In this season of Lent we are beginning a journey together. It will be shaped by the writing of C.S.Lewis in his portrayal of a fantastic bus ride that travels between hell and heaven. For some it’s a one-way trip but others can’t accept the conditions of heaven. We will meet some characters who seem stuck in the habits and preferences formed during their earthly lives. After their death they find themselves in the gray town where people can’t seem to get along. They argue, fight, insist on their own right-ness and move further and further away from each other in a state of disagreement. Life is perpetually dismal with a fear that night will arrive at some future moment with finality. Fear is never far beneath the surface of these saints who have lost their way. But every day there is a gloriously gleaming bus that swoops into the gray town with the promise of a new life in a far-away place. Although it’s not named heaven, it offers the assurance of relief from monotony and a welcome into the brilliant presence of God. It seems like a no-brainer that these characters would flee hell for the joy of heaven. But they have to give up their favorite vices, the personas they have carefully cultivated in their earthly lives, their self-importance and their reliance on idols that separate them from God. Are we surprised that very few are unwilling to do this?
Today I will introduce you to a couple of characters: Sir Archibald and a silly, garrulous woman! (I love this description of the woman! I reminds us that Lewis wrote this in the 1940’s in the stuffy academic setting of Oxford, England!) In his earthly life, Sir Archibald was a curious explorer who doggedly pursued the subject matter of survival by traveling all over the globe. In his continual search for knowledge, he lost his interest in the end destination. More and more research was needed to dig deeper into his theories. Over time he forgot why he had begun his scholarly endeavor and lost the joy of discovery. When he had the opportunity to leave the hell of endless inquiry for the settled eternity of peace in God’s presence, he said “no”! He objected to the fact that there was no more research to be done in heaven as all matters were settled. He didn’t know how to live as anything but an ardent academician. So, rather than give up his carefully-crafted self-identity, he gave up heaven with a hope for prominence in the gray town. The intense struggle for knowledge had become him, his persona, his identity.
Lewis presents himself in the book as one who arrived first in the gray town and now is on this bus trip to heaven. He can’t make sense of his new home. His guide explains to him that Sir Archibald’s choice is similar to that of theologians who have been so intent on proving the existence of God that they have forgotten to love God. Others have been so focused on spreading Christian doctrine that they have long since lost a connection and love for Christ. The journey eclipses the end goal that had been in sight when they started and they are unwilling to choose a new home where all questions are answered!
United Church of Christ scholar and pastor, Walter Brueggeman, delved into the Psalms in his book, Praying the Psalms. He describes three categories that the psalms fall into: Psalms of (naïve) orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. Depending on where we are in our own lives, we are often attracted to psalms that echo our experience. In the stage of orientation our lives are going forward without much struggle. We have a relationship with or understanding of God that suits our needs. This is fine until there is some great disruption that challenges our carefully constructed spiritual foundation: our marriage falls apart, we lose our job, we commit a crime, we are given a dire diagnosis, we become a caregiver to someone with demanding needs and our days become a blur of new responsibilities. We slide into a pit and aren’t altogether sure how we got there and have no idea how to get out.
This lands us in a place of disorientation. Everything seems unfamiliar. We are in our own version of a gray town where nothing lights our path to go home. We feel stuck. We doubt everything we’ve ever believed. This is a critical stage because we have to fight to get to a desired place rather than staying in the pit. For those who turn to God and are open to new vision for the journey, they will be given the strength to get out of the pit. This brings them to a place of re-orientation. There’s no going back to the person they were before the crisis. But, if they have been open to change—even when painfully earned—they will not wish to go back to the stage of naïve orientation. If you read the psalms with an eye toward these three stages, you will recognize them and will perhaps be able to understand where you are now and the place from which you have come.
Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and author describes this movement with different imagery. In his book, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls, his premise is that we are all, continually, searching for home. Our true home is always found in our relationship with God. Given our humanity, we often get lost along the way and confuse our own selfish goals for the intention God has for us. We are very good at deceiving not just others but, even worse, ourselves. (We sometimes even think we are pulling one over on God!) When this happens we can convince ourselves that the wrong road we are on is, in fact, leading us to where we need to be. He writes, “This holy business of learning to love correctly so we can find our way home is very difficult.” In sleepless nights, in conversations with our therapists, in the embrace of a loved one who assures us that it’s all going to be OK, we are desperately trying to find the way into the presence of the One who knows and loves us as we are.
The second character we meet today is someone from the gray town who has traveled by bus to this new land. It stands on the edge of some mountains that must be traversed to arrive at heaven. Everything in this new world is so brilliant that the “ghosts” (as they are called) who arrive from hell, do not have the senses that can take in their surroundings. Familiar individuals from their earthly life have been sent to meet them in an effort to convince them to leave the gray town for something much more beautiful and promising. They are called “Solid People” or “Solid Spirits” because they have been living in the presence of God in heaven. They are able to help the newcomers adapt to the challenges of the terrain.
This woman is complaining non-stop to one of the Solid Spirits about how nothing has worked out as she hoped. Everyone has failed her both in her earthly life and now in the gray town. She doesn’t give the Solid person a chance to talk her into considering moving away from all that dissatisfies her and into the glory of heaven. Her sin is that she no longer simply grumbles. The guide, who is interpreting these experiences for the newcomer on the journey, says that she has become a grumble. Her very person, shaped by God for love and community, has been fully replaced by a love for suffering. She has embraced the victim mentality. The guide asks whether there is still a woman inside the grumbling? Lewis confirms in the book that the state of being in hell always begins with complaining. Uh oh! Is any of us exempt from that? Some people repent and stop complaining but others keep it going non-stop, in their heads and hearts, so that they forget what it means to be happy. This woman so relished her discontent that she was unwilling to give it up for heaven.
In Deuteronomy 26, one of the lectionary passages for today, Moses is coaching his people in how to set up their new lives when they get into the promised land. He won’t be able to cross over into it with them so he offers them the framework for their life as a settled people with their own territory. The very first act for them is to make a sacrifice to God in worship. They bring the very best of what the land yields, trusting that God will continue to bless them with a fruitful crop. As they stand before the priest with their basket of produce, they are to recite the words Moses dictates. This speech is really an act of praise in which they recall how God has rescued them in the past from hardship and how they trust God will continue to bless them going forward. They then joyfully present their offering to the priest and celebrate the bounty with which God has blessed them. They are not to stay stuck in the hardships of the past by naming favorite grievances in an endless loop. They are given a perspective of gratitude with which those struggles are colored. They praise God for the blessing of a new homeland. From disorientation they move into a re-orientation that is powerfully shaped by thanksgiving!
None of us seeks out tough times! Craig Barnes assures the reader that there’s really more hope for folks in the stage of disorientation than for those living in rosy times. When the protective layers are pulled back and we discover that our own resources cannot save us, we have the opportunity to discover the God who has been with us all along. He writes, “A new love for God is discovered by pulling out of the ashes an old love that was always there but never followed.”
In his letter to the Romans, Paul expresses this discovery of God’s nearness in a memorable way: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Some have used this almost as a formula for guaranteed entrance into heaven! Let’s get grumpy old Uncle Clive to say these words on his deathbed and we’ll relax , knowing he’s in paradise with Jesus after he breathes his last! And, for all we know, maybe that’s how it works?! But I think Paul was speaking of a deeper connection to God. Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks. We articulate meaningfully what we believe, not just using manipulative words that we dare to imagine will dupe God! Jesus knew the heart of the thief on the cross who confessed that Jesus was the Savior. One thief clung to his way of grumbling discontent, thereby foregoing the chance at eternal joy. The other entered into a relationship with Jesus as they both hung there, their lives slipping away. He made a heart commitment to the One who could save him. Paul is clear that everyone who believes has the opportunity to choose hell over heaven. We claim heaven and hell in the present moment! It doesn’t matter how many shiny stars you have next to your name in the Sunday School attendance log. What matters is your love for God that leads you to embrace joy rather than woundedness!
As the newcomer to the journey tried to make sense of this silly, garrulous woman’s choice to be a grumble rather than a redeemed daughter of the Living God, his guide let him know that there was always a choice to be made: “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”
This Lenten season is a journey, one that we have begun with ashes smeared on our foreheads. The ashes remind us of our mortality, of the fickle nature of a crowd that sang “Hosanna” one weekend and then cried out “Crucify Him” the next. But the oil mixed in with the ashes is used to anoint royalty. We are children of the Living God who sent Jesus as King of the Jews, Prince of Peace, Messiah and Savior. The choice to love and serve Him is always ours to make. Sadly some will opt to relish their discontent. We will meet others on this fantastic bus ride who cling to different idols from which they cannot detach themselves. I pray that, when we recognize ourselves in some of these characters, we will have the humility to confess. I pray that, in this season of disorientation as we make our way to the cross and Easter morning, we will strain toward the light of a glorious re-orientation as redeemed children of a living, loving God!