Finding the Missing Pieces

Holding hands in a nursing home

Holding hands in a nursing home, Eduard Darchinyan / Shutterstock.com

The nursing home was quiet, which is typical for a late Sunday afternoon. I walked to the end of the hall where Grace lives in a room decorated with clown figurines that make her smile. I knocked at the doorway and announced myself. Grace was awake in bed, but upset about something.

“Oh, Joe! Come in! Can you do me a favor? I’ve lost something and could use your help finding it.”

Grace (not her actual name; I have to change it because of privacy laws) once had bright red hair that fit her personality. The red is gone now; her hair turned a pretty, cottony white after chemotherapy.

And today, something else was missing.

“I can’t find my left boob,” she said. “Would you be a dear and look around for it?”

The Possibility of Heaven

A YEAR BEFORE her death from ovarian cancer, my 78-year-old mother finally started losing weight. She gave up fatty foods and sweets and went to herbalists who sold her pills that were supposed to regulate her digestion. In addition to all this, she was seeing her primary physician every three months.

The weight flying off seemed like a reward for her good behavior. The only downside was that my mother, who now weighed less than me, was burping all the time, as if there was thunder trapped inside her ever-shrinking body.

At Christmas time, I invited her to come spend the holidays with me and my family in Miami. At first she said no. Her birthday was three days after Christmas and she wanted to spend it at her home in New York.

She changed her mind right before Christmas, and she cooked us a wonderful Christmas dinner, and we took her to one of our favorite Haitian restaurants for her birthday. At her birthday dinner, my two daughters performed a birthday dance for her in the middle of the restaurant, and my usually reserved mother laughed and clapped with joy, a kind of joy we would rarely see again in the months that followed.

I took my mother to see my primary physician right after New Year’s. I could see an alarmed look on the doctor’s face as soon as she touched my mother’s stomach, which in spite of her weight loss was twice its usual size. The doctor, who is also a friend, asked me to touch my mother’s distended belly, and the spot where her fingers led me felt like a well-polished rock. She immediately started writing down a list of tests my mother would need.

Each test led to another, more-complicated test, and slowly both Mom and I realized that we were not on a quest to disprove something bad but on an expedition to identify how bad it was.

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Why God Is Sending Christians Straight to Hell

Mindok / Shutterstock.com

Mindok / Shutterstock.com

So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.

Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.

Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”

God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”

Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.

Protestant Theologians Reconsider Purgatory

A painting from “Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry." Photo via Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

This Nov. 2, on what is known as All Souls’ Day, Roman Catholics around the world will be praying for loved ones who have died and for all those who have passed from this life to the next. They will be joined by Jerry Walls.

“I got no problem praying for the dead,” Walls says without hesitation — which is unusual for a United Methodist who attends an Anglican church and teaches Christian philosophy at Houston Baptist University.

Most Protestant traditions forcefully rejected the “Romish doctrine” of purgatory after the Reformation nearly 500 years ago. The Protestant discomfort with purgatory hasn’t eased much since: You still can’t find the word in the Bible, critics say, and the idea that you can pray anyone who has died into paradise smacks of salvation by good works.

The dead are either in heaven or hell, they say. There’s no middle ground, and certainly nothing the living can do to change it.

Many Catholics don’t seem to take purgatory as seriously as they once did, either, viewing it as fodder for jokes or as the “anteroom of heaven,” an unpleasant way station that is only marginally more appealing than hell.

But Walls is a leading exponent of an effort to convince Protestants — and maybe a few Catholics — that purgatory is a teaching they can, and should, embrace. And he’s having a degree of success, even among some evangelicals, that hasn’t been seen in, well, centuries.

Heaven Is a Home

Courtesy Odyssey Networks

Heaven is a home. Courtesy Odyssey Networks

When I was a child, my vision of heaven was riddled with roller coasters and populated by Disney characters. Let me explain.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, the American “mainland” to our north was for me a dreamland of sorts. You could catch a glimpse of it on television show depicting Main Streets lined with impressive trees. And of course, there was Disney World. As a five-year old visiting Florida for the first time, I imagined that the rest of the country was just like that particular corner of Orlando that we tourists saw.

That was heaven on earth for the five-year-old version of me. Heaven was earthly and joyful and fun and sweet. But as we all know Disney is no paradise. I don’t expect long lines, lots of sweat, and expensive but mediocre food in heaven.

When I was five, Disney was my vision of heaven. As I grew up in the church, my vision turned upward. Heaven was an eternal destination deferred until the moment after you die. Heaven was a place of reward and eternity. Heaven was an ethereal experience, something so otherworldly that the best we could do was speak in metaphors and images about it. Heaven, in short, had very little to do with the world as we knew it.

Neither vision gets it quite right.

Hate Won't Win

Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

The Hope of Glory Amidst 'Bondage and Decay' of Environmental Injustice


Even in the environment, despite the bondage and decay, glory is coming. kwest/Shutterstock.com

Last week during my Sunday school class, one of my second graders asked, “How can we go to heaven, if we continue to sin?” 

As usual, I am often stunned and quieted by the striking questions that come from the mouths of young people.

I usually respond to the inquisitive questions from my Sunday School students by reiterating what I have been told by many a Sunday School teacher: “Even though we break our promises, God doesn’t; God promised us if we believe in God and that God’s Son Jesus died for our Sins, we will go to heaven — even when we mess up.” 

While that seems like a really ‘simple’ explanation of one of many biblical truths, it is still striking and amazing that even though we continue to ‘mess up,’ God has not retracted on God’s promise of offering us a beautiful ending to the troubled world we live in today.

As I think about Romans 8:21 and how it speaks to the fact that “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God,” I get excited. Not only because we all will see the glory of God one day, but that the bondage and decay we are experiencing in our physical world will end in Glory!

Mormons Counter 'Cartoonish' Idea of Planets in the Afterlife

Countering the notion that Mormons believe they will someday inherit their own planets, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued a new statement on “Becoming Like God” that tries to put distance between official church teaching and the age-old notion.

The article, which was posted on the church’s website last week, attempts to explain complex theology that church officials believe has been overly simplified into inaccurate “caricatures.”

Just as heaven is often depicted as people sitting on clouds strumming harps, “Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often similarly reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets,” the statement says.

Life, Death, and Beyond


God does hear us. Chrstphr/Shutterstock

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be chosen, and conversely how we choose to be chosen. I’ve also been thinking about life, death, choices, and what happens to us after our earthly body dies. Do we remember who we are here? Do we remember our friends, lovers, enemies, acquaintances? Do we remember events, important moments, unimportant moments, or forgotten moments? I believe we do. The problem is that all we know and have experienced about the Divine is limited by our own thoughts and words.