Heaven and Hell
In his work among young people in some of the world’s most challenging urban areas, Patrick Regan has seen evidence both of the Kingdom of heaven breaking through, and the reality of hell on earth, literally taking hold. As he tells just a few of those stories, he challenges us to take seriously Jesus' call and example: to love the hell out of young people.
In the chaos caused by the snow before Christmas 2010, one TV news reporter described the scenes of people left stranded at Gatwick airport as ‘hell on earth’. Uncomfortable, yes. Cold, I’m sure. Annoying and inconvenient, I don’t doubt it. But hell on earth? I don’t think so. But the truth is, we do live in a world where hell exists on earth; I know I’ve met a fair few people living through it. I’ve looked into the eyes of mothers and fathers whose children have been killed in senseless gang violence. I’ve held children whose arms are thinner than two of my fingers, knowing they are just weeks away from dying of starvation. I’ve seen a two-year-old in a pitiful excuse for a hospital, knowing that the medicine keeping her alive was about to stop because of a lack of a few pounds.
This isn’t just happening in far-flung places; I know kids who are living through hell right on my doorstep. Like 15 year-old Rakeem, who I met at his school. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and told me he’d be dead in a few days time. My initial reaction was that he was bragging and looking for attention but as it turns out his life was genuinely under threat from a rival gang. They had already killed his cousin and injured his brother.
Though we tried to help, a short while later Rakeem was stabbed and narrowly escaped death; he was forced to leave behind everything he knew here in England to go and live with relatives in Jamaica to get away from the violence. Can you imagine trying to deal with any of that at the age of 15?
Then there’s Luke who was just eight years old when his mum died. A few months later a man burst into Luke’s house and held a gun to his head, threatening to kill him unless he handed over his dad’s cash and drug stash. When Luke’s dad went to prison for his drug dealing, Luke was shipped around foster families and started using drugs himself at the age of 13. Petty burglaries made Luke known to the police and a daily cannabis habit in his later teens meant his chances of leaving school with qualifications weren’t good. Luke’s reality was hell on earth: no safe family unit, no hope for the future. What chance did he stand with a start like that in life?
Love until it hurts
There are similar situations up and down this country - kids who’ve done nothing wrong but have had all the odds stacked against them from day one. So what can we do? What is our response to the pain and suffering being experienced by the marginalised, the poor and the vulnerable?
Love. I’ve yet to meet a single person in the world who doesn’t respond to love. Love for me is the breaking in of the Kingdom of God and it is the one thing that has the power to drive out hell and change lives.
For Luke, that love came from a friend of mine, Andy, who is a youth worker on Luke’s estate. Andy met Luke when he was a teenager and got him involved in their local projects. When he’d known him a few years, Andy took Luke to Kenya where they experienced poverty on a whole different level to anything he’d ever seen at home.
Luke saw the faith of the Kenyan people and it led to him giving his life to Jesus. He saw their needs and realised he had the capacity to do something. Within months Luke had raised over £35,000 to build a garage that now provides employment for 35 members of that community and he’s in the process of launching a restaurant.
That whole Kingdom reversal thing has happened to Luke: his life has been turned upside down and now he is using his life to love and help others. Everyone had written Luke off as a drug addicted teenager with a troubled start in life. Andy saw the potential in him and loved him enough to making that potential a reality. Now that’s a piece of heaven come to earth.
Andy puts into practice something most of us know to be true: love is a verb - it’s a ‘doing word’ as they used to say in school. We can’t just sit around and talk about it - we have to get out there and do it. We have to live it out, day by day, with each person we meet. Often it won’t feel nice and cuddly, in the way we think of ‘love’ – like Mother Theresa said, ‘we have to love until it hurts.’ Day after day she got on with loving the poor, the sick, the dying.
In the face of every person she loved, she saw something of Jesus and loved them despite all the poverty, sickness and death.
Many of those she loved she knew would die; but she carried on loving them, loving them, loving them. There was nothing condescending about her work; she didn’t boast about how wonderful she was for loving the poor. Responding to a person’s need as if that person were Jesus himself was to her the greatest of honours. Mother Theresa and Princess Diana died with a week of each other and a newspaper report said of the two women, ‘One lived amongst the poorest of the poor and occasionally visited rich palaces. The other lived in rich palaces and occasionally visited the poorest of the poor.’ For too long the church has lived by the Diana model instead of the Mother Theresa one. We’ve dipped into people’s lives instead of taking the risk of living a lifestyle of loving, committing to seeing heaven overcoming hell where we live. That’s loving until it hurts.
Embracing the Kingdom example
It doesn’t have to be about the big and spectacular. I can be about small, daily responses to the Spirit’s prompting and God’s grace in our lives. It can be about us committing to working with people and never giving up on them. Before we can love others until it hurts, we have to know that God loves us that way - Jesus suffered and died on the cross because He loved us this way. Everything we do when we love others needs to be rooted in our understanding and acceptance of God’s incredible love for us. God isn’t remote and distant; he’s a loving father. As a dad myself I can get just a little glimpse of the power of that love. When my daughter Keziah bounds in every morning at some ungodly time, I don’t tell her to get lost and leave me alone. When my son Daniel announced to a group of Christian leaders that Spiderman and Batman live in his heart along with Jesus (and would probably beat him in a fight), I didn’t disown him for embarrassing me. When my youngest daughter, Abi, is sick on me and keeps me up half the night with her crying, I still love her to pieces. And I’m just an earthly, flawed father. God loves us like a perfect dad with a passionate, unending, unbreakable, unfathomable love. If we’re going to love others we need to first know how valuable we are to God because when we receive his love that’s when we can go and share it.
Secondly we need to model real and genuine community because otherwise church runs the risk of being little more than a self-help meeting. We need to aim to be like the believers in Acts 2 who had everything in common with each other. We need to meet each other’s needs, give generously, share wisdom, offer compassion, laugh and cry together. That’s what we invite others into. That’s a community of love; that’s a place where people want to belong and belonging is one of the most powerful things we can offer young people today.
When I was researching my book about gang culture in the UK, I came across a girl called Amy who had been part of violent gangs. She told me: ‘The gangs I joined seemed the only people in the world to offer a kind of comfort and caring. The desire to feel wanted and included, in a world that seemed to regard me as scum, was very powerful.’
Isn’t it gutting that she couldn’t say ‘The church seemed the only people in the world to offer a kind of comfort and caring’? Wouldn’t it be amazing if every teenager like Amy who feels like the world is against her, who feels looked-down on and as though there’s no hope for her life, had a Christian community reaching out and offering a place of love and belonging? Surely that’s what it means to bring heaven to earth.
Thirdly, we need to ‘seek first his kingdom’. Rather than thinking about what we want to do, we need to ask: what kind of person and youth worker does God want me to be? How does He want me to bring heaven to earth for the individuals and families in my community? How can I be ‘salt and light’ and ‘a city on a hill’ (Matthew 5: 13-14) - visible and distinct to all around? Our main desire should be for God’s kingdom and to be growing in our love for him and our love for our neighbour. I always find it frustrating that as Christians we feel pre-programmed to ask each other how our ‘spiritual walk’ is going. Inevitably we feel guilty because we can never clock enough hours of prayer, fasting, worship and Bible reading to give a positive answer.
I’ve come to the conclusion that (though all those things are vitally important for our relationship with God) our spiritual walk should be about loving God more and loving our neighbour as ourselves. So rather than asking each other if we’re up to date with our Bible readings, how about questioning whether we’re becoming more like Jesus each day and whether our capacity to love is increasing. Let’s keep those disciplines in the place they were intended - as tools that help us love God and love our neighbours.
A Kingdom worth fighting for
If we can grasp these things I think we will be more effective at bringing heaven to earth and driving hell out of the equation. I don’t know about you but I used to have this pretty stereotypical picture of heaven, with loads of white clouds and hour upon hour of worship music. Honestly? It seemed a bit dull to me. Then I read the book of Isaiah which talks about a wasteland being turned into a green lush mountain thriving with life. Suddenly my imagination started running wild. I pictured that mountain, and beside me I saw the mothers and fathers who had lost their children to gang violence. They were crying like the last time I had seen them on earth, except this time it was tears of joy that were running down their faces; their suffering wiped away. Next to them I pictured the children I’ve met in Ghana, like Koffi who is so small for his age you’d think he was five years old even though he’s actually eleven. In this life his mum is an alcoholic and his chances of breaking out of poverty are small; in this vision of heaven he’s healthy, happy and whole. Next to him I see the kids I meet every day in London who hate themselves, who have to deal with gang wars on their doorsteps, who want to get pregnant just to have somebody to love. They’re grinning from ear to ear; no more tears for them. Next to them is Rakeem, his bulletproof vest long forgotten. In this picture of heaven we all leg it up the mountain of God together, headed for the most awesome heavenly party. We’re all together, whole and filled with joy as God created us to be.
And that’s what we’re meant to bring to earth now. We’re here to put smiles on the faces of those who mourn. We’re called to feed those who are starving. We’re loved so that we can bring community to those who are lonely. In short, we’re equipped, called and challenged to love the hell out of people in the name of Jesus.
Patrick Regan is the founder of London-based youth charity XLP, and the author of Fighting Chance: Tackling Britain’s Gun Culture (Hodder, £8.99). This article was co-written with Liza Hoeksma, a freelance writer.