BY RELEVANT LIFE February 06, 2009

I wanted to escape this South American slum. I wanted the coast. I wanted the vineyards. I wanted the Chile that you see in the tour magazines. But all around me was hell. And that’s when my wife, Marisol, pointed out a large billboard, beckoning from the side of the highway. It wasn’t like any of the other billboards. There were no corporate logos or airbrushed blondes. Just the simple, terrifying words, “The Other Side of Chile.”

“Don’t look away!” The billboard cried. “You need to see this, too.”

chilepoor
Leaving the coastal paradise that has become my temporary home, I recently drove to Santiago de Chile. It was a spectacular drive through vineyard-laced valleys and distant mountain ranges. The words of St. Theresa seemed so real, “All the way to Heaven is heaven.”  “This place surely is a piece of heaven,” I thought.
Approaching the outskirts of the city, vineyards gave way to concrete ghettos while the picturesque hills turned into mounds of rotting refuse. We were driving 100km/h through Santiago’s most dangerous and notorious slum. Sometime, without knowing it, we had left heaven, missed the turnoff for purgatory and detoured right to hell—hell on earth.

I am so grateful for theologians and pastors who are calling the Church back to a New Testament understanding of heaven.  Heaven is not some disembodied fly away experience that happens at death; a final destination after passing on. Rather, in the New Testament, heaven is the ongoing triumph of God as His reality pushes further into all realms of this earth. Understanding this has saved my faith.

But if heaven can be described, discerned and manifested here on earth, then so can hell. (A situation/relationship/environment where the reality of God is absent.) The road trip reminded me of this horror.

I wanted to escape this South American slum. I wanted the coast. I wanted the vineyards. I wanted the Chile that you see in the tour magazines. But all around me was hell. And that’s when my wife, Marisol, pointed out a large billboard, beckoning from the side of the highway. It wasn’t like any of the other billboards. There were no corporate logos or airbrushed blondes.  Just the simple, terrifying words, “The Other Side of Chile.”

“Don’t look away!” The billboard cried.  “You need to see this, too.”

Neither Marisol nor I spoke a word. As Bono would describe it, we were caught in a moment.  Someone had the courage to point out the reality which we were trying to ignore. Even in a place of such beauty, hundreds of thousands of people live, sleep and eat in hell.

As a pastor I don’t often stop to look for the places where hell is creeping into my community. I spend too many of my days fulfilling my job description; ensuring that worship gatherings are moving, the music is angelic and the vision and mission statements are lofty.

But no matter how beautiful our gatherings or how well-crafted our talks are, there are people amongst us, week in and week out, that are trapped in the hell of abuse, addiction, poverty, mental illness and other tragedies.

Looking at the other side takes effort. I wonder if what the Church desperately needs is to shift its focus; to stop gazing at the gilded and focus its eyes on the men and women who, in our midst, are hurting.

Will our lives and churches slow down long enough to catch a glimpse of the people and places that need our heavenly intentions the most?

RELEVANT