I don’t know, of course, if what I’m going to say is true. And, I suspect it is way too simplistic. I don’t care. Here it comes anyway: We are here to do it the way it ought to be done. The Dali Lama, for instance, is doing it the way it ought to be done. A lot of other people are not. I started a list of all the people who are, and are not, doing it the way it ought to be done, but had to quit. It was too depressing. To think that we are here to do it the way it ought to be done, and then to think of all the people who are doing it the way it ought to be done, is quite disheartening. It will sit you down. With a box or two of wine. Which, I am sure, is not the way it ought to be done. But, I have not yet reached the place of the Dali Lama, and am not sure that I ever will. But, I am sure that is our work, mine and yours, to get up each morning and do it that day the way it ought to be done.
If I am right about this, three things flow from it. There is the idea of the ought to be. Where does that come from? We can imagine a world that is better than the world we live in. We can imagine better ways of doing things than the way things are done. And, we can serve our idea of the good, of the ought to be, at the expense of all that is currently good in the world, or in our own lives. We can sacrifice “this”—the world of our actual, tangible experience—for “that”—our idea of how things could be improved in that world.
Of all the things about us I like, I like this the best, that is, our capacity to give up “this” for “that.” Our capacity to sacrifice “this” world of normal, apparent, reality for “that” world of ideas and visions of how the world ought to be. Now, that’s something. And, we don’t just do it to improve our lot, or the lot of those we love. We do it to improve the lot of perfect strangers. Why should we care? It’s beautiful. Our lives are not investments that we make to serve our own interest, or the interest of those we love. They are gifts to the whole of humanity. We are capable of loving those in whom we have no personal stake whatsoever. We can live in the service of an idea that is greater than, more important to us than, our own personal good.
Jesus can leave his family, and sacrifice his life, doing the work of reforming the society of his day—and all societies of all days to come. The Buddha can leave everything in the effort to put everything on a new track. William Lloyd Garrison can spend his life in the work to free slaves. It happens all the time. People give themselves up to serve an idea of how things ought to be. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, in the service of our idea of the ought to be, all we have to work with are “Yes” and “No.” We transform the world by saying “Yes” to what must be assisted, and “No” to what must be opposed. In saying that we are here to do it the way it ought to be done, I’m saying that we are here to assist what must be assisted and oppose what must be opposed. The problem, of course, is how to know which is which. Well. Don’t expect me to make it easy for you. That’s the task of life. The work of spiritual maturity, which is the work of discernment, and perception, and wisdom. There are no shortcuts in that work. You have to guess a lot, and see what happens, and, maybe, change your mind.
We don’t know where we are better off. We might think we would be better off with the sweet young thing, or the handsome hunk, in tow. Maybe not. What do we know? We thought we would be better off with the used Toyota Camry, remember? Fooling ourselves is what we do best, remember? Shooting ourselves in the foot is what we do best, remember? Illusion is everywhere, remember?
We suffer under the illusion of the ideal life. We think if we play our cards right, and read the signs right, and, perhaps, pray diligently for guidance, we can have it. The Ideal Life. I’m here to tell you it does not exist. I’m here to tell you, no matter what the scene is, you’re going to get some pictures and miss others. There is going to be something to be dissatisfied about. Something to not like. About Nirvana. You have to trust me in this, and stop thinking you are one right move away from Ideal. Ideal exists only in the land of your happy fantasies. When you get there, you’re still going to have to make the best of it. And, you’re still not going to know what to do to take full advantage of it. You’re still going to have to take your chances. It’s going to be a lot like right now. Or, to come at it another way, the life you are living is ideal from somebody’s point of view.
So, how do you know what to do? Some things are obvious. Some things are not. With some things there is no knowing. With some things there is only doing or not doing—there is only “Yes” or “No”—and seeing what happens, and correcting what can be corrected, and redeeming what can be redeemed, and bearing the pain of what cannot be undone, or celebrating your good fortune and great wisdom in making the right call. Maybe it works out, and maybe it doesn’t. But, how long can you sit there, afraid to move? This is the third thing. We have to decide. “Yes”? Or, “No”? What’s it going to be? Nothing changes until we move.
For too long, the church has just sat there, afraid to move. Reviewing the doctrines. Re-believing the beliefs. Afraid to move. We’re just going to have to take a chance. We have to question the legitimacy of the way things are if things are ever going to be other than they are. And, we will pay a price for doing that. The status quo does not cotton to being questioned. But, we cannot just take our place in the spot provided for us and live out our lives. That is not doing it the way it ought to be done. Yet, that’s doing it exactly the way those in charge of (and benefit from) the way things are think it ought to be done. So, who says what ought to be?
We can imagine a world that is better than the world we live in. In light of which world are we going to live? We have to ask the question. What is good? Who says so? How do we know they know what they are talking about? What can we think of that might be better?
We have to make a conscious decision to live toward one thing and away from another. In light of which world are we going to live? Will we take our place and serve the status quo, or will we question the good that those who benefit from the way things are call good? We need to think about that. And, we need to know that we will not serve the same idea of good.
The best I can imagine might well be the worst you can think of. There we are. What do we do then? Where do we go from there? It all depends, don’t you know? It all depends on the agreements that hold things together. “The end doesn’t justify the means.” How’s that for an agreement? “Don’t kill anybody, ever.” How’s that for an agreement? “Honor the opposition.” How’s that for an agreement? Agreeing upon the agreements that hold things together is essential. Jesus could say, “Love your enemies,” but if your enemies just want you dead, you’re in trouble. It would be very helpful if our enemies would agree to love us back.
Where we go with different ideas of the good depends upon our understanding and embracing the idea that we aren’t here to force our way on the world, or to compel other people to do it the way we think it should be done, or to kill those who don’t do it like we do. I say that with the full knowledge that war is the most powerful force for social and cultural change the world has ever seen. And yet, we still have war. War doesn’t change war. War leaves the basic orientation of civilization untouched. If we are going to change things at the level of the heart, we are going to have to change the way we go about changing things. We’re going to have to believe in the power of an idea to transform civilization from the inside out over time. Magically. Like yeast in the dough. Salt in the soup. Seeds in the earth.
The process of change and transformation is as magical as anything I know of. I have never changed anyone’s mind by being nice and accommodating, and suggesting, here and there, that maybe they could think differently about things. And, I have never changed anyone’s mind by being in their face and calling them stupid and asking how in the world they could tie their shoes and think like they do. I have never changed anyone’s mind, and you probably have not either. Yet, minds are changed all the time. How does it happen? It’s magic.
If we want to change the world, we have to hatch an idea, live in the service of it, and let things take their course. Over time, the revolution! But, we have to live in light of the revolution here and now, every day, for the rest of our lives. That’s the power of the kingdom of God.
Jesus could envision the kingdom of radical equality, and non-violence, and peace that surpasses understanding, and live every day in light of that eventuality as a portent of things to come—setting the stage, laying the groundwork, preparing the way for the revolution, and trusting the power of his idea to change the world over time. That’s the kind of faith that moves mountains. If you are going to believe anything, believe in the power of an idea to change the world over time—and let it change you right now. And live in light of it, so as to prepare the way for the revolution.