About a month back I made my semi-annual pilgrimage to Robert Lee, Texas, to meet with my 3 pastor brothers to escape the rigors and stresses of hometown and parish demands for a few days. Now typically, there are few places in the world I’d rather be than Robert Lee. My next-to-eldest brother Gene once remarked that after jetting halfway around the world to spend time in some rather exotic places–for his rest and recreational benefit, and certainly for his money—a trip to Robert Lee was better! People would think we are crazy, as to an outsider there is naught to commend this little town that time and most traffic have forgotten. It is a pretty ordinary tiny West Texas berg, with a rather dilapidated main street, decaying infrastructures, and not even much ambition or potential for things to be that different. Robert Lee’s glory days are way past, the town having settled, as eventually do most people, into a slow but inevitable decay; about the most exciting thing you’ll find is the four-way stop with flashing lights so you don’t miss it. It wouldn’t be hard to miss….
I’m not sure when the town of Robert Lee had its heyday—I suspect it came before I was even born. Now it’s just hanging on, fighting an uphill battle for survival made worse by drought and fire and economic realities as the little hamlet heads back to the dust from whence it came. There’s not much there, I’ll admit, but for the four of us Shelburne brothers, each with deep ancestral roots in Coke County, each with grand memories of life with grandparents right there in that house, each roaming about as kids on that wild acreage with guns and knives and slingshots—well, in a magical way it still has the peterpanish ability to take us back to that time, which I guess for us approximates to our “good old days.” Just like the town where it sits at 310 W. 9th St., the house is small and tired itself, failing to gravity and decay in much the same way as the four brothers who now are its only occasional tenants. But still, for us, against all good sense and it ways that are hard to explain, it is heaven on Earth!
But this spring something made our heaven a bit more hellish. A late April heat-wave boiled Robert Lee the very week we had planned so carefully months before to be there. Temperatures reached 108 one day, and broke 100 just about every day we were there. That’s HOT! And it is made significantly worse by the fact that the little house we inhabit there has no air conditioning! So you end up with four rather fuzzy and pre-conditioned-to-air-conditioning preachers–having to tough it out with no escape from the heat. If Hell ever gets full—well, I have a great suggestion for an overflow location. And I’ve spent a week there! If suffering is good for you, I’m about the best I’ve been in a long time!
The only respite from the Robert Lee heat came between 2 and 10 a.m. when the sun was absent or had just punched-in for the day’s work. We brothers spent as much time outdoors as possible, early and wee-hour time; the worst stretch was noon to 6, when the inside of the house, even with windows open and fans screaming, became a stifling toaster-oven. My older brothers stripped down to minimal coverings, sort of the Native American loin cloth approach to dealing with the heat, I guess. I don’t know where or when they lost their modesty genes, but trust me, the Native Americans wear that look much better….! We did survive, tried by fire and found….sweating! And we’ve scheduled next spring’s trip in March!
This brimstone week in our typically heavenly escape got me to thinking a bit about Heaven and Hell, and our different perspectives on each. According to scripture they are both certain and real places where people will spend eternity, one in the joyous and glorious Presence of God, the other dismal and damned and forsaken by the total absence of that Presence. An amazing number of people these days, believers included, tend to consider Heaven and Hell as being more “metaphorical” than actual. A part of that may be our society’s (believers included) unwillingness to imagine or allow that God might actually send some people to a place of eternal punishment. We are hardly willing to give a child bad marks on a report card these days, much less consider the reality that some people’s own choices will garner eternal damnation. We’ve become “nicer than God” who is certainly a God of love and grace, but Who in His righteous holiness must also judge and reward sin that cares nothing or sees no need for forgiveness, that “thumbs its nose” at grace. Hell is the place prepared and reserved for those who have no use for the grace of God, who live lives of rebellion and disobedience toward Him; and if a person so chooses to walk that pathway, well, God will honor that choice. Perhaps the weakness in our understanding of Hell—and this would make sense—also comes from being confused about Heaven, too. Whereas believers in most generations and cultures have had no trouble seeing that our present experience and life is not Heaven, it would appear our present culture is pretty confused about that. We seem to think earth should be heaven, and we work so hard to be comfortable and secure here, as if this address was our final stop, as if we’d better get all we can out of life here, because we think maybe life eternal sounds a little lackluster.
Older generations of believers, like my grandparents who built the little house in Robert Lee, were never confused about this. With their struggle to exist as they eked out a living in a harsh and unforgiving climate, with their meager little house and unbelievably few possessions—they easily embraced the scriptural idea that they were “strangers and aliens” here, that “this world was not their home”—at least not their ultimate home. Earth’s limitations and challenges made this side in many ways seem more hellish than of Heaven. They looked forward; indeed, they spent their lives and later years–straining toward what the Hebrews writer calls “a better country.”
My generation, on the other hand, with some thanks in part to their hard work, found our earth-side existence to be quite alright, quite comfortable. We, the wealthiest generation America had ever seen, as a general rule never lacked for food, never had to walk much anywhere, never had to pick or hoe cotton, and never had to spend summers in anything hotter than a 72 degree climate-controlled environment. We grew up in modern houses for the most part; we had cars when we turned 16. We did have allowances and jobs, but they gave us spending money, not survival money. We had stacks of clothes and multiple pairs of shoes in full closets and pantries that magically refilled themselves; we had parents who worked long hours to give us pretty much everything we wanted. As children my generation didn’t have wars to fight, drew incredible interest on our savings accounts; we never had to worry about some crazy man shooting up our high school or about religious zealots flying airplanes into the New York skyline. There was this little thing about a Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation. But we were too young to understand the idea, so while it worried our parents—that threat was never any more real to us than the silly drills we had at school imagining we could easily survive a nuclear attack by hunkering down under our desks. I could go on here, but you see–we had it good. The struggles were manageable, and usually they were minimal due to our parent’s well-intentioned-yet-still-misguided-interventions and belief we should never have to struggle. As the rewards and securities of life in affluence and comfort became our birthright, you can see why it was harder for my generation to understand why we’d ever sing “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger…” or “Farther along, we’ll know all about it, farther along, we’ll understand why…” We grew up quite happy to be who we were, where we were, what we were. Heaven, although we certainly believed in it and sang happy songs at church about it—it did not beckon and we did not long for it.
Interestingly, there is much debate about Heaven and Hell even among religious types. Most of the debate I’ve come across centers on Hell; some modern voices argue that the long-held descriptors of fire and pain and weeping and gnashing of teeth—are more metaphorical than real, and that indeed Hell is simply more of an existential nothingness than an experiential punishment. For whatever else it may be—the fact that Hell is a place where the Presence of God is totally and completely absent—that one reality would make it far worse than any fire or heat or torture we could imagine. I do know that Jesus had a great deal to say about Hell; His words are proof enough for me that it is both real and awful.
What does it say that we’ve de-evolved into a spiritual culture that has no real longing for Heaven and seemingly little fear of Hell? It may say more than we’d like to admit, and it may point to a lot of the problems we face as churches and believers alike. For now, maybe we should simply pray that God will give us what the old hymn-writer called “a foretaste of glory divine”—that He will create in us a longing for that “better country” and at the same time will convince us well of the awfulness of a Hell apart from Him—so much so that we’ll have a burden to point as many people heavenward as possible in the time we have left here. I need to remember every single day: this is only Earth.