What Ever Happened to Hell?

A number of books have been written this century by people who have gone to heaven and returned: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, My Journey to Heaven: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life, Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back ( The little boy later said he made the whole thing up. Sounds like he has a lot of repenting to do), Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall (This title tempted me, but turns out that, unlike the others in this genre, it’s fiction.)

For some reason books such as: Near Death Experiences in Hell: The True Stories of 10 People Who Went to Hell During their NDE, have not made it to the best seller lists. Hell is no longer as popular as Heaven. Not even in churches anymore, though Hell had been a mainstay for Christian churches for centuries.

I blame this shift in popularity on the lack of education in the humanities. Dante’s Inferno would keep anyone on the straight and narrow (literally). That being true, it is also true that Dante critics agree the images of the Inferno are far more engaging than the images of Paradiso. Likewise, Milton’s Paradise Lost stars an engaging Lucifer, the ultimate bad-boy hero.  Perhaps Robert De Nero or Jack Nickolson or, new-comer to the genre, Kevin Spacey could take a crack at Milton’s Satan. Heaven may be a nice place, but hell is riveting. Hell is a real guy thing; heaven is way too girly, like chic lit.

Read our Jonathan Edwards if you must: “…without a doubt the torments of hell are inconceivably great…” He goes on to praise God for hell because watching the torments of their fellows makes their own joy greater. What is more Christian than that?

Great literature is chock full of murder, lying, cheating, forbidden lust, battles, war, conflict of all kinds. All the things that land people in hell. In King Lear we watch the main character destroy himself because of his own tragic flaw. The audience longs to shout out to him, “No! Don’t banish her!” We watched it for the first time in 1606 and watch it still. Riveting. 

Though heaven has bypassed hell as the place to be, the tables are turning. Hell is entering more conversations, partly because people are increasingly able to create it for ourselves. A new hero, Greta Thunberg  is a voice crying in the wilderness foretelling fires, suffering, unending destruction. The visions are terrifying and frighteningly real. We love her.

In “Patheos” this July Chuck McKnight wrote that progressive Christians should be preaching hell more. “So maybe, rather than immediately rushing in to clarify what we think Jesus means by hell, we should instead take a look at what gets Jesus so worked up in the first place.

“The standard Evangelical teaching is that hell is a place for those who don’t believe in Jesus ….More often than not, biblical references to hell and judgment are in response to social evils carried out in the here and now.

“For example, Jesus preaches hell for those who harm children, he preaches hell for those who fail to welcome strangers or provide basic necessities for those in need, he preaches hell for those who hoard excessive wealth, and he really goes off on hypocritical religious leaders who use their faith as a mask to hide their own complicity in such things….”

Now those things are very riveting. Hellish even.   

                                             

from Leiden Special 

“Sometimes I Wonder Which Side God is On.”

The title of this post is from “The Longest Day,” a 1962 movie about D-Day from the points of view of the American army and the German army. During the movie each commander on each side says, “Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on.” Back in 1962, this was a lightbulb-flash moment for me. Everyone thinks God is on their side, even the “bad guys.” I was thirteen.

The lectionary readings for the UCC on July 28 brought this up, once again, in 2019. The first reading was from Hosea, and is one that many of us would rather skip over because God is vengeful, cruel, and misogynist. The second reading is from Luke and Jesus describes God as a father who would care for you no matter what. Reading them together is spiritual whiplash.

Our nation, and Christianity is experiencing a fissure. The U.S. has had fissures since the beginning. Now the fissure is wider because it is now so simplistic. Evil is defined by which political party you belong to, which church you go to. In skimming Biblical commentaries I found a “RedState.something” site. Its headline: Jesus was NOT a Refugee or an Immigrant.  A Huff Post column was headed: Guess What: Jesus was a Refugee. Do these people all read the same New Testament?

Which of God’s sides am I on?

Thanksgiving dinners are no longer long heated debates about issues; they are very short: Who did you vote for? Trump or Hillary? Who is a true Christian? Jerry Falwell or Desmond Tutu. Everything after that is a shouting match.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is “God is still talking.” In which case, the Bible is still being written. What will we write? What stories will we hand down? Which images of God will we bring forth?

How will our nation, our Christianity, ever reconcile and heal? Which teachings of our faith will aid in the healing? [By that I do not mean everyone agrees on everything.] Or do we want our side to “win?” 

Miroslav Volf in his book “Exclusion and Embrace” says he was asked about cetniks, the Serbian guerrilla force who was responsible for atrocities in his native country. Someone asked if he could embrace one of these fighters.

He answered, “Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” 

Him and me both.

The New New Testament, 3019 C.E.

If, as the United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking,” it must also be true that the Bible is still being written. What will be in the New New Testament?

The present Bible was started 3,400 years ago (depending on how you count). It was completed around 90 C.E. or 1,900 years ago. So, it was written over a period of 1,500 years. The specifics are debatable, but you get the picture. A long long time.

I’m thinking ahead about 1,000 years. Should humanity have not committed suicide by then, some scholars may wonder what 20th-21st century Christianity looked like.

The Bible Bible is a wondrous book of tales, contradictory rules, questionable history, sex, ponderings about divinity and humanity, poetry, love, crime, conflict, hope, all seen through the lens of a people’s relationship with their God. So will the next one be.

Logically, the New New Testament (NNT) should begin 90 C.E., when the last one ended, but my current number of brain cells can’t cope. I will start using the method I’m most familiar with: off the top of my head.

Let’s go with the obvious first: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, sections of at least one of his books will be included. 

Marvelous tales: Lewis’ friend, J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories would fit in with David and Goliath and the Ark stories. As would A Wrinkle in Time.

No doubt the scholars will come across the Left Behind series, which would not show up in my Bible version, but will no doubt end up in some version.

And whose stories will be told? Dorothy Day via columns from the “Catholic Worker;” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the work of Reconciliation in South Africa; Simone Weil, creepy but popular; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; MLK, Jr. 

In the Psalms section: Gerard Manley Hopkins. He is 19th century, but I love him and it’s my bible. W.H. Auden, Carolyn Forche, Denise Levertov, David Whyte.

I’d wait another 200 years to see whether Joel Osteen’s writing stands the test of time, or that of Tammy Faye Bakker, or Rick Warren, or Oral Roberts. 

My Books of the Bible are shamefully English-language centered, but that’s what lives at the top of my head.

I suspect that the NNT will not be limited to Christians. The search for the divine is not limited; the People of God are no longer a small group, but an encompassing people. 

I encourage you to create a list of Books/ Stories/ People/ Poems for the NNT. It is an exercise in Seeing Biblically. The world we live in is full of “biblical life,” that is, the stories of how people struggle with the idea of the Divine. The Bible is not dead, but passed along in thousand-year chunks. Future people will learn from us, so let’s think about it now.

Destruction of the Sacred

When the British first came to North America, it was a continent of thriving civilizations. The nations here had politics, art, music, poetry, family life traditions. So different was this culture from England’s however, that it was invisible to them. The colonists saw a vast, open space, a wilderness for them to shape into their own future.

Perhaps most invisible were the “churches,” places where people gathered to encounter the sacred, worship, sing praise, enact rituals.

None of these places looked anything like Notre Dame Cathedral. Older than Notre Dame, these gifts from the Creator were sought out by American Indians* for communication with the Divine.

Far way in Paris, I, and a few million other people, entered a space that took the breath right out of our bodies. Notre Dame’s building with buttresses and ceilings, arches, artworks, most especially the Rose windows, is a glorious manifestation of how people honor the sacred. The history of the construction of the Cathedral contains beauty, exploitation, politics, sacrifice, dedication, and artistry. One iconic story about the building is the stone mason who spent months carving a small part of the exterior that could not be seen. It was his gift to God. It is impossible to summarize all the elements that the Cathedral embodies. Standing inside, there was no need to know any of that. Words have little use in places like that. Music perhaps, but no words. When words fail, God is there. Now, watching the flaming spire topple is a heartbreaking lesson in our own fragility.

, The annihilation of American Indian people’s cathedrals has been a slow, piece by piece destruction. Under the surface of these places are gold, oil, commercial minerals, uranium, the fuels of our economy. This “wilderness” is the perfect place to dump nuclear waste. After all this time, American Indian civilizations are still invisible.

Church buildings seek to create sacred spaces. Actors and musicians who have performed at the First Congregational Church talk about the special feeling inside our building. The history and souls of the congregants reverberate within its walls.

Other sacred places are simply found. The Celts refer to these as “thin places,” places where heaven and earth open to each other. Once a place is recognized as sacred, even after the people move on, the sacredness of the land remains imbedded in that place. Abandoned churches may be converted (sic) to stores or apartments, but sacred places like Bears Ears in Utah, cannot be. 

Some sacred places are targeted for destruction because they are visible. Black churches, synagogues, mosques represent people who gather there to worship. They are centers of love, and targets of hate. And so they suffer graffiti, broken windows, burning. Native sacred sites are targeted for destruction because they do not exist to us. They are targeted because we want the elements they hold within themselves. To extract what our economy wants, we must level monuments, open mine pits, scrape off layers of earth, build roads and machinery, send exhaust and toxins into the air and water. What is most valued are the elements torn from the arms of the Earth.

The land itself is sacred. The only way to destroy these cathedrals is to destroy the Earth itself.

  • Some American Indians prefer “Indigenous People,” or “Native Americans.” I use “Indian” to honor my late friend, Carole LaFave, Ojibway. She, family and friends preferred it. 
  • Russel Means: “The one thing I’ve always maintained is that I’m an American Indian. I am not politically correct.”

Where are You hiding? Prayer

 

Where are You hiding in this bleak time?

The grey sky is covering where I stand.

I cannot think.

I cannot reach out to You.

.

This is Your time to see me

To hold me

This is Your time to sing my praises,

Dig in the rubble

And search for my heart.

Or at least to hold my hand.

.

Prayer is Music

“We are a community of believers, questioners, and questioning believers. We strive to be open and affirming to all. We sometimes disagree, yet love one another as we wade through the joy and pain of spiritual growth. We endeavor to worship God together, follow the example of Jesus, embody the Holy Spirit, support each other, and serve our neighbors, near and far.”   Official Statement of 1st Congregational Church, Ashfield, MA, UCC

 

What does prayer mean to a congregation of “believers, questioners, and questioning believers”? Does God hear our petitions and decide whether to answer yes or no? Does prayer focus our energy on someone who is suffering and that energy aids the person? Does prayer do anything?

Each Sunday, joining in prayer is singing with each other. Regardless of the words in a song, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “Ubi Caritas,” the music shifts our spirits and we join with each other. Prayer is music, it brings us to a place of sacred attention when we are alone or all together. However each of us envisions God, we yearn to align ourselves with Wisdom, Compassion, Justice, and Love. Wherever we seek God, in nature, in our neighbor, in church, in silence, we yearn to find the Source of All and trust that it is good. Prayer is an expression of that yearning, of our deepest concerns and desires.

While praying we release ourselves from the necessary questions such as “Who or What is God?” We enter the space that we want to understand more about and explore. Afterwards we read books and discuss and give our brains a good work out.

If nothing else, prayer allows us to open to each other. It gives us, as Buddhists would say, an opportunity to glimpse the Interbeing of all. Prayer is a map we both follow and draw as we go.

Those old prayers and hymns we sometimes recite and sing are the memories of those seekers before us. Something in those prayers opened their hearts, gave them courage, and urged them to follow their path.

Prayers are not recipes or formulae, they are love poems. They need not be factual, but they must be true.   

– Kate Braestrup, “Beginning Grace”

 

Touching the Water: A Poem

Rev. Kate Stevens led a prayer circle in solidarity with Standing Rock Water Protectors. A bottle filled with water from the Missouri River at Standing Rock and local sacred waters sat in the middle. Kate put her hands on the bottle and everyone touched someone who was touching someone who was touching the water.

Touching the Water

For our ancestors, wise and unwise

..

Their blood flows like water through time

and settles for a while in our veins,

warm and nourishing and

with a long blood memory.

..

There is no “my blood” to sacrifice or

“my water” to drink,

no “this blood”

“this water,”

only blood

only water.

..

The Jew said,

Hath not a Jew eyes,

organs, dimensions, senses,

affections, passions,

healed by the same means,

harmed by the same weapons,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer

as a Christian?

If you prick us do we not bleed?

..

Only one blood to spill

One water to sail upon

One blood remembering all as it flows through us,

as we struggle to forget.

One water aware of all as it flows around us,

as we flounder in forgetfulness.

..

One sacred duty for our very brief time here:

Remember.

 

Explaining Post-Jesus Christianity to Liberals

Slightly Revised edition

post-jesus-bus

by Rev. Kellie Banter, preacher to the 1%.

(Republican Church and its enforcer Donald Trump. Bible by Ayn Rand)

Chapter One: Blessed Are the Rich, for They Inherited the Earth

Jesus insisted that the poor would inherit the earth.  He was wrong.  The rich have inherited the earth. It is all theirs. They can chew it up and spit it out if they want, as they do. Let’s just call it a bad financial forecast.

I’m not a rich person right now, but The American Dream may still hit me a home run. In the meantime, I am preparing the ground for my arrival in the Promised Land. For example, I’ll vote with Post-Jesus Christians (aka Republicans) on their budget plan once they get one. The only people who would increase taxes of rich people are those who have given up  hope of ever becoming a rich person.  That attitude is both un-American and communistic.

Chapter Two: The Donald Trumps of Their Era

On one web forum, I made the mistake of referring to the twelve disciples as “poor fishermen.” Almost before I could click “send,” I got a response from a student of the Bible: “The twelve disciples were the Donald Trumps of their time.” Apparently, they each owned three houses and had many servants. Who knew? This revelation turned the New Testament right-side up for me.

When Jesus said he would make the twelve apostles fishers of men, they thought he was letting them in on a new mortgage lending scheme. Imagine their horror when he started antagonizing potential customers by insulting them, and trashing competitors‘ tables outside the Temple. Some people just can’t take a little free market competition.

The Apostles kept trying to show Jesus the error of his ways.  He got impatient with them, but they never lost patience with him. Until the inevitable happened.

They weren’t surprised when he got the death penalty; that’s where people like him end up. You didn’t see them holding signs, “Crucifixion is Murder!” or “Torture is Against God’s Law!”  Everyone knows the best way to avoid the death penalty is to get rich. Jesus was not much of a role model in this regard.

Chapter 3:  All Kinds of Sickness that You Clearly Deserve

(Matthew 4:23) “And Jesus went about all Galilee… preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.”

Tell me this: if Jesus could actually heal the sick, why is there any sickness left?  He told his followers to go heal the sick. They didn’t have much luck, so they invented health insurance.

Jesus told us we must heal the sick, the poor, the hungry, no matter who they are… a kind of Judean Obamacare.  No profit there. Repeal that.

I used to think that the Kingdom of God was a  land filled with all kinds of people from all over the world and their pets, laughing and eating and sharing desserts.  That was before Ron Paul painted a new picture for me. At a past Republican debate, he preached the new Post-Jesus Christianity: the Kingdom of God is where we step over people who are in comas because they were too stupid to get health insurance.  After all, fair’s fair and freedom is freedom.  He didn’t actually call it Post-Jesus Christianity, but those who have ears shall hear.

Next month: Blessed Are the War-Makers for They Get the Spoils

 

 

 

More Bible Stuff

smith1webWith “Color-Coded Bibles” and “Leggo My Jesus” posts, I thought I’d finished writing about the proliferation of bible versions. After the American Patriots’ Bible and the Leggo (Brick) Bible, what more interesting could be said? So far the Adam-was-white bible version has not been published. They may still be writing verses to boost their claim. (Now that Steve Bannon is advising the Trump team, it may appear sooner than we’d like.)

But lo! In the New Books section of Meekins Library, this appeared: The Murderous History of Bible Translations !  The revealing subtitle given by author Harry Freedman is “Power, Conflict, and the Quest for Meaning.”

Of course I went straight to the index to look up Leggos, but found only “Logos”: not the same thing.

I did find a fascinating chapter on Julia Smith, born 1792, the first woman to translate the bible from original texts (no, not that kind of texts). She did the translations, not for publication or public use, but because she was interested. She somehow got hold of a Hebrew Old Testament, a feat in itself at the time. I won’t attempt to summarize the life of Julia and her sisters; just know that they are foremothers of all independent, thoughtful women. Julia made her last public appearance addressing the Connecticut State Suffrage Association at age ninety-one.

I highly suggest this book, if only for the chapter on Julia Smith. Here is one quote: “….one newspaper, which had not even seen her translation, declared it simply proved that some women will deign to do things for which they are not suited.”

A good motto for all of us.

Many Doorsteps

That Doorstep

That doorstep trips you up every time.

Look down, the key is under the bucket.

Look up, watch your head.

Watch, don’t let the cat out.

Look behind, or the screen door will hit you.

Put your bag down; it tips over.

Look down, the key is not under the bucket.

Look up, bang your head,

Hold the screen with your elbow,

Kick the door with your heel. No one answers.

The cat sits between your legs.

.

The Stoop

The concrete is hot. It must be summer.

The streetlight sputters on. It must be evening.

The Mallory’s slide open their window. There must be a breeze.

Cousin Jimmy has his guitar. There must be no work.

Mom and Mary Ryan sit down to stretch their legs. Dinner must be cooked.

I sit on the bottom step, feet planted on the sidewalk.

A cat between my legs.

.

The Wheelchair Doorstep

Someone must see it is raining.

Someone must be working the door.

It can’t be long now, can it?

Surely someone will come soon.

I back up, rev up my arms and rush the doorstep.

The tiny front wheels catch the lip and tip me forward.

Surely someone will come soon.

See me in the rain outside

A cat upon my lap.

.

That Last Doorstep

He’s lain there unmoving,

Waiting for God knows what.

The nurses lied on his chart –

He has not eaten in days.

His eyes have not opened,

His throat has not moaned.

He’s lain there unmoving,

Waiting for .…

.

He is waiting for the precise moment.

Relax, he’s been waiting a lifetime for this moment.

The exact right moment.

Some sound in his silence,

Listening for that precise breath

To choose to be his last.

Before stepping over.

.

I nestle under his chin.

Feel my purr echo in this chest.