Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ordinary Time - Does God go with us to Hell?

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” (Luke 19:29-31)

There is some important symbolism going on with the colt in this story. It is a fairly young animal and has yet to be ridden or required to be a beast of burden. Just as the implements of worship in the temple were not given over to common use, so would the colt serve as a pure vessel that would carry Jesus into Jerusalem, where he would first be hailed as the Messiah, and then soon after sentenced to death and crucified.

The symbolism will continue later on when Jesus’ body is laid in a tomb that had never been occupied. Jesus was the first to be laid there.

It might be good for us to think about how Jesus occupies these new, unused places. We go to these kinds of places all the time. We enter into new phases of life, new jobs, new relationships, new challenges, and any number of other new things. We usually believe that we are receiving God’s guidance as we go. But do we think about God actually being present in those new places—even going before us there?

And what if the new place is not a good place? What if it is a self-destructive place?

Years ago a woman in my church told me her story. As a young girl, she had already suffered a number of painful, abusive experiences at the hands of people who should have been protecting her—including people in her church. At age thirteen she made a conscious decision to start drinking and to engage in a lifestyle that could easily lead to her destruction.

On the day that she made her decision, she informed God of her plan. She told me that she heard him say to her, “All right. I’ll go with you.”

She said that, in all the years of drinking heavily and partying hard, she never lost a sense of God’s presence. She didn’t claim to have his approval, but she felt that he had gone with her to this new, destructive place in her life, and had not abandoned her.

As a young adult, she entered into a recovery program and got sober. Her life found some level of harmony and she never lost the sense of God’s presence in her life. She still had a lot of emotional and psychological baggage, and she was aware of that. But she never ceased to marvel that God had not forsaken her, even in her darkest time.

I’ve thought a lot about her story over the years. I know people who have spiraled down into very damaging lifestyles and who were certain that God had turned his back on them. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I doubt that the sins we choose—whether out of deep pain, rebellion, or just plain stupidity—somehow catch God off guard. He’s pretty much seen it all.

The father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) didn’t physically travel with his younger son on his journey to disaster, but in a way his love remained present to the son. And when the son came home, the father was fully prepared to receive him. His love was a continuum that preceded the son’s departure, followed him to the far off land, and gathered him home when he returned. In a very profound way, the heart of the father went with the son into a very dark place. The father’s love accompanied the son as he travelled to Hell.

I don’t recommend the choosing of new places in life that are destructive. Choosing Hell is very unwise. But when we go to those places, we might not be going alone.

Can you imagine such a thing?

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