I don’t know if there’s a heaven or a hell. I don’t know if there will ever be a second coming — or if there ever was a first. Heaven sounds lovely and makes a nice bribe. Hell sounds rather less appealing and makes a fantastic threat. The Second Coming can inspire hope but also slacking. The First Coming makes a wonderful tale worth retelling and living by, but I don’t know if it is true. I don’t know if any of it is true.
I wasn’t there; I hear the story but I’ve been taught about how stories can change in the telling, and even if I had been in the crowd at the foot of the Mount, I know too well how my memories of the sermon on it would be garbled. I’ve seen things and heard things, true. I have felt someone’s deep presence in my empty room, and heard human tongues speak holy words. But I still do not know, beyond doubt, that the One Who Is actually is, or that the Kingdom can be made real — especially when the still small voice whispering in my heart tells me to keep doubting, that it makes me very useful. So I know that I know next to nothing.
But I do know suffering, and I do know hope.
I know my suffering is dwarfed ten times over by millions, but suffering is very real. I know it in my bones and in my arms and in my soul. And hope — maddening hope, irrational hope, hope that makes us keep going when everything reasonable tells us to lie down and give up — I know that too.
So, driven by both suffering and hope, I have to do my part to help people in this terrific and terrible world. I have to hand out the dollars and serve up the soup, but I also have to speak the words I am given, including these. Sometimes the soup matters more than the words. But the words don’t get eaten. The right word can come alive, and do things I never dreamed of.
And what is that word?
Let’s forget heaven tonight. Let’s forget hell today. Let’s set aside all thought of salvation or eternity. Let us forget demons and angels and the whole troop; abandon the Torah, leave off the Gospel, lay down the Koran. For a day or an hour, we’ll forget every holy word we have ever heard in our lives. And in that hour we’ll feel the suffering around us. We’ll think of the pain of our sister, the grief of our brother. Then in hope, let’s do any thing to ease that suffering.
Tomorrow we can go back to holy writ and hierarchy. But right now, join me in forgetting everything except the pain you feel, the pain I feel, the same pain in everyone around us — that, and the hope that pushes through pain.
I say these things because I know how the story goes. The great speaker arises, the words flow forth, a new faith springs up, the fire rekindles. But the story always ends the same way. The speaker dies, the words are forgotten, or misquoted, or sabotaged, or written down (worst of all for a living word) and everything returns to normal. The people who have seen a great light go back to walking in darkness. We focus on the strata of the world — who’s on top, who’s not. We start judging. The grit and dust of daily life chokes our inner fire. We forget compassion, in the old sense of that word: we forget that everyone around us suffers as we do, and rather than suffer with we suffer alone, and leave others to suffer alone as well.
I know the story. I know the cycle. I know how it goes.
I don’t like it.
So I’m not here to talk about Heaven or Hell. I’m not going to say who’s saved or who’s damned. I do have a little to say about the One Who Made Me Write This, but all of that is guesswork and notions wrapped around a handful of truth. Mostly, I think, the One is not so interested in how we worship; the One sees all belief. This time around, I think the One wants to know how we are compassionate, and how we are hopeful. Whose suffering have we seen today? And whose hopes have we built up?
So let us forget all religion, for a little while, and be good to someone. It may not save us or redeem us or purify us. It might change the world if enough of us do it, but I’m not holding my breath nor expecting it of any of you. All I know is that for one day, there will be a little less suffering and a little more hope.
And that’s what I have to say.