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invite heaven over preaching hell

It snuck it in like a well thrown sucker punch.

Red-faced and working hard for the “amens” from the faithful, with a suit that seemed to have the same problem as the Grinch’s heart, the shouted the familiar story lines of damnation and hell fire.

How predictable, she muttered under her breath as she shifted in to a more comfortable, albeit off-putting, postion on her pew.

She wasn’t buying a word of his sermon, as she was only there to fulfill some kind of nostalgic obligation.  God either wasn’t real, or had forgotten about her long ago, and she’d given up on the silliness of chasing after Him. Hell was the preacher’s only believable point, a bit accidental surely, for it was hell that she’d lived the past three years of her life.

You don’t have to wait to find hell, she kept thinking as the preacher shouted about eternity, but you sure might have to wait forever to find Jesus. 

She hates feeling this way.  She hates feeling like a bitch around all of her believing friends. But to be fair, her friends haven’t walked through the fires she’s had to endure.  A husband, gone with another lover.  A daughter, filled with hate and sleeping around.  Two sons, a handful to put it lightly.  And a mother, with all the answers to her problems but never any time to help.

Her only escape from her everyday hell is the familiar feel of a wine glass against her hand.  Turns out her only escape was quickly proving to be a prison.

And so, she sat silent and slouched, listening to a preacher drone on about some eternal hell and how she can avoid it.  Too late, she keeps thinking to herself.  Too late.  She was a believer in hell, and a skeptic of hope.

Even on Good Friday, she couldn’t help but feel god-awful.  

Soon, but not soon enough, the sermon ended.  Turns out that hell is the specialty of this preacher, or at least it’s what he likes to talk about most.  Gathering her coat, and avoiding a few awkward “where have you been” glances, she quickly finds the door and the fresh air outside.

And that’s when it landed, like a well thrown sucker punch.

When will she every be able to breath again?  When will the tears and the crying stop?  When will that gut-wrenching pit in her stomach go away?  Will she ever be on the other side of this hell?  Or, is this simply it?  Will her daughter ever love her?  Will she ever find love again?  Will she ever smile and giggle again, like she used to when she was a little girl?  Or will she only cry the rest of her life?

Why the hell doesn’t God care about her?

It felt like the first honest words she’d said at a church in years.  There, in the parking lot, she felt like she was actually praying.  Without regard for what anyone thought, she fell to her knees and poured out her heart.  She let it all loose, determined to let God have it.  Every ounce of anger, every adequate cuss word, every fear and anxiety and broken dream poured out like water from a busted dam.

And then, silence.  Somehow, peace.  A voice from behind her whispered amen, and startled her to her feet.

She turned, embarrassed and trying to quickly come up with an excuse, and looked right into the moist eyes of a homeless man with tattoos and body odor named Jim.  Putting his hand gently on her shoulder, and looking into her eyes as if he actually cared, he said,

Child.  God hasn’t forgotten about you.  I know sometimes it must feel like it.  But, his love will win out.  He will make things right.  Eventually, He wins.  Whether you believe or not will not stop Him.  Someday, heaven will collide with your hell, and grace will leave you speechless.  Someday, you will smile again like you used to.

It wasn’t magical, and it didn’t solve all of her problems.  It didn’t make her daughter stop sleeping around.  It didn’t silence her mother.  But, somehow, that moment mattered.  Somehow, in that little moment of honesty, she found the kind of faith that nobody showed her in church.

And with faith, all things are possible.  

She found heaven that Good Friday night, not in a pew and not by a sermon.  She found heaven in moist eyes, honesty, and the words of someone who actually gave a damn about her.

Maybe finding Jesus really does start with loving others, not with some kind of slick Sunday production or fear-mongering sermon.  Maybe, just maybe, heaven comes to life when we take the time to listen to our neighbors, rather than offer sermons to fix their problems.

Maybe heaven really does defeat hell, and maybe grace really does make all things new.