Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hellfire and Brimstone

Hellfire and Brimstone
Michael Hall

Its fire pit has been made deep and wide,
with an abundance of fire and wood;
the breath of the Lord, like a stream of burning sulfur, sets it ablaze.
Isaiah 30:33

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah-
from the Lord out of the heavens.
Genesis 19:24

On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot.
Psalms, 11:9

Jesus said: I have thrown fire on the world. Look! I watch it until it blazes.
The Gospel of Thomas, 10

“Brimstone was not only associated with the wrath of God or judgment but it was also used as a purifying agent. The Greek Orthodox would burn brimstone to ward off evil and disease. Some might state that this is why God’s breath is compared with Brimstone and why brimstone is often used in carrying out divine judgment. That is, the brimstone is not used merely for cruelty; but is used to purify and cleanse the land from evil and the decay of sin……Today, preaching in more conservative branches of Christianity, such as many, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Restoration Movement and Church of Christ churches, may be described as “fire and brimstone” in style. The term “fire and brimstone” is more often used in current language to stereotype fervent preachers (though such few preachers would label themselves that way).”  (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

Some of you may already be wondering where exactly this is going. Well, bear with me for a moment. You may remember that I was raised in the Church of Christ (see above quote from Wikipedia). Every Sunday until I fled at age 16, my family and I would sit in church and listen while the preacher did his best to scare us to death, and make us wish we were already in Hell just to get it over with sooner rather than later. My memory of these interminable sermons is that we were all going to burn in Hell forever unless we did something, and that something was never made clear, although it probably didn’t involve sex, drugs, rock and roll, or any other form of enjoyment.

When Rick Archer first suggested interviewing me for his website, I went to the site and noticed a book he recommended titled Perfect Madness: From Awakening to Enlightenment by Donna Lee Gorrell (Inner Ocean, 2001). I ordered the book and read this woman’s description of her painful and confusing self-deconstruction process which mostly covered a period of about 9 months in the early 70s when she was only 23 years old. The book begins somewhat ominously: “I was na├»ve when my spiritual journey began. I wanted growth without change, wisdom without experience, security without sacrifice, and life without death. I wanted to swim in the waters of eternity without getting wet” (p.1). Isn’t this what we all want? How many of us truly want to be transformed? Being born again in the real sense is a profoundly destabilizing experience.

Some people going through this radical deconstruction process of waking up to what is real have their entire life fall apart as things start to really heat up. For others there are profound psychological and physical symptoms that are routinely seen from a conventional perspective and treated as such by mainstream physicians and psychotherapists. I have described the period of time from the first real glimpse of nondual awareness until the emergence of a stable, continuous dwelling in this awareness as being the Dark Night of St. John of the Cross. The last 40 or so years of Mother Teresa’s life can best be understood as one long and harrowing dark night. The wandering pilgrim can be helped immeasurably by an accurate understanding of the various symptoms that can emerge, including the sense of being bereft and abandoned by God.

Perhaps with this background we can revisit the idea of fire and brimstone. Maybe these frightening images of devastation are not merely descriptions of the suffering awaiting sinners who veer from the path as I was taught growing up. What if the real path inevitably involves smoke and flame? Periodic fires are necessary for a living forest to restore itself as deadwood and choking undergrowth are removed. The former life doesn’t usually give up without a fierce fight. In Matthew 8:22 Jesus invites a man whose father has just died to come to his senses. The man, devout and observant begs off, noting that the law requires him to bury his father before sunset. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” Jesus tries for a second time. He must have seen some real potential there, otherwise why take another whack at this dead tree? How truly radical! Fire and brimstone in this man’s face! You can almost smell the smoldering sulfurous smoke. Now the passage from Isaiah 30:33 “the breath of the Lord, like a stream of burning sulfur, sets it ablaze” can be seen from a new perspective.

What are some of the predictable crises, physical and psychological symptoms, and difficult to foresee challenges that arise from a serious commitment to spiritual growth? We will meet in my office Sunday June 5 from 2-3:30 to explore these issues.

Jesus said: I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to build it again.
The Gospel of Thomas, 71

Davies, S. The Gospel of Thomas: Annotated & Explained. (2003). Sky Light Paths:Woodstock, VT.


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