We Waited for You

George Bush

If our loved ones wait for us in heaven, are we also greeted by those we have harmed? December 1st was World AIDS Day, and I couldn’t help but think of over one hundred thousand Americans who died of AIDS during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, while he blamed people for their illness, and lagged on funding to find a cure.  With great power comes great responsibility.

While many people were moved by the cartoon by Marshall Ramsey, showing the former president being reunited with Barbara and his little daughter Robin, I started wondering about heaven.  At heart, I am a Universalist.  I believe that no one goes to hell, that in the end, we are all gathered into the arms of Divine Love.  I don’t know what that might look like, exactly, but if we survive beyond death, all of us are gathered together, no one is left out.

But that does raise further questions about harm and punishment, about whether there is any judgement for those who have been truly malicious in this life.  I cannot make that kind of judgement about Bush.  I don’t know his measure of good or evil.  But here is what I imagine.  When he arrives at the “gate,” he is greeted by all of those people who died of AIDS.  He is greeted by those whose ashes were hurled onto his lawn at the white house by ACT UP on October 11, 1992.  He is greeted by the hundred thousand from this country, and the million from all over the world.

In the infinity which is eternity, before he can celebrate with Barbara and Robin, he must sit down with each person who died of AIDS under his watch. He must listen to their stories, get to know who they were: what they loved, what they missed out on, whether they were cared for in the end, or abandoned by family or friends.  He must listen to each of those heart-breaking human stories, with no barriers, and let his heart break open. And then, in that place beyond any time, all are gathered into the Everlasting Arms.

 

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God is not an angry judge

The God of judgement has been a prevalent theme throughout the course of American history because of the influence of John Calvin. He lived from 1509-1564, and was an important figure in the Protestant Reformation in Europe; he was heavily influenced himself by the earlier work of St. Augustine. Calvin’s teachings became known as Calvinism. He is important to our American story because the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to America were Calvinists.

Calvin preached the total depravity of human beings. Because of original sin, he said, all human beings were born evil, and had no capacity to goodness or to connection to God. However, according to Calvin, God chose to unleash his anger on Jesus, who willingly died so that some people could be granted salvation. The people who were saved were called the “elect,” or the chosen. These people were predestined to holiness, and all other people were doomed to bear the anger of God for their sins, and to suffer in hell. It did not matter whether you tried to be good—that wasn’t enough to get you into heaven.

This was the preaching of the earliest New England pastors, and it was revitalized in a religious movement known as the Great Awakening in the early 1700’s. The Great Awakening was marked by an appeal to emotion, rather than intellect, and the goal was to provoke emotional conversion experiences. If you had one of these conversion experiences, it was considered a sign that you might be among the elect. Again, these were “fire and brimstone” sermons—lifting up the torments of sin and hell, and the likelihood of damnation if one didn’t find salvation.Firey Furnace MJ DSC02606_2

But some preachers found a different inspiration. They asked, “If God is our father, then how can a father condemn his children?” People knew how much they loved their own children. If as human beings they only wanted the best for their children, wouldn’t a heavenly father be even more loving than we could be. Wouldn’t a father want to save all of his children from the torments of hell?

A man named John Murray had asked these questions in England, and been branded a heretic. He came to America in 1770 to try to get away from all that. There is a wonderful story about him being shipwrecked off the coast of New Jersey, right where a farmer named Thomas Potter had built a chapel, waiting for someone who would preach about universal salvation. And so John Murray did.

This was the beginning of the religious movement in American called Universalism: a deep devotion to the idea that God is love, and that God’s love reached everyone, and there was no such thing as hell. This was quite a radical notion in 18th century America. The most influential of the early Universalist preachers was the Rev. Hosea Ballou. He and others went around the countryside, spreading their message among the working people and farmers, and many Universalist churches were started. When the preacher Rev. Thomas Barnes came to Maine in 1799, that was the start of Universalism in Portland, and the beginnings of my own congregation.

People used to argue with Hosea Ballou—they would say, “if there is no threat of hell, why would anyone be good, or obey the law.” Ballou used to respond, “what kind of goodness is it, if you are only doing it to avoid hell? I don’t need the threat of hell to practice goodness.”