on hell-fire

This is a marshmallow on a wrought iron roasting-spit, deep in the fires of my woodstove.  The marshmallow had arrived as a s’mores gift box, complete with graham crackers and chocolate.  It was one of those random gifts we rarely receive.  No reason.  No particular occasion.  Just one friend saying to another “Hay!  You-with-the-face! I love you! Have a great evening eating s’mores.”

The small box arrived on the Friday of the only snow we had this year.  It was a magical three-day weekend and the snows piled up on this island such that we all just sighed and snuggled under a blanket with tea and books to wait the 48 hours of silent whiteness.  It felt like nature was offering us a vacation, even from busy weekends. White snow.  White marshmallows.  White noise. White embers.

I remember the days when I was fasting from sugar in Lent. And that leads me to remember other fasting. A sinner before a pissed-off God.  A follower of a guy who said “stop sinning or something worse will happen to you!” which of course terrified me all the more 24 hours a day – which was what it was designed to do.

As a child, I would not like to go down into the basement (Mom would send me down there to get a casserole from the freezer). The stair-steps were open at the back and I assumed that evil gremlins would reach through and grab my ankles.  The light switch was at the bottom of the stairs, so it was dark all the way down, like in those horror movies. Off to the right was the massive boiler-furnace. It had two closed vents and a rock-crystal door-window through which flames would undulate making the whole thing look like a black jack-o-lantern. “Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you!” said its evil grin – especially in Lent.

As a potter, I now have a very different relationship with furnaces which transform my pottery into sparkling cups for scotch and bowls for ice cream in Lent.  Things have changed. The flames no longer threaten hell.  They offer warmth and the chance to rest by the fire and sip tea. And there is all the money I save on church donations – money I now use for marshmallows, forest-walks – ocean-swimming with seals on Sunday mornings with God’s warm sun beaming down in a celestial smile of “You can relax now, I have you. Just float for a while”

As a potter, I am interested in China and Japan.  And yet their pottery histories are so different.  In the ancient pottery villages of China, there were kilns dotted everywhere.  As they are excavated by anthropologists, they are uncovering billions (with a “b”) of broken pots and abandoned kilns because when flawed pots emerged from the kiln, a load with cracks or glaze flaws would freak out the village.  Not understanding that it was a bad lot of clay or a poorly mixed glaze or a mistake in the firing process, the village would think that the gods were angry about their sins and so they would abandon the kiln, destroy the pots to appease the gods, and move, to build a new one.  If only they had known… If only they had known…

In Japan, however, their spirituality was not based so much on sinning or not sinning.  Their more Zen spirituality was based on “not-minding-what-happens-to-us” and just letting disappointment be felt to the bone.  Feeling your pain was (and still is) the way to end it.  So Japanese kilns never moved, villages did not live in fear of hell’s fires (now or in the after-life) and everything was a lot more peaceful.  And not much has changed now, 1,000 years later. China is still fear-based.  Japan is still, well, simply lovely and gentle.

I used to fear God.  And based on what Jesus said, I used to fear myself making bad choices in the Russian-roulette-game-of-hell’s-judgement.  I mean if the plan is really “don’t sin again or something worse will happen to you” then which time will that worse thing happen?  Number 3?  Number 43?  Number 61?  So when I get cancer or lose a job, it is because I hit some lottery number when hell kicks in?  Sorry, Jesus.  That theology is a bit too random even for me. I no longer fear basements either (though I am smart enough to put the light switch at BOTH ends of the stairs!)

One wonders what life could be like if we simply dropped all the worry about sin – about what is in the past, and just focused on being kind and honest now, today.  Or at least until lunch.

I did not know that religious leaders of many religions had constructed fears about sin and hell in order to keep control of the unwashed masses.  I did not know that God is less interested in my damnation than in my tears.  I did not know that God is less interested in my begging for mercy than in my begging for the wellbeing of others.

If only I had known…



The Daily Sip is a series of short-form essays written by Charles LaFond, a potter, secular theologian, writer, and fundraiser; who lives with his dog Sugar on a cliff, on one of the more than 400 islands in the Salish Sea, pondering and writing about how to be a better human, but often failing. And sometimes not.

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