Thursday, July 10, 2008

Us & Them

This is a piece of writing I shared at my birthday party on July 4, 2008.

We see examples of “us” and “them,” and examples of separation all the time, every day. Walk into any coffee shop in the city – and trust me I’ve been in a lot of them – and you’ll see people who are seemingly altogether different from the person standing in front of them in line. Some people are short; others are tall. One person is a school teacher; the other is mentally challenged. There’s white and black, Hispanic and Asian. One person is wearing a Jewish kippah; the other wears a hijab. He is straight; she is gay. One wears a suit; the other looks as if he hasn’t seen a bathtub in months.

One of the biggest things that I’ve been learning in the last couple of years is that even with all our differences, we are one with everyone around us. This makes us uncomfortable sometimes, because we would rather steer clear of those who are so obviously different than us. How many times have I crossed to the other side of the street just to avoid a homeless man begging for money? How often have we sat next to someone on the bus who wreaks of alcohol and discreetly shaken our heads as if to say “I’m glad I’m not like her.”

But what if we were able to see past the exterior and realize that underneath it all, there is a living soul that is very much like our own. Craving to live, craving to express, and longing to both give and receive love. How differently would we look upon and treat others if we started out of a profound realization of our commonalities with those we’ve up to this point simply labeled “different.”

When it comes to religion, I can think of no better purpose, no better cause for religious people to focus their energies on, besides enhancing the lives of others, than that of bringing people together and celebrating our unity in the midst of diversity.

There is a wonderful verse in the Bible that says that in light of Jesus, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one. All are accepted and God’s love is available to all. It’s a great verse, but it doesn’t quite go far enough.

Many of you know that my religious beliefs have changed over the course of the last few years. If you didn’t know, you probably sensed that when you got the invitation to this evening and saw it was being held at a Unitarian church.
I am very thankful for my upbringing in the Christian church. I grew up going to church and Sunday school on a regular basis, and in time was involved in my youth group and on music teams. I believed that in order to go to heaven when you died, you had to accept that you were a sinner, and believe that Jesus died for your sins, and ask him into your heart to be Lord and Saviour. I didn’t have much of a problem with this belief until near the end of my Bible college days, when several questions came up, such as the belief that only those who accept Jesus are saved, and that everybody else had eternal punishment coming to them.

I ultimately said goodbye to this belief, and for a few years removed myself from church altogether, but I still believed in something “More.” Gradually my concept of God changed, and I can say, along with author Howard Thurman, that: “It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem.” Our job is not to go into the world to convince those of other belief systems that ours is the right way, or that they need to become like us. The good news is that divine love is open to all, there is no “if” involved. “If” you can recite the creed in complete honesty, “if” you are a Christian, then you gain access to the love of God.” There is no “if.” My only job now is to learn to love and to be loved in return. Hell is not a place a person may go to when they die. People experience hell on a daily basis in this life, when they have lost sight of God’s love or don’t think they are worthy enough to receive it.

There is no need for separation between us and the neighbour we haven’t met, between us and the person on the other side of the world who lives in a shanty town and doesn’t have enough food or clothing. There doesn’t need to be an us and them, only a “we.” Also, there need not be a separation between ourselves and God. As Jesus was able to say that he and God were one, so we can say the same thing. We go through life asleep or unaware of our oneness with the divine, but it is there. The reason that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God is because it lives inside of us. So our job is not to bring some set of foreign doctrines to those of another faith. Our job is firstly to look inside ourselves and re-discover the goodness and love that is already there, and then to help those around us realize their unity with God.

In the last year and a half or so, I have been very fortunate to have found the Unitarian congregation, which has helped me to realize that people with widely different beliefs can come together and form a community, and also the Unity Centre, which teaches that we are one with everyone around us and we are one with God.

Finally, I think that maybe one reason why people tune religion or any talk about God out, is that religion and God are seen as being out of touch with day to day life, or are against most of the things that we enjoy doing. But as far as I’m concerned, each of us has God within us and the more we realize our own inner worth and goodness, the more we experience God. And if we are one with God, we can experience him…or her - at any time, no matter what we’re doing. While I am very glad to have found churches that teach things that I believe, you can experience God just as much when you’re planting a garden as you can while you’re praying in church, when you’re singing a hymn or raising a Heineken, when you’re listening to a sermon or having sex.

It is my hope tonight that you realize God’s love, which lives within yourself, and that we would all realize that we’re in this life together.