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Sermons: “Creating Our Own Heavens

Jean Paul Sartre demonstrated very clearly in his play No Exit that people can and do create their own hells. But it is the other end of the spectrum that I'd like to dwell in and on this morning, and always.

For I believe that we people have the ability to create heavens as well as hells. The heavens I'm talking about can be either states of mind or situations outside of ourselves, or they can be both. The heavens I'm talking about are here on earth—not someplace up above.

And not expecting perfection is probably the first requisite for creating heaven. Those of us who seek and expect perfection are always disappointed. And frequently—and sometimes constantly—we are in hell. This is not to say that we shouldn't have some standards for ourselves and for what we find acceptable in, from, and for others. But it is to say that our standards should be feasible. And perfection just plain isn't.

Feasible is a word and a standard that I use more and more. My American Heritage dictionary says it means "capable of being accomplished or brought about." And although day and night dreams may be filled with perfection, heaven isn't.

For some of us, heaven can occur when we're engaged in the excessive accumulation and or consumption of money, of food, of whatever it is that we like and desire. Yet my experience and my knowledge of the experiences of others leads me to believe that an excess of anything—even seemingly good things—Brings about its own problems and takes us out of heaven very quickly. Heaven is more likely to be reached, and to be sustained for at least a while, through balance.

Romantic love is heavenly. Although loving someone may be painful, the feeling of romantic love is not. It's as close to heaven as many of us get. And although it may appear lopsided from many vantage points, it does represent a balance—chemical, emotional, what-have-you—between the people involved. It does not ask for perfection—although I admit that it doesn't usually even notice the imperfections. And, at least to the participants, it appears to be feasible.

Maternal and paternal love have heavenly aspects, too. But these are often cut short by demands put on the parents and their children.

Balance is an extremely important factor in achieving a heavenly state. Except for the masochists among us, feeling great pain, great hunger, great deprivation, great pressure, etc., does not lead us to feel that we're in heaven. And I believe that heaven was envisioned as a place outside of ourselves, and in a place off the earth, because people sought desperately to escape from the pain and the suffering of their earthly existences.

When "off-the-earth" heavens were first envisioned, people had much less ability to control environmental conditions and human health than we have now. This is not to say that we can control our fate completely, but it is to say that we do play a significant role in determining the fate of ourselves and others. We are often in a position to make lemonade out of lemons. And, gradually, I'm learning about those of you who do such a very good job of making wonderful lemonade out of some very sour lemons.

Being stoned or drunk or in some other drugged state may help us escape pain, hunger, deprivation and pressure, but I don't believe that any of us are really in heaven when we're drugged. My rationalization's that drugs—except when there is an initial imbalance in the body—introduce something into our bodies that cause us to be physiologically off-balance, and thus cause further pain and damage.

What is heaven to one person may be hell to another. An example close to home is how Marshall, my husband, and I reacted to our stay in Cinnamon Bay a year-and-a-half ago. Although hell may be too strong a word to describe Marshall's reaction to that place, heaven is not too strong to describe mine. Another close-to-home example is how I find it heavenly to listen to Morning Pro Musica, a classical music radio program, including the announcer, Robert J. Lurtsema, while Marshall, although he may find it heavenly to listen to some of the music played, finds it hellish to listen to Lurtsema non-speak. That is, Marshall can't stand Lurtsema's pauses. And while Marshall finds it heavenly to play Scrabble and to study foreign languages, I often find those pursuits hellish. But we do both love to dance.

And we people feel we're in heaven when we do the things we love to do—be they listening to and playing music, creating and/or viewing plastic art, cooking, seeing beautiful scenery, being a friend, engaging in a satisfying sexual relationship, etc. We can feel that we're in heaven when we're eating a good meal or reading a good book, flying a kite, cycling, riding, sailing, or playing on the beach and in the water. And those of us who are lucky enough to love our work can feel that we're in heaven even when we're working.

I disagree with the Tiger comic strip in a recent issue of The Boston Globe wherein, after ascertaining that his companion says her prayers, takes a bath, and brushes her teeth every night, Tiger concludes, "You got a good shot at heaven."

But I do believe that those of us who are lucky enough to be free of hunger and great pain—and I know that not all of us are so lucky—can create many heavenly moments for ourselves. We need to focus on what we value most and make time for it in our busy lives. And if our visions of heaven involve our sharing with others, we have to also take time to find the way to get them to cooperate. And, as I've already said, that may not always be possible, for one person's view of heaven is not the same as another's, but a willingness to accept imperfection, to find out what is feasible, and trying to maintain balance will probably help.

The prayer offered by Rabbi Larry Kushner many years ago at a Sudbury Town Meeting included an old Hasidic story about a kind of heaven that interests me. He told us about Moe, who died and looked for heaven.

Moe followed a stream of people into a room where long banquet tables were heaped with delicious-looking food. But the people sitting at the tables were not eating. And they looked pained and emaciated. Then Moe noticed that the people's arms were splinted and strapped so that they couldn't be bent. Their arms were out straight so that the people couldn't feed themselves. And so they went hungry.

Moe got out of that room fast. Then he followed another stream of people into another room. Here, he found long banquet tables full of food, just as he had in the first room. And he also found that the people sitting at them were not able to bend their arms either. But they looked happy and well fed. Then he noticed why. They were feeding one another. At that point, a Jewish saint came in and told Moe that he was in heaven.

So ends the story as I remember it. But I can't help wondering if Moe would have found himself in a very special kind of heaven if he had begun to feed the people in the first room.

And that leads me to the kind of heaven that is an earth on which people are not starving, a kind of heaven that is an earth on which people are not killing and torturing each other, a kind of heaven that is an earth on which people have adequate housing, medical care, education, opportunity to do meaningful work, and to have recreation and leisure, a kind of heaven that is a non-polluted earth and atmosphere.

As in the more personal realm, I do not believe that we can have a world that perfectly meets the needs of the earth's people for food, shelter, health care, decent environment, etc. But I do believe that by employing balance and feasibility and ongoing work, we can get much closer to it.

It is obvious that many people around the world live in hellish situations—some of which were created by people and some of which were created by non-human forces—that could be alleviated by the concerted actions of people. But even here in our own nation, we have many millions of children living at or below the poverty level and in other situations that stifle growth. And as a result, we've created real hells for ourselves, for our children, and for their children. For children who are deprived, educationally, nutritionally, medically, or emotionally, are not going to grow up to be cooperative and productive members of society.

Only by providing their mothers the pre-natal health care that they need, and by providing the children the food, health care, housing, enriched education, and love that each human needs to grow up emotionally and physically healthy can we escape real hell in our own country.

As state and federal budgets are being cut, we all know that our nation's housing, health-care delivery systems, schools and roads, bridges, and public transportation systems are unable to meet the needs of our people. Yet, despite fairly recent hopes that we might change this policy, we continue. By engaging in warfare across the globe, we allow a relatively small percentage of the population to reap tremendous profits while a larger and larger segment of the population lives in poverty.

The principles for creating our own heavens that I suggested earlier (maintaining balance, doing what is feasible, and knowing that we shall not reach perfection) could go a long way toward helping to create societal heavens for many of the world's people, those who live abroad as well as those who live in our own nation.

And what we affluent United States citizens would have to give up would be more than compensated for by the peace of mind and heavenly feelings we'd get by recognizing that we are each other's keepers, by recognizing, to paraphrase Jesus, that what we do for the least of the world's peoples we do for God and for ourselves, and that, as Rabbi Hillel is often quoted as having said,

"And if not now, when?"

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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