Heaven on Earth

“Heaven, is a place… a place where nothing…nothing ever happens.”  Anyone else remember that song? I think it was “The Talking Heads” What had me thinking about heaven was the prediction of the Rapture that was made in May of 2011.  God’s chosen people were all supposed to be whisked off to heaven. Folks on the news were talking about it.  There were some people who took it seriously and most who thought it was kind of just another crazy end of the world prediction.  I remember that morning, the morning when we were all supposed to be taken up.  I was in a retreat center up here in Alaska.  I woke up that morning to look over the water at breath taking mountains and a soaring eagle. I remember thinking that I sure felt like I was in heaven.  But as a Universalist, I expected it to be a lot more crowded.

This experience got me thinking of the Unitarian Universalist theology about heaven.  Now before you panic, I am not going to give you a definitive answer about what you need to believe about the after life. What happens after we die is going to be as much a surprise for me as for anyone.  Of course you might know the old joke about where Unitarians go after we die.  We don’t go to heaven. We go to a book discussion group about heaven.  UUs have a well deserved reputation as folks who would rather theorize about paradise than experience it.  My perspective about what happens after we die has always been kind of a, “I’ll see when I get there” kind of approach.

There is something in our Unitarian Universalist legacy and even in our name that does give us a great big hint about our liberal theology about Heaven.  It is the term “Universalist”.  Going back to the 2nd century, the term Universalist has meant those who believe in universal salvation.  Whatever heaven there is, we all get to go.  There is none of this “some folks go here while other folks go there”.  Whatever happens, it happens the same to all of us because, as I like to put it, God doesn’t play favorites.  No one is left behind. Our liberal message has always been that no one, no matter who they are, has to fear going to hell. The great Universalist preacher of the 1700’s, John Murray, used to encourage lay preacher to, “Give them not Hell, but hope and courage”. I think this is one of the most affirming tenets of our faith and one that I think really helps define us.  We tend to believe that we all the same experience after we die, whatever positive afterlife there might or might not be, because we tend to believe that, at the most basic level, we are all the same.  We all have inherent worth and dignity.  We all matter.  And if there is a God, it is a God who care for everyone the same amount. No one is outside of the grace.  How great is this gift our theology brings – no one has to fear going to hell even if we do belief in God.  Fear of hell is just not what we are about at the most basic level.  But… we still have our book discussion group…  and we have the issues about the idea of heaven.

What is heaven anyway?  I don’t know about you but that whole “streets paved with Gold” thing doesn’t really appeal to me but clearly it works for some. Heaven has been called “the promised land” and the “happy hunting ground” and “going to live with Jesus” and the “Kingdom of God”.  It conjures up the image of whatever seems most glorious and comfortable to those who seek it.  It is like the best place you want to be – unending freedom for the American slaves singing in the spirituals or being at home with their heavenly Father for those who might feel a deep desire for comfort and love.  At my father’s memorial service, my brother said that heaven is the place where, when you arrive, all the dogs you have ever loved come running to greet you.

The Vikings believed they would be carried away by warrior maidens to the land of Valhalla if they fell in battle.  The Buddhists believe in reincarnation.  But it is not that you, the you who you are now, that lives again.  It is the energy in your spirit that lives over and over until you have learned all you need to learn.  The analogy I heard was it is like lighting one candle with another and then blowing the first candle out.  It is not the same flame, but it was taken from the same energy.  The Buddhists say that when your soul is ready, it will choose to go to Nirvana, where your soul can be at peace.

Among the Zen practitioners, there is a really lovely prayer you read to people as their kind of last rites. You see, their belief is that after death the soul hangs around for several days and does a bit of reflection and settling in.  It is believed that your soul decides if it is ready for Nirvana or if you need to go have another life, to learn some unlearned lessons.  It is not a supernatural being who decides the fate of your soul, but it is a personal decision.  So this is a portion of the prayer read at the time of clinical death.

Like lightning appears the luminescent splendor the Great Dharmakaya, encompasses you in its radiance on all sides, thrilling through your entire being.  Submit to its embrace, for it is immaculacy itself.  Feelings of unworthiness may arise.  Have no fear.  You need not flee because of your past actions.  Do not judge yourself now, within the very Source of Truth, for here there is no judgment.

The concept of Heaven, like so many other concepts in religion, is often used as metaphor and not something to be taken to literally.  Sometimes is kind of a shallow metaphor, like “Oh that chocolate cake is just heavenly”.   But there is also talk of heaven that is much more substantial.  The famous social reformer, Jesus of Nazareth, is often quoted in the Christian scriptures speaking of “The Kingdom of Heaven”.  Some folks, who think literally and within a modern language context, think of this as meaning an afterlife.  They hear this phrase and think of pearly gates with God on the inside.  But I and many modern religious scholars do not think this is what Jesus was talking about at all.  Here is another perspective on that phrase.  Jesus lived in a time and place where his homeland had been conquered by the Romans. Suffice it to say these were tough times for the Jews. The Romans, who had no respect for the Jewish God or the Jewish people, made their own rules for the land with little regard those they had conquered and kept at the bottom of the economic system.  Jesus looked forward to the day when it would not be the Kingdom of Rome that they had to live in, but a kingdom where love and fairness was the foundation of the state. The land would have God’s laws and not the laws of Caesar.  So you might think of “The Kingdom of Heaven” being Jesus’ way of saying, “The time we look forward to when our society is no longer messed up and we live can in peace and prosperity.”

If you look in the Gospels you will find Jesus often describing a just society and beginning a parable by describing the Kingdom of Heaven.  Like when he said “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  It is small but can grow into great bushes”  Jesus said that children, in their joy and humility, are an example of who it is in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus also warns that the wealthy have little place in the Kingdom of Heaven but the poor and peaceful will be blessed there. So all those warnings that “The Kingdom of God is at hand” could be interpreted as saying, “Better times are coming if we can bring them into being”.

The well known Unitarian Universalist Minister, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, said this in an article in the Huffington Post.  She said, “Unitarian Universalist theology is of this world, not of the next. Jesus, in fact, taught that the Realm of God is within and, contrary to most Christian practice, his teachings were centered on relationship, not salvation. Unitarian Universalists do not emphasize an afterlife. For one reason, we simply don’t know anything about it. No one as yet has come back to report. But we do know about suffering and injustice on this earth, and so we try to create the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, with real people.”

Marilyn said it very well, but she didn’t originate the idea.  The idea of creating heaven on earth has been the charge of Unitarians and Universalists for a long time.   The classic Universalists preachers said that we humans did indeed suffer the pains of hell and the joy of heaven, based on our behaviors.  But it was in this lifetime.  If we lied and cheated and treated people badly, we would suffer the natural consequences in this life of being cut off from people and miss out on loving and trusting relationships.  But if we lived well, helping others and living a life of compassion, we experienced the joys of love and community and the chance to live in a better world.   So you created your own hell or heaven on earth and lived in the land of your making here in this life on earth.

The Universalist theologian of the 1930’s, Clarence Skinner, wrote and preached extensively on our duty as liberal religious people to create heaven on earth.  In his book, The Social Implications of Universalism he wrote,  “how to transform this whole earth into the Kingdom of Heaven – that’s the primal question”.  Skinner was quite the preacher and he said that Universalism is the cosmic religious that is “as lofty as the love of God and as ample as the needs of man” and that our faith will help us transform the world.  He went on to say that modern religion must “glorify, spiritualize, and sanctify the world.  It must speed those readjustments which will make life here and now justify our hopes.  It must no longer invite men to the kingdom but, in the words of Jesus, we must invite the kingdom to come to us….Therefore let us, with mailed fist, smash the injustices , the tyrannies, the sins which imprison us in the dark….  Those who have faith in the world are the ones upon whom rests the tremendous responsibility of redeeming the world.”

Wow. Skinner had kind of an old preacher way of speaking but I think he was right.  Our liberal faith, with our belief in the importance of this world and our belief in the positive potential of human beings, can be a major force and inspiration for helping us turn our society into a better place for us all to live in. As our faith has evolved to include more and more voices, the call for people to improve the world has not been silenced.  The humanist manifesto, it the 15th article, tells it to us this way “We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.”

And still there is a lot that needs to done in order to create heaven on earth.  Quite a lot.  We can share.  If we look around the world, we see that people are still going without basic necessities.  Every day, around the world, 22 thousand children die unnecessary deaths.  They die of things like malnutrition, dehydration from drinking contaminated water, or from simple illness our children don’t have to worry about. The mothers who watch their babies die because they don’t have enough food are not bad people who created this hell they live in.   But they also have limited resources with which to change their situation.  But we can help.  By supporting programs like UNICEF we can help bring food and clean water and basic medical care to children who so desperately need them.  We can make the lives of some families feel a lot less hellish by providing some pretty simple monetary donations.

We can volunteer. It might be at the local food bank or the hospice.  It might be at the senior center or the library or the animal shelter.  You can work with local agencies that are working to make the world a better place.  Even a couple of hours a month can not only help these local angels to do their good work in our community but can help you feel like you are part of the solution rather than a powerless observer of the problem.  I believe that feeling like a powerless observer of the ills of society is soul killing.  It can make us just shake our heads and say, “why bother”.  Heaven on earth is far away when no one feels like bothering to help.  When we join with others to be part of the solution, we have more optimism about how things just might be better for some of the folks you are helping.  It feels good to bring about some heaven on earth.  It empowers us to do more. And that is how things get done.  They get done when we work together and when we keep at it for a long time.

And here is a simple one.  Or at least it sounds simple.  We can love each other.  We can treat each other well on a daily basis in our real lives.  Be nice to the lady at the grocery store who accidently runs into you with her cart.  Have compassion for people if they are having a bad day, rather than being crabby right back at them.  Give a warm thank you to someone who is just doing their job in helping you, like a bus driver or a bank teller or a waitress.  Step it up from there.  If you know someone who is grieving the death of a loved one, ask them over for coffee and let them tell you stories about the person they have lost.  If you know someone who is caring for a family member with a chronic illness, go over to their house spend a few hours doing the care so the usual caregiver can have a break.  If you are in recovery from addiction and feeling strong these days, reach out and help someone you know who is using.  Offer to take them to a meeting.  Show them there is hope on the other side of this struggle.  If you are in a terrible situation yourself, whether it be from exhaustion or fear or whatever and others are offering to help you, let them help you.  Let them love you.  Sometimes this is hardest of all.

When I was in theology school, I heard this story from one of my professors.  It, like this sermon, is about heaven.  The story begins as a man was being given a tour of heaven and hell.  They begin in hell where he sees hundreds of hungry people in a room full of banquet tables.  The banquet tables were filled with delicious food, with amazing aromas, and all the people have spoons.  The spoons have long handles, just too long so the people in hell could not feed themselves – they could not get the food into their mouths.  So they were eternally tortured by their hunger in a room full of delicious food.  The man on the tour asked about heaven. The tour guide said that heaven was much more pleasant.  The room looked a lot like this one but everyone there was very happy at their banquet.   The man asked, “in heaven do they have shorter spoons?”  The tour guide said, “No, the spoons are the same and the food is the same.  But in heaven, they feed each other”.

It is so often said that Unitarian Universalism is all about this life, not seeking after some future reward in the afterlife.  We aren’t just marking time until after we die, when the good stuff starts.  We are called on to create a heaven on earth.  Here with our lives and with our own deeds.  And, like the people with the longs spoons, we don’t create it for ourselves.  We create heaven on earth for all to experience. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call on us to work toward a world of peace, liberty, and justice for all.  If we can do that, we can fulfill the promise of our Universalist ancestors and heaven can truly be a reality everyone.

May it be so.