I was walking down the hall of my local YMCA the other day, when I heard a man say to someone, “My mother is no longer here.”
My heart went out to him, knowing the pain of having one’s mother die. But then he said, “I know where she is. She’s in hell. She’s in hell with her brother. They’re both sitting by the lake of fire.”
My heart felt stabbed, and I almost ran to get away.
Then — not to my credit — I moved immediately to self-righteous judgmentalism, although I would not have called it that at the time. To myself, I said things like, “Who on earth could say such a thing? What kind of theology consigns his own mother (and uncle) to eternal flames of damnation?” In my negative judgment of him, I deemed him fully “other,” someone in no way like me. Not to mention that his theology was just wrong.
I carried this forth with me, narrowing my heart righteously.
Then a couple of things happened. One was a gospel worship service at the Monterey Jazz Bash By the Bay, conducted by a Christian jazz pianist. She kept bringing us back to our religious responsibility to the world, to our fellow humans, to bring compassion and light into all parts of our life. We sang, “This Little Light of Mine” over and over. I thought of how I had not brought light to any part of the situation I observed at the YMCA, nor in my own soul thereafter.
The other heart helper was an Osher Institute class on the 13th-century Persian Sufi (mystical Islam) poet, Rumi. There I was reminded of his joyful opening of the heart, of his acceptance of others and of what is — of the futility of judgment. Rumi was a mystic, and he said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” The river of joy moving in his soul bound people together in their common humanity, in their longing for the all-embracing Love that was Rumi’s sense of God.
Rumi has a story about Moses and the Shepherd, and it reminded me so deeply that I had not been feeling from my soul in judging the poor man at the Y. In the story, Moses heaps judgment upon the head of a God-loving shepherd, who praises God in an intensely personal way. Moses lectures pretentiously, telling the shepherd that calling God must be done in a certain way.
Well, God steps right in, and he lectures Moses most severely. God professes a “generous tenderness” toward all, and tells Moses that worship is not to be ranked. He asks him the terrible question, “Did you come to unite or to sever?”
Am I here to connect or to separate? As uncomfortable as I am with the YMCA man’s statement, can I not find compassion in my heart for him? How terribly he must have been hurt by his mother and uncle to will them to eternal torture. What if I had just stopped for a moment, opened my heart to the pain behind the words, and felt the love that can arise when we genuinely realize that we are all fallible humans together, all trying our best to find the river of joy that can flow in our souls?
A 21st-century African American Christian. A 13th-century Persian Muslim. I am grateful for their reminders, for their joyous teaching and example, pulling me out of my Moses-esque rigidity and self-righteous judgment. I hope I have learned a lesson that will let me practice my faith in more openness and acceptance, doing all I can to bring together, not to tear apart.
Rev. Elizabeth Greene is Minister Emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.