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Psalm 144:4 Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.

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I believe in Hell

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I believe in hell!

I have seen hell and it exists.

It isn’t at all where it has traditionally been portrayed and it isn’t what those old paintings or new television shows make it out to be.

It is happening for people right here and right now and we have seen it this last week.

Hell is when gunmen break into restaurants, concert halls, music and sports venues and methodically murder hundreds of people.
Hell is where someone deluded and radicalised blows themselves up killing scores of others.
Hell is when your home is swept away by a mud-slide or a tornado or an earthquake leaving you without clean water or sanitation.
Hell is when you believe your best hope of survival is fleeing.
Hell is when you believe that it is safer in an inflatable dingy trying to cross the sea than on the land where you live.
Hell is where you watch boats filled with expensive consumer electronics sailing past the beaches of your country, the very country who’s land has been pillaged and exploited for the raw materials that make up those devices with no benefit to the people who live there.
Hell is where a child breaks into his own school and guns down 15 other kids in his classroom before turning the weapon on himself.
Hell is where your life caves in on you, your world crumbles and leaves you emotionally burned out, physically drained and spiritually empty.

I believe in hell.

To explore one example: the atrocities we saw in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad last week, there is a relevant parable that Jesus told, recorded in Matthew 12 and Luke 11.

“When a demon goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other demons more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”
Luke 11 v 24-26

It is a fairly accurate picture of the problem we have in this world today.

The armies of the west have gone blundering into the middle east, clearing out one ‘demon’ after another: Sadam has been ousted, The Taliban ‘defeated’, Colonel Gaddafi has been deposed…
It would be generous to say that the middle east was left “swept and put in order”, but the next sentence is definitely true: –“Then he goes and takes with him seven other demons more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first”

The middle east has never been as unstable or dangerous and the problem with the ‘demon’ “returning” with “seven other demons more wicked than himself” is that the fallout is now spreading beyond the borders of those first ‘houses’.

The problem is, nothing was put in to fill the vacuum.

So IS came and made the situation seven times worse.

Almost always, after something like this, the question that comes at me as someone who is a follower of Jesus is “where is God”?

Where is God in the famine? Where is God in the flood? Where is God in the oppression and the exploitation, the violence, war and broken lives?

I believe that mostly, when God works in the world he works through people, so the only answer I can ever give to the question “where is God?” is actually a question: “Where am I?”

Where am I in the famine, flood exploitation and violence, the war and the broken lives? If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, I must believe what he tells me. I must believe the promise he makes to live in me.

If I believe Jesus lives in me, and I do… Then it is the face of Jesus that I need to display. And it is the behaviour of Jesus that I need to display. And in behaving like Jesus, I am the one that needs to reach out to lift up the broken and oppressed of this world. I am the one who shows God in the famine and the flood, in the violence and the war. It is in my example and my actions that people see God in these circumstances.
You and I are the people that can show that we have, by the grace of God and his life within us as Jesus people, the power to make this planet a better place.
The response to hell today is not to retaliate. Retaliation only leads to escalation and further hurt.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King

Care workers on the fringes of disaster

If you look at the periphery of the disasters we have just witnessed, you will see God at work. The people who are caring medically, putting other bodies and lives back together. Those that are trying to protect others and keep the streets calm. Friends and family supporting the injured and those with broken hearts.
That’s where you will see God at work, that is where we must be to lift the broken and hurting, to demonstrate the love of God and to show that the world is not a cold dead place hurtling head-long into destruction and oblivion.

We can only start with ourselves to make a difference to our families and communities, but we must start, because that is the way God will use Love to overcome the hatred in the world.

Blessed are those who mourn

I love the Beatitudes, partly because they are a bit confusing, but mainly because Jesus is announcing something new and fresh and we are often too dull, even now, to fully grasp the newness and freshness of Jesus’ words.

But this one…

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
Matthew 5:4

Sorry, mourning? Just say that again Jesus, I’m blessed when I am mourning? Just what about mourning am I supposed to be feeling good about, what is there about mourning that is a blessing?

It wasn’t until recently that I really understood this beatitude.

I’ve spent parts of the summer in mourning for various reasons. All of them trite and shallow so don’t get thinking that there’s anything to worry about.
I have been in a minor state of mourning because

  1. The Olympics ended
  2. The Paralympics ended
  3. We didn’t have a proper summer

I told you they were inconsequential! However, there is a serious point to this. As I blogged last month, somehow, I came over all tribal and patriotic, weeping at the slightest thing (if you call other people contesting and receiving medals the slightest things). And then when it was all over, I felt profoundly depressed for a while, until the Paralympics, which elicited the same leaking eye symptoms at every TeamGB success. Of course, once again, when it all ended, the blues returned, only allayed by that spectacular US Open win by Andy Murray. Gosh I must sound shallow and vapid, having my whole emotional stability propped up by British sporting achievement.

Anyway, back to the topic. To a certain extent, the ‘comfort’ from mourning came from new, exciting things, fresh success, new records, boundaries pushed, but because they were temporary, because that feeling was based on transient moments and memories, they faded and I was left with the feeling that something was missing once the events were over. Incidentally, there was a very interesting interview with Victoria Pendleton on BBC Radio 5 where she described the same sort of thing for athletes, even after winning Gold or a world championship, they often experience a profound low patch.

I use these fairly light examples to introduce the concept because my journey to truly understanding the beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” is a much deeper, more personal voyage.

I find the re-worded version by Don Davis more helpful to me personally as I can make more practical sense of it based on my own experiences.

Fortunate are those who’s hearts are completely broken over loss, because God Himself will carry their load.

I think perhaps that it is only once you have experienced this that you really understand it, much the same as many other spiritual and relational concepts.

Being comforted and having the pain of loss taken away is not the same thing. Feeling comforted, cared for, held securely in the arms of a loving God does not necessarily mean you will suddenly find all the emotion, heartache, disappointment and sadness disappears.
Being held close to the heart of the divine comforter brings the appreciation of God’s presence with you in the pain and sorrow and God’s presence in the middle of your disquiet brings a profound sense of shalom.

I use the word shalom because, though the literal translation of it is ‘peace’, it means so much more than just ‘peace’. Shalom peace is more than the absence of noise, it is more than calm, it is more than space and shelter, it conveys the distinct sense of everything being in the process of being made right and at one with God, the feeling of comfort, contentment and completeness even in the storm of our own troubles. Shalom is the sensation of wholeness and harmony, homeostasis and symbiosis as God comes to live with and in his good world, this world, the one He is interested in, the one He has been restoring and redeeming and renewing from the beginning.

It was not only on looking back on how God had carried us and our turmoil of emotions, anxiety, feelings of loss and raw, deep, aching heartbreak that we felt His shalom but also at times within the whirlwind. Between 2009 and 2011, we experienced four consecutive miscarriages and within that period there were unmistakable times that the peace of God broke through and it genuinely was like sitting in the eye of a hurricane. Life, life’s problems, life’s emotions and experiences were whirling around on the outside, but the peace of God brought contentment, courage, strength, energy and purpose. Knowing we were not abandoned, but rather, carried, gave us the will to carry on and the desire to choose to live in a way that was not made bitter by our anguish but made better in our response to God’s love and care.

Unfortunately, well meaning and with the best of intentions though they were, lovely, caring people reminding us that ‘at least we had two healthy children’ was not what brought us comfort. The pain of loss in this situation was not reduced in being reminded of what we had and whilst that might sound ungrateful, it really isn’t, it’s just the truth of the raw feelings that we experienced.
There were many wonderful and supportive friends and family that committed to emailing and texting words of gentle encouragement and others that were just there for us, sat with us, cried with us and it was in these moments, we felt the touch of the divine.
When God works in the world He most often works through people and that is our experience, a God who was hurting with us and holding us close to Him, making his presence felt through the people that propped us up and clung on to us to make sure we didn’t fall.

Being comforted in mourning and therefore blessed, being fortunate when our hearts were completely broken over loss, because God carried our load and brought us shalom, was an experience I wouldn’t change for anything despite the pain and tears, maybe even because of what I learned through the agony and weeping.

My main reason for writing this is not to open wounds or start a dialogue about our past but in knowing that there are bound to be many people in many and various situations, going through many trials, sorrows, excruciating pain, loss, relationship issues etc. Much of the time, when you are in the middle of it, you can’t see the end, you can’t see a way out, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and even if you can, you suspect it is a train approaching in the opposite direction. But my point is that you can get through it, it will be ok, when everything seems lost and broken, lying shattered on the floor around your feet, God is still God and God is still Good and He will find a way to redeem you and your situation however bad it may seem.
It may take some time, it may take many different things, maybe even including; counselling, swallowing your pride, seeking or offering forgiveness, reaching out in utter, helpless desperation or just surrendering everything into the hands of the one who promises to “never leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6), but somehow, some way, it will be alright. I can speak from experience, even after the fourth miscarriage and rather scary aftermath, it was ok, God made sure we were still ok, it wasn’t what we planned, it wasn’t what we wanted, our hopes and dreams were in tatters, but still, God was still with us and even in mourning, we felt that comfort, we felt fortunate that God carried our load. Without that, what hope could we have had?

Perhaps strangely, the passage that gave me most comfort was from Daniel. In Daniel 3, Daniel’s friends are told to worship the image that king Nebuchadnezzar had made or face being thrown into the furnace. When they don’t worship the image, the king threatens them with the furnace again and their response is this:

“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 3:16-18

Daniel’s friends choose to worship God because they believed that their circumstances don’t change who or what God is. Worshipping isn’t always a reaction, a heartfelt response or an emotional connection, sometimes it is a choice. In the middle of the sadness and despair that we faced between 2009 and 2011, we chose still to worship God because we understand that what happens to us doesn’t change who and what God is. God is still God. God is still Good. Bad things, unpleasant things, unplanned things, painful things may happen to us, but that doesn’t change who God is.
In those years of uncertainty and sadness, we learned to personalise and pray the prayer of Daniel’s friends:

“The God we serve is able to deliver us from our situations, able to take away the pain and tears, able to ‘fix’ everything for us and make it all the way we want it… but even if He doesn’t, we will still worship Him.”

So take heart, during and after all sorts of troubles and difficulties in life, it can be alright and it will be alright.
I’m not pretending it is easy, as I already said, the pain continues to be very real and very obvious, but we found that even in the thickest fog of despair, the deepest chasm of sorrow, the murkiest waters of upturned aspirations, you are still loved by God. You are, by His grace and sometimes only by His people, still held close to the steady, rhythmical beat of His heart and offered access to an endless peace, serenity and comfort. Trust God, be open to His presence and the work of His spirit in your life, and you will feel the shalom that He brings.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Fortunate are those who’s hearts are completely broken over loss, because God Himself will carry their load.

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