Judge not

My cousin’s birthday is tomorrow. She won’t be around to celebrate it, because she died in a car accident in 2001 at the tender age of 25. Her father called my mother today and sobbed on the telephone as he remembered. Even 13 years later, the wounds haven’t healed.

I remember Tammy’s funeral. People wept and talked in hushed tones as expected, but this one felt much different from other memorials. Most were quite obvious in their belief that Tammy didn’t go to heaven. Some were so convinced of this they dared to say it out loud. You see, Tammy was reared in a strict Pentecostal home, and she wasn’t living according to those standards the morning she wrecked on an ice-covered road.

Years later another young person I knew passed away. Like Tammy, they had left the faith of their childhood and weren’t living what you might call a “righteous” life. This time, however, things were much different. The same people who judged Tammy clung to hope that this particular person had gotten right with God in the final moments of their life, and the funeral was filled with admonishments about letting God be the final judge. There’s nothing at all wrong with that line of thought, but I wonder why Tammy was treated so differently?

If God is truly love and if God truly loves us more than we can possibly love each other, why would he cast a young person into Hell before they even have a chance to figure things out? I can’t think of anyone who deserves an eternity of torment, nor can I reason what it would accomplish. Even the worst criminal is given a shot at redemption.

I saw Tammy in a dream a few years ago. She looked lovely, and we walked together for a while as I wept. It was probably just a meaningless creation in my sleeping mind, but I treasure it. I prefer to think of her happy and at peace. I just wish those who call themselves “Christian” would give her the same courtesy.

Happy Birthday, Tammy. I remember your lovely smile and your wonderful sense of humor. I remember the fun we had driving with the windows down and the music turned up loud. I hope I made you feel even half as loved as you always made me feel. Maybe I’ll get a chance to see you again one day. Until then I’ll see you in my dreams.

A priest who doesn’t believe in the afterlife

Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser is a priest of the Church of England, founder of Inclusive Church, and an outspoken advocate for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. He submitted the following article to BBC’s “Thought for the Day” on March 9, 2011.

One of the great privileges of being a priest is that I often get the opportunity to be with people when they die. It frequently astonishes me that, despite the ubiquity of death, this is something a great many people have never actually seen. Little wonder we’re so frightened of death. It used to be something public, but now it’s pushed out of life. Whereas we used to die at home surrounded by friends and family, we now die in hospitals, often alone and hidden behind expensive technology.

It’s commonly assumed that Christians don’t really believe in death at all, that we subscribe to the view that when we die we go on living in some other realm, or in some disembodied form. Just to be clear: I believe nothing of the sort. I don’t like the euphemistic language of “passing on” or “having gone to sleep”. Nor do I subscribe to Platonic ideas about the immortality of the soul. When you die, you die. As the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy puts it: “God alone is immortal.”

Today is Ash Wednesday. Like millions of Christians around the world, I will be marked with ash and told that I am dust and to dust I shall return. There is nothing depressing or morbid about any of this – in fact, quite the reverse. Personally speaking, it leaves me with a more intense sense of the preciousness of human life, something that’s intimately bound up with its intrinsic limit and fragility.

Indeed, the problem with the modern lack of experience of death is precisely that it robs us of this very intensification. Life without death is “just one damned thing after another.” For death gives life its urgency: now is the opportunity to love and respond to love, to be different, to make a difference, to change the world. There is no time to waste.

This is why I have little enthusiasm for the idea that science might be able to keep us alive indefinitely, that through cryogenic suspension or uploading our DNA onto computers we might be able to achieve immortality. I’m not saying these extraordinary things will never be possible “who can say?” but rather, that the best these technologies can ever offer is a life that goes on and on and on. And if I can put it like this: more and more of me, extended over time, doesn’t really solve the problem of being me.

When theologians like Boethius and Augustine speak of entering eternity they mean something altogether different from this: for eternity is outside of time, unrelated to temporal sequence. Which is why eternity can be as much as quality of our present experience, more an expansion of our imagination, a call to reach beyond claustrophobic self-absorption and to see the world anew. As William Blake so memorably suggested:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.


A ‘new’ view of Hell

I’ve previously discussed here how the Pentecostal sermons of my childhood shaped the fears that I hold to this very day about spending an eternity in torment. Getting rid of that anxiety isn’t easy, but my view on the afterlife has slowly evolved over the years.

A Facebook friend shared a link today that contained an excerpt from an Easter message delivered by St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), an early Christian and Church father. Somewhere between the simplicity of the text and the complexity of the message, I found a way to lessen my worry about eternal damnation just a bit more.

Let no one grieve being poor, for the universal reign has been revealed. Let no one lament persistent failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free. The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it.

The Lord vanquished hell when he descended into it.

The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, were placed in turmoil when he encountering you below.”

Hell was in turmoil having been eclipsed. Hell was in turmoil having been mocked. Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed. Hell was in turmoil having been abolished. Hell was in turmoil having been made captive. Hell grasped a corpse, and met God. Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.

Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are cast down!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is set free! Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead. For Christ, having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!

It’s amazing how words written around 1,600 years ago can provide a new perspective. The complete (and refreshingly short) sermon is available here.

Unquenchable fire

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. Mark 9:47-48

I live in complete and total fear of death. Not so much the act of dying, but what does or doesn’t come afterwards.

My childhood was filled with propaganda about the afterlife. Sermons yelled from the pulpit of my Pentecostal church and soft words spoken from the teacher’s podium at the Baptist school that I attended worked in unison to terrify me with mental images of flames and people screaming in unending torment. The excesses of heaven weren’t nearly as appealing as the idea of getting there meaning that I didn’t end up in that other place.

I remember my mom, dad, sister and I visiting another family when I was quite young and watching a religious film that showed people dying or being killed in accidents before being thrown into the flames of hell. Lack of television at home meant that my sister and I hadn’t been properly desensitized to such horrors, so we simply sat and sobbed uncontrollably until our parents took us home.

I could say that my religious beliefs have evolved dramatically over the years, but in all honesty, I haven’t been able to completely shake much of what I believed as a child, even though many of those beliefs now seem too convenient, too perfectly packaged, too elementary.

No matter how I try, I am unable to get beyond the fear of not meeting God’s expectations. While many would consider my lifestyle as the ultimate rejection of God’s will, I haven’t adopted a “consequences be damned” approach to my life at all. I’ve simply decided that I have to be myself and be happy in this life and trust that God will be merciful to me in the next.

But what if He isn’t? That question always gnaws at me.

There is rarely a day that goes by without something reminding me of those hellfire and brimstone sermons of my childhood. I can’t burn leaves without a quickening of my heartbeat as I consider how those flames might feel for eternity. I think of the young lady that I knew who burned up in an automobile accident and wonder if the pain stopped when she died or if it simply continued.

It isn’t uncommon to hear expressions of similar sentiments at the memorial services of friends and family members. After my cousin was killed in collision with a snow plow a few years ago, many of my family members and acquaintances made no apologies for their belief that she went straight to hell. Her own father requested that “Lost, Lost” (a song about dying without any hope of salvation) be performed during the ceremony. Thankfully, the singers refused.

I never could wrap my mind around the possibility that this vibrant young woman, this person that I loved, could somehow be punished forever just because she didn’t meet the expectations of those with a specific religious affiliation. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if God truly loved her more than anyone on earth possibly could, would He really send her to hell if mere mortals wouldn’t even consider doing such a thing? Surely not. But, then, how do we know?

In fact, in spite of all of our studying, praying, and believing, none of us can really be sure about anything that happens after we die. We might think we do, but until we draw our last breath and our eyes dim completely, we won’t know a single thing for sure.

And that, my friends, is enough to keep my fear of death alive. It’s my own personal version of hell. An unquenchable fire that burns constantly… inside of me.


“Are you happy?”

The question from my father startled me a bit and I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer. I explained that I am relatively happy even though there are some things in my life that I wish were a little different. But, yeah, overall I’m happy.

Since I started working for my dad a few weeks ago, he’s been running around acting like a kid with a new toy. He frequently remarks about how happy he is and how much he likes where he’s at in his life right now. His joy is almost contagious.

Life has dealt me many unexpected blows, but things always seem to work out just fine in the end. Three years ago, I would have never believed it if someone had suggested that I was going to find such a wonderful person to share my life with. One month ago, I’d never have believed someone telling me that I’d soon be starting a new job. Life has a wonderful way of surprising (or scaring) the heck out of us.

Dad later remarked that it was ironic that we are both happy in our lives when most of the religious people that we know think that we will split hell wide open when we die. “I don’t believe that,” I replied.

He paused briefly before saying, “I don’t either.”

Another self-gratifying fluff post

Due to the fact that I’m constantly revealing things about myself on this site, the idea of sharing 7 unknown tidbits sounded a little difficult. But Moonbeam tagged me, so I must deliver…

  1. I feel more disconnected from God than I have in a long, long time.
  2. My sister just gave me her nearly-new cell phone, a Samsung SGH-D807, which I am totally in love with.
  3. I don’t like having three cats in the house, but I’m too much of a softie to get rid of any of them.
  4. I hate driving at night.
  5. I weighed last night and am heavier than I’ve ever been in my life. I was so distressed about it that I had a Dr. Pepper and a package of frosted donuts for breakfast this morning.
  6. I’m pretty sure that I suffer from depersonalization/derealization disorder.
  7. Sometimes I still worry that being gay will send me to hell.

Now, I’m supposed to tag seven others, so here goes: Alyson, Jim, Jamie, Caroline, Liz, fightingwindmills, ohchicken

Final thoughts on ‘If God is Love’

I can feel myself changing. Karen warned that reading If God Is Love might do that, but I didn’t really expect it to alter my thinking to this degree.

It took me a little while to warm up to the book, mainly because I had such a strong reaction to the theology presented in the first few chapters. It forced me to reassess and analyze my own beliefs – something that made me quite uncomfortable. After reading the first chapter one night before going to bed, I awoke around 3:30 a.m. with my mind in a whirl, unable to calm it until I had gotten up and written down some of my feelings.

I soon figured out that if I was going to dispute the author’s view of salvation and the afterlife, then I needed to have something to back up my own beliefs about those same subjects. That turned out to be a little more difficult than expected, and once I realized that, I was able to take the book at its worth and allow the amazing truths contained in it to penetrate my mind. There are so many sentences that I have highlighted, many that caused me to say “Wow!” as I read them.

This book drastically changed my view of Jesus. I have so much more respect for him as a person who enacted social change through his activism and lifestyle. Most denominations stress salvation as a way of avoiding hell, instead of the joys of being a Christian – becoming more like Christ and following his actions and way of thinking. Jesus was radical enough to make the religious establishment uncomfortable, political enough to make the government despise him, yet so full of truth and love that people still want to follow him 2000 years later.

This book has also changed my view of salvation or being “born again”. I was taught from early childhood that being saved was a life-changing event at a specific moment in time. I no longer believe that, but feel that salvation is a process of choosing to follow Christ and becoming like him. After all, if we truly believe in Christ and follow his teachings, we don’t need a specific time and place to point to as our moment of renewal; our entire lives should be in a constant process of cleansing and rebirth.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” – The Usual Suspects

That’s the main thing that scares me about this book. The author constantly stresses the importance of following the teachings of Jesus, but only when those teachings apply to gracious behavior. He doesn’t mention the times that Jesus referred to Satan or eternal damnation for those who fail to repent. I don’t understand or enjoy a selective approach to the Bible (something that I’ve found in all branches of Christianity) and this way of thinking certainly doesn’t give me any comfort or faith that I will attain an afterlife in heaven.

Even if you don’t agree that all people will be saved or that Satan doesn’t exist, this book should be considered. That theology, while worthy of consideration, doesn’t have to be adopted in order for the reader to take away something important and powerful. You simply cannot walk away from this book without realizing that we all need to change the way we interact with others and how we treat those who are less fortunate.

I hope that I am able to implement some of the important lessons that I’ve learned from this book. I want to pray more. I want to start reading the Bible more. I don’t want to become one of those scary Bible-thumpers, but I do want my life to be an example that others might want to follow. I want to become more like Christ. I want to be a joyful person that people are drawn to because they want to know where my happiness stems from. I want to help those who have less than me.

I guess if I could sum up how this book has changed me in one sentence it might be something like this: I want to become a better person. Any book that causes that kind of sentiment must be getting something right!