The gift of peace

Almost every day during lockdown I have knelt down in front of the laptop with our children to watch Chris Bennett’s Daily Candle on Facebook.

Chris works in Belvoir Parish. Every day he has produced these mesmerising videos to help to guide our thoughts and focus on God during one of the most turbulent and challenging periods most of us can remember. They are just 5 minutes long and we usually watch after Joe Wicks PE classes before we begin home school. He ends each video by lighting a candle and praying for light in a dark world, for hope in a fearful heart and for peace in a troubled soul.

Peace is the third of these Fruits of the Spirit we have been thinking about. They are the sorts of things that should be visible or evident in the lives of those who follow Jesus as a result of His coming to dwell within us.

We’re very conscious here in Northern Ireland that peace is very fragile. Many lives were lost in our divided society before the fragile peace was established following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It still hangs in the balance and we see how hard it can be to maintain the powersharing government that we currently have. Our political leaders rarely miss an opportunity to discredit one another at any point in public debate if that possibility arises. Sectarianism looms ominously under the surface and occasionally spills over at particular times of the year. Racism and hate crimes bring an underlying menace to life in a ‘peaceful’ society. Often these things are present within us, too, almost without us being aware they are there and it can be hard to root them out without the prompting and illumination of God’s Holy Spirit.

Lockdown has brought its own pressures to many individuals and families. It’s hard to remain serene and peaceful when your livelihood is suddenly wiped out or you are plummeted without warning into financial difficulties. It’s difficult to stay peaceful when you are worried about your vital medical treatment that has been put on hold or the deterioration in your mental health. It’s tricky to stay calm when the future is uncertain and no one in authority can give you any answers about when things might return to normal or what that ‘normal’ will look like.

One of the greatest concerns many of us have, whether we ever publicly voice it or not, is the fear of death. Covid 19 has confronted all of us, whether we are young or old, with our own mortality. The virus has affected people of all ages and, while those who are elderly are deemed more vulnerable, young people and children, too, have become seriously ill and sadly died from this virus.

One of my favourite Spiritual writers is a Dutch priest called Henri Nouwen. He wrote a beautiful little book some years before he died called ‘Our Greatest Gift’. The edition I have is coupled with another beautiful little book he wrote called ‘The Life of the Beloved’. The basic thesis of ‘Our Greatest Gift’ is that the greatest gift we can offer our family and our loved ones is to die well. That might sound a little morbid but, in truth, it’s about learning to live in such a way that whenever we die we are at peace with God and with those around us. It’s a way of life that we need to work on all the time as we can lose sight of the importance of peace with God and others. We get stressed and distracted and we become overly busy. The pursuit of peace seems more like a luxury we haven’t time for rather than the most important thing we could ever do.

Let me tell you, in conclusion, about someone who taught me important lessons about this, even though I only knew her for a short time.

When I first came to St. Finnians 11 years ago it was harvest time. We had a wonderful sermon on harvest morning from Ann Higgins about gratitude as she spoke about the things in our life we might feel gratitude for. After harvest services we normally distribute flowers and the fruits we decorate the church with to our housebound parishioners and I had a bunch of flowers for a lady in a nursing home.

After I knocked and said who I was from the door, the lady invited me into her room. She was very weak and frail, but she told me I was the man she had been praying for over the past year and a half. During the vacancy, this lady had prayed faithfully for a new rector. Here he stood before her and, in truth, he didn’t feel like the answer to anyone’s prayers! We spoke about the harvest services and the wonderful talk and almost, without thinking, out came my question. I was speaking to someone who was bedbound, who had stopped eating and was painfully thin and this came out. “So, what sort of things do you feel grateful for then?” Almost as soon as I had said it, I wished the ground would open up and swallow me. What could this poor lady have to be grateful for in her failing health and her weakness? I’ll never forget her reply which came immediately. A beautiful smile radiated from her face as she said, “Oh, I feel so grateful that I am a child of God and beloved of Him.” As I marvelled at her sense of gratitude and peace I wished that the whole congregation had been with me on this visit and, within a short time, this lady passed on to her eternal reward.

This morning, as we said farewell to another faith filled member of our congregation, Robbie Gallagher, one of the pieces of music played at the service was the hymn, ‘When peace like a river attendeth my way’. The chorus speaks of how ‘it is well with my soul’. It describes how a relationship with Christ brings that sense of peace and wellbeing to our soul which goes beyond the challenges of our present circumstances and even beyond life itself.

My prayer is that we will all discover that peace for ourselves as we open our hearts to Him.

There will be no blog or prayer meeting next week as I’m taking a little break. In the meantime our vestry and subgroup are working on all the measures that we need to put in place before our return to in church worship.

I will be reminding people of the groups of people who are advised not to return as yet because of age or underlying health conditions. I will also be trying to paint a picture of what coming to church will look like as we return to a very different normal for the foreseeable future. We hope to prepare for that with a series of services over the next 6 weeks or so on the Book of Haggai and we want to reassure everyone that our online services will be continuing and you can dial in by telephone to receive them each week.

Look forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.