heaven

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

During 60 years of friendship, George H.W. Bush went on countless trips with James Baker III, his secretary of state and a confidant so close that America's 41st president liked to call him his "little brother."

On the last day of Bush's life, Baker checked on his friend. The result was an exchange Baker shared several times, including on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Hey, Bake, where are we going today?", asked Bush, alert after days of struggle.

"Well, Jefe, we're going to heaven," Baker replied.

"Good. That's where I want to go," said Bush.

Bush died about 12 hours later, surrounded by family and friends, including his pastor, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. It was a time for prayers and good-byes, and the priest shared some details in sermons during both the state funeral in Washington, D.C., and the final rites at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bush family's home parish for 50 years.

"It was a beautiful end. It was a beautiful beginning. … The president so loved his church -- he loved the Episcopal Church. He so loved our great nation. He so loved you, his friends. He so loved every member of his family," said Levenson, at Washington National Cathedral.

"But he was so ready to go to heaven. … My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler." The priest turned and addressed the coffin, blending faith with language from Bush's days as a Navy pilot: "Mr. President, mission complete. Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever."

There is nothing unusual about priests discussing heaven during funerals. After all, the Pew Research Center's massive "religious landscape" study a few years ago indicated that 72 percent of Americans believe in a place "where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," and the number is 82 percent for those affiliated with a religious tradition.

A (liberal) church-growth strategy to save the Episcopal Church

Once upon a time, the Anglican bishops at the global Lambeth Conference boldly declared the 1990s the "Decade of Evangelism." 

 This effort was supposed to spur church growth and it did, in the already booming Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and across the "Global South." But in the lovely, historic sanctuaries of England and North America? Not so much.

 "There was some lip service given to evangelism at that time," said Ted Mollegen, a businessman with decades of national Episcopal Church leadership experience. Membership totals continued to spiral down and the Decade of Evangelism "basically faded away without much success ... because of a lack of effort and institutional commitment."

 The Episcopal Church then created a "20/20 Vision" task force committed to doubling baptized membership by 2020. The goal was a renewed evangelism emphasis, along with programs for spiritual development, emerging leaders, church planting and improved work with children, teens and college students. Mollegen was the task force's secretary and a founding member of the Episcopal Network for Evangelism.

Episcopalians, however, promptly entered yet another period of doctrinal warfare and schism, symbolized by the departure of many large evangelical parishes following the 2003 election of a noncelibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Mollegen served on the national church's executive council from 2003-2009.

The evolving state of Mormon heaven

It takes lots of praying, preaching and singing to mourn a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a man called Prophet, Seer and Revelator by his global flock. That was certainly true at President Spencer W. Kimball's funeral in 1985. So when one of the church's most powerful women rose to speak, the leader of its vast Relief Society projects, she simply shared a cherished private memory that pointed far beyond the grave.

While visiting Colorado, recalled the late Barbara B. Smith, "I asked President Kimball a searching question. 'When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?' He looked around those mountains. ... Then he said, 'I'll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.' "

She also recalled this Kimball quote urging Latter-day Saints to help those in need: "What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves? Perhaps the most essential godlike quality is compassion."

It was already rare, at that time, to hear such an explicit public reference to the faith's doctrine of "exaltation," the belief that through piety and good works truly devout Mormons can rise to godhood and even create new worlds.

While this doctrine has caused tensions with other faiths, it has been a key source for the Mormon emphasis on marriage and family. As a mid-1980s text for converts stated: "Parenthood is ... an apprenticeship for godhood."

Now, church leaders have published an online essay -- "Becoming Like God" -- in which they have attempted to reframe this doctrine, in part by mixing the unique revelations of Mormon founder Joseph Smith with New Testament references and selected quotes from the writings of early-church saints such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Basil the Great.

The essay repeatedly refers to Mormons becoming "like" God, rather than becoming gods and uses the term "godliness" many times, and "godhood" only once.

It also notes that Latter-day saints have endured mass-media efforts to turn this doctrine into a "cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets." After all, the showstopper "I Believe" in the rowdy Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" proclaims: "I believe; that God has a plan for all of us. I believe; that plan involves me getting my own planet. ... I believe; that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe; that Jesus has his own planet as well. ... Oh, I believe!"

Nevertheless, the online essay does note that Smith did tell his followers: "You have to learn how to be a god yourself." It also bluntly asks a question frequently posed by critics of the church: "Does belief in exaltation make Latter-day Saints polytheists?"

The essay responds: "For some observers, the doctrine that humans should strive for godliness may evoke images of ancient pantheons with competing deities. Such images are incompatible with Latter-day Saint doctrine. Latter-day Saints believe that God's children will always worship Him. Our progression will never change His identity as our Father and our God. Indeed, our exalted, eternal relationship with Him will be part of the 'fullness of joy' He desires for us."

The problem, according to poet and blogger Holly Welker, is that this downplays images Mormons have for generations used to describe their faith. She noted, for example, that the essay edited a key passage from Mormon scripture to avoid powerful words linked to these beliefs.

Doctrine and Covenants proclaims: "Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them."

That doesn't sound like a metaphor, argued the former Mormon, writing at the University of Southern California's "Religion Dispatches" website.

"Having our own planets," she said, is "absolutely a matter-of-fact way Latter-day Saints have discussed this doctrine amongst ourselves, probably because of statements like this one from Brigham Young: 'All those who are counted worthy to be exalted and to become Gods, even the sons of Gods, will go forth and have earths and worlds like those who framed this and millions on millions of others.' ...

"The essay actually deflects rather than answers this question: So, can we get our own planets, or not?"

Hail Marys for Hitch

One of the last things Thomas Peters does each day is face the Cross of St. Benedict that hangs over his bed and say his evening prayers. The sobering final phrases of the Hail Mary prayer have recently taken on a unique relevancy: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

A month ago, the conservative Catholic writer challenged readers of the American Papist website to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease which leaves few survivors.

"I am going to begin praying ... for the salvation of his eternal soul," wrote Peters, "that God will be with him 'at the hour of his death,' that God will help his unbelief in this life, and that those he has led away from God will come back to His infinite love and mercy. I am in no way praying for him to die, I am praying for him to live eternally."

Peters is not alone and Hitchens knows it. While some believers hope that he suffers and dies, post haste, the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" told CNN that he has been surprised that others -- who are "much more numerous, I must say, and nicer" -- are praying for his healing, both body and soul.

This has been one of the strangest side effects of Hitchens' journey across the "stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." This is a zone in which almost everyone is politely encouraging, the jokes are feeble, sex talk is nonexistent and the "cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited," wrote Hitchens, in a blunt Vanity Fair essay. The native tongue in "Tumorville" is built around terms such as "metastasized," phases such as "tissue is the issue" and quotes from the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Most of the inhabitants also do quite a bit of praying -- for themselves, for their loved ones and even for suffering people they have never met.

Hitchens told evangelical broadcaster Hugh Hewitt that he remains convinced these prayers "don't do any good, but they don't necessarily do any harm. It's touching to be thought of in that way."

The bottom line, explained Peters, is that his faith asks him to "pray for everyone, even those who hate us. ... Hitch just happens to be a famous public enemy of the faith, so more people know what is happening in this life, so more people are talking about why it's good to pray for him."

While it is "absolutely horrible" that anyone would pray for Hitchens to suffer and die, he added, many believers may find it hard to do more than pray for "God's will to be done." That is the "safe prayer" that is always appropriate.

Meanwhile, a quick Internet scan reveals that some believers are, predictably enough, praying for Hitchens to be converted to Christianity for the sake of his own soul. Others are specifically praying that the scribe who -- with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins -- is called one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheism will not only convert, but also become an apologist for faith. That happened decades ago with an atheist named C.S. Lewis, after all.

"Ultimately, I simply will pray that Hitch has a good and holy death," said Peters. "I really do not care if he has a public conversion. I care that he, somehow, has a private conversion and that he will be reconciled to God."

As much as believers love these kinds of "foxhole conversion" stories, Hitchens is convinced he will not surrender. However, should rumors spread that he has "hedged his bets," the writer has made several public statements warning his admirers that if such cry to the Almighty were to take place, they should ignore it.

"If that comes it will be when I'm very ill, when I am half demented, either by drugs or by pain and I won't have control over what I say," he told CNN. "I can't say that the entity that by then would be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing. But I can tell you that -- not while I am lucid. No, I could be quite sure of that."

Heaven, hell and funerals

Anyone who has lived in a minister's house knows that middle-of-the-night telephone calls often bring bad news. But for many pastors there is one kind of call that is uniquely painful. There are times when the shock of death is easier to handle than questions about eternal life.

"It happens like this," noted the Rev. J. Gerald Harris, who became editor of the Southern Baptist newspaper of Georgia after 40 years in ministry. "A grieving widow would call and say with a broken heart and with tears in her voice, 'Pastor, my husband had a heart attack last night and we took him to the hospital, but he was dead on arrival. I can't believe it has happened, but we need your help. I know he was not a church member, but we would like for you to preach his funeral.' "

The pastor says "yes," of course. Then, while talking with the family, it often becomes apparent that the deceased was not a believer or may even have been someone who -- by word or deed --flaunted his status as an unbeliever. Others may join the church, then walk away for decades.

This is awkward, noted Harris, for clergy who believe salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone. It's one thing to step into the pulpit and preach on the mercy of God and to speak words of comfort to a grieving family. It's something else for a pastor to go a step further and do what loved ones may want him to do -- openly proclaim they will be reunited with the deceased in heaven.

Harris said he started receiving calls and emails soon after he wrote about this subject in the Christian Index, in part because this dilemma pivots where the minister draws a theological line, a line that many liberal Christians no longer believe needs to be drawn at all.

There is no question, Harris stressed, that pastors should provide comfort and care for families in these circumstances. Obviously, there is no need for preachers to speak words that would cause grieving relatives pain. However, he also is convinced that it's wrong for pastors to deliver messages they sincerely believe are not true -- to embrace the doctrine of "universalism," which proclaims that all people find eternal salvation, no matter what they believe or how they live their lives.

This is tricky doctrinal territory, as Sen. Barack Obama learned during a June 10 meeting with clergy behind closed doors in Chicago.

While other conservative leaders asked Obama about controversial social issues, the Rev. Franklin Graham -- son of evangelist Billy Graham -- asked an openly theological question: Did the candidate believe that "Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way."

Later, Obama told Newsweek that -- in a candid, personal answer -- he replied: "It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I've said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know ... I do not believe she went to hell."

In the end, Harris said, it's all but impossible to ignore this kind of doctrinal division. However, pastors do have options when handling these situations, other than delivering sermons that violate their own consciences.

In many Christian traditions, funeral rites consist of hymns and prayers that place more attention on the words of scriptures than on a minister's message. But if the family insists on a sermon that focuses on the deceased, he said, pastors can suggest that a friend deliver this message. In some congregations, loved ones offer eulogies during gatherings -- fellowship meals, perhaps -- following funerals.

"These questions aren't going away," said Harris. "For many people today it's not enough to be tolerant of other people's decisions and religious beliefs. Now they want a kind of positive tolerance, they want you to accept and praise other people's beliefs. You have to be willing to say what they want you to say. ... "That just isn't possible, for a lot of us."

Hellish grudges can kill

The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape.

Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives and, later, the killer's sick collection of chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, angry with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge.

Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?

"Like everyone else, I could not believe what I was seeing on my television," said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. While sharing many beliefs with the Amish and Mennonites, the Bruderhof ("place of the brothers") embrace some modern technology. Still, these movements share European roots in pacifism, simple living and an emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

"The Amish are our cousins so I know some of what they must be feeling," said Arnold, in his thick German accent. "I know these parents are hurting, I know they are asking questions, but I know that they know the answer is forgiveness. ... Tragedy and pain can soften our hearts until they break. But if we trust God this will help us to feel compassion."

The gunman's stunned wife released a media statement that showed her understanding of her Amish neighbors and their beliefs. She knew she could appeal for prayers and forgiveness, even though outsiders might find her words hard to fathom.

"Our hearts are broken, our lives are shattered, and we grieve for the innocence and lives that were lost today," said Marie Roberts. "Above all, please, pray for the families who lost children and, please, pray, too, for our family and children."

Some of the Amish went even further. One woman told the Los Angeles Times: "I am very thankful that I was raised to believe you don't fight back. You should forgive."

To grasp the Amish point of view, it's crucial to understand that they truly believe God desires justice, but also shows mercy and "they believe that these are not contradictory things," said Arnold. "They know that God said, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay.' The Amish certainly believe that this killer will not go without punishment, but they also believe that his punishment is in God's hands."

These are hard words in an age when many Americans hold one of two competing beliefs about eternity and God's judgment.

Millions of believers -- lukewarm and fervent alike -- assume that the really bad sinners are the people who commit the really bad sins, those spectacular sins tied to violence, drugs and sex. These really bad people are easy to condemn to hell.

Meanwhile, many other people believe that all people are automatically going to heaven, no matter what they believe or what they do. According to this point of view, the massacre inside the West Nickel Mines Amish School will have no impact on the eternal destiny of Charles Carl Roberts IV.

Once again, the Amish believe that God knows all and that God, and only God, can judge. What the Amish emphasize, stressed Arnold, is that forgiveness is the only way that humans can break a cycle of violence and sin.

In this case, the gunman left suicide notes that showed that he was driven by guilt and a grudge that he would not surrender. It appears that Roberts could not forgive God and could not forgive himself.

In the end, this killed him and through him this grudge killed others.

"If you hold a grudge, it will live on in your heart until it leads to violence of some kind," said Arnold. "If you do not forgive, then you cannot be healed. Forgiveness can heal the forgiver as well as the one who is forgiven. This is what the Amish believe. It will be hard and it will take time, but this is what they now must strive to live out for all the world to see."

Hell through the Hollywood lens

LOS ANGELES -- Hell looks really cool, when seen through a Hollywood lens.

The good guys in the upcoming thriller "Constantine" do comment on the sulfur smell in the hell edition of Los Angeles and it's a pain coping with all those extra tortured, brainless, flesh-eating demons on the 101 Freeway. But the city still looks like Los Angeles, even after an eternity of hurricane-force firestorms.

The other place can't compete, when it comes to entertainment value.

"The reason why heaven isn't shown as much in these kinds of movies, honestly, is that no one knows how to depict it in a cool way," said screenwriter Frank Cappello, after the film's press screenings.

"Audiences love to see hell. They want to see demonic images. But if you show them angelic beings, if you show them the light ... it's like they say, 'Oh, gosh.' "

So it's no surprise that "Constantine" offers a mere glimpse of a heavenly reward, before its chain-smoking, hard-drinking, cussing antihero is yanked back to his life as a rock 'n' roll exorcist. The John Constantine character was born in stacks of "Hellblazer" comic books and, as played by the neo-messianic Keanu Reeves, is part Dirty Harry and part Indiana Jones, channeling "The Matrix" and "Men in Black."

How dark is this movie? The angel Gabriel gets ticked off at humanity and decides to cue the apocalypse.

The director and writers agreed that their movie raises big questions about salvation and damnation, sin and repentance, fate and free will. It will raise eyebrows among the 81 percent of Americans who, according to a 2004 Gallup Poll, believe in heaven and the 70 percent who believe in hell.

"I'm a skeptic, myself," said director Francis Lawrence. "For all I know, you die and rot in a box and that's it."

This response was par for the course, as the "Constantine" cast and crew fielded questions from critics and reporters, including a room full of Catholic and Protestant writers. One after another, the Hollywood professionals said they wanted their movie to inspire questions, but remain agnostic about answers.

A Catholic priest among the press agreed that it doesn't make sense to expect coherent doctrine from a horror movie, even one this packed with references to Catholic rituals, relics and art. Yet "Constantine" is precisely the kind of pop-culture event that may cause young people to ask questions.

"It's based on a comic book and looks like a video game," said Father Joe Krupp of FaithMag.com and Lansing (Mich.) Catholic High School. "Like it or not, you just know that the kids are going to be talking about this and we need to pay attention. ...

"This movie is messy, but it does say that there is a heaven and a hell and it says that our choices are powerful and matter for eternity. It also says that each of us was created by God for a purpose. It says that several times."

Spiritual warfare is quite literally the key, with the antihero fighting to earn his way into heaven. At one point, Constantine chants Latin prayers and threatens to send the demonic Balthazar to heaven instead of hell in a brass-knuckles version of Last Rites. But just before he pulls the trigger -- on a shotgun shaped like a cross -- he reminds his adversary that he must "ask for absolution to be saved."

Constantine knows how to get to heaven, stressed Cappello. He is simply too angry and cynical to obey. Seek God's forgiveness? Forget about it.

"His pride gets in the way of him asking to be let off the hook," said Cappello. "It's basically, 'I'm going to do it myself.' "

Yet Reeves urged moviegoers not to judge his world-weary character too harshly, because he does muster up one act of self sacrifice. In the "secular religiosity" of this film, that is enough.

"That's what, you know, gives him a chance of going upstairs," said Reeves. "But ... did he make the sacrifice so that he could go to heaven, or does he really mean it?" In the end, "the man upstairs knows, just like Santa Claus, if you're telling a lie or if you're really nice. He knows."

And all the people said: Whoa.