Imagine This City as Heaven
Delivered to First UU San Francisco on Aug 8, 2010
During the several years between graduation from college and the time I stumbled upon Unitarian Universalism’s saving grace, I was on a spiritual quest. While studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in mathematics at the University of Minnesota, I had been a Bible study leader and a large group leader in a non-denominational evangelical Christian group. After leaving that group my senior year, I was left with some pretty big spiritual questions. Neither the theology nor the group’s way of being in the world sat right with me, yet I had only just begun to determine my own understanding of theology and of how I wanted to be in the world.
Part of my quest for a new understanding of spirit included the use of cannabis and other entheogenic substances. The word “entheogen” is similar in meaning to “hallucinogen” or “psychotropic” but implies a spiritual or religious use, contrasted to what some call “recreational use.” The use of these plants didn’t really provide me with many answers, though they did help me raise countless questions regarding matters of the spirit. I am not sure whether I would have thought of them (or focused on them as I did) had I performed my search steeped entirely in sobriety.
As a matter of caution, I must add that while the use of these substances aided me in my search, the use of awareness-altering substances can be harmful, especially under the wrong circumstances, and I do believe very strongly in preventive education and counseling. I will also add that I am very glad to be among Unitarian Universalists who understand that the United States’ war on drugs is ill-conceived and is overall more harmful than the drugs themselves. The UUA has issued several statements of conscience over the last four decades expressing that understanding clearly and showing a path to real justice.
Now, returning to my spiritual quest: One of the questions that came upon me and stuck was the one from today’s reading, from a song from a local band in Madison, Wisconsin. “What if you thought you were an angel?” Sometimes the effects of hallucinogens can include a heightened state of suggestibility. So I thought, “Yeah! What if?!” And then I came back down, and though I all too soon realized I am destined to remain in this human body, the question did stick with me. In what ways am I an angel? And when am I not? And what does it mean that I’m even thinking this?
Ever since, the question in that song has led me to a wide variety of questions, along with a few responses:
Q: Why do we tend to think of ourselves as humans with a spirit, and not the other way around?
A: Actually, since finding UU, interestingly enough, I have heard several people quote Christian writer CS Lewis on this subject. In response to the question, “Do you have a soul?” He replies, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Q: What is a good working practical definition of angel?
A1: Simply put, an angel is a messenger from the divine source. An angel can also be a messenger to the divine, or between divine beings. (And to be clear, my understanding of “divine source” here is most definitely intended to be inclusive of theologies with different understandings of an ultimate source.) I have heard it said that sometimes with prophets and all the wrestling they do with the messages they are called to deliver, their identity as messenger gets all jumbled up with that of the angel.
A2: Whenever we speak prophetically--and I believe we each are capable of it on a good day, and our bold voices are so often needed these days—when we speak prophetically, in delivering the message to whomever needs it, we become the prophet and the angel, and the spirit of the message is released to another who needs it.
A3: I also believe that these angel-messengers share the words we hear from others to our innermost divine. This is shared ministry and pastoral care of the finest order. We are given two ears and one mouth for a reason—our ears are so often needed these days. There is not much in the world more healing than being heard, especially in the spirit of Namaste—the divine spark within me greeting the divine spark within you.
Q: Many Christians talk about everlasting or eternal life, as something that happens as an afterlife. This led me to another question: What about this universe, this life we share in the here and now—is there a difference between everlasting and eternal?
A: I say yes, and the distinction is important. Everlasting is one more followed by one more, implying living forever. A million years, then a million and one, then a million and two. You get the picture, and frankly I think after a million years, there’d likely be diminishing returns. But eternal is a sense of infinite wonder that we reside within. This universe we live in, for all practical purposes, has no beginning and no end. The eternal moment of life we live within is the here that includes every part of the universe, and the now that spans from the beginning of energy and matter in the universe until the end of the universe. We are living in eternal life right now. I won’t speculate about what happens to our consciousness after our bodies pass on, but as UU’s we believe in an interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part. Life is a part of that existence, and we are born into life, we grow into complex beings capable of being part of the universe, experiencing the universe, acting on the universe, and then eventually we must depart from it. But that life which we are enjoined into is eternal, given from one generation to the next, knit together like a chain.
And a final question: What would heaven be like, in a practical sense, here, on Earth, while we our spirits are alive in these bodies?
Heaven. I will call up another set of recent Christian imagery as leverage to pry open the pearly gates. Here is St. Peter at those gates, letting the good individuals enter into a life of bliss, and the bad people… they get the trap door—damned to hell forever! Well,… actually, that’s a story told upon a story told upon a story originating with Zoroaster in ancient Persia around the time of Moses, but there is something here from this story worth preserving. Yet since I’ve painted such an ugly picture for you (and I know it’s ugly) I will casually remind you that the Universalist theology of yore says that our creator is good and would not do such a dastardly thing to its creatures.
However, if this is actually “This-City-As-Heaven” we’re talking about, we need to bring up salvation and damnation, and there is the all-important question of spirits. If we let one bad seed in, that’s a recipe for spoiling everything. Our heaven will only be as good as the spirits that thrive there.
And some spirits must be damned. For the sake of justice, those spirits must have their energy diminished or extinguished. I am NOT talking about damning or diminishing the energy of people here, I am talking about the spirits that enter in and out of people’s personalities. Some spirits pass by gently, and others set in and take hold. And when I say “spirits” here, I am also NOT talking about apparitions or exorcist-type possessions here either.
I am referring to down-to-earth spirits we all can recognize. These spirits exist not only within people, but also within organizations, and within codified laws and policies. For heaven to be real in this city, some spirits need to be damned—to be weakened and starved for energy—the spirit of fear, the spirit of animosity, the spirit of stinginess; the spirit of cynicism, the spirit of mistrust, the spirit of ennui; the spirit of anxiety, the spirit of misunderstanding, and the adversarial spirit.
In heaven, in this city, we call upon the spirit of love, and seeking to save it, we add our energy.
In heaven, in this city, we call upon the spirit of a mighty kindness, and seeking its salvation, we add our energy.
In heaven, in this city, we call upon the spirit of realistic confidence, and seeking to salvage it, we add energy.
We call upon the spirit of beneficence, and seeking to save it, we add energy.
We call upon the spirit of enthusiasm, and seeking to save it, we add our energy.
We call upon the spirit of calm assurance, and we add our energy.
We call upon the spirit of samadhically clear perception, and we add our energy.
In heaven, in this city, we call upon the spirit of cooperative harmony and amiable rapport, and seeking its salvation, we add our energy.
Seeking the salvation of this city and of ourselves, we know these spirits must thrive. Fear and insecurity will have no place in heaven, and they should have no place here in San Francisco either.
I’ve been talking about this city as heaven. But I think you know how this can scale. The sixth UU principle talks about one world community, with peace, justice, and liberty for all. These spirits need to thrive in the world at large. These spirits need to thrive in this congregation of course—love, a mighty kindness, confidence, enthusiasm, assurance, clear perception, and cooperation.
And for a community or a world to attain a condition, that will be the case when the hearts of the people attain that condition, because the world (at least the human-centered social world) is made up of people. It’s been noted before, that as Unitarian Universalists, we are less about getting people into heaven than about getting heaven into people. So each of those good spirits--get them in you, and let them catch fire. As for the spirits of fear, animosity, cynicism and the rest, I ask that you not allow them a home in your person. And as ministers are often preaching to themselves as well, I include myself in that request.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have the capacity to make these changes in ourselves and our communities. While other religions are waiting for the return of their messiahs or for signs of the end of the age, we are getting busy building heaven, and turning the corner into that next age the others all are waiting on. And we need those in other religions to join with us. If we turn on all those spirits, I think our light will be bright enough to attract them. I think it will also attract those who have given up on spiritual matters, whose spirits are dusty or under-exercised. It will attract those who go to the church of the Sunday morning paper with coffee, to feel again the importance of coming together in community.
And I think this heaven needs to be concrete. Like a solid rainbow. Those good spirits--given energy--will bring a monumental paradigm shift.
In heaven, in this city, the energy we pour into the spirit of cooperative harmony will call people out of the individual boxes of isolation and into community, to share words of mighty kindness together.
In heaven, in this city, the spirit of compassion—zealously kindled—will call us away from a system of class oppression, so that all have physical and economic security and none are left behind to live in the streets, or to wonder where the necessities of life will come from.
In heaven, in this city, our energized confidence will restore our faith in that which we believe has capacity for good.
In heaven, in this city, our clear vision will call us to create a sustainable way of life for the sake of future generations.
And finally, in heaven, in this city, we will set the spirit of love alight and stand in the midst of it. The spirit of that love will stand forever: dynamic, indefatigable, and unwavering.
May it be so.
agape to all,