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

The cold woman on the street corner

Sign

The woman on the street corner held a cardboard sign asking for money. Her face was weather-beaten after hours of being buffeted by the harsh winter wind. Her knit mittens had holes that left her fingertips exposed.

I felt an urge to help. All I had was a $10 bill. I lowered the car window and handed it to her.

Her eyes flushed with gratitude. She said “Thank you, God bless you!” and grabbed my hand and squeezed. And then she did something that has stuck with me.

The woman kneeled, looked up, made the sign of the cross and mouthed the words “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She had prayed for someone to help. Without realizing it, I was the answer to her prayer.

Lesson learned.

That’s how the whole prayer thing works, isn’t it? We pray for something, and our answer usually comes in the form of another person’s help. And if we truly believe this whole prayer thing, we must make ourselves available to be the answer to others’ needs.

As Pope Francis puts it, we pray for the hungry and then we feed them. That’s how prayer works.

I know that homelessness is a complicated issue. Some people have mental illness or addictions. Some have just been knocked down by life and need a hand getting up – or, at least, a meal for now. Some have lost all hope and resigned themselves to living on the streets, and they’re hungry.

They need their daily bread, and those of us who have enough are the ones who can share it with them.

That’s how it works

Francis addressed this recently in a magazine interview. He said giving to a person in need is “always right,” and it’s only the start. Francis has spent his life among the poor, and he says we should spend a little time getting to know the person on the street. Look into their eyes. Touch their hand. Give them affirmation of their human dignity.

Remind them that they are loved and lovable children of God.

There’s nothing surprising about Francis’ remarks. He tries to live in the spirit of a Jewish rabbi who said we should be compassionate the way God is compassionate, giving to all who ask, and sharing without judgment or condition.

Which is the opposite of what we hear so often.

A while back, Fox News personality John Stossel dressed as a homeless person and collected donations for an hour. He got $11. And then he shamed those who gave to him.

Stossel put one of the kind people on camera and asked why he responded with compassion. The man said: You looked pretty needy. Stossel portrayed him as a fool, someone who had been duped by the dishonest cable TV person.

He shamed those who gave to him

Stossel then suggested that most homeless people really aren’t needy, but are dishonest like him and should be ignored. And he said we can’t really trust charities, either.

You don’t know how your gift will be used, so don’t give it.

Really?!?! I found his comments abhorrent and sanctimonious.

Let’s be honest: Each of us wastes the greatest and most precious gifts we receive from the Creator. We do it all the time, and then we wish for more.

We waste the gift of time on things that don’t really matter. We waste our money on stuff we don’t really need — all of us. Worst of all, we waste our daily opportunities to grow and bring more love and healing into the world.

And then what happens? God gives us more!

I mean, that’s totally crazy, right? Thank God for that!

The story of the prodigal son takes direct aim on Stossel’s attitude. The younger son totally wastes all that he’s given, yet when he comes home the father neither judges nor punishes him but instead gives him more. The wasteful son gets a huge party. The older son objects: You’re being played for a generous, compassionate fool! This younger son is dishonest. You can’t trust him.

Thank God for that

But none of that matters to the father. The older son doesn’t understand the father’s nature, which is portrayed as God’s nature.

It’s a nature we’re called to live in, too. We’re meant to be kind and generous and compassionate to all, even if the one asking for our help is a dishonest cable TV person wearing a phony beard.

Especially then.

We do it because that’s how God treats you and me every day. We keep wasting, and we keep getting more. More to be shared with everyone.

Away from the abyss

church1

I came across the picture above on the internet. Something about it resonated with me, the way people were falling out of the church and into an abyss.

I held onto the picture, planning to write about how we need to be careful of where we worship because some places lead us not to a higher plane of love and compassion but into the abyss of hatred and self-righteousness.

I worked up an indignation over how so many “Christians” reject anyone who experiences God outside of their tiny theological boxes. How they want legal consent to hatefully shun others in Jesus’ name. How they insist we should turn away refugees – let them die over there, it’s too dangerous to save them over here.

And I just want to say: WTF? What’s That Faith?

A couple of things I saw while driving around recently also got under my skin. First, I came upon a pickup truck toting a trailer that berated everyone on the road who didn’t share their beliefs. On the truck bed was a videoboard playing gruesome scenes of crucifixion. You also notice a U.S. flag, an Israeli flag and a POW flag. Whatever.

church2

A week later, I pulled up behind an SUV with this bumper sticker:

church3

Jesus loves me more? Really??? What in God’s name is going on here? I totally get it why so many people call themselves spiritual but not religious these days.

Oh, and I haven’t even started on the white, evangelical “values voters” who decided to become disciples of someone who has lived an entire lifetime mocking and repudiating their values. The ones who heard him say that he’s the only one who can save them, and they were like: We’re good with that!

Out with the old savior, in with the new.

As you can tell, I’d worked myself into a nice, judgmental mood for an into-the-abyss blog.

And then, I had a come-to-Jesus moment.

A man who is friends with someone in my UCC church contacted me. He said he wanted to talk about God. We met at a Starbucks. He comes from a deeply fundamentalist background. I sensed that he was anxious.

WTF? What’s That Faith?

He started quoting scriptures about judgment and punishment, and I just wanted to get up and leave. But then it occurred to me why he was doing what he was doing. He’s terrified that his friend is going to hell because she belongs to a church that believes God actually loves us.

Fear. I sensed a deep fear in his tone.

He kept going, hoping that if he repeated his Bible verses enough times, he might convert me and then God might accept me and not eternally torture me. He was worried about me, too.

I was touched. And I felt so sad for this kind, caring, anxious man.

It reminded me of something Nadia Bolz-Weber said during her reflection on the parable of the prodigal son – you know, the story of how no matter what we do wrong, we get love and hugs and a party in the end.

Nadia tells how an 82-year-old woman posted a heartbreaking message on her public Facebook page saying that she was afraid of dying because she thought God was angry at her and was going to torture her.

This poor woman’s “religion” had made her terrified of God.

“She’d been so condemned by the bogus reward-and-punishment system of false religion that at the end of her life rather than her faith being a source of comfort for her, it was a source of torment for her,” Nadia says.

How horrible!

I felt the same way sitting in Starbucks across the table from a good man who has been taught that the most God-like people in his life weren’t good enough for God because they didn’t attend his church. He’d been told that God hates most everything about all of us but will grudgingly accept those who get baptized into his denomination. All the others — we get eternally waterboarded.

Can you imagine the anxiety it produced in him? Poor man! I felt so sorry for him.

This poor man!

In that moment, all my indignation – OK, some of my indignation – melted. I saw not a self-righteous person but, instead, a victim who’d been beaten up by his “religion” and left bleeding by the side of the spiritual road.

He didn’t need theological debate. Instead, he needed someone to offer compassion and reassurance and love and healing and peace and hope – all the things that his religion was denying him.

In other words, he needed what religion is supposed to do. It’s supposed to lead us upward to a higher place, directing us to love. Away from the abyss.

I really hope he finds his way up and out. He deserves that grace. As do we all.

___

A link to Nadia’s reflection: http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/files/2016/03/2016-03-06_NBW_HFASS_Podcast_64kbps.mp3