Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.
People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can't
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.
Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People wont even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.
Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.
~ William Stafford ~
A Unitarian died, and was off on ‘the great journey’ to what lies beyond. He came to a crossroad in the lane, with three directional signs. One said, ‘This Way To Heaven.’ Another said, ‘This Way to hell.’ And the third said, ‘This Way To A Discussion About Heaven and Hell.’ The Unitarian did not hesitate a moment as he headed cheerfully off to the discussion.
Some of us believe in an afterlife. Others don’t. Some believe in a heaven. Others don’t. Most of us don’t believe in a place called hell where we can be sent for eternal punishment after death.
But most of us recognize that we can find heaven and hell right around us in this life. A story from the Zen Buddhist tradition:
A proud samurai went to a Zen master and asked him what Heaven and Hell were. The master
replied with disdain, "You are no more than a worthless cockroach. I will not waste my time with
such as person."
The samurai was so enraged he drew his sword from its scabbard and raced towards the
master, roaring, "I will kill you for such disrespect!"
The Zen master looked sharply up at the samurai and pointed directly at him, stopping him in his
tracks as he said "That is Hell."
Shocked at the sudden knowledge of a raging hell, the samurai stopped, shaking with the
punctured rage. The Zen master sat quietly as he slowly calmed, put away his sword and
regained his noble composure. He bowed to the master and thanked him for the enlightenment
and his newfound awareness.
"And that," said the master, "is Heaven."’
Violence, pain, disregard for life, hatred, bitterness, cruelty… The qualities of hell are too often with us in our daily lives. And yet, when we look around for it, we can also detect the presence of heaven around us.
In gratitude and reconciliation, as in the story of the Zen master and the samurai, we feel the presence of heaven. We can find, as William Stafford wrote, ‘pieces of Heaven left lying around When there is unselfish kindness and compassion among us, when understanding overcomes mistrust and suspicion, when we see the tender innocence of a baby or the unexpected beauty of a wild flower, there is heaven.
We come together here as a congregation for many reasons. It is not the comfort of the seating in this place that brings us here, and although the cakes are usually very nice, it’s more than that.
To varying extents, each of us is on our own individual journey toward a personal vision of truth and a sense of harmony with existence. This is the individual spiritual quest, and it is an essential and important part of what we can hope to gain through our involvement here.
But we also come here in the hope that we can create a bit of heaven on earth. Whether there is or is not an afterlife, this is the life we live now. This is the world we live in and it is the world in which the generations to come will live. For ourselves – for our descendants – and for one another – we know the importance of creating that more heavenly world here.
There is a song that was popular when I was a teenager. It’s called Heaven, by the Talking Heads. The refrain is:
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens”
When life gets crazy and problems are coming at me from all sides, I can begin to crave a place where nothing ever happens. When every phone call or email or text message brings another chore or another challenge, I long for a place where nothing ever happens. When I learn about an illness of a relative or member of the congregation, I wish for a place where nothing ever happens.
But if heaven is a place where nothing ever happens; I’ll take the discussion about heaven and hell instead.
The feeling of satisfaction and joy we long for is connected with growth and change. For me, at least, tranquillity does not bring satisfaction. Lying on a sun-drenched beach is something I can take for a few minutes and then I need to do something again. My life takes on meaning and purpose from something more. It is in the learning and the growing and the movement that I feel contentment and joy.
We are an unusual congregation and an unusual religious movement because we go out of our way to welcome and even to seek diversity. Homogeneity of belief, age, class, and race is the norm for most congregations in this country and elsewhere. And certainly, there is less disagreement when there is more similarity among members. But, as Doug Floyd put it, “You don't get harmony when everybody sings the same note.”
Music is made more appealing by the combining different tones and qualities of sound. The tastes that make food appealing come from contrasts: crunchy and smooth, sour and sweet, hot and cold. Our congregational life is made appealing and interesting because of our contrasts and our differences. Even if, at times, these differences can be uncomfortable.
Another joke about Unitarians has a kernel of this truth to it:
“A Unitarian died, and to his surprise discovered that there was indeed an afterlife. The angel in charge of these things told him, "Because you were an unbeliever and a doubter and a skeptic, you will be sent to Hell for all eternity -- which, in your case, consists of a place where no one will disagree with you ever again!"”
While Unitarians sometimes get an unfair reputation as being disagreeable, the truth is that the differences among us can be sustaining and enlivening. As writer Walter Lippmann described, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
If heaven is not the place where nothing ever happens, what is the happy state that we would wish to bring about?
Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke often of “Beloved Community.” He said this in 1957:
“Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ […] is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. [L]ove -- which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution […].”
In the facing of differences with goodwill, there is the hope of creating that happy state that King called the beloved community.
It is not a place without change or difference, but a way of being in relationship where difference fuels not suspicion and hatred, but understanding, learning, and growth.
David Hume claimed that “Truth springs from argument amongst friends.” And the word to emphasize in that sentence is ‘friends.’ Conflict without deep mutual regard leads many places and few of them are good. Conflict in an environment of trust and understanding makes us fuller, more whole human beings.
Rabbi Yitzchak of our story changed the innkeeper’s perspective not through quiet advice, but through the experience of conflict. It was a risky strategy in a charged atmosphere. But our perspectives on the world, built through long years of difficult experience, do not change easily. Sometimes, the only way they will open is through the experience of discomfort and conflict.
To create the beloved community then, our goal must be to be in relationship together in ways that allow our differences to fuel growth, knowledge, understanding, and our individual journeys toward truth and goodness. When differences become disagreements, when diversity changes to discord, it is not easy. The temptation is to feel “act with respect? You first!” But love is the only way to respond to conflict without destroying relationships and even the community itself.
Is it possible to respond to conflict with love?
Consider the Babemba tribe of South Africa. Jack Kornfield writes that when a member of this community acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he or she is taken to the center of the village. All work ceases and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused.
Then the tribe bombards the rejected person, not with accusations or insults, but with affirmations! One at a time, friends and family enumerate all the good the individual has done. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with some detail and accuracy is recounted. All of their positive attributes, strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. Finally, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the offender is welcomed back into the tribe.
Let us work toward the beloved community of our dreams. The journey calls upon us to treat one another with respect, to struggle to understand other perspectives, and to remember at all times the worth and dignity within each of us.
Let us move forward on the path.
May it be so.