imagesWhat does hell look like?

Is it fiery and hot or dark and cold? Does it exist at all outside of our minds?

I visited hell in 1992. It was in an AIDS ward in an LA hospital. There I met a young black woman, clinging to life but already in purgatory.

She was in a gray place, neither dark nor light, hot nor cold, caught in transition between the best and worst of her life.  She was tormented by the demons of her past – years on the street and a dependence on drugs – but sustained by love.

The staff attending her was literally counting the days.  Most were surprised she had held on so long.  What kept her alive, I was told, was her fierce determination to make sure her six-year old daughter was taken care of after she was gone.

The word “hell” comes from the old English. Literally, it means “to separate” or “to build a wall around.” To be “helled” was to be shut off from.

All who love can relate to the torment this woman felt at the thought of being separated from the one she loved most deeply. It was truly Hell.

“Diabolic” comes from a word meaning “to divide.” Diabolic forces separate us from each other and God. In our lives they find expression in ego, anger, pride, nationalism, racism, envy, ignorance, and greed. These are the forces of darkness.

With the affluence of our society and the increasing polarization of resources, separating ourselves from others becomes easier and at times seems almost inevitable.  Increasingly, we are tempted to create boundaries of geography, blood, and race.  It is not difficult to become convinced of our preciousness, independence, and self-sufficiency.   It is not difficult to fell threatened by those who look or seem different.

But we cannot close others out without shutting ourselves in. When we do this we walk willingly into a prison of our own making.  The walls we put up for our protection serve only to isolate us, leaving us lonely and alone.

By contrast, “heaven” means “harmony.” If demonic forces divide, love unites.

Heaven on earth will not be possible until we are able to get beyond the superficial elements that divide us and realize that the only thing that separates us from each other and God is the belief that we are separate.

That’s where Hell is.  And it is now, not then.

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images-1I never thought I would be grateful for bingo.

My wife had just graduated from college and started her first job when her mother had a brain aneurysm.   She quit work and spent the next two years tending to her mother’s needs and seeing to her rehabilitation.

Once her mother stabilized and it became clear she would never fully recover, my wife assumed the responsibility of hiring, training, and supervising the aides and attendants necessary to support her mother, as well as, providing food and shelter. When we married, we carried on together until her mom’s caretaking became more than we could handle at home. Reluctantly, we decided to place her in a nursing home.

This was a difficult decision for all of us. My wife took our inability to continue caring for her mother as something of a personal failure. For me, the decision resurrected a lot of painful memories of nursing homes I had investigated for the U. S. Senate. After that experience, I swore I would never put a family member in a nursing home.

We knew it was the last place her mother wanted to be; but, happily, she settled in quickly. While there were indeed some unpleasant aspects to the transition, there were also some pleasant surprises.

Chief among these is the joy she takes in playing Bingo. Bingo sessions are organized twice a week. She always goes and, judging from her accounts, always wins.

I thought the pleasure she took in this was obvious and superficial until the first Christmas approached. Then on one of our visits, she asked my wife to pull a box out from under the bed. When we opened the box we found a strange assortment of things inside – a book, jewelry, toys, and toiletries.

Her mom explained she had purchased these things with the points she had won playing bingo.   With obvious pleasure, she said they were Christmas gifts she wanted us to wrap for her.

After years of being taken care of and continually being on the receiving end, she had finally found a way to give. Nothing I have ever experienced spoke more eloquently to the depth of this need than her excitement as she told us who each gift was for.

Being able to give is one of the great privileges in life. In fact, the ability to give can be said to define human development. If you think about it, infancy is a time of total dependence. Everything has to be given to us. The transition to adolescence begins when we start to become independent and learn to take care of ourselves. The mark of maturity is when we begin to care for others.


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Loving Your Neighbor

imgresArthur Flemming had the distinction of serving every President from Coolidge to Clinton. He was, among other things, a member of the Hoover Commission, Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower, and head of the Department of Aging under Nixon and Carter.

Before entering public service, Arthur briefly considered going to divinity school.  He remained devoutly religious all of his life.  For 65 of his 92 years, he attended Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, taught Sunday school during the first service and sat in the same place, at the end of the fourth pew from the back, for the second service, every Sunday he was in town.

During the week, Arthur had a standing reservation for lunch at Twigs, a restaurant near his office.   Arthur held court there, entertaining a revolving cast of regulars and a seemingly endless supply of new friends.

At least once a month while he lived, I found myself worked into the rotation.  I would receive a call from Arthur’s secretary inviting me to join him for lunch, sometimes that same day, sometimes a couple of weeks in advance. I rarely knew Arthur’s agenda, but I never turned down an invitation.

We talked about health care reform. We talked about aging. We talked politics. We talked religion. We talked about life.

On one of these occasions, Arthur began a discourse on applied Christianity.  He said the most difficult theological question for him to understand and apply was the notion of loving your neighbor.

With a wry smile, he said, “As you have undoubtedly noticed there are a lot of disagreeable people in the world.  Some of our neighbors are very difficult to like.”

Arthur found the solution to his dilemma in a sermon he heard in England during World War II – a time when the consequences of loving, as well as not loving, our neighbors were abundantly evident.

The answer, Arthur said, lies in the difference between loving and liking and the reason we do one or the other or both.

“There is no commandment to like our neighbors,” Arthur said.

In choosing to love the neighbors we do not like, we separate who we are from what we do. We can love the essence of an individual without liking the choices they have made or the way they live their lives.  We can love the sinner without approving of the sin.

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God Weeps

images-1My heart is troubled by the atrocities in Paris and the storm of darkness that is brewing around the world, pitting man against man in the name of God.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the things that unite us are much stronger than the things that divide us.

Through the generations, from culture to culture, religion to religion, Moses to Mohammed, Buddha to Christ, whenever men ask the fundamental question of existence – Why are we here? – the answer is the same.

Christians are bound to “love one another as I have loved you.”

The Torah reminds us “deeds of love are worth as much as all the commandments of the law.”

Followers of Islam are taught, “Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”

The religions of the East say the same thing in different ways. Buddhists are taught to “hurt none by word or deed and be consistent in your well-doing.”

Confucius said, “He who loves best his fellow man is serving God in the holiest way he can.”

There is probably no issue with broader agreement:  There is a piece in each of us that is God’s piece. It is the part of ourselves we call our humanity.

This is the piece that responds with care and compassion. This is the part of us that reaches out with kindness and concern.

This is the part that now weeps as we are again compelled to consider man’s inhumanity to man.

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imgresIn l967, John McCain, the son and grandson of prominent Navy admirals and descendent of a Revolutionary War commander, was shot down over Vietnam. He was tortured, held in solitary confinement, and imprisoned for five and a half years. Ten years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives from the State of Arizona and then to the U. S. Senate.

McCain’s run for the Presidency in 2000 earned him the affection of millions of American who came to appreciate his honesty and the strength of his character. But whenever people talk about his courage during the war, he has always made a point of telling them about Mike Christian.

“In l971,” McCain says, “the North Vietnamese moved us from conditions of isolation into large rooms with as many as 30 to 40 men to a room. One of the men moved into my cell was Mike Christian. Mike came from a small town near Selma, Alabama. He didn’t wear a pair of shoes until he was thirteen. At seventeen, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy. Later, he earned his commission and became a Naval flying officer. He was shot down and captured in l967.”

In the cell they shared, McCain watched Christian gather pieces of cloth from the care packages sent to the prisoners of war. Christen found a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and made himself a bamboo needle. Over the period of a couple of months, he sewed an American flag inside his shirt.

“Every afternoon,” McCain remembers, “ before we had a bowl of soup, we would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall of our cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance. I know that saying the Pledge of Allegiance may not seem the most important or meaningful part of our day now, but I can assure you that – for those men in that stark prison cell – it was indeed the most important and meaningful event of our day.”

One day, the Vietnamese searched the cell and discovered Mike’s shirt with the flag sewn inside. They removed it and then returned that evening, telling Christian to come out. They closed the door of the cell and beat him severely for several hours, trying to make an example of him and succeeding in a way that they could not have imagined.

When they threw Christian back in his cell, McCain recalls, his comrades tried to care for him, but everyone knew there was little they could do. He was in bad shape.

“After things quieted down, I went to lie down to go to sleep,” McCain says. “As I did, I happened to look in the corner of the room. Sitting there beneath a dim light bulb, with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth, another shirt and his bamboo needle, was Mike Christian.”

Christian’s eyes were almost swollen shut. His fingers hardly worked well enough to hold the needle. But his spirit was unbroken. He was making another flag.

Through the years, millions of men and women, like Mike Christian, have fought to maintain the liberties we enjoy.   Consider this: George Washington had a total of eleven thousand men at Valley Forge. By March, a third of his men were down with typhus, smallpox, or dysentery. Half of the living had neither shoes nor shirts. In the end, Washington was left with just over 3,000 men standing and able to fight for freedom.

Nearly five million Americans served in the armed forces during World War I. Over 100,000 lost their lives. Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. More than 400,000 died. Fifty-four thousand Americans died in Korea and 58,000 in Vietnam. Many more have since made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other distant places.

In his inaugural address, President Kennedy summed up this sacrifice.  He said, “Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Repeatedly through the years, the valor of good men and women has proven this truth. Terrible as war is, those who defend liberty know there are many things worse, and they are heartened by the knowledge life is only worthwhile when it represents a struggle for a worthy cause.

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