Escape from a Coffin

Tom is a character in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. He is the victim of a nagging mother and a disabled sister. He goes to the cinema for a break and his mother nags him because he sees too many films. He goes out for a cigarette and she complains that he smokes too much. Then one night he goes to the local concert hall and sees a magician nail a man in a coffin who somehow magically gets out and walks away. 

Back home, Tom describes it to his mother and sister. 'It's impossible’, he says; ‘nobody can get out of a coffin’, and then it suddenly dawns on him that was just what happened to his father, a long distance lorry driver who one day just drove off and never came back. Tom envies anyone who  can simply walk out from an impossible situation.

Switch to the moment when the Children of Israel were struggling in the wilderness and Moses had gone up into the mountain and apparently was never coming back. ‘As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt’, they said, ‘we know not what has become of him’ (Exodus 32:1b). This was the man who led them into the wilderness.  As long as he was there at least they were all in it together and they could get at him, but now he seems to have walked out on them. Forty days and forty nights is a long time when you are desperate, and how they must have wished they could walk out on their problems as Moses had walked out on his.

Imagine two sisters looking after an elderly and disabled aunt. One is strong and carries the burdens, the other is weak and plays a supportive role. Then, at fifty,  the strong one gets an offer of marriage and takes it. She goes to live fifty miles away, and the weaker one feels hurt and resentful. The one has escaped. The other feels cheated. The experience is not uncommon and for some may be acute.

You marry or take a new job with the feeling that God is very much in it with you. Then things go wrong,  and no help is at hand. Close friends have a different understanding of faith or a quite different set of morals. You don’t want to criticise  or condemn but you don’t find God there.  Or you go to worship God in another tradition. You don’t necessarily react against it but there are moments when when you just don't feel as if God is present. Its like living in an alien environment.

Once you sensed his presence. Now you feel like Mary, when she says to the gardener,  'They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him'.  Having invested in gas you suddenly find yourself in an all-electric house  and no gas for miles. When that happens we have three options.

One way is to try to put the clock back. Pretend that what has happened has never happened.

This was the answer of the children of Israel. Let's find another leader who knew the good old days and might succeed in bringing them back. Forget adventure with Moses, ignore the new Yahweh wherever he was leading them and get back to the familiar. Moses has gone. Long live Aaron.  And Aaron moulds a golden calf to sum-up life as it used to be.

Get out the old Bible,  play the old hymn-tunes,  get out the old Sunday School prizes. Find a group or a church where they talk the old language. It may not bring back the God we knew,  but at least it will be easier to live without him.

A second possibility is to fill the diary with other things. With Moses gone there was more religious activity than there had been since they left Egypt. They proclaimed a fast, rose up early, offered peace offerings, brought burnt-offerings, sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play (vv 5-6). But this wasn't because they had found God. It was more a matter of passing the time because they hadn’t.

A third way, for those with courage, is to walk out on God.  It sounds disastrous, even disbelieving, but may in fact be the most meaningful of all responses.

Tom, in The Glass Menagerie, suddenly realises that he can walk out just like his father. The weaker sister then sees that she too can walk out just like her stronger sister. And maybe there is good scriptural support.

Paul walked out on God in the middle of one of his missionary journeys.  Acts rather dresses it up when it says that when Paul had gone a long way to the east God forbade him to go further. But the fact of the matter can be stated more bluntly. Paul had endured a very unsatisfactory missionary journey, and in the end, says in effect to God, 'All right, if this is how you treat me I'm not doing your missionary work'. So he turns tail and returns to Troas, and it is there, having abandoned God in the east that he finds a new doorway opening up to God in the west. Likewise, the two on the Emmaus Road and Peter in Quo Vadis?

John Wesley, in more recent times, had an almost identical experience. He went as a Christian missionary to Georgia and literally got nowhere.  As long as he kept up the pretence, nothing happened. But when he walked out on God, returned to Britain a dispirited man and went to a meeting in Aldersgate he found his heart ‘strangely warmed’ and began his new ministry. 

So often, when we face reality and walk out, we find that what we are escaping from suddenly comes near to us in a deeper sense. 

By walking out on his mother and sister, Tom comes to an even richer appreciation of them, and if I read between the lines correctly mother and daughter come to a new approach to each other in his absence than they ever could in his presence, just like Paul, John Wesley and many others, and this may be one way in which the gospel is fulfilled. 

Light comes from darkness,  Joy from pain and life from death as we discover that sometimes when we walk out on God we simply fall right into his arms.

© Alec Gilmore 2014