Going To Hell In A Handcart

The phrase “Going to hell in a wheelbarrow” goes back to medieval times, and appears in the stain-glass windows of old churches, but alliteration prefers the “H” sound, so there are all sorts of variants: “To hell in a handcart” apparently sprang from “wheelbarrow”; “To hell in a handbasket” may have sprung from the grim days when guillotined heads were caught in baskets. The phrase often means things are going bad swiftly, which brings us to, “To hell in a hurry”. Lastly, my stepfather told me that up in Maine his grandfather substituted the word for a horse-drawn-taxicab, “Hack”, and quite often an extra “H” sound was added in by using the word “whole”, which resulted in his grandfather stating, over a hundred years ago, “This whole, wide world is going to hell in a hack”.

In any case, we are not the first to look around and roll our eyes at the sight of the entire world seeming to be going down the tubes. (If you should currently happen to be feeling that way.) Misery loves company, and it is good to know you are not alone. However the sensation can be so overwhelming that a sort of loneliness creeps in.

There’s a good story about such loneliness from around 2900 years ago, which demonstrates how crushing such depression can be. The tale goes like this:

Despite the fact Elijah had soundy defeated the prophets of Baal, he was threatened by the murderous Jezebel and fled into the wilderness, where he crumbled into complete despair, stating, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” God had to send him an angel to nurse him back to a semblance of sanity.


Elijah then flees further into the wilderness, until he has an encounter with God. In explaining why he’s run away from worldly responsibilities Elijah justifies, “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your alters, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

So it is obvious Elijah feels very alone, but, in the process of dusting Elijah off and getting him back into working condition, the Lord reveals to him, “I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.” So Elijah was not as alone as he felt and thought.

Roughly two hundred years earlier the poet (and king) David faced similar depressions, and a similar sense of futility and despair. For example, Psalm 10 begins:

Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore;
    Those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
Everyone lies to their neighbor;
    they flatter with their lips
    but harbor deception in their hearts.

But one odd thing about David’s misery is that it is, “For the director of music.” It is part of an event I’ve heard described as a “public lament.” It makes me very much wish I could go back in a time-machine and see what an audience in David’s throne room was like. In any case, it seems that it would have been very hard for David to feel alone when he sung his blues so publicly.

I should add David doesn’t just moan and groan. After articulately expressing his disappointment over the dismal levels of spirituality displayed by his fellow man, (friends as well as enemies), and perhaps hinting God ought to kick a few butts, he always adds a resounding affirmation of God’s goodness and power. Also David’s faith addresses God in the present tense, giving one the sense God is not far away in space and time, but in David’s throne-room. Besides being Infinitely Loving and Infinitely Powerful, God is Infinitely Close.

I always find this idea a bit disconcerting. To be honest, I instinctively flinch away from the idea of God being so nearby. I seek distraction, but have to admit I am the one drawing away from God, not Him from me. Nor can I truly escape. He is as close as ever, though my attention wanders away to dumb things such as….well, I won’t go there.

But what is true for me is also true for people who I consider “bad guys.” As soon as I thought this, into my mind’s eye came an image that tickled me: I imagined a boardroom full of plotting politicians and billionaires, up to no good, utterly unaware that sitting in their midst was God.

This idea seemed worth a sonnet:

If God is in all then He is even
In the plots of the wicked. What great fools
They are, whether with plots to stone Steven
Long ago, or to make computers tools
Of wickedness today. For God’s sitting
In at every board meeting, intimately
Involved, cognizant of greeds they’re getting
Gratified, of double dealing, and He
Wields the pure Law they aim at corrupting.
He deals the cards they hold, and He can cheat
Better than they. He can reach out and take
The ace they hide up their sleeve, and defeat
Despots with a stroke. This news isn’t fake:
All thieves will win is a trophy of shame
For God can steal hearts and wins every game.