Devotions For The Rest Of Us

52 stories to help you on your walk

whether you're wanting a good read, or to learn about something more

If This Is Heaven Show Me Hell


By design, these are provocative devotions. They are not a sly swipe at Christianity. Rather, they serve as a commentary on the all-too-human drift in our worship that creates a gilt, polished, and ultimately unapproachable deity. And in the process, we separate our ordinary lives from the God who wishes to dwell within us. And given the title, do you prefer a less gilt, polished, and unapproachable explanation of their purpose? If so, a more down-to-earth explanation awaits in the following paragraphs.

If This Is Heaven Show Me Hell

Love Is a Fire

To adequately capture the meaning of “love” would indeed be a coup. It speaks not to a single emotional experience, but to a roiling mix of ideals, ideas, and feelings that compel us to behave in ways that are illogical at best, but more often irrational. And still we continue the desperate quest for love as the fulfillment of our lives.

We also speak as if Christians can take a scalpel to “pure” love and neatly excise it from the pantheon of desires, placing it in a virginal setting of adoration. Oh, the lies we tell ourselves in an effort to avoid the appearance of sin! Christian love remains embodied in peace and war. In truth and lies. In the intimate expressions of sexual desire and the atrocity of rape. The paradox seems startling—even vulgar. How can Christian love be equated with violence and deceit, the antithesis of beauty? How can we sully the vision of Christ, degrading it this way?

Quite simply, Christian love demands compassion: the ability to understand and embrace the emotional experience of another. Compassion is easy when another is suffering, and when “another” means a hungry child, a war refugee, a victim of domestic violence—any underdog we can champion. The suffering of those who exert power and control over others is less easily observed. They instill fear and hostility. We are much more comfortable with outrage at their behavior than a sense that they, too, are children of God, lacking, as we all lack, in those essential aspects of their being that would allow them to reach perfection.

If This Is Heaven Show Me Hell

I Have a Dream

Unitarian Universalists speak of “one light through many windows.” This metaphor becomes an exquisite altar call for the Christian experience, an embrace of the vast realm of faith journeys that comprise our community. Beginning with the very Bible that binds us, diversity is its hallmark. The Greek root word is actually plural—ta biblia—meaning “the scrolls,” or “the books.” This collection of writings encompasses many generations and schools of thought. Little wonder, then, that the faith community interprets the path “to provide for those who mourn in Zion” (Isaiah 61:3a) in such a multitude of ways.

In the twenty-first century, diversity is a given. The white majority of American culture is rapidly (if grudgingly) acceding to the ascendancy of other ethnic groups. Sexual preference and transgender are merging into the mainstream. Boundaries on the basis of religion are more permeable than was true even a few decades ago. On the surface, we are moving closer to a lack of judgment and a more universal acceptance of others as humans with equal status.

And yet we continue to struggle. “Church” is an experience in which we cluster with those whose spiritual views mirror our own. We neither seek nor desire to seek persons whose views conflict with ours. We may be on friendly terms with our neighbors—but to attend their church? Oh no. Oh no, no, no. Their service is too liberal/fundamentalist/traditional/modern for us to be comfortable there. I enjoy my Catholic friends—but attend mass? I wouldn’t know what to say. I enjoy my Jewish friends—but attend temple? I would be out of place. We enjoy diversity within a limited sphere of tolerance.

If This Is Heaven Show Me Hell

The Sinner and the Sin

Any parent knows the experience of teaching a child “right” and “wrong.” At a young age, it is so very simple. We pry a piece of candy loose from tightly gripped fingers, explaining over the ensuing indignant screams that simply because it is available does not mean it is theirs for the taking. “Mine” and “not mine” is one of the earliest, most fundamental moral codes we teach. And from there? It becomes an increasingly slippery slope.

If you are pursuing Devotions for the Rest of Us, then in all probability you are not a black-and-white thinker. You see morality in shades of gray. Good and evil, right and wrong, and social justice are moving targets. For the foreparents of our present faith communities, the words of the Books of the Law, the prophets, the Apocrypha, the Gospels, and the letters of the apostles were moving targets, as well. Perhaps morality as a fluid, dynamic concept means the world is functioning as it should. Assuredly there are basic moral beliefs that keep us safe, secure, and respectful of each other. Beyond these, however, we cast a wide net searching for reasonable values in our lives. Yet if we were not required to search, would we be stretched in our understanding? Would we question or own attitudes, our own prejudices? Or would we remain complacent? Morality should be a slippery slope—one that leaves us clawing for a handhold, at times tenuously, at times tenaciously, as we find anchors for our faith.

If This Is Heaven Show Me Hell

We Are All In the Gutter

If “the virtues” could be housed in a single room, I am convinced that Hope would at once be the most frequently selected and the most frequently discarded. We turn to “big H” Hope in moments of need: death, disaster, any fear or uncertainty that threatens to overwhelm us. And just as quickly, we cast it aside when the crisis has passed, preferring to live in the moment rather than trust an ephemeral future promise.

When we use Hope in this way, we fail to understand its premise for Christians. We believe, almost all of us, in a “better than this,” although we may disagree on what “better” might mean (anything from streets of gold to an indescribable peace). In the words of the blessing, we exchange beauty for glory. But our ongoing “little h” hope is a God of the present. Our lives are at times intense, dark, and terrible, but we know God will see us through. Melded with our faith, hope sustains us in moments of deepest desolation and in our joy, gives us passion as we work to fulfill God’s plan. Our hope reminds us that our trials can be devastating, our suffering intense, but they reflect the journey and not the destination. Our hope also reminds us that our successes can be intoxicating, our achievements a source of pride, but they too reflect the journey, and not the destination. Only in such a balance do we truly see that God provides.

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From a fellow author

So many devotions feel like the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove: a nice story laden with a heavy-handed lesson in morality. But the devotions offered by James Cates are different. The stories he writes are queer, and messy, and feel more true to life. Gleaned from decades of living and practice as a psychologist, they come from the margins and edges. More accurate to where most of us live, Cates’s gentle reflections fortify and nourish our authentic experience.

- Tim Otto, Author, Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships