An unfortunate stereotype around Ireland is that it is not known for its cuisine.
If you want a culinary adventure, go to France. If you want boiled beef, cabbage or potatoes — that’s all Irish reputation has produced.
But we were pleasantly surprised to find that the stereotype was wrong, at least on the western coast. The waters off County Kerry provided the best seafood we’ve ever tasted. I say this with some authority, having moved from Ireland to Atlantic Beach, Florida, where seafood-lovers go to eat happy. The fish, clams, and mussels of Kerry were incredible, all caught fresh that day. We were spoiled to have a seafood dock directly across the street from our house. Most days, we’d walk over and ask Mr. Daly what he recommended for dinner that evening. Everything he offered was fantastic.
I think it must have something to do with how cold the water is — it keeps the sea creatures and the people lively.
However, it wasn’t the seafood alone that we enjoyed. Kerry has another local delicacy that can’t be matched anywhere else in the world, and we became intimately acquainted with this homegrown delicacy.
Lamb. Plump, juicy, butterball lamb, grazing just off our front door on sweet onion grass. I was forever trying to keep the girls from naming their little, white sweeties, knowing the inevitable end for many of them.
One of the best meals we ate in Ireland was Guinness lamb stew, locally-raised — and by local, I mean very local, backyard local. Likewise, our hosts and friends, the O’Connors, invited us over for an evening of traditional Irish fare, which included braised lamb from the farm. It was delicious. As boys will do, the three O’Connor lads enjoyed teasing our girls, trying to get them to guess which of the lambs from the backyard they were serving that night. The oldest of them said, “I’m afraid Trevor may not be in the field tomorrow,” a wicked grin on his face. The girls got wide-eyed for a minute and protested, but later asked for seconds of everything.
This was not long after the O’Connors did something with their sheep that we didn’t understand until a few days later, after they’d explained what had happened and why.
One evening, when we returned home from another day of adventuring, we noticed something different about the fields below our house. First, we saw that where once ewes and lambs grazed peacefully side-by-side, there was now only lambs. And the second and more obvious change we didn’t see but instead heard. We drove up to the overwhelming cacophony of motherless babies, wailing and baaing and mewling like cats. Over the hill, we could hear the cries of the mothers, ears straining for their lost lambs.
Sometime that afternoon, the shepherd had deemed it necessary to separate the ewes and lambs. It was time for the babies to graze, not nurse, and they would never do this on their own. They needed to graze in order to be ready for some of them to be sold and turned out at market. The mothers were driven to the backfields, fenced in and beyond the sight of their lambs. But they were not beyond earshot. While the mothers and babies could not see each other, they were calling to one another in distress. Macy and Jo ran to the lambs, trying to comfort and mother them. Of course, this didn’t work. The lambs had been separated from the warmth and comfort of mother’s milk and mother’s scent. They were now to live alone until either grown or sold, cut off from the nurture on which they’d been raised.
This had to be done, but it was still difficult to bear. We listened to the babies cry intermittently through the night, wishing there was some other way to achieve lamb stew.
I do not write this to be morbid or even funny. While I’m no vegetarian, I don’t like to see any creature suffer. The shepherd was never cruel to his sheep. This was the way of the farm, something that took some getting used to for suburb-dwellers. It was his livelihood, and an honorable one: to raise healthy lambs that graced the tables of Ireland. This he does, and he does it well.
I write about this because as I hear Jesus’ question today, it reminds me of the frightened creatures: of their separation from their parent, of their duress, of their fate that would end for many in death.
Jesus asks today’s questionwith great concern and feeling, yearning we would avoid this pain for ourselves.
Like the lambs, we have been raised on the nurture and constancy of a Good Father. He has been there always, right at our side. He has walked with us, he has eaten with us, he has curled his warmth around us on bitter cold nights. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve never known a moment without the presence of the Father Who Loves.
And hell is the absence of all this. Hell is being separated forever from a loving Father.
But if we don’t trust him now, if we don’t give him the rights to our whole heart, then we will be get what we want — an existence on our own. It is not his cruelty that does this. It is our rebellion. If there is somewhere in us telling him a clear and firm NO, then God honors this. If we ask him to let us direct our own small lives, he will. He will always pursue us, but He will never force his Love on anyone who does not wish to have it.
He will always, ALWAYS love. He simply cannot not love. The love of God does not end, but the love of God honors the request to back off, remain at a distance. In the end, if this is what we’ve done during our very brief, very lamb-like lifetime on this earth, then this is what we will receive for all eternity. Dallas Willard, my favorite author, is asked in an interview about hell. He says this:
“Heaven and Hell are God’s provisions for who we choose to be. It is a natural extension of the way we live…You can get in a lot of arguments about the details, but the basic fact is that there are some people who just can’t stand God. That’s the way they are in this life, so he doesn’t force his presence on them in the next. I don’t think we should regard God as happy that anyone goes to Hell. Scripture tells us that “it is not his will that any should perish.” But he does permit it. That is a testimony to the great value that God places on human personality. He values it enough that he is prepared for people to be eternally lost if that is what they want. I would be very happy if Hell were not an aspect of it; Hell is a terrible thought” (Dallas Williard article).
My stomach cringes just thinking about it. I don’t pretend to know the mysteries surrounding what it would be like, but I can’t help but wonder. Will those separated from God still hear the Voice of Love that whispers throughout the universe and beyond? Separated forever from sight but not from hearing?
Like the lambs, will those in hell cry out for the mothering Love they always had but took for granted?
It’s impossible to stomach, too terrible to dwell on for more than a minute. I would not wish that end on anyone.
Neither does God.
He knows what hell is, truly. He experienced it on the Cross. He knows that hell is the separation of the children from the Father, just as he would be separated from his Father not long after he asks this question in Matthew 23. He took our place, our separation, so that we would never need experience this horror.
He wants us with him.
Let me say it again: He wants us with him.
Let this sink into the soil of our hearts, drench and seep until it reaches the softest part that can receive it. God, more than anything else, wants us with him. He wants us now, and he wants us forever. He would not be parted with any of his lambs, each holding his whole heart in a unique, mysterious way. He wants us with him so much that he sent his most beloved Son to the slaughter-house, forever securing our place in his pasture, right by his side.
He wants us with him, and he asks, “Do you want this, too?” He knows what it requires. He knows what we must do to avoid this hellish isolation from him.
We begin living with him, in each moment, right now. We invite him into everything, and we look to him for everything.
It’s the Covenant of Everything. He’s the God of the All or Nothing.
We cannot live as a lamb, sometimes nursing from God and sometimes nursing from any other source that is available. He is either the God of all of us, everything we have, or he is not our God at all.
He asks for everything, and we must be willing to give it in this life now.