it), I want to have cried at loss, laughed at misfortune, and stared down adversity with a smile. I want what I do to fully fill what I believe. I want my circle to be complete as it can be. As my colleague Forrest Church preached just before he went in to hospice to die:

“For us to be here in the first place, for us to earn the privilege of dying, more than a billion billion accidents took place. Even the one in a million sperm’s connections with the equally unique egg is nothing compared to everything else that happened from the beginning of time until now to make it possible for us to be here….

“What a luxury we enjoy wondering what will happen after we die, even what will happen before we die…..We see little of the road ahead or the sky above. And the dust we raise clouds our eyes, leaving only brief interludes to contemplate the stars. All we can do, every now and again, is to stop for a moment and look….Morning has broken and we are here…breathing the air…admiring the slant sun as refracts through…windows and dances…calling us to attention, calling us homeward. (“Love and Death” adapted from a sermon delivered at All Souls Unitarian Church, New York, Feb. 3, 2008. Printed in The World, Summer 2008)

Calling us to attention. That work of paying attention to the world and our actions in this world has another name: What the ancients called Atonement. At-one-ment with creation, with the creator if you will, with the spirit, heaven on earth. My colleague Susan Lamar, and our own Diane Hayden’s cousin wrote:

“Atonement is some of the hardest work there is. It happens exactly at the intersection of individual and community. The liturgical act of placing sins (before God, reminds us of how fragile and human we are) …. And yet because it is a liturgical act—part of the work of all the people, collectively—it also, like all good liturgical acts, is a reminder that we are not alone in our need. We all make mistakes. We all fall down.

“We all bear responsibility for creating a community, nation and world that listens and hears and looks and sees. It is an act of visioning, first, an act of seeing in our mind’s eyes a promised land, a beloved community, a world made whole.

And then it is an act of the will—the will to keep trying, even when we stumble and fall, and when it seems just too hard to get back up again. It is an act of the will to see through another’s eyes. …. Communities have to do it collectively. But the work can only really happen collectively if it first happens in the hearts of individuals. In my heart, and your heart.” (From QUEST 2008).

Will the circle be unbroken? The question is rather will the circle be mended? Behind me on the memorial wall outside is a slightly broken circle that represents the on-going work before us. I believe we will heal the wounds of our time, and meet our ancestors in the spirit of love and reconciliation, long after we have been gone, our whole lives, will bring a heaven to earth, by and by Lord, by and by. Amen.

Where On Earth is Heaven?

April 16, 2009

It’s a lesson in geography really. I might have just as easily titled this “Where in Space Is Heaven?” But something was pulling at me to ask the question this way instead. Because if we can’t find it around here in this first place, then it wasn’t very useful.

Where is heaven – indeed, what is heaven? It depends a great deal on where you look for it. Heaven is clearly not a physical space despite the National Enquirer’s claim that astronomers have located heaven about seven billion light years from here, which, if you think about it, makes the concept of heaven pretty dated at best! I think we can do better than that. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that heaven was a paradise, set aside but very much on Earth. Eden, from which we get our biblical Eden, was always to the East, near the “navel of the world” from which all waters flowed. In fact, the Garden of Eden story in the Hebrew Scriptures is a re-telling of the ancient myth. Heaven was not yet a place where our souls came to rest, but to which we yearned to return. Heaven for the ancients was a place of abundance, an idea which stretches down to Islamic ideas of heaven today. In the European Middle Ages, Heaven was a place wherein you could eat until you burst, a fitting image in a time of plagues and starvation.

Regardless of the myth, heaven, at least in Western mythology, is a place of rest, abundance and light. And, since the Christian church adopted the Zoroastrian idea, heaven was the complete opposite of hell. Of course, there has been much more written about hell (see Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost to see how heaven is a boring second to the hot place). But there are other views as well: in Hinduism, heaven is the state of unity with the divine, Brahma, which also happens to be the same as the entire universe. According to Hindu thought, you are already sitting in heaven and you didn’t even notice it! Buddhists don’t believe in heaven as a place –in fact, given that all life is energy in motion amid a series of casual events, they don’t really even believe that earth is real – but the closest they do come is the concept of Nirvana, or cessation from all being. Indeed, many of my generation, impaired as my teenagers think I am, could never understand how the rock group “Nirvana,” who sang of despair and end the malaise of life, could be so close to the truth. It’s a long way from the nirvana of the 60s and its drug-induced idea of bliss.

The Tibetan Buddhists went into yet another direction in search of heaven, developing a complicated cosmology of heavens that our souls pass through after the many lives of the waking world. Seven heavens in fact, which is the reason seven is such a mystical number in mythology, from Judaism to New Age religion. When we say we are in seventh heaven, we really are at the top. There are still other views of heaven’s place. Up seems to be the predominant direction. (From Paradise: A History) It has only been in the last few thousand years that heaven has moved off the earth and up into the sky. But since it is uncertain to many of us what happens after we die, I decided to focus my exploration today on earth. A bit like the man who lost his keys on the street and while on his hands and knees looking for them a passerby asked, “did you lose them around here?” To which he replied, “No, but the light is better here.”

The reason I asked where on earth was heaven is because, I believe, heaven is not a place, but a state of being which humanity is a part. There are many views on heaven. One of the most important articles of faith for a fundamentalist is that this world, this stained, broken, hurricane and war ravaged world is worth nothing. It is only the afterlife that really matters. We here at PUC, dedicated to creating a compassionate community, believe this world is what matters most.

In the West, up until the renaissance, our view of heaven was quite literal. Heaven is the home of God and his angels, and far above this earth; an earth separated into threes by creation: up, middle and down. We believed that our earth was the center of the universe, a primordial battleground between the good above us and the evil below. There are no fewer than 113 references to the place of heaven in Hebrew and Christian bibles.

With Copernicus’s discovery of elliptical orbits, we not only learned we were not the center of anything, but that the gods don’t live there anymore. Just as science has made hell less of a burning issue, so too did it deflate our lofty expectations of heaven above us.

Still, most of us expect something happens to us when we die. I have seen enough evidence, a great deal first hand, to be convinced that there is an afterlife. But rather than speculate on that, let me explore instead how heaven can be made in us. As my colleague John Corrado put it in our opening reading, we UUs are less concerned with how to get into heaven, than how to get a bit of heaven into us. (see John Corrado, QUEST, 1995)

To ask where heaven is might be to look through the wrong lens. In a rational, physical sense, heaven doesn’t exist. You simply can’t take a myth like heaven and make it physically real. You see, by even asking, “Where is heaven?”, we buy into a dualistic view of the universe which I believe is a trap to keep us arguing with each other about reality. Many of us were taught in organized religion that God is apart from us; distant, powerful, and all knowing. We were taught that we are human down here, and God is up there. And, if God is not us, we reason, God can only be seen as out there away from us. But what if God, or whatever you name the ultimate in life, is not out there, but in here; in each of us? Where then would the abode of the divine be?

What we need is not a telescope, but a spiritual microscope. Every love song ever written is about heaven on earth. That feeling, that joy, that ecstasy that is heaven. And that is why I am suggesting we start looking and working towards a heaven on earth and not just waiting for the rest of the story when we die. That is why I am suggesting that we here are about building a church that is a model of what the world could be. It was Emmanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, who suggested that without a heaven there is little reason to have a morality. I think he meant it as more of goal to reach than a reward to withhold. But nothing is to stop us from trying to create heaven on earth. And with just two weeks until the inauguration of President Obama, we have a lot to look forward to. We have a world still to build. Yes we can!

To find heaven, to make heaven, is a story of completion for what is already in all of us. And you know what? It is as story as old as time. Let me pick it up from what we do know. Starting with the story of Adam and Eve. We all know it. Adam –which means earthling- is completed on one side by Eve – which means completion – in the Garden of Eden, that is, heaven on earth. (A little aside here: according to some Mesopotamian myths, Adam was married before to the Goddess of Life, Lillith, “stiff necked”, feminist that she was; Adam, in effect, divorced her and asked God to send him a new mate, someone more compliant. Since then fundamentalists speak of the myth of Lillith as demonic, while feminists hail her as the original woman) Anyway, back to Eden: You will all remember from your Bible study (what? No bible study? We’ll have to do something about that) that there are two trees in the garden which they are forbidden by the God to eat from. One is the tree of life and the other the tree of knowledge. The serpent, representing eternal life and that most unlike humanity, tempts them into eating the fruit on the tree of knowledge.

Religion has only pulled heaven and earth farther apart. Christianity has made this story about disobedience. But is it? Did we want to live like children, always obedient to God, never conscious of our diversity or free to make our own choices? What kind of heaven would that be? Western religion has demonized the entire earth, and women as the feminine beings of that earth with this fairyland kind of heaven. If that is what we have to look forward to when we die? I say ‘no thanks’.

Our task is to reclaim the rightful union of heaven and earth as the Hebrews once promised. To bring together the respect of one another as all part of creation. Heaven is on earth in how we make it so. How do we make it so?

We listen. We listen for what is the same between us, not just what is different. When the Zen master asked the student to listen during meditation, the student replied that all he heard was silence. “No,” said the master, “silence only holds us, heaven is in what the silence holds.” And with that the student heard more than silence alone, chickens, and children and bells and laughter and crying. “This then is what we are” said the master.

We believe. I am asking you to believe that you are the stuff of stars, the children of an unknown god, the beings of the same quilt. We believe that in our commonality we are divine. “We don’t see angels,” proclaimed Wordsworth, “we see them in what we do.”

And finally we do. By pledging our selves to one another and to our children, we make a heaven on earth. It’s no small thing to do but it can be done. This church exists as a little bit of heaven on earth. Right here and right now. You might think that it’s about you and what you need, but it is much more than that. Every week someone amongst us reaches out to someone in need here. Every week a card is sent and a phone call is made. Our groups help us to see how we matter to one another and in caring we affirm that we are more the same as we are different. Did you know that there is absolutely no genetic difference between so called human races? Did you know that calling them races is in fact scientifically inaccurate? There really is only one race. The human race. We call it race, our population differences; but deep down we are all created from the same stuff. Literally.

Three and half years ago I answered your call to lead you into a bold future. We have accomplished much in our ministry together. We are responsive to the needs of our people, we are widely known in the community for our good work, and we are example to other UU congregations. This year we will catch our breath and deepen our community together, taking to heart the work of making a “little heaven on earth” right here at PUC. This year I want our community to appreciate our gifts and strengths, heal the broken and create an even more compassionate community, so that when this economic downturn is over, we are ready to move to the next phase of our dream together.

Your Board of Trustees, on the recommendation of our UUA consultant Dave Rickard, will be chartering a “Strategic Planning Group” to help appreciate our gifts, clarify our vision and set our goals for the coming five years. This is an ideal year to do this important work. If you are interested in being part of this group please talk to a Board Member or our Nominating and Recruitment Committee. In the months and years ahead I dream you here will make this church a bit of that heaven on earth. A bit of a place where our free will is exercised to recognize and celebrate what is the same. And in that making become a little more like God every day. Creator and created. Ultimately we are all on earth together. And that is the kind of heaven I want to be in now.

May our blessings endure and our struggles