Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

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Abundant Love

According to Rev. Gordon McKeeman, the Universalists introduced the belief in a God who loved so abundantly that he would drag “the last unrepentant sinner, kicking & screaming, into heaven.”

Wow! A God who loves so much, who wants joy and blessing for all people, even if we have to be dragged into it against our will. It is such a gospel of hope, in contrast with the harsh and judgmental gospel of Calvinism.

One of the questions another of my colleagues, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, asks is why didn’t Universalism spread all over this country? Who could resist a religion with no hell?  Why was it so much harder to believe in a God of overwhelming love than in doctrines like the virgin birth or the resurrection? He answers his own question like this:

What we yearn for is unconditional love but it is contradicted by our experience. Instead, the principle message each of us received over and over again was this: behave and be loved, behave and be loved. The implication is: those who are good and compliant are loved, all others not. Universalism calls this “partialism.” In other words, people have taken their own experience of conditional, judgmental, imperfect human love and ascribed it to God.

What does it mean to believe that God is love? The phrase may have become so familiar that we almost don’t hear it anymore. One of the letters in the Bible says it, “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God in them.” We can get derailed if we imagine God as an all powerful ruler sitting on a throne granting favors. Then, if something tragic happens to us, we feel that God must not love us. But if God is love, then the image of favor-granting dictator doesn’t work. God is more like the Sun, shining on everything and giving life to everything, no matter what, enabling all things to unfold in the way that they will by being alive.

Sun Shining on People

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Quote from Mark Morrison-Reed from “Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven

Every Person Is Sacred

Star in logOne purpose of spirituality is to restore our connection to each other, or rather, to wake up our awareness to the connection that already exists. We are always connected, but we forget, we lose hold of it, we suffer from the illusion that we are separate. Spirituality is our experience of being a part of the larger whole. Spirituality is restoring our awareness of our connection to the earth, to other people, and to the Mystery at the heart of our vast universe. All of it is one.

Every person is sacred, and we are all one family. The early Universalists said that everyone was getting into heaven. As that belief evolved over the years, they began to say that there was something of heaven, something of God, something of truth in all people and all religions. The circle kept expanding. Today, some of my beloved congregation members don’t even believe in heaven, but we all believe in the common circle of human beings. We profess that everyone is sacred and everyone is welcome.

I am reminded of one of my favorite stories about heaven. Everyone was gathered around the pearly gates, waiting for judgment day, when a rumor started going around.
Did you hear that God’s going to let everybody into heaven?”
You mean, whether or not you followed the commandments?”
That’s what I heard! Even murderers and heathens!”

Well, some people started griping.
I’ve worked hard to be good all my life! I don’t want to be thrown in with sinners!”
And others complained, “I can’t believe he’s going to let in the perverts and the terrorists!”

Finally, God showed up. And sure enough, everyone was welcomed into heaven. But a few proclaimed, “We’re not going in with sinners and heathens!” So they were the only ones who remained outside.

On this spiritual journey, we choose to open our hearts to all people. We learn to see that which is divine in all people. When I think of that kind of vision, I think of a story about Dorothy Day. She was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, of which I was a part for seven years. Catholic Workers live in houses of hospitality to serve the homeless and poor, while working for peace and justice. One day a donor came into the Catholic Worker house and gave Dorothy Day a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented homeless lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman.Diamond

Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman’s rent for a year?” Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?” Dorothy looked for the treasure in each person who came through the door.

Story recounted in the essay “A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day’s Witness to the Gospel” by Jim Forest