What keeps us from heaven?
What is it that we as a church are unwilling to let go of? What are we too tightly holding on to?
To be honest, I owe most of my theological development to two writers, Madelyn L’Engle and C.S. Lewis. If you are within a certain age range, then L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia laid the foundation for everything that growing up Christian in a Post-Modern Scientific age meant.
However, despite my love of these books, it is another book by C.S. Lewis that I keep coming back to, The Great Divorce. I have probably read it once a year for the last several decades. In spite of its title, it has nothing to do with marriage. It is an allegory/fairy tale/fantasy about the need for a clean divorce between good and evil.
It is a brilliant meditation on good and evil; judgment and grace; and sin and redemption. The Amazon review of The Great Divorce says, “Lewis’s revolutionary idea is the discovery that the gates of hell are locked from the inside.”
Whether you take Lewis’s use of the word “hell” literally or figuratively, his point in The Great Divorce is that we are all in a hell of our own accord and we’ve personally locked the gates from the inside.
In the book, a busload of people is taken from the Gray City (Hell) to an area that is neither heaven nor hell (Lewis is clear that he isn’t giving a theological opinion about purgatory in this non-heaven, non-hell space. It is a literary device created in order to have a conversation about sin and redemption.)
The people from the Gray City (Hell) wait in this neither-world as people from their past come down from Heaven to try to talk their loved ones into giving up whatever it is that is keeping them in Hell so they can escort them to Heaven. For example, a mother has used her concept of love to control her son. All she has to do is stop controlling him and give him over to God’s love and then she can leave Hell. She is unwilling to do so. In fact, almost everyone chooses to go back to Hell rather than give up what they are holding on to.
One of the things about Lewis’s theology is that the things people are holding on to aren’t necessarily bad things. Often, they are good things that people push to such extremes that they become our idols. Lewis doesn’t talk about drugs, adultery, murder or any of the other typical offenses that come to mind when we think about sin. It isn’t the heinous things that usually cause us to stumble but those that are actually good when kept in proper balance. In The Great Divorce, the people who choose to stay in Hell are a preacher who can’t let go of his intellect; a mother who can’t let go of controlling her son with her “love”; a woman who can’t let go of her looks; and a man who can’t let go of his sense of justice. Intellect, mother’s love, beauty and justice are all good things unless we make them into our idols.
I wonder: what is it that we as a church are unwilling to let go of? What are we too tightly holding on to? Is a beautifully laid altar more important than an authentic worship experience? Are perfectly trained vocal scholars in our choir more important than faithful members who desperately long to sing out? Are our relationships with friends during coffee hour more important than getting to know the visitor standing alone in the back? Is our sense of decorum more important than telling our story? Is not being mistaken for an evangelic more important than preaching the Gospel?
In these trying times in the Church, it is easy to blame our problems on the multitude of forces at work outside of the Church. Sometimes, I wonder if the outside forces actually have nothing to do with our problems. I wonder if we’ve let our fear of change, failures and the ‘unknown’ drive us into our own hell where we have slammed the gate shut and locked it from the inside?
David Dreisbach serves as Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.