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A friend of mine likes to repeat something that her father said, and in all truth it is something we should repeat and often.  I know I won’t get it entirely right but it goes something like this:

No matter where you end up, heaven or hell, you are going to be surprised by who you see along side you.  And, really, many of them will be just as surprised to see you.

Think about it for a minute.  Many of the people we’ve labeled bad or irredeemable, they are among the saved.  In spite of the very worst thing that they did, they are among the chosen.

And, in spite of our church going and sermonizing, we don’t get a vote.  Not a one of us.  All that time you spent pointing out your brother’s sins, marching around carrying that sign? Pfft.  You get no say.  I get no say.  God?  Salvation and grace come through Him alone.

And in all truth, that’s a comforting thought.

 

 

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My friend Alice doesn’t. I do, but…it’s complicated. Case in point: Charles Manson, who shuffled off this mortal coil this week. I was only four when the Manson murders were perpetrated, but old enough by the time of the trials to be afraid of him and his followers. And not just because they were hippies. (My parents, born at the tail end of The Greatest Generation, frequently opined on the dangers of hippies and their “pot parties,” which, in my childish naiveté, I thought involved actual pots and pans — to what end, I had no idea.)

Let’s face it, Charlie Manson was a thoroughly awful human being. Yes, he had a bad childhood, but not every person who has a bad childhood grows up to direct some of the most brutal murders ever committed. But he was no genius, either. The murders were messy, uncoordinated, bungled. The intended targets (Dennis Melcher, for one) were never killed — in both cases, the killers got the addresses wrong. They couldn’t even spell “Helter Skelter” correctly.

But that’s beside the point. The point is: Could Charles Manson be saved? Could he go to heaven? If you believe in an all-loving, all-forgiving God, this seems like a real possibility. Except for one thing: I don’t think he would choose heaven. Time after time, throughout his life, Charlie chose prison. He was admittedly more comfortable there. Could our eternal salvation depend on whether or not we choose redemption? I think it could.

It sounds like a no-brainer: Choose an eternity of happiness or an eternity of torture. But when it comes to the human equation, I don’t think it’s that easy. I think a person has to love him or herself enough to allow for the possibility of happiness, whether in this life or the next one. I’m not sure everyone is capable of that.

You could argue that Mr. Manson had no shortage of self-love, what with surrounding himself with adoring acolytes and even claiming to be the Son of God. Still, he also chose for himself repeated incarceration, when he could have had a normal life on the outside. He chose to murder his detractors. Someone with healthy self-esteem doesn’t do that. He chose to wallow in his bad beginnings. He’s just the type to spit in God’s eye when offered divine mercy.

So what does this all boil down to? Yes, I believe in hell. But I also believe in human participation in one’s own damnation. In the end, you get the eternity you ask for. That’s free will, folks. It is also an object lesson: Choose love. Always choose love. Your “forever” might just depend on it.

“It’s no big deal,” my sister says on the phone of her recent hysterectomy. “Of all my surgeries, it was the easiest.” Of course, this is a woman who has had surgery on her eyeball. And endured a double mastectomy. It is not surprising to me that she is stoic. She knows the way of pain.

The way of pain is also Jesus’ way. Imagine, if you will, being tortured for hours by Roman guards, kept up all night, having a crown of thorns digging inexorably into your head…then being loaded up with a wooden crucifix you can barely lift and having to drag it to your own execution site. All this before getting nailed to said cross and dying of exsanguination or collapsed lungs or shock or all three. And yet the gospel-writers never include anything about Jesus hollering curses or demanding morphine or even venting slightly with a few cross words (pun intended). Jesus takes on the worst physical pain — and the pain of all the sins of the world — and still finds time to take care of his mother, forgive a thief and absolve his murderers. Now that is something.

Pain is lonely. It cuts a person off from others. There is no “sharing” pain; each person’s pain is unique. When I broke my ankle many years ago, I felt pretty bad. Then a friend of mine related the story of how she broke her ankle. Just hearing the story made me know that what I was experiencing was, frankly, laughable.

Pain is dehumanizing, reducing most of us to our worst selves. When an animal is in pain, it may hide. If confronted, it will bite. We humans do this too, in our own way. Neither strategy lessens the pain, but the kind of thinking that goes along with pain is seldom rational.

Pain has become something of a dirty word in this country. We will go to great lengths to extinguish it with pills, shots and other tinctures, both of the legal and illegal variety. No one wants to walk through pain. But pain is also salvific: It is perhaps our only means of intersecting our life experience with that of Christ. I will never be able to multiply loaves and fishes, but I can certainly understand how it feels to hurt.

Holy Week is coming up next week, a week wherein we remember Jesus’ suffering and his triumph over death. It seems an opportune time to reflect on the pain in our lives. We all experience pain, physical, mental or spiritual. But what we do with that pain matters. Non-Catholics tease Catholics over the use of the phrase, “Give it up to God.” We use it a lot, for everything from small deprivations to devastating losses. But what that phrase means is this: With this experience, I am touching, in the tiniest way, the way of the cross and the way of Christ. This provides an opportunity for something special — to choose Jesus’ response of understanding, acceptance and sanctification or to allow myself to be diminished.

The way of pain is not the easy way. It is not something to strive for. But when it is thrust upon us, as it inevitably is, it is a place of possibility. And in this place, we are at one with God.

 

 

hands-water-poor-povertyI love those moments when someone answers a question that I’ve had for years and they don’t even know they’ve done it.  This year, Presbyterian women are working through a study called Come to the Water. The most recent lesson was on baptism.

Symbolically, baptism is a beautiful thing.  A sign of community, it signifies that we are all reborn in Christ.  Amazing!

But, as is true with so many things, it can also become a stumbling block.  What’s the right way to baptize?  Sprinkling, pouring, or emersion?  Infant, at confirmation or adult?  In private or in public? And then there’s the biggie – is it necessary for salvation?

In one Presbyterian word, no.  I know other denominations believe baptism is essential but in the Presbyterian Church USA we are reborn through Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. Not baptism.

And that is something that I’ve wondered about for years. What if someone accepts Christ into their heart but isn’t baptized?  Are they truly saved?  I’ve always wanted to believe that they are.  After all, to say that they aren’t saved is to say that being sprinkled, doused or dunked is more important that accepting Christ.  It says that the human element (baptism) is more important than Christ.

That’s an awful lot of power for beings as fragile and fickle as we.  I’m relieved to know we don’t actually wield it. I’d much rather depend on our loving Father and the Grace of Christ.

–SueBE

Hosanna“What does hosanna mean?” This was the question that Pastor Sean asked during the children’s message.  My friend and I in our choir pew were certain we knew.  “Wow. Adoration. Praise.”

Fortunately, Pastor wasn’t asking us, because we were in for a surprise.  It actually means save us.

Wow.

It took some time for that to sink in.  The delay wasn’t because we were wrong.  We’re used to being wrong.  We’re the mothers of teen boys.  It comes with the territory.

It was the perfection of it.

Save us.

What a perfect way to greet the Savior whose grace opens the way and creates a path for all who would follow him. It’s perfection, because we can’t do it on our own.

Left to us, Easter focuses on candy and new clothes, Easter egg hunts and Pinterest worthy brunches.

Left to us, salvation becomes something we have to earn. Left to our own devices, we try to buy salvation with good works and to assure ourselves that we are more worthy than that guy over there.

Hosanna.

Save us.

Save us with your mercy.

Save us with your grace.

Save us from the foolishness

of thinking we can do it ourselves.

–SueBE

Lent is nearly over. Holy Week is finally coming into view over the crest of the hill. Our slogging days are almost done.

Most of us think of Lent as a trying time. By the time you get to the end of it, you ought to feel pretty beat up — rent in two by anguish for your sinfulness; exhausted — spent — by self-denial. Not me. I’m flying high these days.

The watchwords of Lent (notably, wait and watch) can place us in a state of cautious anxiety. But let’s look at them another way. Wait and watch! A miracle is about to happen! Jesus is about to defeat death with a spectacular roundhouse punch. And then, guess what? We all win. (Say it like Oprah:) You get a resurrection! And you get a resurrection!

It’s as if a complete stranger won the lottery, then offered you a huge cut for no particular reason. We don’t deserve life after death. Nothing we can do in life can make up for our sinfulness. And yet, in the end, we don’t have to do anything. Life eternal is handed to us. All we need do is follow Christ. He is the ultimate generous lottery winner, only he didn’t do it through luck — he did it through humiliation, suffering, blood and death. He did it so we don’t have to.

Let us spend the last remaining days of Lent basking in a love so big, death could not contain it. As the line goes in one of my favorite movies, “I’ve got wings and I’m going to heaven…baby!” Won’t you join me in celebrating?

The winter of Ash Wednesday
becomes the spring of Easter.
And we like, like lilies,
turn our heads
Godward
inexplicably saved
from our greatest foe.
We shall not be cut down,
but grow ceaselessly
in heaven’s green forever.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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