What’s “salvation”? Like most people, we probably have a general notion that it’s something we’re “saved from” (like Hell)… or “saved into”… (like Heaven). And more specifically, it’s a blissful place people go after physical death.
The Jewish tradition never really had a very developed sense of the after-life. Even still today, Judaism is more concerned with behavior in this life more than what gets us into the next life.
The ancient Greeks however – the Hellenists – had a desire to intellectually investigate concepts and thoughts, such as the varied possibilities of the next-life potentials and how one gets there.
Salvation… how does one “get saved”?
For many generations of Christians, “Salvation” is based on subscription to a particular theological premise. For example, “Jesus is Lord”, or saying The Sinners Prayer. The doors to heaven are open to you if you say particular words based on some kind of heart-felt conversion. Well, whether heart-felt or not, it’s my understanding that just the saying/praying of the words alone evidently open the doors to you. This is more of an exclusive view of “Salvation”.
There are other expressions of “Salvation”, other beliefs in how one gets to the blissful after-life we might believe in. For example, there’s the notion of Universal Salvation… that we are all “saved” regardless of our beliefs/thoughts/actions in this life.
I do indeed believe in an after-life. I believe in God’s love extending to us not only in this life, but also in the here-after.
I’ve seen and felt enough, peeked behind the veil a few times, to not doubt there’s something rather wondrous waiting for us in the next expression of our lives. And I also indeed believe the Grace of God in the next life – like in this one – comes from God first. When it comes to the next life, God is just as much the “Prime Mover” there as here.
But to the question of how one gets to heaven… well, I guess I'll have to just leave that to God. That's ultimately God’s business, not ours.
What is our business, however, is not so much an issue of “getting in” to heaven… as much as “living out” our faith. It’s an issue of being faithful to our call here in this life. I distinguish “Salvation” from “Getting to Heaven”, and I don’t think it’s an issue of semantics.
“Salvation” is a journey that starts here. It’s our challenging journey of wholeness, of seeking and working to restore… to rebuild… to bring together again. If you’re familiar with the 12 steps, it starts with the Searching and Fearless Inventory (#4) through to Making Amends (# 9).
This journey of “Salvation” is a journey of healing. “Salve”, Latin for “be in good health”, on through to “salve”, an ointment used to heal… these words relate to “healing”, to restoring to health.
“Salvation” can indeed be viewed as doing the work of becoming better people, of working through our “stuff” so we can become – as best we’re able – people of healing… people of light!
Salvation can indeed be related to doing the work of applying the healing salve of awareness, of patience, of grace and mercy and compassion.
Many years ago I used to do Prison Ministry. At the time, I’d go to five prisons a week leading and conducting worship services in the evenings. In that time doing this ministry, I’d met many people – some striking in their faith, in their desire to connect with God, some striking in their “story”; of life, of their views of people and the world, and their pasts. One of these striking people was “Sonny”. My memories of him still impact me – particularly today as we nationally still deal with racism and its impact on our corporate psyche.
I met Sonny one evening after a worship service in one of the prisons. He came up to me and wanted to talk. Sonny was a probably in his mid-forties back then, already greying around the sides, some wrinkles visibly present around his eyes and cheeks.
That evening was the first time I’d seen him. He told me he struggled in deciding whether to come to church that evening or not. He said he’d been raised in – steeped in – the racist mentality of supremacy. In a nut-shell, he’d been gleaning over time that this mentality of hate was wrong, and he wanted to leave it. He just wasn’t sure how to go about removing himself away from that White Supremacist tradition. He wanted to leave this, he wanted to change… he just didn’t know how.
He shared that he’d prayed before coming that night, asking God for guidance. Seems I said something that evening he needed to hear. While I can’t remember after all these years what I may have said during that evening worship service, I’m sure we spent some time after church that evening talking about how my words related to his situation in life.
He said he was raised to be a White Supremacist, a racist. He was raised believing that any non-White, non-Christian, was inferior to Whites. He told me he didn’t even like having dark wood furniture in his house. For many years, he embodied this life-style in both figurative and literal ways… in fact he had the tattoos to prove it.
But he said he was done with all this. He wanted to leave this tradition. As part of this process, he became a regular at our prison ministry worship. He came faithfully, including himself in the life of the community, helping in our liturgy, etc.
He heard the word of grace for sure. He also heard the “call” to live better, the call to live a life of salvation. “Salvation” for him was indeed a struggle for wholeness, for integrity, for bringing his life back together into a healthy whole.
Salvation – not in the sense of “getting to heaven”, but in the sense of “doing the work of healing” – is a struggle. It is a struggle that many broken people see as a struggle worth entering into. It’s a struggle to choose healing, for themselves and others. It’s a struggle to choose light. It was one that Sonny found worthwhile.
At one point, though, he stopped coming. He was absent for over a month. This just wasn’t like Sonny. I’d ask about him, but others weren’t sure what happened.
Then after about five or six weeks, he came back. And he said he had to talk! So after church that evening, he pulled me aside and told me his story.
He got a new cell-mate… a Black Muslim from Egypt. And this guy brought up in him all his past issues. His past, his understandings, the beliefs he was trying to change… all this came flooding back! And he had to figure out a way to deal with it!
He finally figured out he had to talk with his new cell-mate. He told me the two of them had serious chat. He told his cell-mate how he (the cell-mate) brought up in Sonny all his past “stuff”. It wasn’t hard to miss this past, he had this past on his body – the plainly visible tattoos. He shared with his cell-mate that, while this was his past, he was in the middle of a struggle to change his future.
So, he said, they ultimately came to an arrangement; if his cell-mate would teach him about Islam and the Koran, Sonny would teach him about Christianity and the Bible.
For Sonny, the “work of salvation” was indeed really work. This process of healing falls on us not just in the next life, but this one… it’s no less real here! It’s no less “salvation”!
The author Dean Koontz writes many contemporary popular books, many addressing fictional elements of the very real archetype of the cosmic struggle of dark and light. Through his characters and stories, Koontz describes some ways in which this struggle of dark and light affect people, affect our lives, how we struggle in our view of the world and each other.
There’s a set of lines in one of his books (“One Door Away From Heaven”) that I heard many years ago that has stayed with me all these years. In the book, one character says to another – “If you want to change your life, you have to change how you think. If you want to change how you think, you have to change what you believe.”
In the process of changing what we believe, if it moves us to health, to wholeness… it’s part of the process of salvation – salvation in this way!
When a person seeks a better course – when a person seeks to more consciously follow the light… to act on the light…
When a society seeks a better course – when it is moved to become more attentive to its most vulnerable… when it is moved to more humanely treats its most marginalized… it is doing the work of Salvation!
The struggle for salvation is hard! It’s not easy! It’s not easy to change our ways of selfishness, of self-centeredness. It’s not easy to change our ways of fear; fear of change, fear of difference, fear of “the other”! if we give in to these fears… we can end up moving away from the light!
We – all of us – are right smack in the middle of life… of making choices that will either bring more light or more darkness… bring more healing or more brokenness.
This process of “Salvation”, a process of living as best we are able… is a process of creating the Kingdom of Heaven here among us… of being the people of God right here. It is not a perfect kingdom. It is a fallible kingdom, reflective of who we are. But it comes from our choices… from the choices we make towards healthy living, towards light. It comes from the hard work of identifying the darkness in us, as individuals and societies. It comes from the hard work of identifying the light in us all… and walking the path of this kind of “salvation”.