Am I Good Enough for Heaven?

Tears welling in her eyes, Amy* shared her greatest fear with me: “I worry I’m not good enough to be with her in heaven.”

This was not the first time I’ve heard a woman express such a fear to me.  My own mother clung to life long after she really wanted to live because the religion of her childhood instilled a bone-deep fear that she would be sent to a fiery eternity.

Amy’s fear, however, was the saddest such declaration I’ve ever heard.  She wasn’t afraid of eternal damnation.  She was terrified of eternal separation from her only child, who died at the age of 15 after a car hit her as she was crossing a street on her bike.

I never knew Amy’s daughter, but Amy tells me she was a loving and gentle spirit—and the greatest love of Amy’s life. Even though we’ve only recently become friends, I would say the same of Amy.

I was astonished, as I always am, when some of the best women I know express such a fear.  Almost always, they tell me that they know on an intellectual level that such anxiety is irrational but that the emotion drowns all rational thought. In its place is left only the terror they absorbed from a childhood listening to men rail from the pulpit, like 18thCentury theologian Jonathan Edwards, that we’re all “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” always in danger of “sudden unexpected Destruction,” with a capital D.

When I reasoned with my mother in the years before she died that a compassionate God would never send her to hell, whatever that is, she nodded her head slowly at me and said, “I know in my head that’s true, but it’s hard to let go of something that’s been beaten into you your whole life.”

Though the Old Testament is filled with stories of divine retribution, Jesus talked far more often to the crowds of love and compassion than he did of fear and hell.  Why, then, do so many churches focus on the latter?

Zora Neale Hurston, a woman of uncommon wisdom, says this of one of the characters in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God:

It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.

Unfortunately, this describes the root of all too many Christians’ faith.  We tell our children stories in Sunday School of Jesus holding little children protectively in his arms and show them pictures of a kind man surrounded by lambs, but the message that many children ingest like poison as they grow older is that Jesus is the only way to avoid an eternity of indiscriminate suffering and Destruction.

Amy experienced the worst of “sudden unexpected Destruction.”  She talks about the loss of her child often, though she tells me that her stories make many people uncomfortable.  As I listened to her, even after over 30 years in a denomination that focuses on love and compassion, I had to stifle my own fears of sudden Destruction of the people I love to allow her the space she needed to talk about the child she loved and lost.

The pews of many megachurches are filled with believers who hope their unquestioning belief can bring them prosperity and insulate them from indiscriminate suffering.  But I suspect the sofas in many homes in America on Sunday mornings are equally filled with those who’ve suffered and found the god their churches present to them inadequate.

Where is our message for them?  How do we speak to those who’ve been scarred by an interpretation of the Gospels that fails to convey the depth of Love, with a capital L, that is at the center of Christ’s message?

In 1741 Jonathan Edwards mentioned the words “wrath” and “hell” a total of 104 times—52 times each—in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  In contrast, he mentions “love” only three times and “grace” only four times.

Sadly, 278 years later the same could be said of sermons preached on Sunday mornings in many churches in America.

Why isn’t Paul’s declaration in Romans 8: 38-39 shared with equal zeal?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I simply don’t understand how we got to this place where we fail to focus on the Good News of the Gospel.  Christ’s warnings and anger were directed at corrupt religious leaders of his time—not at the masses hungry for a message of hope.

I am comforted when I read Christ’s words as recorded in the four Gospels, though occasionally I’m troubled by something he says. I’m grateful, however, to have a faith community where questions about those troubling passages are welcomed—and where no sermon ever focuses on God’s wrath rather than on Christ’s commission to care for the poor, the hungry, the hurting.

That is the Great Commission.  And if we would be Christ-like instead of simply calling ourselves Christians, that is what we are called to do.

*Not her real name

The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

I argued with a church leader and teacher a few months back about Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author who died tragically last weekend at the age of 37.  I’d recently read her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, and I suggested it as a book study for our church’s Adult Education Hour.

The church leader, who, like me, is a former evangelical, actually snorted.  “You need to move past evangelical writers.  Some of her work is just silly.  I left those people behind when I was 19.  She needs to get a good therapist and do the same.” Continue reading The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

Should Northam and Herring Resign?

Where are the black faces in this image from Gone With the Wind? What do we learn from visual images?

If a child is taught, either overtly or unconsciously, that racism is acceptable, is it possible to change?  This seems to me to be the question at the heart of the crisis facing Virginians as they decide how to respond to the revelations this week that Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to appearing in blackface as young adults.

The debate continues to rage more than a week after one or more of Northam’s medical school colleagues, incensed about the governor’s comments on late-term abortions, called media attention to his yearbook page.  Given that his classmates had known about the photograph for 35 years, the release of the photograph seems not to have been done out of any concern that Northam might be racist.  That, in itself, speaks volumes about the culture that gave rise to the photograph.

Opinions on whether Northam should resign are not as black and white as the painted face and the robe in the yearbook picture. Continue reading Should Northam and Herring Resign?

Blood Moons and End Times

Blood moons are spectacular.  We mark our calendars and stay up late to watch them. For some of us, they are magnificent celestial displays with an explanation grounded in science.  But for Christians who read the Bible literally, blood moons are signs that humans are about to face the wrath of an angry God—a signal that the “End Times” are surely upon us Continue reading Blood Moons and End Times

Advent Also Means a Coming into View

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I look back on the first Advent blog I ever wrote—on December 2, 2012—about this watchful time of my faith tradition.  Today this boyfriend is my daughter’s husband and the father of my coming grandchild, which adds a new perspective for me to how we Christians await the coming of a child. But Advent still brings me both joy and an awareness that we could learn much from those whose views of God differ from our own.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I am joyful.  After church my daughter and her boyfriend will join us to cut a live tree, and her friends will join us to decorate the tree and laugh and talk and share a meal and a cup of cheer.  And while I’m mindful of my faith, many of the traditions we share have little to do with the story of that babe’s birth in a manger.  While we share memories of our church filled with the soft light of hundreds of candles on Christmas Eve, many of us would be stumped if asked why we kill a live tree and bring it into the house with such delight or why we leave cookies and milk for the man in the red suit who finds a way into even those houses that don’t have chimneys.

When my siblings and I were children, our mom bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias,adding the annual volume each year, no matter how little money our parents had, to be sure our information never went out of date.  In those white books, embossed with gold print, some of the most worn pages were those that described how people in other countries celebrate Christmas.  So while we grew up in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains, we knew that we shared this holiday with people in England and Italy and Germany and Denmark—people who seemed far away but close because of our shared enthusiasm for the babe in the manger who promised hope.

Having grown up in a town that was all white and all Protestant, I didn’t encounter a Catholic until I left home for college.  Now I am happily married to a Polish Catholic, and because of those pages in my mom’s beloved encyclopedias, I’ve always had at least a partial understanding of how Catholicism differs from my faith.  The only real stretch of understanding for me was moving from my mom’s and my childhood church’s grape juice tradition to the wine and the bread that embodied the risen Christ.

But I didn’t truly know anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the D.C. suburbs, where my school system closed in September for two Jewish holidays that I knew nothing about. And later, our department hired a Muslim of Pakistani descent, a woman who also knew much more about my faith than I knew about hers.  I quickly learned that my colleagues and friends of other faiths often knew more than most Christians about the holidays we celebrate.  And I know that on more than one occasion, my questions and curiosity revealed a complete ignorance of their faith that must have astonished them.  But I was strengthened in my fight against cancer when a young Jewish woman made me a framed hanging with a tiny scroll and a verse our faith traditions shared.  And my life was enriched when the Muslim woman brought a Pakistani meal for our department and explained as she broke bread with us the significance of each dish.

As we begin this month-long, boisterous celebration of our faith tradition, what would happen if each of us took the time to find out something about the traditions of other faiths?  What if I turned to that Buddhist whose quiet strength is often greater than my own and asked about his meditation practices?  What if I asked an atheist—with genuine curiosity instead of skepticism—how she seeks to understand a world that is often vocal in its rejection of her?

As Twain’s character Huck Finn discovered when he floated down the Mississippi River on a raft with the man Tom, who his culture had taught him was only 3/5 of a human being, we cannot possibly hold to stereotypes when we truly get to know another human being in all the complexities that defy the way we’ve been taught to see them.  Every culture and faith has its villains and its heroes.  But once we see someone up close—and even learn to call him a friend—we learn that the complexities of human beings are far more interesting than the extremes in which we paint them from a distance.

And even if we live in areas that never allow us to know those of other cultures, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place.  I can now see videos—and even chat with—those people in far-away places that I could only read about in my mother’s World Book.  The world is now my book.  And isn’t that much more interesting?

Advent—for Christians, the word means the coming of the Christ. But what if it were also advent—a coming into place or view—where we begin to come to a fuller understanding of what’s best in us all?

What have you gained or learned from someone of another faith?

Kavanaugh and the Virgin Defense

1797 Cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank

“I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter,” Brett Kavanaugh attested, claiming he was a virgin until well after high school in a Monday interview with Fox News’ Martha McCallum.

She followed up by pressing, “So you’re saying that through all these years that are in question, you were a virgin?” Continue reading Kavanaugh and the Virgin Defense

Are Trump Supporters Deplorables?

Almost two years have passed since Hillary Clinton delivered the gift of her “basket of deplorables” speech to her opponent’s campaign, so why do Democrats continue to make the mistake of tossing all Trump supporters into a single category of despicable people?

Little has changed in the way most Democrats view Trump’s base since Clinton gave that speech at an LGBT for Hillary fundraiser in New York City on September 9, 2016: Continue reading Are Trump Supporters Deplorables?

A Rational Abortion Argument?

As an English teacher I became so frustrated with students for being unable to offer a rational abortion argument on either side that I ultimately refused to let them deliver an argumentative speech on any aspect of the issue.

Abortion was the only topic, among a host of complicated issues, which I ever banned when I taught public speaking.  But I didn’t know what else to do.

I told my students when they were choosing topics that they should either avoid topics they couldn’t do justice to in five minutes, or they should narrow the speech to a single aspect of a topic. Most students followed my advice.

One passionate student, however, decided that her view was worth the risk to her grade and decided to tackle the whole of the abortion issue in spite my cautions.  She defied the time limit and argued passionately but irrationally for nearly ten minutes, and at the end of the speech, nearly every student in the class was angry.  Those who disagreed with her arguments were furious.  Those who agreed wanted a class discussion to continue the debate.  And the moderates and rule-followers in class were indignant that I hadn’t stopped the speech at the five-minute mark. Ultimately, that speech convinced no one of anything.

Though I didn’t ban abortion from arguments in writing classes, I did caution my students, as I did about all topics, that when I evaluated arguments, I would read their papers as though I disagreed, whatever their stance, and I promised them I would be as objective as I possibly could in reading their arguments.  This wasn’t always easy, and the top students always wondered how I could give two papers on the same topic an A when they had such divergent views.  I told them that the A arguments were always the ones that showed some recognition of the nuances of the topic.

This wasn’t always easy for me as a teacher, but I felt a responsibility to encourage students to consider all aspects of a topic, using sound sources, and then to allow them the freedom to draw their own conclusions without forcing my own views on them.

But on the abortion issue, I had no good answers for students then, and I have no good answers now for how we can have a civil, intelligent discussion of the nuances that are crucial to this discussion.

Here are two views that I’ve actually heard former students (and adults) at the two extremes say:

  • “Life begins at conception, and all abortion is murder. It should always be illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.”
  • “As long as a fetus is still attached to a woman’s body, it’s a parasite. And if a woman chooses to abort it, that’s her right and nobody else’s business.”

Most Americans don’t espouse either of these views. In survey after survey, a significant majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, even though most of us couldn’t tell you exactly what the opinion says.  The complete transcript of the majority opinion isn’t easily available online, and many don’t realize that the decision in 1973 seemed to be based on the doctor’s right to privacy, without mention of the rights of women.  In the decision for the 7-2 majority, Justice Blackmun wrote:

The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment up to the points where important state interests provide compelling justifications for intervention. Up to those points, the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician.

In the years since, some aspects of the decision have been struck down, including the original guidelines for the trimesters at which abortions can be performed.  Yet we continue to discuss this issue in the public arena as if only the two extremes matter.  (A guide to the key aspects of decisions related to abortion can be found at the Chicago—Kent College of Law’s Body Politic Project.)

We live in a country where the majority is supposed to rule, even though recent presidential elections where the Electoral College and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled for the minority have called that principle into question.

Surveys of citizens’ attitudes about abortion consistently reveal widespread majority support for Roe v. Wade.  In January of this year, before the current uproar about the Supreme Court vacancy, Pew Research reported that 57% of Americans support legal access to abortion, including a wide variety of religious groups. Even among some evangelical denominations, over half of members felt that the law should allow access to some abortions, even if they personally opposed it.

This week, after the announcement of another Supreme Court vacancy, a number of polls are showing even more widespread support for Roe v. Wade.  A Kaiser Foundation poll showed 67% support for the law, including 43% of Republicans.  A Quinnipiac University poll on a variety of issues showed 63% support of the ruling overall, with virtually no gender gap in the results.

So why are we Americans being held hostage to the wishes of a small minority at the extremes of our culture?

In a more perfect union, where the majority does rule, the rights of the minority should be honored.  But since we don’t live in a utopian state where consensus is always possible, where does that leave us?

I never felt good about banning abortion from class discussions.  But I sometimes want to do the same thing in the discussions that are taking place in the public arena.  Even though the people at the extremes are in a small minority, they seem to have the loudest voices, and because they get their information from the most biased media sites, the cacophony they create takes me back to the day a single student with a loud voice held my class hostage for ten minutes.

Right now Roe v. Wade is the best we have.  I was a junior in high school when that decision was made.  I remember well, in the years before, the stories of girls my age who were mutilated or who died at the hands of abortion providers who took their money and destroyed their bodies.

Here is the single lesson I took away from that time:  Wealthy people will take their daughters out of the state or the country to get a safe and legal abortion.  Poor women or girls who are too ashamed to seek help will find a way to have an abortion, even if it may maim or kill them.

Many of the people who protest in front of abortion facilities weren’t born yet when the Supreme Court issued that decision on Roe v. Wade.  A few of them weren’t even an egg in their mothers’ ovaries or a sperm in their fathers’ testicles yet because even their parents hadn’t been born.

Perhaps only when their sisters and daughters and friends die after an abortion in a dirty and dark room will they realize the folly of not having a sensible abortion law.

Is Jesus Being Flogged in the Public Square?

Jesus is being mocked and flogged in the public square this summer.  His attackers, as they were 2000 years ago, are an angry mob that has been whipped into a frenzy by the leaders of the day with the full support of the nation’s leading evangelicals.

Here are just a few of the instances when Christians have acted in distinctly un-Christlike ways in recent months:

  • Immigration officials, acting at the behest of leaders who rationalize cruel policies by citing the Bible, ripped families apart while the evangelical leaders who advised them remained conspicuously silent.
  • A Walgreen’s pharmacist, citing his Christian beliefs, refusedto provide a drug for a woman who had been prescribed the drug to expel a fetus that had died inside her womb.
  • The leaders of a church in Sterling, Virginia advocated abuse of children and used church members’ tithes to start a “racecar ministry” and purchase a collection of expensive motorcycles and cars. They have also been accused of sexually abusing women and girls in the congregation.
  • Evangelical leader Paige Patterson defended his decision to advise women to endure their husbands’ abuse and to pray for them to come to God.
  • Religious leaders who have spent their careers decrying the state of the family and the moral decline of our nation continue to defend Roy Moore, a candidate for Congress who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including incidents involving underage girls.

The Christian leaders who have condoned these and other acts or who have remained silent in the face of such abuse, including many abuses of people of color, are no better than those who cried out for Christ to be crucified.

I had this realization when I read today’s Gospel Reading from the Daily Common Lectionary from Matthew 20: 17-28. Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to be “mocked and flogged and crucified.”  Even among his followers—who have watched him serve the poor, the lame, the disenfranchised for three years—the possibility of losing him as a leader causes a scramble for power.

In the scene that follows this news, the writer of Matthew tells us that two of the disciples bring their mother to Jesus and that she kneels before him and asks that they be able to sit on either side of him in his kingdom.  It is not an unreasonable request for a mother to make.  If her sons risk dying for him, don’t they deserve something in return?

The other ten disciples are understandably angry when they hear what the brothers have asked.  After all, all of them have sacrificed everything to follow this man. All are equally deserving of any power that comes to them as a result of his movement.

As he’s done so often in his ministry, Jesus uses this as yet another teachable moment.  He points out that they are not like other leaders who have become tyrants over them.  No.  He reminds them, as he’s told them before, “It will not be so among you; whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

Our nation’s founders set up a government that they thought would ensure against tyrants.  But, increasingly, our leaders are acting like tyrants—lying to the people, abusing the disenfranchised, and adding riches to their own coffers.

Where is the Leader who will sacrifice and save us? One would think that Christian leaders who have a public presence would be crying out in the face of injustice. But no.  They, like the chief priests and scribes in this story, have condemned what’s left of Jesus in American Christianity to be mocked and flogged in the public square.

Separating Immigrant Families is un-Christian!

How can anyone look at pictures of their own children and think separating immigrant families is right?

In the wake of news about separating immigrant families at the U.S./Mexico border in recent weeks, the silence from Trump’s evangelical advisory board as children are being ripped from their parents’ arms has been deafening.  Pastors have a Christian duty to hold Jeff Sessions and his boss to account, especially in the wake of Sessions’ claim that Romans 13 supports such abject cruelty.

In fairness, some conservative religious leaders are speaking out.  Franklin Graham, surprisingly, said in an interview last week with the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I think it’s disgraceful; it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.” However, he rendered his criticism impotent in the next breath by saying he still supports Trump and blaming politicians of the last 20 to 30 years for creating the mess that has led to the current policy. Continue reading Separating Immigrant Families is un-Christian!

For People Who Don't Know All the Answers