Emma was confined to her wheelchair, but her eyes twinkled as she regaled me with many stories about herself. Despite having suffered from polio at an early age, she grew up to have many adventures: swimming the deepest lakes, diving from the highest cliffs, riding fast cars, and dancing late into the night. And she had romantic relationships with many men though she never married.
She was now in her eighties and while she seemed full of life, her time was short and a fear was bubbling to the surface. So she decided to confide to the young minister who had come to visit her.
“David, I’m afraid I’m going to hell.”
I was only twenty-three but it wasn’t the first time someone told me that and it wouldn’t be the last time.
“Why do you think so, Emma?” I asked.
“Because of all the men I was with,” she said.
“Why did God make me such a passionate woman,” she wailed, “if he didn’t want me to act this way?”
It seemed like a fair question to me.
At the beginning of my ministry, even when I was ultra conservative, I differed with church doctrine. While others might have given Emma a verbose lecture about the virtue of morality, I opted to reassure her. I said God loved her and whatever sins she thought she had committed were already forgiven, and I was sure she was safe from eternal damnation.
If I was wrong, then God could come down, shut my mouth, and explain how could he be anything but delighted with this woman. But since he remained silent, I went with my own thoughts.
I encountered many people like Emma over the years. They traveled, partied, had interesting hobbies, cherished their loved ones, fought their battles, and made their peace. They may have been religious but they rarely had time for church. Often, they felt the same anxiety that Emma did, but like her they couldn’t let it tie them down.
Concepts like faith, spirituality, and religion ought to expand our lives, helping us to see further, live fully, and feel more deeply. Yet religion often restrains us, makes us second guess ourselves, and leads us to frown on those who have too much fun.
Emma lived a rich life that could not be restrained by polio or religion. When she died a few weeks later, people came to cry and laugh as they told stories about her. And no one wondered about her eternal destiny.