On a vacation with our neighborhood years ago at a campground, my eldest son made a statement which came to me during this last portion of training. He said, “Mom, there isn’t anyplace even in hell that the love of God can’t reach, right?” I said, yes that’s right, unequivocally. That phrase shocked and reorganized my whole theological philosophy in an instant. I’ve been pondering that phrase over and over as I started and restarted this post for days. I knew what I had to do to test it, make it my own so I immersed myself in my own personal hell (mind you I certainly didn’t know what I was doing at the time…but I think God did) And while it wasn’t quite 40 days in the desert…once I came out the other end, I had such clarity and calm. So here is what I came to understand.
To start, I’ve always been uncomfortable with people who use Christianity as a means to get the golden ticket of salvation, i.e. once you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior you’re in the club…or if you followed the prescriptions of the church perfectly you got salvation covered, and everyone else was totally screwed. It doesn’t really work like that. I know it, because Jesus said so. When Jesus told the disciples what the end time would look like, he didn’t separate them by who accepted Jesus and who did not. He didn’t separate them by who were the best rule followers and who were not. He separated them by how well they loved:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life
Jesus also told the story of the a perfect rule follower:
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, ” ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
So I guess what I’m saying is that when you accept Christ, when your heart becomes his heart, you are supposed to be different, see the world in an altogether different light than everyone else. And as a whole, we are not the Body of Christ, as a whole, we haven’t really understood what grasping Jesus as a formula for eternal life was really all about. Arrogant? perhaps, but I asked the question so here is what I got. While I still believe that Grace is offered to all for the taking, I do believe that what is required is so much more than speaking a formula out loud or following a bunch of rules, or making a claim that you are a Christian…that has never been the heart of it. It is, I’ve come to understand, all about redemption.
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus responded, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” He also challenged the disciples at their definition of who their neighbor is. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers and sisters only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect
And how do we love perfectly?…with mercy as Jesus describes in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (you can look this up on your own…Mt 22:34-40) The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us the expectation that mercy be extended to the least of whoever that is in your personal lexicon. You must show them mercy or you have failed embracing Christ, embracing God, on every level. Those that show mercy towards their neighbors get it right. So here is my question: with so many Christians in the world who have supposedly grasped the golden ticket to eternity, why does there seem to be so little of it?
And so my training in learning to wield love led me to hell. And it sucked and there was darkness and despair and there were moments when I didn’t think I could make it because I just couldn’t get what it was that I was supposed to understand. Bloody hell !!!!!(there was much swearing so bear with me), I know Jesus sacrificed his life for us all, for me…I tried to let go and let God. I read scripture, I prayed and then God told me to look in the mirror and then asked me if I thought the person looking back was redeemable, and it hit me like a jack hammer…fuck no. Beyond all the rational and reasonable there was a dark theme that hung in the back of my mind that said you haven’t accomplished what you were put here for, you’re lazy, you’re petulant, you’re arrogant, you’re ugly and old etc, etc. I remembered in the book of John where a woman was caught in adultery and people were going to stone her according to the law. When Jesus stopped them by challenging them on their own sinfulness, he stopped the stoning not because she was innocent, she had sinned, he simply told her not to sin anymore and that he would not condemn her. The way was open to redemption, but she had to do the work. Sadly, those that were willing to throw stones didn’t even know they needed it, and that is by far the greater tragedy. I have to say, that while I may not have seen myself as a stone thrower, I certainly threw enough stones at the woman looking back at me in mirror. I was also the woman caught, and believed that somehow I didn’t deserve redemption (not that I’ve ever been caught in adultery…anal rule follower here). I was driven to those dark places in my own personal hell where I hated myself, the places where I let the great deceiver get into my head and try to try and convince me that I was unworthy by letting the judgments and condemnations slip into my psyche (and yes, I do believe in the devil so get over it). And in the end I put my stones down and extended my hand and let the love of God reach through the darkness. And I felt peace for the first time in awhile, I’m not embarrassed in the slightest to have that part of me exposed…because everyone has it, whether they admit it or not.
So in conclusion, my takeaway on the visit to my own little hell in the last month?…we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves and God with all our hearts, souls and minds because we don’t love ourselves enough to get there. We don’t give ourselves the love and mercy we are supposed to give to God and neighbors and that is where the breakdown lies. So how do we fix that? We look in the mirror every day and believe we are redeemable. I mean really believe it, and are willing to work at the sinning no more part. It also means that you have to venture a bit into your own hell and face up to the parts of yourselves that you think aren’t redeemable. And just like those words of wisdom from a once seven year old…there is no place in hell that the love of God can’t reach. But acknowledgement is the first step. You can’t reach it if you don’t see it and acknowledge that it’s there. And then, when all is revealed, or what you are willing to see…you extend the hand of mercy and with the Grace of God believe that even with all the nasty parts that you hide from the outside world you are worthy of redemption.
I also know that it doesn’t matter if:
You wear the cloth
You are a genius
You are successful
You are beautiful
You are famous
You are powerful
You are popular
You are a leader
You appear to have everything together
YOU HAVE DARKNESS THAT NEEDS TO BE SEEN, ACKNOWLEDGED AND REDEEMED. And like the good Samaritan, offer up a hand of mercy and redemption to the broken parts of you. Jesus will simply say, “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” Wielding love begins here. That is what will distinguish the sheep from the goats…not the formula or the rules, but mercy and redemption.