Sunday, April 10, 2016

praying to go to hell

I got what may have been my first concrete introduction to Christianity while playing poker on a ship out of New York and bound for Naples. I was 11 and the boys I played poker with came from some place south enough so that when we landed in Italy, their Dixie twang rolled off my tongue as well.

The ship -- the "Excalibur" -- was a mixed-use vessel that had one square swimming pool, a ping-pong table, and a space for shuffle board. There were passengers, of which we were three, but otherwise the ship carried freight. Soon enough, everyone got his or her sea legs. The boys had taught me how to play poker and we played for pennies.

And one day, when I was holding a pair of aces and feeling pretty cocky, we laid our cards down and one or the other of the boys had me beat ... three twos or whatever it was.

"Gawd!" I groaned.

Suddenly everything became quiet in our midst. There was a sea change. You could feel it. And then one of the boys gave voice to the silence.

"Please don't take the lord's name in vain."

His straight face and level tone let me know that this was a serious matter for him. In my head a voice said, "are you shitting me?!" Luckily the sentiment remained closeted in my head. I waited for him to say more, but he didn't.

Don't take the lord's name in vain was another universe from my own. I didn't know much about God and the like, but what I did know was mostly contrary and laced with the intellectual snickers planted by parents whose intellect wielded power. But these were my friends and friends were more important than being snarky. I did what I could not to take the lord's name in vain... and marveled vaguely that there were universes about which I knew little or nothing but I could tell they were important to the beings who inhabited them.

I guess this recollection came back today because last night it occurred to me as curious -- the whole heaven-hell construct that some Christians can adhere to with a fury. Not all, but some. I have known Christians who are convinced that there are two options -- heaven or hell. The good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell. They yearn for heaven and are perfectly willing to leave others in the "left behind" category of souls who just plain could not cut the Christian mustard. They are the damned from the point of view of the un-damned who have yearned for and attained celestial heights.

What occurred to me as odd was that if someone were a Christian -- a persuasion based in charity and kindness -- why would they not beseech whatever heavens they believed in to send them to hell rather than heaven? Isn't hell the place where those "left behind" are most in need of succor and salvation? Isn't this the matrix in which those who were unstained by sin could do their most palpable good? Isn't this the arena, in short, where Christianity might truly shine?

Instead of a tough-shit approach to the damned and the sinners, isn't hell the place any Christian might want to attain?

I don't know: I just seems to me that hoping to attain heaven and praising it volubly goes four-square against the grain of the format from which that desire arises.

I guess it's the same for other spiritual persuasions as well.


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