Where On Earth is Heaven?

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

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