I was raised in a mainline Protestant church. I remain in a church of that same denomination. I have no memories of anyone preaching about hell or damning anyone to hell personally or generically from the pulpit or anywhere else. I remember nothing in my religious upbringing that was motivated by fear. And as a pastor these are traditions I've chosen to continue in the churches I have served and in the life I lead.
But this presents an interesting situation...time and time again. I find that I am needing to learn how to have a ministry of undoing the damage that others have done. And let me tell you, it's not easy to do.
The number of people who have walked into my office, especially recently, struggling to see value in themselves is amazing. And guess what they hold in common? They were taught from the time they were young, usually by family and/or church, how little value they had apart from behaving in certain prescribed ways.
The number of people who have walked into my office, talked about some choice they made, and followed it with the comment, "And after that I was going to hell anyway, so I figured why not?" These aren't people who themselves thought they were going to hell for their actions but people who were told by others and who because this came from people they knew and trusted just gave up hope. They resigned themselves to hell and in doing so did everything from abandoning their relationship with God to taking on destructive habits.
But, I look at these people and all I see are beloved children of God. I look at them and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are loved and wanted by God, that they are of value - not because they follow the rules, but simply because they are created with value. I look at them and I know that they are forgiven and that at the end of the day it is never hopeless.
But, how do I mirror that back to them? How do I give them my eyes or my heart through which to see themselves? Even better, how do I give them God's?
Each time I find myself in one of these conversations, I wish I had so much more to offer. I wish that I could wave a magic wand and make it all better. But, until I find that wand, I will just journey with them one step at a time and try with each moment to undo the damage that someone did to them.
And meanwhile, I will pray that each of us will pause before we belittle, before we condemn, before we say or do even the smallest thing that tells someone else that their value is conditional...I pray that we will pause and correct ourselves before we damage someone else.
May it be so.