A hug and a party

Hand holding sun

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know about Jean, one of the people I’ve gotten to know through my work as a hospice volunteer. I’ve written about her a few times.

Jean’s always been one my favorites. She grew up in Maine, swooned over a 6-foot-4 Navy man – love at first sight – got married and raised two children. She loved the Kennedys and asked me to read her books about JFK – her eyesight wasn’t so good anymore.

Her eyes and her heart were failing, but Jean’s mind was sharp. And her kindness was always intact. I’d knock on her door, walk into her nursing home room, and she’d smile and invite me – in her Northeastern accent – to sit down and catch her up on things.

“Give me the good stuff,” she’d say. “I want details!”

Jean was in her 90s. On her birthday, she’d say: “I never thought I’d live this long.” When I turned 60 and had trouble wrapping my head around that number, she started calling me “Mr. Chicken,” as in a spring chicken.

I liked that a lot. I enjoyed walking into her room and hearing her say, “Oh, it’s Mr. Chicken!”

During one of our many rambling conversations, Jean turned very serious and asked me something totally out of the blue: Do I believe in hell?

How do you answer that question? I went with honesty.

No, Jean, I don’t believe in hell — not the way it’s portrayed, anyway. I don’t believe in the Santa Claus version – God’s watching like a peeping Tom, ready to punish us with a lump of everlasting coal if we eat a hot dog on Friday or break some other rule concocted by religious leaders.

No loving parent would do that

I told Jean that I don’t believe in any of that. No loving parent would ever torture their child. And besides, all that hellish stuff we hear isn’t even Biblical. It’s totally un-Jesus-y. He told us that God is a loving parent who wants nothing other than to give us a big hug and an amazing party.

Jean said she didn’t believe in that version of hell, either. As a parent, she didn’t see how any loving parent could ever hurt their child.

So, why was hell on her mind?

Jean came from a strict church background and was taught that if you’re gay, you’re doomed to hell. Her daughter is gay and had recently married her longtime partner. Jean loved them both very deeply. They’re a good match, and it’s obvious that there’s much love between them. Jean was glad her daughter had someone who loved her and made her happy.

So, what’s the issue?

Given her “religious” upbringing, Jean was unsure how God would feel about it. She didn’t think God would hurt her child, but she wasn’t sure. She was losing sleep over it.

Ugh!!! I hate to see people tormented and tortured by all this twisted, warped theology of divine hate and retribution. You want my definition of hell? It’s people spreading that crappy theology.

I asked Jean if she thinks that God is love, and she said yes. I asked if she thinks that God loves her daughter as much as she does, and Jean said even more than she ever could.

So, do you think God blesses their relationship, too? Jean smiled and nodded. It was settled. She decided it was “silly” to even doubt God’s love.

And we never spoke of hell again.

We spoke of other things, of course. We talked about JFK’s affairs. We talked about getting snowed in by Nor’easters in Maine. One time, we got into another “religious” topic – how did people in Jesus’ time trim their fingernails?

We never spoke of hell again

She said it was a “silly” question, but she wanted to know. So, we Googled it on my phone, right there in her room, and got a suitable answer. (If you want to know, you’ll have to Google it for yourself.)

Jean died last month. I was on vacation. I didn’t get to tell her goodbye. At first, that bothered me. Then I realized I was being silly, to use Jean’s word.

An improper sendoff? The God of unending life and unlimited love would never permit such a thing. No goodbye was necessary. Someday there will be a reunion of me and Jean. And I have an idea of how it will go.

She’ll give Mr. Chicken a hug and invite me to join the amazing party. And she’ll want to catch up on things – all the good stuff, you know. In detail, of course. She’ll want all the details.

Pardon? Or forgiveness?

Forgiveness2

The recent discussion of whether President Trump could pardon his family and himself got me thinking about how pardoning and forgiving are two contrary things.

A pardon protects someone from punishment for their behavior. Forgiveness seeks not to protect the one who has fallen short, but to touch them and to change them.

Pardoning erases an outward debt. Forgiveness transforms a person or a world from within.

A pardon moves on from the moment without requiring a price paid or a heart changed by the person involved. Forgiveness seeks to redeem and change the person and the moment.

Forgiveness isn’t about avoiding a punishment; it’s about reconciling and renewing relationships. Forgiveness transforms recrimination into reconciliation, division into unity. It replaces rejection with acceptance and hurt with healing.

A pardon? All that does is keep you out of jail.

Two different things

Forgiveness does what pardon can’t do because it originates in a totally different place. Pardon is rooted in the law and legality; forgiveness springs from the heart and is based on love.

Pardon keeps a record of appropriate punishment and then erases it. Forgiveness doesn’t count or keep track; instead, it offers unrestricted reconnection.

Pardon says you deserve punishment, and you should just be happy you’re not getting what you deserve. Forgiveness says you deserve love, and you are getting what you deserve.

It’s unfortunate that our concepts of pardon and forgiveness – two very different things – have been twisted around. We confuse one with the other, or we think that one substitutes for the other.

For example, we see it in the fundamentalist thread of Christianity. Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Classic Christianity was much different, emphasizing love, compassion, reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness.

As Bible scholar Marcus Borg noted, the theory of “substitutionary sacrifice” didn’t become a main thread in Christianity until 1098. It was based on the feudal system of the time in which a lord couldn’t just forgive a servant who had disobeyed because it would encourage further disobedience.

Instead, a price was demanded to obtain a pardon. The substitutionary sacrifice theory reduced Jesus to a commodity in a business deal – someone dies, you get your pardon.

Essentially, God is depicted as a feudal lord who is incapable of actual forgiveness — if strings are attached, it’s not forgiveness.

Of course, the story of the prodigal son — proposed a thousand years earlier — reminds us of how forgiveness actually looks and acts. The ungrateful son returns home with no remorse – he’s not sorry, he’s hungry – and yet his father runs to him, embraces him, declares him a full son again and throws a lavish party in honor of his return.

Forgiveness has no strings attached

The son is warmly, passionately, happily forgiven. The father lavishes him with love and is ecstatic over their reunion. Why? That’s the nature of love. It seeks only to reconnect and transform.

The father also tries to transform the older son who complains that the wayward son is getting off without any sort of punishment. The father responds to the older son with nothing but love as well.

The parable’s point: No matter what we’ve done, we get forgiveness wrapped tightly around our necks like a hug. And there’s a party awaiting us with great food and drink and music and dancing.

The parable’s other point: Just as the father forgives both sons, we must forgive ourselves and each other the same way.

It means we pay attention to our shortcomings not to beat ourselves up or mete out punishment or earn some pardon; rather, we do it so that we can grow in love and learn how to join the divine party more willingly.

It also means that when we’ve hurt someone, we facilitate forgiveness by going to them and working it out. Those moments transform and heal.

Extending forgiveness is much, much harder than granting a pardon. Forgiveness involves great humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to heal anything that ruptures our relationships and ourselves.

A pardon spares someone from consequences without changing them. Forgiveness saves and redeems everyone involved by transforming them.

A pardon sidesteps love; forgiveness embodies it.

Forgiveness

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Bullet holes and the radical welcome

Radical Welcome

The night started with a radical welcome and ended with 90 seconds of horror.

Every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Charleston, S.C., one of the oldest historically black churches in the country opens its doors to whoever wants to join them for a Bible study in the church basement.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church traces its roots to the days when black people were unloaded from slave ships nearby and sold as property. The church has been attacked many times by people who didn’t want black people treated as equally beloved children of God. Church members have been arrested, beaten and executed. A crowd of angry white people burned the original church to the ground in 1822.

And yet, this church that’s been so often hurt and abused by outsiders has continued to open its doors to outsiders every week. They invite everyone to come and join them, even people who don’t like them.

People like Dylann Roof, a young white man who walked through the front doors last June 17, joined an hour-long Bible study, and shot nine church members dead in 90 seconds. He killed people who were doing the most Christian thing – welcoming him, just as he was, into the very center of their church.

He accepted their radical welcome and responded with hatred. The very same kind of hatred that led Omar Mateen to walk into a gay nightclub in Orlando last weekend and kill 49 people. His unthinkable act left us all wounded and numb and confused.

Once again, we’re angry and wondering why we as a people have allowed our hatred and our violence to become the defining traits of our nation. We wonder how many more times someone’s spouse or parent or child is going to be slaughtered before we acknowledge that that the status quo is unacceptable and it must change now.

After a while, we grow weary from the body count. The gun lobby and bought-off politicians refuse to even talk about the carnage. It’s easy to slip into despair and anger, to wonder what we must do next.

And then we look to Charleston on a Wednesday night and see the doors flung wide open.

Something incredible happened there after the murders. Family members publicly forgave the killer. People filled the church the following Sunday — some sitting on the very spot where blood had to be cleaned from the tile floor – and proclaimed their commitment to compassion and forgiveness.

And the next Wednesday night, they did what they’d always done on Wednesday night. They held a Bible study. They welcomed anyone who was interested. This time, news reports say about 150 people of different races, different faiths, different backgrounds sat together in the same room where nine people had died and committed themselves to the Spirit of radical welcome.

The very place that had been filled with such darkness seven days earlier was filled with warmth and life and love. The topic of discussion that day: The Power of Love.

Really.

And then there’s the reaction to the Orlando shooting. Many people have revved up the hateful talk that influenced both Roof and Mateen. They insist that some people are just too dangerous to be around, too evil to accept. They must be dealt with severely.

Build walls to ease our fears, they say. Bar entry to anyone who comes from a certain country or a certain background. Lock the doors to those whom we dislike.

Contrast that to what’s going on at Emanuel. To remember the shootings a year ago, they’re asking people to participate in a day of kindness. Next Tuesday, they want each of us to do something kind for someone and tell them about it on the church’s website. They’re calling it: Acts of Amazing Grace Day.

http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/acts-of-grace/index.html

They take seriously the stories of a Jewish rabbi from long ago, and they try to live the way he lived. They accept everyone, because that’s what he did, even when he was harshly criticized for it.

They live the Spirit of radical welcome.

This welcome thing: It’s not a popular notion, then or now. It’s part of what got the rabbi killed. It’s what got the Emanuel church burned down and bloodied up. The truth is, this radical welcome stuff is challenging and upsetting and dangerous. It’s much easier and safer to hide behind walls. It takes great courage and great love to open ourselves to others, but it’s the only way out of the deep darkness we’ve chosen.

Then and now, great love is the only thing that can overcome. It overcomes by showing a different way – a way that cleans up the blood and opens the doors wide again.

And changes everything, bringing life into a place of death and grace into a world that needs so much of it.

Who would Jesus pee with?

Urinals

When my kids were in high school, their girls’ volleyball team made it to the district finals of the state tournament. I went to watch the match and used the men’s restroom beforehand.

As I stood at the urinal, I noticed someone wearing a girl’s skirt move into the urinal next to mine. The school is co-ed. The skirt was worn by a young man on the football team. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hey, nice skirt.

Him: Thanks. The football team is wearing them to show support for the girls.

Me: Great idea. Very clever.

Him: Yeah, we liked it. Thanks.

I peed, he peed, and off we went. It was a funny moment. Of course, in North Carolina and some other places, it probably wouldn’t be funny at all. Who knows? There would likely be some big dust-up over a person in a skirt using a urinal.

And isn’t that so sad? And more than a little creepy? Why are so many politicians and religious leaders so obsessed with where people pee and what’s in their pants?

And since religion inevitably gets dragged into it, let’s ask a pertinent question: Who would Jesus pee with?

First things first. Why are folks so caught up in others’ sexuality?

Historians point out that religions and politicians have always spent a lot of time trying to legislate sexuality and push away the people that made them uncomfortable. I’ve seen that in my lifetime. Jim Crow laws were still in place when I was growing up. White people didn’t want black people peeing next to them. Or drinking from the same water fountain. Or eating at the same lunch counter. Or sleeping in the same hotel. Or marrying white people.

Black people made them uncomfortable, so they tried to legislate to keep them away.

And so it goes today. People who are uncomfortable with gay people or transgender people are trying to legislate to keep them away. And just like the defenders of Jim Crow, they’re using their “religious beliefs” to support their arguments.

So, let’s get to that bigger question: Who would Jesus pee with?

The gospels provide short, thumbnail descriptions of what Jesus is passionate about: Feeding the hungry, healing the broken, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, sharing everything with those in need. Trying to love everyone unconditionally. Being compassionate and accepting. The gospels go on and on about this.

Peeing? Not a word. So he probably wasn’t much concerned about it. In fact, he chose to surround himself with friends who were the religious, cultural and sexual outcasts of his society — the ones that others wanted nothing to do with. He ate with them, laughed with them, lived with them. And, undoubtedly, he would have peed with them.

Why wouldn’t he?

And how different is all of that from how we’re acting? Instead of growing in wisdom and age and grace, we’re more like junior high kids caught up in hormonal drama. Instead of being concerned about what’s in people’s hearts and in their stomachs, we’re fixated on what’s in their pants.

Doesn’t it creep you out, this fixation with people’s private parts and private lives? How religious leaders have turned Doubting Thomas into Peeping Tom?

And nobody buys the rationale that it’s about protecting children. There are no issues of transgender people hurting children. However, there have been many cases of politicians and religious leaders doing horrific things to children. And what about the homeless children in our country and the refugee children worldwide who desperately need our help right now?

Instead, we’re fixating on who’s peeing where.

So, let’s ask the question again: Who would Jesus pee with?

Even though there’s no mention of how he peed in the gospels, there’s lots of stories about how he did other things. As the stories go, when a crowd gathered to spend time with him, he would make sure that everyone had some fishes and loaves to eat, regardless of their age or religion or sexuality or anything else. In fact, sharing the bread with everyone – especially the marginalized and the outcasts — became his signature act.

He healed anyone who asked for healing, loved anyone who needed his love, and invited everyone to do the same. In one story, he washes the feet of everyone – including those who are about to betray and deny him – and says they must go and do the same to everyone else.

Serve everybody. Unconditionally. No questions asked.

So I suppose Jesus would pee next to the young man wearing a skirt to support a volleyball team. And next to the transgender person. And next to the self-righteous religious person. And while doing so, he would maybe strike up a conversation and say some kind words to them, show them a little love.

Who would he pee with? You know the answer to that.

And then he would tell us to go and do the same.