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 Love

FriendsTo me, the statement that “God is Love” can evoke a person who stands close by through thick and thin, the friend who doesn’t run away when you have to go to the hospital, or when you make a big mistake. The one who doesn’t mind that you have faults, that you get cranky sometimes, or feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world. The friend who doesn’t mind when you get into a controlling mood, but just shakes you a little, and says, “relax.”

For many people, the image of a God who loves us unconditionally like a father or a friend is very powerful. We imagine God as a person because we are persons, and it can help us to relate to that God; we model it on our closest human connections. That is one way of understanding the idea that God is love. But for other people, that image of a person doesn’t work. To say that God is love means that God does not have to be imagined as a person who loves us. God can be understood as the very flow and energy of love itself: that energy that moves between people and connects us and empowers us.

Ultimately, it matters less how or if we imagine God, and it matters more how we are living our lives—if we are living in love, then God is inside our very living. And there doesn’t have to be just one image or one story—we might ask instead what does it mean that Love is at the center of the universe?

Of course, love is another one of those overused words that become hard to really understand. Love is based on the essential connections between people, and the sacredness within people. When we love someone we see the beauty in them, the gift of their being, and we know that it matters to us that they are alive. When we are loved by someone, we feel the beauty in ourselves, the gift of our own being, reflected in our connection to another. We feel seen. We feel alive in relationship to others.

Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed says that “the great insight of Universalism is that you cannot coerce people into loving one another.” He says,

No one has ever or will ever draw true love out of another with punishment. God’s love is given to all and is a more positive force for good than fear ever will be. Behind this is a simple truth: in being loved we learn to love. Those who are loved will in turn love others. Those who feel God’s infinite love within themselves will in turn feel so good about themselves, so connected to life and so full of compassion that they will not be able to help but to spread that love for they will overflow with it.

There is a traditional Quaker hymn that says “Love is Lord in heaven and earth.” Love wins. Universalism was called the gospel of success. When the Universalists opened the doors to heaven, that led the way to opening the doors here on earth. Over time they opened up their churches to expanding ideas of religion—they began to see that there must be wisdom and truth and holiness in all religions, and they reached out to learn from others. They were open to the wisdom of science and the blessing of nature. Where ever love was, that was holiness and truth.

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

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.”

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