THE GATES OF HELL
Dear everyone after my own heart, and especially those who have saved my life from time to time by smiling quietly wicked smiles in the midst of hellish solemnity,
I mentioned in my last letter that Bridget and I are spending quite a lot of time wading through swamps of failed memory in order to finally stand on the firm ground of something that we are able to both recall at the same time. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if negative memories were as easily eclipsed. They are not. My mind retains a list of pungent past experiences that periodically surface like demons from a dark lake, causing my eyes to screw shut and my toes to curl. Here is an example. It’s slightly off-colour, but don’t get too excited.
It happened when I had been asked to help with collecting envelopes containing cash contributions to a highly respected charity that had been espoused by our church. Earlier in that week the empty envelopes had been popped through the letterboxes of hundreds of homes in the streets surrounding our church in that part of town. My task, a theoretically straightforward one, was to knock or ring the bell at the front doors of houses in three of those streets and simply collect sealed envelopes from those who were happy to give to the cause. What could possibly go wrong?
Even before I started I didn’t want to do it. One man’s relatively comfortable gig is another man’s descent into the maelstrom. Standing up and speaking to large numbers of people is, generally speaking, not a great problem for me. It happens. It’s what I do. However, the prospect of actually inviting sniffy refusals, slammed doors, atheistic lectures and chill-infused rejection at an endless succession of private portals filled me with apprehension. Yes, all right, I expect you’ve done it hundreds of times and are really good at it and have seen many come to faith as a result, but I haven’t, and I’m not, and no-one came to faith or anything else in my three streets as far as I know. Indeed, some may have found their negative responses to Christianity deepened, renewed and refreshed by my visit.
We were furnished with a little unwritten script by the way. After showing our badges (I loathe wearing badges) and explaining that we were there to collect envelopes left by others a few days ago, we were supposed to add, in engaging but unthreatening tones, ‘Our church is the one at the top of the hill. We’d love to see you at the ten o’clock service on Sunday mornings if you were ever able to make it.’ These words, invariably sounding like the worst kind of meaningless drivel when they came out of my mouth were scheduled to be followed by bright expressions of farewell and a cheery Christian wave as we tripped away down the garden path.
My particular nightmare occurred towards the end of the final street.
I have to confess incidentally, that some of my task had been marginally less dreadful that I feared. I developed a very special affection for those who were out. Lovely people. A few elderly folk who were at home greeted me very pleasantly. One or two had actually put money into their envelope and sealed it in readiness for collection. Most people had not done this, and ended up sorting with a sort of dull urgency through piles of circulars on their hall windowsills and / or calling out, ‘What did you do with that envelope?’ to someone buried far away in the bowels of the house. One man, on learning that the collection had a Christian base, declared aggressively, ‘That is not my forte!’ The pedant in me simmered and nearly boiled over, but the door was shut before I had a chance to speak.
My ultimate embarrassment occurred when I was greeted at the front door by a cheerfully amiable woman in her late twenties. Her very substantial top half was seriously unconcealed by a small vest, and she was positively festooned with small children. Leaning sideways and extricating a hand from among the swarm of little bodies, she somehow managed to lift one of the charity envelopes from a cluttered shelf and gave it a little shake to indicate that there were coins inside. Seeing how difficult it was for her to bring her hand close to her mouth in order to seal the flap, I spoke five words that were intended to be helpful, but actually sparked a scene that might have come straight out of a film entitled ‘Carry On Collecting’.
‘I’ll lick it for you.’
That’s what I said. It triggered an explosion of whooping laughter in my new friend. She turned her head towards the room at the end of the hall and screamed out, ‘Joyce! Come out ’ere a minute! ‘E says ’e’ll lick it for me!’
A second woman, dressed and festooned in exactly the same style, emerged from the kitchen, whooping happily in chorus as she came, to have a look at me.
‘Do you think he’ll lick it for me as well?’ she asked uproariously.
‘I dunno, you’ll ’ave to ask ’im!’
I really am not a prude. Those two festooned ladies were just having a bit of fun, and this incident might have passed without too much ongoing trauma, apart from one thing. As I made my retreat along the garden path some internal mechanism clicked into action and I found myself repeating the collector’s mantra in a ridiculously shrill voice.
‘By the way, our church is the one you can see when you get to the top of the hill. We’d love to see you there at the ten o’clock service on Sunday if you were ever able to make it.’
This precipitated a veritable avalanche of mirth. I hastened from their sight, a real and present danger to porphyrophobics (no, look it up for yourself).
So, what has all this got to do with the gates of hell? Good question. It takes me a while to catch up with other people when it comes to noticing obscure bits of the Bible. I suppose the problem is that we read a verse or verses so many times in passing that they almost become invisible. This is what Jesus says to Peter in Matthew’s gospel.
‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’
For some reason I interpreted the section about the gates of hell as an assertion that hell would fail to succeed in attacking the church. The opposite of what Jesus actually said. What is the matter with me?
In fact, he seems to be saying that we, the Church, should be battering against the gates of any region of hell that has taken prisoners and is determined to hold on to them whatever the Church might do. And we shall definitely be able to knock those gates down, says the top expert in this field. Be confident. Go and rescue the lost ones. Get them out and bring them home. Quite often nowadays we see this need when we find ourselves praying with people, a need for us to break in, employing a force that is strange but real, supplied in many different forms and moods by the Holy Spirit when a lost soul’s freedom is the potential prize. Not just in prayer. It’s a mind-set. An attitude. A watching brief. A readiness to attack. An excitement.
My performance as a collector of charity envelopes all those years ago was pathetic. Others did it so well. I just didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want anyone to come to the door when I knocked or rang. I wanted to go home and watch the telly. I hope I have changed. I think I might have.
Now, when it comes to approaching the gates of hell I am at least aware that slipping a friendly, duplicated flyer through the demonic letterbox is not going to cut the mustard, even if it includes an invitation to a Shloer and quiche supper on the fourth Tuesday in the next month that includes five Tuesdays. Work to be done. Next month I might think about the armour we’re likely to need. Hmm…
I would love to discover that those two baby-festooned ladies have enjoyed their lives. And I’m sort of glad I gave them a reason to laugh all that time ago. Maybe God, who enjoys a laugh himself, will station them at the gates of heaven ready for my arrival. I hope so.
Love to everybody, especially you.