Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 80) transports me to a completely charred pine forest, in the springtime after a destructive late summer or early fall fire has scorched the earth and left what first appears to be barren land. Appearances can be deceiving, though, as gourmet mushroom hunters the world over have long known. Every spring, about the time the dogwoods bloom, thousands of “shroomers” descend on the scorched earth of forests decimated by fires, to gather what grows out of these burned over districts – gourmet black morels, the tasty, meaty, nutty favorite that makes the mouths of French chefs as well as hillbilly connoisseurs water (in Kentucky the black morels are called merkels, the mountain pronunciation of miracle). And miracle it does appear to be. For the refined palate, the forest fire is a refining fire, redeeming the morels from the loamy grave, so that they can bring joy and satisfaction to hunter-gatherers and gourmet diners at banquet feasts the world over.
The Psalmist, echoing the popular vision of Israel as God’s vineyard, remembers how God, the great vine dresser, transplanted the choice vine from Egypt, preparing the land of Canaan for a vineyard that would grow into a great forest, shading the mountains and producing gourmet fruit of grace. The poet laments what has happened in the intervening years, as the vines cross-pollinated with the culture of violence and greed, producing fruits of derision and shame instead of faithful love. The result of this infidelity is a destructive judgment experienced by that vineyard, with God’s smoldering anger igniting a wildfire that sweeps through and scorches the earth of the promised land. At God’s rebuke, the Psalmist says, the people perish. But, like the imagery of hellfire throughout the Hebrew scriptures, perishing isn’t the last word. The fire is a refiner’s fire, a redeeming fire. The poet’s final stanza include words of hope – Revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, Lord God; make your face shine upon us, and we will be saved. The smoldering fire of late summer brings about a springtime of new life emerging from the dark of earth. Israel’s story is the story of the black morels.
The early church fathers, in the first few centuries of church life (before the Roman Empire co-opted the church for its own purposes and began using the threat of hell as way to maintain social control), did not have an “orthodox” doctrine of hell fire. Some, like Tertullian, witnessing the cruel persecution of the Christians, gained great hope and joy from the image of hell: At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness, so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians. While that might be an image to help the faithful persevere, it’s hardly a doctrine to live by. Others, like Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Clement of Alexandria, believed, like the Psalmist of old, that the fires of hell were temporal and transformative, not vengeful and eternal. Clement wrote that God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary (in Hades) leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of the sinner. . . and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh. Whatever hellish consequences await those who are captive to this world’s system, whatever fires await those who have allowed their faith to cross-pollinate with the desires and discriminations of the world, it will be a fire that refines. And out of that fire, we can hear the chastised souls singing with the Psalmist, Revive us again, fill each heart with Thy love, may each soul be re-kindled with fire from above. Hallellujah! Thine the glory. The mountaineers are right; it is indeed a merkel of mercy, a gourmet feast of grace, with fruits of the Spirit springing up from hell’s kitchen, making the mouths of the finest of French chefs water.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.