One of the most interesting sermons I ever heard was on hell – not a topic I particularly wanted to hear about, as I can’t stand the fire and brimstone approach to theology. Instead, I heard a brilliant expose on heaven and hell described as a trajectory of relationship with God. At the bottom end of the spectrum, hell reflects a state of separation from God: the apex of pain, isolation and despair.
The pastor giving the sermon debunked all my preconceived notions of how theologians perceive hell first by stating that the Hebrew (or Greek) word used in the Bible for hell is Hinnom – an actual valley near Jerusalem where human and animal carcasses were discarded. The horrible stench and squalor of the location became the metaphor for things most foul and thus hell became known as the Valley of Hinnom.
In the sermon, Pastor Ed Noble defined individuals out of trajectory with God as living in hell. Specifically, he described this as alienation and isolation, a state where people either shun God or simply can not grasp what He has to offer. Noble described this state of being as “a smoldering garbage dump of human existence,” and as the product of sin – sin in its true context, which means turning away from God.
The sermon left an indelible blue print on my heart because as I listened, I knew my mom died in the Valley of Hinnom. Released from jail for a fifth felony DUI, I know without a doubt, my mom felt utterly lost. Despite being a devout Catholic all her life, she couldn’t see Him as a source of redemption and hope. All she saw was financial ruin, not having a driver’s license, her loved ones fed up with her alcoholism and having to start all over again at age 62. And so she despaired. “When I am gone you will not have any more worries or concerns and will be free to carry on your life without any more pain from me,” she wrote to me in a suicide note. She was found dead on the streets from an overdose of amitriptyline, a drug prescribed to her in jail.
The Pastor’s sermon, brilliant though it was, left me incomplete, as most important probings into the deepest mysteries of our hearts and lives do. Only our belief in God can guide us to any attempt at understanding. And in the caverns of my heart, I search for His hand to pull me from the depths of grief and lack of resolution.
Being around my mom, I feared being sucked into the Valley of Hinnom myself. In the end, I wasn’t the compassionate, gracious presence she needed that may have helped her. But I realize perhaps only God could have redeemed her.
When she died, I was released from a kind of hell. Occasionally, I feel aspects of it – chains I haven’t quite liberated myself from but nothing to the degree I experienced while she was alive. In her death, God did free me. She as well. So my most ardent prayer is that He freed her – took her into His loving arms and soothed her. Gave her comfort – balm in Gilead for her tired soul. The priest who gave the sermon at her memorial service chose Matthew 11:28 for her. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
I believe God spoke to her while she was laying there in the Valley of Hinnom and helped pull her from its stench. Somehow saved her for she never meant to despair – she just couldn’t seem to pull herself out of a self-destructive tide but she was gentle to the bone. As I look at evil in the world around me, I realize she made me good. Her lack of cruelty shaped me, molding me into a being who looks for light not dark; who wants to help others vs. hurt them.
So Lord, please “provide for those (and for my mother) who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
How ironic that my mother once gave me a book called “Beauty for Ashes” hoping God would take from me my despair. My torn garments. My Valley of Hinnom.