On Easter morning my mother would go out to the garden and pick pink rosebuds, out of which she would make homemade corsages with the net and ribbons she had bought on a trip to "the city," which was Oak Ridge, Tenn. My dress would most likely be lavender, while my sister Beverly's dress would be blue, pink, or yellow. My sister, Sabra, had not been born yet, as it was the late 1950s.
Underneath the shiny, satin dresses, which my mother had also sewn herself, were starched crinoline slips that made our dresses stand out around our thin, white legs. On our feet would be black patent-leather Mary Jane shoes and white-lace anklets. My mother would then pull our hair back into pony-tails so tight our eyes would squint and water.
My brothers, David and Terry, would be miserable in starched white shirts, black bow-ties, and gelled crew-cuts. Only then would we be allowed to enter the dining room, where we would find enormous Easter baskets with all manner of sickening candy in them: tall chocolate-covered marshmallow rabbits, jelly beans galore—purple, yellow, pink, and lavender on top of fake, green grass—a couple of stuffed rabbits, chocolate eggs wrapped in fuchsia cellophane, and two or three hardboiled eggs died by my mother in various colors.
The smell of bacon would waft from the kitchen as our mother stood in her pink linen suit, a hand-sewn apron over it, preparing breakfast: hot biscuits, homemade blackberry jelly canned from the summer before, and, for this special occasion, a little coffee in a glass with a lot of warm milk. There we would sit at the kitchen table, in all our regalia, stuffing ourselves—but not too much, for after breakfast we could stuff ourselves further until we were nearly poisoned with candy from the Easter baskets.
Finally, we would stand on the front porch for pictures, which my mother would take, while my father waited impatiently, checking his watch every two or three minutes as he hollered, "Come on, Blanche, we're already late." Then we would all pile into our new metallic olive-green Chrysler New Yorker and go the five miles or so to the First Baptist Church. We would slide into the back pew furtively and try not to notice the people in the front pews straining to look around and see who was late. Again.
On this most sacred, beautiful holiday of the Christian faith, as Easter lilies stood regally behind the pastor's podium, and after the choir sang "He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus Lives today," the preacher would talk not about the death and subsequent rising of Jesus from the grave, not about God's grace and forgiveness, or about the gentle nature of Jesus, who died on the cross to save us from our sins. Rather, he spoke about one thing and one thing only, or at least it seemed to me at the time: hell. Hell, hell, hell, hell, hell.
The preacher's face was red and righteous as he waved his arms in the air and screamed, as only the old-time Baptist preachers could: "Repent! Repent! Or go to a hell of burning flames forever." Then he might or might not tell us about God's love for us, but after hearing about what God had in store for us if we didn't believe in Him, it was difficult, if not impossible, to love God in return. What kind of egomaniac would send you straight to hell if you didn't believe in and worship Him? I thought to myself, then immediately tried to squash the thought. And who would want to go to a heaven where all you did was bow and scrape all day and night and sing boring hymns with verse after verse of praise for this so-called God?
The preacher was not a bad man. He was a misguided man. Though his intentions were good, we know where that road leads.
That morning before the service I had asked my Sunday School teacher, "Well, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why would he create such a place as hell in the first place?"
She pursed her lips and looked at me with scorn. "That's just the way it is," she replied, looking as though she wanted to slap me hard.
For many years I lived in terror of this God, and developed a system of rituals to keep my family and our collie dog, Merry Maid, from dying and going to this everlasting pit of flames. It was a great deal of responsibility for a 9-year-old child, to keep all those people from dying and going to hell, but somebody had to do it.
It took me until I was 47 years old to get over it, when a couple of friends disclosed to me how many times the Bible had been passed down, written, re-written, and re-written again. I began to compare the King James Bible with, say, the New International Bible and the same verse would be completely different from one version to the next. They suggested to me that hell was a place invented by man as a means to control people. Whether or not this is true, it certainly controlled me.
Today, I do not believe in hell. There are people living in hell on earth: from starvation, from severe depression, from the loss of a loved one they cannot get over. From being different from those around them and treated like a freak. Whether or not there is a hell, I believe we get as many chances as we need. Till we get it right. Or not. Life is a series of spiritual lessons. We can make them easy or hard. How do we do this? Through love, through forgiveness, by which means we are healed of our own wounds. If Christ could do it, can we not do it? Or at least try to do it?
I once knew someone in AA who had forgiven the man who raped his daughter. I found this difficult to believe at the time, but this man had peace. He could have bought a shotgun and blown the man's head off. But one life is not brought back by the murder of another. How many times should we forgive? As many times as it takes.
If grace is truly grace, should it have a condition? Or should it not be free—utterly and totally free? I believe it is, though it may take us many lifetimes to understand that the essence of Christ is only one thing: love. And that the truest message that he left us with was simply, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Love one another as best you can. Love yourself as best you can. Out of love comes loving actions.