“The Road to Hell”

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

April 10, 2016

Opening Words: from Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow

I am neither religious nor superstitious, but there is something otherworldly about the space where two roads come together. The devil is said to set up shop there if you want to swap your soul for something more useful. If you believe that God can be bribed, it’s also the hallowed ground to make sacrifices. In the literal sense, it’s also a place to change direction, but once you’ve changed it, you’re stuck until you come to another crossroads, and who knows how long that will be.”
Reading: adapted from “God’s Work,” by Kevin Canty

Jolie: In this short story a teenaged boy goes door to door with his mother, inviting people to prayer meetings. Finally, one man invites them in.

Mark: “So, am I going to hell?,”

Andrea: By my lights you are not. No hellfire and no eternal damnation.

Mark: What then?

Andrea: Nothing.

Mark: Just nothing?

Andrea: A blank eternity.

Mark: That doesn’t sound so bad.

Andrea: Consider the alternative. An eternity of bliss in the company of God himself.

Mark: “You want to get high?”

Andrea: Why, no thank you.

Jolie: That eagle stare he gives her, ignorant and proud. Why do the heathen rage? This happens, some – the sinful man who is proud of his sin. With grace, you can at least be ashamed of your sin.

Mark: “Oblivion,” He is lighting a little brass pipe, smoking and pointing it toward her.

Andrea: I’d ask you not to do that.

Mark: “Why not? If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.”

Andrea: Your soul is at stake.

Mark: “If it’s just nothing, if it’s just oblivion, then I don’t care. I like oblivion. I seek after it. “

Jolie: After a few moments, he calls his daughter in to the room, to point out to her the ridiculous beliefs of these people. The boy is mortified – this girl is a year ahead of him at school, and she is not an outcast, as he is. But later in the week she shows up at the Fellowship, asking, “There’s no Hell? There’s really no Hell?”

Andrea: No.

Jolie: “Then I’ll stick around and listen.”

Sermon

Last month, while reading a review for a movie I am certain never to see, I found myself intrigued by damnation. Billed as a horror film, the movie is called The Witch: A folktale of Puritan New England, and includes little father-son chats in which a 12 year old responds to a question by saying, “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually,” and, as Anthony Lane wrote in the review, you can tell this child believes those words. This is what intrigued me – the concept of real belief. Apparently, in the film strange things happen – thus the Witch of the title – but what I found myself contemplating was not the plot, but the depth of religious conviction conveyed in this review. Belief seems inevitable; obvious, part of the landscape, and the characters seemed to have been chiseled from the rocky soiled wilderness; they were rough hewn and hatchet jawed and completely natural in a harrowing, fierce, and elemental way. This is an effective way to communicate the supernatural — It makes belief into something palpable; part of the atmosphere, not an idea to think about. It is something we know; that element in which we live and breathe. Lane wrote that what was extraordinary about this film was that he found himself believing in their belief; their sure knowledge that a stray word or deed could damn them to an eternity of pain. He could see their souls becoming sinewy as they carried their burdens.

As it happens, I had been thinking of hell. After some rather hurtful interactions, I was practicing how I could respond more effectively, and also how I could rid myself of the sense of being dogged by an unwanted presence. One day I was incredibly frustrated, because as I muttered, “oh, go to hell,” to this presence, I realized that I couldn’t even do that! How unfair and irritating. In our religion, we cannot damn people, because we do not believe in hell. So, in addition to feeling annoyed, I felt chastened, and remembered this passage in the novel Lila, in which the minister says, “Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should…. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume you can know in individual cases, it’s a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. It’s a presumption, and a very grave sin.”

So the beliefs of the Puritans had them taut with tension and dread, fearful of eternal punishment and eager to earn the mercies of God. But we have our sins, too; the desire to be good can leave us unprotected and alone. It isn’t God’s judgment we fear; it’s our own.

All of this made me ruminate on Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially his parable “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is a story that starts off with the sexton happily ringing the church bells, with everyone looking better than usual because it is a shiny Sunday morning. A good day; a day of rest and peace. But then the minister arrives, and he has a thin cloth hanging from the brow of his hat, draping his face. It is like rose-colored glasses with a negative twist– he can see just fine, but everything is shaded, darkened, and no one can clearly see him.

Reverend Mr. Hooper had always been the kind of minister who tried to gently persuade his people heavenward. He didn’t thunder or threaten, and that remained true. Yet the congregation instantly grew fearful, as if their shepherd was creeping up to each of them alone, trying to catch them at some secret sin, hidden even to them. Just by hiding his face, the kindly, faithful and dutiful man became something awful.

Of course the people want to know why he’s taken up the veil. But they won’t ask. All the parishioners who had no trouble advising the minister about everything on a regular basis – even they would not ask him about this. When the young woman who was supposed to marry him did ask, all Hooper would say was that he had chosen to wear this until the hour when he met God face to face, and all veils were cast aside. This did not do much for his relationship, but made him incredibly good at his job.   People in agony felt understood; the minister seemed to grasp their suffering; and so he won converts. But no one actually liked him. They were afraid, and whispered about him, and assumed that he wore the cloth over his face to hide something shameful; that he was guilty of something.

When the minister came to die, he finally spoke, and it was with some venom. “Why are you afraid of me? It is each other you should tremble at. You avoid me and run from me and show me no pity because of this veil and the mystery of it. What makes it so awful, when all of you are wearing masks, pretending to care about people, and hiding from God?”

The world is infinitely gloomier because of Hooper’s belief. Why? You’d think real faith would make life better, or at least not make it worse. He did not change, and he did not actually believe in anything different from what everyone else accepted as religious truth. His veil is Biblical, stemming from the same passages that had nuns taking on the habit, Orthodox Jewish women wearing wigs, those in prayer covering their heads. He is a good man, living a life of service, obeying the rules, albeit more literally than most of us would. And his devotion makes his life miserable. It doesn’t help his parishioners, either. I could not read that story without thinking about Muslim women of today, keeping covered out of respect for their faith, and being considered suspect because of it. Is there any religion that instructs us to judge people by appearances? Why is the veil used to justify exactly that?

Further on in the short story we read from earlier this morning, that teenaged girl speaks about faith. She is a person who appears to be fine; who fits in at the high school; who no one would think of as troubled. But she really is looking for comfort. She has hidden struggles, and hidden longings, too. The idea that there is a group of people who are willing to promise her that she isn’t going to hell is liberating to her. After understanding what the boy in the story really believes in, she says, “I want what you want. I want to feel like a whole person. At peace with things.”   He wears a polyester suit and has a terrible haircut, done for free in someone’s kitchen. He spends his time walking alongside his proselytizing mother. This girl has tattoos and wears clothes that blend in, listens to music.   And she says, “I want what you want. Wholeness. Peace.” She keeps attending the Fellowship. She even wears a long skirt and covers her hair, until her father shows up and drags her away.

Supposedly it is because of the Enlightenment that we don’t have to worry about old beliefs. It isn’t reasonable to be tormented by thoughts of a burning pit of fire. We are more rational than that. But I don’t believe it is reason that drove the Universalists to abandon punishment from God, and instead inflict it upon themselves. If it is all about being rational, wouldn’t we give up heaven, too? Instead the logic is more like that of the minister in the novel Lila – they feel badly judging others and damning people to hell, and therefore God, who is infinitely more loving and good than they are – well, God certainly wouldn’t. Therefore, no one is going to hell. A hundred fifty years ago, this was a serious heresy, and now even Catholics teach it. We can’t be damned. This may be persuasive, but that does not make it rational. It makes the assumption that everyone is trying to be like that picture of God.

Thirty years ago, I had a teacher who had been born around the time of WWI. She had been raised Universalist, and spoke with pride and affection about her father, who consistently instructed her, “Always remember you go to the no-hell church, Peggy.” I was moved by her feelings, but suspect of the theology. How can you identify a church by what you don’t believe in? And if it doesn’t exist, why are you talking about hell? And if Universalists believe that everyone is ultimately going to heaven, why would you separate yourself out and be prideful about belonging to the no-hell church?

I think it is because on some level, what I was experiencing – wanting to find a way to be rid of a person who kept attacking me – is normal. People can be mean, and sometimes we need a belief system that acknowledges that, and at least assures us we don’t deserve this; that the other person is being unfair and unkind. Maybe God ultimately loves everyone, but we don’t – and shouldn’t. There are people we need to protect ourselves from; treatment we should not accept.

I will never forget the summer our whole family was at a Universalist history conference. One of the ministers taught us an astonishing hymn that can only be described as a taunt for Universalist kids to torment others: “The bells of hell go ting-a-ling for you but not for me.” He had hand motions and everything, and angels that sing a ling a ling for us, while horned devils and death’s sting a ling stalked the others. My youngest absolutely loved it, but my oldest had a hesitant look in his eyes, and his hand over his mouth as he anxiously laughed. Clearly the no-hell church had a special circle reserved for their friends across the aisle. The reality is that Universalists were for many, many years persecuted for their beliefs. Not allowed to join the YMCA, not allowed to serve on juries, harassed, excluded and ridiculed, they developed this weird split approach of feeling superior while claiming equality; of denying hell existed while being condemned to live a version of it. Belief itself is what seems to cause certain kinds of hell. Our images of heaven for all come at the expense of the truth.

 

Maybe the mistake about Hell is really more about when we are in danger of finding ourselves there. It isn’t something for after we are dead, it is right here, in this life. Talk of the enlightenment, of reason, is just a mask; a way of not engaging in the pain or of making our judgments seem neutral and logical. It is a way of validating custom, or conformity; a way of making it easier to not think about right and wrong. Mark might have mentioned a one-man performance we saw recently, August Wilson’s “How I learned what I learned.” It included a story about the priest in Wilson’s neighborhood, who did not believe in segregation, and so kept the church open to everyone in 1960s Pittsburgh. As a result, the white congregants all left, except, he noted, the three little old ladies who continued to show up, because church was church, whoever else came. There was a little bit of joking about those old ladies; how every town has them; how they’re just always there. Laughable. Except the story went on. Because such vast numbers left, the collections dwindled, and suddenly the diocese, which had never paid attention, took note.   They fired the priest, re-segregated the church, and got their money back. Completely rational, and even productive, if it is numbers that count. But, as the character telling the story concluded, if the country was made up of those three old ladies, we’d be all right.

We’d be all right. What would it take for us to be all right? With the Marathon coming up, and the filming of the movie Patriots Day, there is a lot of anxiety, and sadness, in the air. Why aren’t we better, as people; as a world? On Wednesday, Mark told me the phone rang here at church and he didn’t answer it, because he was meeting with a woman to plan a funeral. It was a sad, quiet situation; a VietNam vet, hard life, no money, not much family or support, no one to mark his life as it should be marked. After she left, Mark listened to the phone message. It was just one sentence. No name or number, just these instructions: “Pray that they don’t execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.” Well, I don’t believe in the death penalty. But to be honest, I don’t feel good thinking about his fate. I’m not going to pray about him, one way or the other. I wish that he would have different beliefs, but mostly what I think about is how to make sense of this world; how to keep believing in a future that is good for everyone; for the people who were hurt directly, and for everyone who had their world view broken to pieces. What happens to Tsarnaev is a really tiny thing compared to all that.

Somewhere in my training, I learned the phrase “identify with the helpers.” I think it is advice that originally came from Mr. Rogers’ mother; that when he was a child and something scary came on the news, she would tell him to look for the people who were helping. This is important. It helps us see less damage or chaos, and more of our own power. It makes the pain less overwhelming, and gives us a way in which to begin climbing out. It gives us hope, when focusing on the larger picture does not.

A few months back, the man most responsible for the drop in homicides nationwide died. We may think that this would be a story about getting rid of guns and gangs, or about Kingian non-violence programs, but it isn’t. We live in a world of increasingly lethal weapons, and the frequency with which they are used just keeps escalating.   Norman McSwain was a trauma surgeon, and the day after Sandy Hook, he was wondering, Why didn’t more people survive? What could be done to help?

Within six months, he had conclusive evidence that what happened within the first hour after a trauma determined the future. Patients with otherwise treatable injuries can bleed to death if first responders and bystanders don’t intervene immediately to stop the bleeding. He then proved that direct pressure is not nearly as effective as the old fashioned method of using a tourniquet. McSwain rallied his colleagues and launched a massive public education program telling people how to stop the bleeding. And the reason why we did not have 27 more deaths due to the Marathon bombing was the direct result of people using improvised tourniquets. McSwain said he didn’t want to argue with anyone, he didn’t want a political debate, he just wanted to do everything he could to help.

McSwain had a signature greeting, used for every person he met, every day. “What have you done for the good of mankind today?” If we want to climb our way out of hell, that seems like a good place to start. How we treat each other is what determines our fate.

Closing Words   from Mary Oliver

All of a sudden, near the end of her life, she began to whistle. By all of a sudden I mean that for more than thirty years she had not whistled. Now, as from the throat of a wild and cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds warbled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared. It was thrilling. And she said, I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I still can. And cadence after cadence trilled
through the house, whistling.