Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bringing Heaven to Earth

Are you going through the motions, or are you giddy with excitement to be part of a world changing, inclusive spiritual community? If you’re looking for giddy excitement, then you’ve come to the right place. If you enjoy diversity, then you’ve come to the right place. If you want to make a difference in the world, then you’ve come to the right place. If you believe that love is the heart of all traditions, and that love unites us despite our differences, then you’ve come to the right place.

I want to reflect on memory and gratitude as a path to loving service.

Memory, Gratitude and Commitment

We talk a lot about living in the present. It’s an important principle. So what is the relevance of learning from the past? Memory has its benefits and pitfalls. We all know that memory can get you in trouble. Consider this story about the challenges of memory.

An elderly couple, George and Sheila, were neighbors in a North Carolina mobile home park. He was a widower and she a widow and they had known one another for a number of years. One evening a meal was held in the park and the two found themselves at the same table, seated across from one another. As the meal progressed, George made several admiring glances at Sheila and they flirted throughout the evening. Before the night was over George gathered up his courage and asked her, ‘Sheila, will you marry me?’

After about five seconds of “careful consideration”, Sheila answered. ‘Yes. Yes, I will.’

The meal ended and, then they went to their respective caravans. Next morning, George was troubled: ‘I remember asking Sheila to marry me but did she say “yes” or did she say “no”?’ He couldn’t remember. Try as he would, he just could not recall. Not even a faint memory. So he nervously called Sheila. Firstly, he explained that he didn’t remember as well as he used to. Then he reviewed the lovely evening past. As he gained a little more courage, George inquired gingerly, ‘Sheila, when I asked if you would marry me, did you say “Yes” or did you say “No”?’

Sheila said, ‘Thank goodness you called. I remember saying I would marry someone, but have no memory of who it was.’

These two had photographic memories. They just forgot to put film in. But it all worked out for them in the end.

While there are many pitfalls to living by memory, there are some ways in which it’s important, and one of them is gratitude. The life you live is built on the efforts of others. Pause and feel the significance of that statement. It has huge implications in terms of the way you live your life. Think of reality as a giant set of broad shoulders that includes everything, I mean everything, that came before you. You are standing on them, offering you a bird’s eye view of all that led to this moment. This broad set of shoulders includes humans and non humans, things known and unknown. It includes soldiers who fought and died in wars that you agreed with and wars you disagreed with. It includes people who you respected and people you didn’t respect. They are all important.

Give thanks especially for those who came before you that you disagreed with. They kept you on your toes, and always gave you something to think about. Give thanks for religion, even if you consider yourself to be spiritual but not religious. Religion, even bad religion, created the platform for the type of inclusive spiritual community that brings together so many diverse people across so many different life experiences and traditions. Drop all your judgment about the past, and give thanks for all of it. Everything you remember either inspired you or had lessons to teach you. Everything you remember and everything beyond your memory forms the backdrop to reality as you now experience it. So give thanks for all of it.

Include and Transcend

What is our attitude to the past? Include and transcend. Include and move beyond. That’s always the nature of life. Include what came before, because if you don’t include it, don’t come to terms with it, it will come and latch on to you like a shadow or a bad smell. Embrace the past, forgive it, be grateful for it, love it into submission, until it is a fully connected part of you. At the very moment that you embrace the past, you will immediately move beyond it. It won’t seem so ominous and overbearing. Include and transcend, Gratitude and growth. Acceptance and movement.

This means that what we are creating today will also be transcended in the future. This is one of the ways that gratitude guides our actions. Let me illustrate with a story about gratitude and service.

After a monsoon rain, an old man went out and dug some holes in his garden.

“What are you doing?” his neighbor asked.

“Planting mango trees,” was the reply.

“Do you expect to eat mangoes from those trees? “

“No, I won’t live long enough for that. But others will. It occurred to me the other day that all my life I have enjoyed mangoes planted by other people. This is my way of showing them my gratitude.”

May your gratitude be active, stretching beyond yourself to include others, even future generations. Do things which have a positive effect beyond your knowledge, even beyond your lifetime. Do at least one thing today that you won’t see the benefit from, as a reminder that you build a platform for future generations – plant a slow-growing tree, deposit money into a random bank account. Be creative. Let your act be a reminder of the many unknown and unnamed acts of kindness that your life is built upon, and feel enormous gratitude for the web of life that supports your existence.

One of the criticisms of the spiritual but not religious movement (or as we call it “inclusive spirituality”) is that it’s too individualistic and disconnected from the past. It doesn’t have to be that way. Inclusive spirituality is connected to everything in the past. It’s connected to the largest story of all – the evolutionary story. It also doesn’t have to be individualistic. This connection to everything means that all thoughts, words and actions are opportunities to manifest love in the world, heaven on earth.

Critics point to the danger of egocentric spirituality. If you don’t belong to religion, they say you aren’t likely to care beyond yourself. I don’t see it that way. In an inclusive spiritual community, our care goes beyond people who share our religion. In fact it goes beyond people at all. The evolutionary story connects us by care and service to all things and all people, past and present.

As for practicing in a religious community, we get the best of both worlds. We have the freedom and self responsibility of spirituality freed from shoulds and musts and dogmas. But we also have a community to practice being human together, to get beyond our own perspective and to make a difference in the world.

Heaven to Earth

The Hebrew prophets had an amazing vision for personal and social harmony. Isaiah used the famous image of the wolf and the lamb lying together, where age has no meaning and there is no sadness and suffering. Isaiah imagined this vision being fulfilled in history. By the time of early Christianity, when this vision had not been realized, they created beliefs about an afterlife heaven where the vision would be realized. Heaven became a future time of perfection and peace because they were jaded and cynical about this life.

One of the key features of inclusive spiritual community is that heaven is not some far off carrot dangled in front of you. Heaven is a state of mind that you bring to your life right now. When the wolf and the lamb lie down together within you, and you include all aspects of yourself in an incredible whole, you are able to transcend your small self and you immediately find peace. This is heaven. This new perspective ends so much suffering and is the foundation for love and peace in the world.

An old Hasidic Jewish story describes the difference between heaven and hell.

Heaven and hell look just the same. They are both large round tables with an assorted collection of people around them. Here is the difference. In hell the people are desperately hungry, which doesn’t make sense because in the middle of the table is a huge pot of stew. The people all have spoons with very long handles which could easily reach into the pot. The problem is that because the spoon handles are so much longer than a person’s arm, they cannot bring the food to their mouths. So in hell the people are all suffering and hungry because they are trapped in their own desires.

Then there’s heaven. Heaven is just the same. It’s a large table with a similar connection of people. But these people are satisfied and content. They also have a pot of stew on the table and they also have long handles on their spoons. The difference here is that they have worked out that they can use their long spoons to feed each other. They are in heaven because they have learnt to get beyond their own desires and see themselves as connected.

When you live with the sort of gratitude that connects you all the way back, and all the way forward, you bring heaven to earth. When you realize that you are not alone, that you are connected to all people, all things and all situations, you bring heaven to earth.

When you live with gratitude, you realize that there are no endings. The effect of every action carries on into unknown futures. When you live like this, you bring heaven to earth. When you live with openness and optimism, you bring heaven to earth. When you feel like you have come to a dead end, look at the evolving universe and remind yourself that there’s always more to come. The future is unknown. You are creating it as you move forward. It can be scary to look into the future and not see anything, but it is also empowering. You are the co-creator of all that is to come.

Love is the Glue

What is the glue in an inclusive spiritual community? It’s not beliefs. You should believe what makes sense to you and question everything you hear. Traditions are not the glue. We are diverse when it comes to traditions and no one tradition is more important than any other. The glue in this community is not beliefs or tradition. It is love.

The Dalai Lama said, “All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness. The important thing is they should be part of our daily lives. “

Scientist Marcel Vogel went a step further. He said, “Love is the glue of the universe and helps keep matter in form. When I love you, I empower you to bring yourself into a state of wholeness.”

Over the next few weeks, the large cross out the front of the church will come down. It will go to a good home, to a group who want the Christian tradition to be their glue. We are part of a much broader vision. Christianity is part of it, but the cross is only one symbol amongst many that expresses the heart of this community. So we plan to put some art work on the large brick wall to be seen by people driving past. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what the art work should include. We have decided to use the image of a heart, to symbolize the love that is the glue in this community. We are exploring the possibility of including some symbols, religious and other symbols, in the heart of the heart to remind us that all traditions are valid and welcome but that love is the glue.

Love is the glue that makes us stick,

it gives us courage, through thin and through thick.

Love is the power of working as one

That connects us with all that is under the sun

Love is the yeast that helps makes us rise

To keep believing in miracles, possibilities and surprise.

Love is a force that directs our thoughts outwards

To life that is precious, beautiful and treasured.

I honor your big heart, and the heart of life. From my heart to yours, connecting us to the heart of the universe. Namaste.

For Further Reflection
How do you learn from the past without dwelling on the past?
How do you experience gratitude, even for people who have made your life difficult?
In what ways do you experience heaven on earth?

Books and Resources
Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness, Brother David Steindl-Rast
The Dalai Lama’s Book of Love and Compassion, Dalai Lama

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