15 December 2017

Some Party in Heaven

STOP THE CAR! STOP THE CAR!

It was the morning of the funeral. Thursday 16th November. Silent preparations were being made in the hushed house.

Hertford and his brother Tyrell were standing at the back door, having a smoke. They stood on the ramp, backs against the wall. In absolute silence they lit one cigarette after another.

As they stood there, chilled and damp, but glad, nonetheless to be outside, something happened before their eyes. It was something which hadn’t happened for weeks.

The fog began to lift.

Big shafts of sunlight broke through the clouds. They lit up the patches of stubble on the field behind the house. Suddenly, for the first time in ages, something had pierced the gloom. A patchwork of light was woven on the field.

The two brothers stood beholding.

“Wouldn’t you just think those shafts of sunlight were big ladders coming to take Thomas away up to heaven?” Hertford remarked at length.

That was the whole conversation. It was all that needed to be said. Neither Hertford nor Tyrell spoke again. They just remained, silently weeping, each engrossed in his own thoughts.

When they did eventually re-enter the house, Tyrell rejoined the others who were flitting from the lounge to the kitchen. They were all possessed with that frustrating feeling of wanting to do something but not knowing what to do, wanting to say something but not knowing what to say.

Hertford went into the bedroom where Phyllis was sitting alone. It was where she wanted to be. She couldn’t bear to see people and she didn’t want to hear people, no matter how kind or caring they were. She had got beyond that.

All she wanted was to be alone. Solitude was sweet.

“At least that old fog is away,” Herford said, trying to open a conversation. “It’s getting really clear outside.”

Phyllis nodded. She couldn’t be bothered with conversation, couldn’t think of a sensible or significant reply.

Truth to tell she couldn’t really care in the slightest what it was like outside. It was probably good the fog had cleared away, but it felt as though she hadn’t been out the door for days.

The clock seemed to race along that morning. With the flurry of people coming and going, awaiting the funeral, the morning soon passed.

Much tea was made. Some of it was drunk.

At twelve-fifty the big black hearse drew up at the door. There was a heavy monotonous drone off it.

One o’clock came and the weather had cleared. There was a cloudless sky for the first time in many days.

The crowd was unbelievable. The whole countryside had turned out. People spilled out of the bungalow at both front and back.

The drive was lined. The lane was lined.

Some walked behind the hearse. Some stood and watched, for the lane was so thick with people there wasn’t anywhere for them to walk.

Many wept.

The funeral procession walked the mile between the bungalow and the village of Donacloney. There was a simple church service, and then it was off to the cemetery in Dromore.

The winter sun was low in the sky as they drove along. This created a slowly-moving sombre shadow of the hearse in the hedgerows which had by then changed from summer green through autumn gold to winter bleak.

It was sunset when they left Dromore to come home. Four-thirty. The sun was setting in a ball of fire.

When Hertford and Phyllis arrived back at their bungalow it seemed like there had been an invasion. There were well-meaning people everywhere. The heart-broken couple only stayed half-an-hour.

“Let’s go to the hospital and see Wendsley,” Phyllis suggested.

“Good idea,” agreed Hertford, who was so restless he didn’t know what to do. “Come on.”

With that they went out into the car and set off. As they were driving between Lurgan and Portadown, roundabout after roundabout, Phyllis looked across at her husband. He was lighting up yet another cigarette.

Suddenly she shouted, “Stop the car! Stop the car!”

Hertford was startled. “What’s wrong Phyllis? What’s wrong?” he enquired anxiously.

He didn’t stop the car, but slowed down to deal with this sudden emergency which seemed to have arisen.

“It’s us, Hertford,” she began to explain. “It’s us. We are not ready to die. If anything happens to you or me we will never see Thomas again.

Thomas is in heaven. What has been the point of it all if we are never going to see him again?”

Although not prepared to admit it openly, Hertford had been thinking the very same thing.

“I tell you what we will do,” he determined. “Hold on until we see Wendsley. Then when we get home we will have somebody round to sort all this out.”

Phyllis was satisfied with that. “All this,” as he had described it, certainly needed to be “sorted out.”

On arriving in the hospital ward they found Wendsley pulling himself up at the bars of his cot. This was something new, something encouraging. Another shaft of sunlight had pierced the surrounding gloom. His despondent parents had never witnessed him make such a sustained effort to pull himself up before.

A doctor joined them in the ward. “Wendsley is ready for home anytime,” he told them. “We will keep him here for a few more days, though, to allow you both to settle down after what you have been through. Would you like that?”

“That would be marvellous,” Phyllis replied. It sounded a great idea.

As he was leaving them the doctor said, “Just give us a few hours notice when you are ready, and you can have him home.” When the three of them were left together again in the ward, Phyllis and Hertford sat on either side of Wendsley’s cot. They watched his every move, helped him when he was struggling and tried bravely to smile back every time he looked up at them. After a short time Phyllis put her head down on her hand and moaned in misery. “Lord, is this why you gave us two handicapped boys?” she cried aloud in anguish. “So you could take the one and leave the other?”

There seemed to be so many questions, and so few answers.

THE DREAM OF DEATH

Hertford and Phyllis arrived home later on that Thursday evening.

Things were quieter. The crowds had dispersed.

Finally, the last of the close relations bade their tearful farewells. The grieving parents were left alone. They decided to go to bed early.

They were physically exhausted, mentally numb and emotionally upset. Rest was a top priority.

Eventually, in the small hours of Friday morning, they cried themselves to sleep. Their sleep, however, was not the contented sleep of a tired body. It was the restless sleep of a tormented mind.

In the middle of that night, while in a troubled state of soul, Hertford had a dream.

He saw it all plainly. It was frighteningly real. He felt he was reliving the most unpleasant experience of his life all over again. Moment by moment. Dust to dust. Tear by tear.

In his dream Hertford was back in the cemetery in Dromore. He saw the crowds and felt the chill of the November day. It was strange the way in which the late evening sun lit up the faces of the mourners around the open grave. They all had a pale orange glow.

Looking into the grave he saw the nameplate on the coffin.

Thomas Jackson Arnold.

Then came the clods of earth. They clattered and thumped on to it.

Gradually, slowly, it was covered…

In this horrible, realistic dream there was a message for him.

The bereaved father felt it. He knew it. He was terrified by it. The message was simple, as clear as day.

Death was coming back.

Hertford awoke, petrified.

He reached over in the bed and shook Phyllis awake. “Wake up! Wake up, Phyllis!” he urged.

“What’s wrong with you, Hertford?” she asked, startled to have been so rudely awakened. There they were, relishing their first chance for ages to have an uninterrupted sleep, and her husband was waking her up in the middle of the night!

Hertford switched on the bedside lamp. Covering her eyes from the instant glare, Phyllis looked across at him. She was shocked at what she saw.

Her husband was as white as a sheet. Sweat was sitting in beads on his forehead and running down his temples.

When he saw her looking over he said tersely, “Come on, Phyllis, we will have to get up. Get up there! Quickly!”

“What on earth has got into you, Hertford?” his wife enquired more sympathetically. She could see he was trembling. It helped also when she remembered that less than twelve hours earlier she had shouted at him to stop the car.

“Death is coming back, Phyllis,” Hertford said, obviously terrified. “I know it. I’ve just had a terrible dream. I saw the funeral, the grave, the coffin, and it’s coming back again. The dream made it plain.”

“Calm down there, Hertford,” his wife advised. She was wide awake now, and realised she would have to settle her husband somehow.

“Don’t worry about death now,” she went on, soothingly. “Thomas is in heaven, and the doctor says Wendsley is going to be OK. We can bring him home anytime we want.”

“You don’t understand what I am trying to tell you, Phyllis,” her husband replied, frustrated. He was almost frantic by now. “Death is coming back, but it’s not Wendsley I’m worried about. It’s ME. Death is coming back for ME and I’m not ready!”

Hertford had taken to pacing anxiously up and down the bedroom floor. Phyllis sat on the edge of the bed. She reckoned sleeping was probably finished for the night.

“I am going to have to do something about this!” Hertford was almost shouting in his frenzy. “I am going to have to talk to somebody. There must be somebody, somewhere, who can tell me how to get right with God. I must make my peace with God before I die. Death is coming back, and it’s coming for ME!” SAVED!

What remained of that night was spent in earnest discussion.

“Who do I know who could tell me what to do? How do I get ready for heaven when I die, for death is definitely coming for me? How can I be sure about it?” These were the questions Hertford asked repeatedly, often audibly, occasionally inwardly.

Finally, after much anguished thought and consideration, the answer came. When it did, Hertford was convinced it was the right one.

There was somebody he knew who would be able to tell him all he wanted to find out so urgently. He was somebody who had made a lasting impression on him as a boy in Secondary School. He was someone for whom he had the greatest respect.

His name was Tom Somerville.

Tom had been his Religious Education teacher some sixteen years earlier. He had also visited Thomas in hospital. Hertford always recognised that there was something different about Tom. He always seemed to have a deep sense of quiet confidence and inner peace.

The man was in touch with God.

Having waited until breakfast time, Hertford could wait no longer.

To him, at that moment, getting ready for heaven was the pressing priority. He rang Tom.

Hertford wondered if his former teacher would be annoyed at him calling so early in the morning.

“I’m glad to hear you, Hertford. I would be happy to hear you anytime,” was Tom’s reassuring initial reaction to taking the call. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, it’s just like this, Tom…” Hertford began, before proceeding to pour out his heart to the understanding and sympathetic listener. He reminded him of Thomas’s illness and death. He recounted the dream of the night before, in all its vivid detail. Death, he was convinced, was on his track, and closing in on him fast.

“It is quite obvious to me what is happening here, Hertford. God is trying to speak to you. When can we meet and talk about all this?”

Tom replied.

In the course of his explanations Hertford had mentioned the fact that Wendsley was in Craigavon Hospital. Considering that a suitable meeting point they agreed to see each other in the hospital at eleventhirty that morning.

True to his word, at the appointed time, Tom Somerville arrived into the ward to meet Hertford, Phyllis and little Wendsley. He spoke to the parents graciously, sympathising with them on the death of Thomas. Acutely aware, however, that a busy hospital ward in the middle of a busy morning would not be the most suitable place to hold a conversation about the weighty matters on all of their minds, Tom invited Hertford and Phyllis to come home with him.

“Could you spare a few minutes from Wendsley to come round to my house for a cup of tea and a chat?” he enquired.

The invitation was readily accepted. This was Hertford’s big opportunity to do what he had promised twice in the previous twentyfour hours, that he must do soon. He just had to talk to somebody and get all these things sorted out!

They were only in the house a short time when Tom said, “You know, Hertford, Thomas is in heaven.”

“I don’t need anybody to tell me that, Tom. Where else would he be?” was Hertford’s instinctive response.

“You know then, if you ever want to see him again, you will have to be saved.” Tom was pursuing the subject.

The anxious, frustrated soul was equally emphatic in his response to this second declaration. “I know that as well,” he said. “At least, I know I need something. I’m quite sure I’m not ready for heaven.”

“You could get saved here today. Right now, you know,” Tom went on.

“Oh, I didn’t realise it could be as simple or as quick as that,” the former pupil replied. “I thought you had to go to church for a long time, and pay in a pile of money. I thought maybe playing the organ or singing in the choir would help a bit too. Does it not take years before you can really claim you are a Christian?”

This instant salvation, this ‘saved right now’ idea, was obviously a new one on Hertford.

“Salvation is a gift, not a reward,” Tom explained. “You need to realise you are a sinner and need God. You can acknowledge that Jesus died on Calvary to take away your sins and ask Him into your heart. What’s more, you can do it this very moment.”

This was what Hertford really wanted. It was what he was craving for, to have his sins taken away. Above all, what he most desired was the assurance that he would be in heaven, with Thomas, when death arrived to take him.

There and then Hertford fell to his knees at a chair. Pouring out an agonised soul in stumbling speech, he repented of his sins and asked the Lord Jesus Christ to come into his heart to cleanse him and fit him for heaven.

When Hertford had finished praying he remained kneeling, his face buried in the cushions, Tom rose slowly, reverently, happily, from where he had been kneeling beside his former pupil. It was a tremendous encouragement to him to hear the outpouring of a penitent soul coming to the Saviour.

It was fruit for his labours, an answer to his prayers. As Herford began to rise, pushing himself up slowly, Tom exclaimed, “Praise the Lord, Hertford, you are saved!”

It couldn’t have been all that straightforward surely. Hertford was convinced he must have missed out something somewhere.

“Hold on there a minute, Tom,” he cautioned. “This must all be a load of nonsense, I have heard nothing. I have seen nothing. I have felt nothing. How could I possibly be saved? I don’t feel one bit different.”

Tom smiled. He was so wise, so experienced, so patient.

“You are not saved by your feelings, Herford,” he counselled. “You are saved by your faith. It is an open heart operation.”

Hertford pondered this for a minute or two. It was interesting, but totally at odds with all his preconceived ideas. This was a completely new concept to him.

Then he had another thought. It was related to something he had learnt many years before. One of his earlier brushes with religion had been in school, where he had been taught the Lord’s Prayer. In it, he seemed to remember, there was a bit about, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’

He voiced an immediate concern.

“Tom, if I’m supposed to be a Christian now,” he asked sincerely, “does that mean I should forgive everybody who has done anything against me? Mind you I feel pretty bitter about some of the things that have happened in my life.”

“Are you going to let the memory of things that happened, possibly years ago, spoil your experience of peace with God and your assurance of a home in heaven?” Tom answered one question by asking another.

Hertford realised that he wasn’t going to let anything spoil his peace with God, or do him out of his place in heaven. When he came to consider it, the incidents which had galled him for so long seemed to pale into insignificance. The hurts seemed to be miraculously healed.

Then came the marvellous, glorious revelation. He was different after all. He had been saved and was definitely changed!

As the lively conversation on subjects formerly foreign to Hertford, like the “new birth” and “the importance of regular prayer times,” continued apace, a fresh desire for an old habit flooded back to confuse him.

His body craved it. Something unexplained within him resisted it.

The craving conquered.

“I’m sorry, Tom,” the new convert confessed, ashamedly, “but I am going to have to go outside for a smoke.”

“Not at all, Hertford, you don’t need to go outside. Sure you can have your smoke in here,” Tom replied.

As he drew the cigarette packet from his pocket, Hertford looked, and felt, like a guilty schoolboy. Was he not really supposed to be changed?

“I expect you are going to tell me I have to quit these,” he remarked.

“I didn’t tell you to quit anything,” Tom told him. “It will come to you. God will take away the desire.”

He did, too. Hertford had a smoke that day. He felt he needed it.

Gradually, though, the desire to smoke disappeared, just as Tom had predicted. He went from smoking forty a day to none a day in a fortnight, and hasn’t smoked since.

Such was the mighty transformation that God worked in his life. He WAS definitely a changed man.

As Hertford, now growing in confidence in his newly-found faith, and Phyllis, who was mixed-up, but happy for her husband, prepared to leave Tom’s house that day, he restrained them.

“Wait there a wee minute,” he said. “I have something I would like to give each of you.”

With that he left the room and returned very shortly with a red Gideon New Testament each for Hertford and Phyllis. He had even taken the trouble to write their names on them.

“I have underlined a verse in these New Testaments I am giving you,” he said. “And I have put a marker in the place so you can find it easily.” Hertford and Phyllis thanked Tom ‘for everything,’ but waited until they arrived home before turning to the marked verse in their New Testaments. When they did so, this is what they found; ‘For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1; 13 NIV)

When he read this, Hertford could scarcely believe it. Could this possibly be true? Did it actually refer to him? Was he somewhere in the ‘we’ and the ‘us’ of the verse?

Could it be that Hertford Arnold, the scoffer and the sceptic, was now a child of God, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, redeemed and forgiven?

There were far more blessings to this being saved than he had ever imagined. He was now sure he was saved.

He was delighted about that.

He was sure, as well, that he was going to be in heaven with Christ, and

Thomas, when he died.

He was delighted about that too.

To be continued…

Noel Davidson