FEATURE ARTICLE

Monday, July 8, 2019
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THE HEAVENLY RACE

ecently, I fell suddenly into a trance. I woke up one cool morning with extraordinary strength. I knelt down and thanked God for the gift of life and a new day. I did the usual morning off-loading, brushed my teeth and took my bath. Then I dressed up for early morning Mass. I saw the Angels of God flying all over the Altar and Sanctuary. Jesus Christ was at the centre of the sacrificial altar. I stood behind Him in fear and trembling. Immediately the Mass ended, I removed my sacred vestments. As I was coming out of the church, I heard a gospel music sounding loudly from nearby. It was the popular song by the Gospel Artist Udeoji Chukwuma Godfrey, titled, "Heavenly race, I no go tire! Heavenly race, I no go tire by the grace of God!" The music touched my heart and my bone marrow. I was highly inspired and decided to translate the gospel music into action.

I entered my room in haste and undressed. I put on my white short, white polo shirt, white stockings and white pair of canvass. To crown it, I put on a white face cap. The gospel music was sounding louder and louder. I started the heavenly race from Awka Capital Territory. With the morning breeze I ran as fast as possible towards Onitsha. I was able to make it to the end of the Niger Bridge at the Asaba end. My strength dried up. I was almost collapsing. There and then I prayed God to sustain me with his grace. I waved down a commercial motorcyclist. He stopped and asked, "Oga, where are you going?" Breathing like a lizard that fell from an iroko tree, I replied, "Take me to Heaven." He opened his eyes widely and asked, "Oga, are you okay? Heaven is not around Asaba or Onitsha. You better go to hospital." He drove off. Within few minutes, another commercial motorcyclist came along. I waved him down saying, "Please take me to Heaven." He replied, "Oga, you dey kress? Don't waste my precious time, because time na money." Off he drove. I was stranded. Nevertheless I wanted to end my race that day in Heaven.

After some minutes, a thought came into my mind. I turned back and walked over the Niger Bridge, heading to Onitsha motor-park. I went to each luxurious bus station one after the other to ascertain if any of the buses was travelling to Heaven. At the first station, I stood on the ticket line. When it was my turn, the cashier asked, "Sir, what is your destination?" I smiled hopefully and replied, "I am travelling to Heaven." The cashier frowned at me and shouted, "Are you joking? Please don't waste my costly time. Go and see your pastor for direction!" I left with thanks. At the second luxurious bus station, I heard a tout shouting, "Benin! Ijebu Ode! Lagos!" Immediately he saw me, he thought he has got a precious passenger. He asked, "Sir, where are you travelling to?" I cleared my throat and answered, "I am travelling to Heaven." He sighed and said, "Sir, I thought you are a gentleman in white all over. Maybe a knot is missing in your brain. You rather go to psychiatric hospital." I left without saying a word. I went to other commercial vehicles, but none was travelling to Heaven.

At last I booked a Sienna car travelling to Enugu. On reaching Enugu, I took a taxi to Akanu Ibiam Airport. I proceeded to the ticket department to book my flight to Heaven since it has failed by road. I stood on the queue again. My turn came. The lady cashier asked me, "Sir, where are you travelling to?" I smiled and replied, "I want to take a flight to Heaven." She was embarrassed. However, she asked me, "Do you mean New Haven Enugu?" I answered, "No, I am going to Heaven where God lives." She laughed and asserted, "There is no such flight here. You better go to Rome." I was tired in and out. Nevertheless, I managed to go to the Airport restaurant and ate a plate of fried plantain and drank a bottle of cold small stout. Afterwards I dosed off. As I started snoring, one of the restaurant stewards touched me gently on the shoulder and said, "Sir, your time here has expired. Give way for other customers." I got up and went out of the airport.

At the outskirt of the Airport, I saw an attractive glass shop. I went nearer to have a look. Behold it was a casket shop. I made the Sign of the Cross and shouted, "God forbid!" The shop owner came out smiling. He asked, "Sir, which one do you want?" I replied, "Please, don't worry. I am in the wrong place. I am looking for the means of travelling to Heaven to see God." Surprisingly, he said, "Sir, you are not in the wrong place. I can provide you the means to go to Heaven. Any of these fine caskets with modern gadgets can take you there. Before you can go to that Heaven, you must die." Immediately he said this, my eyes cleared. I came back to reality.

Yes, in my catechism class I learnt that there are three eschatological things awaiting each and every one of us. They are death, judgment, heaven or hell. Death is the biological cessation of human life. Theologically speaking, death is the transition from mortality to immortality. It is a passage from this physical world to the eternal world. Human life does not end as such, rather it changes. Death is inevitable for all mortals. Science and Technology have indeed conquered the world as God instructed humanity at creation. Till date, the two aspects of human knowledge have not found a solution to death. It is God who gives life and death. Death brings our stay in this world to an end. If you do not wish to die, please come and see me after reading this piece for me to pray for you to stay alone in this world after everyone must have gone.

The rate at which people die these days is alarming. I have observed that most die between 40 and 58 years. What is really happening? Have the youths of today any misunderstanding with death? Here and there you see obituary posters with the headings: Gone too soon, Painful Exit, Sunset at dawn. These have to do with those between the ages described above. In few places you also see obituary posters titled: Glorious Exit, Celebration of Life, Transition into Glory, etc. These second obituary titles are about those who die between the age of 70 and 100. When the young one dies, it is termed 'untimely death.' But when the older one dies, it is said, "With gratitude to God for a life well spent we announce the death of ." These are human concepts. For God, there is nothing like timely and untimely death. Some infants die in the womb or during birth. Babies die. Children die. Youths and adults also die. There is no fixed time for death as far as God is concerned. The only remedy is getting prepared always. How can we get prepared? It is by living good lives and repenting from our sins. Procrastination of repentance is risky. Since no one is sure of tomorrow, we ought to repent now or never. There is no repentance in the grave.

Human life does not end in the grave. After death comes God's judgment. Saint Paul rightly says, "Each and every one of us must give an account of one's life at God's judgment seat" (Rom. 14:12). Accountability is very essential in this world and in the next. Surely, we shall reap what we sowed here on earth. It is pertinent to note that in God's case there is no injustice or partiality; no appeal. It is unlike the Nigerian judiciary where money is often used to bribe the judge. God gives fair hearing to the rich and the poor. A certain rich man was about to die as a result of terminal illness. He was an unjust and immoral man. He did not care to repent even at his sick-bed. Instead he pocketed his Cheque books and millions of money in higher denominations with which he would bribe God at the judgment seat. Eventually he died. When he stood before God for judgment, he couldn't see the Cheque books and money. He was sentenced straight to hell. As he was regrettably walking into hell, he was shouting tearfully, "Had I known! Had I known!! Had I known!!!" Likewise, if you and I do not repent, the same fate of the evil rich man awaits us. Death can knock at our doors at any time. Therefore, let us make hay while the sun shines. Delay is dangerous.

It is then clear that what follows God's judgment is either heaven or hell. The intermediary is purgatory. Purgatory is a place or condition of temporal purification of one's soul due to venial sins or punishment due for forgiven mortal sins. Some people see purgatory as only a Catholic doctrine. That is not true. God is a just God. At the same time he is merciful and considerate. Without God's mercy, no one can be saved. In worldly school examination there are pupils or students who make weak-pass. In the same way, souls can score weak-pass at the judgment seat of God. Weak-pass does not qualify a soul for entrance into heaven. Such a soul needs purgation before proceeding to heaven. It is that condition of purification that we refer to as purgatory.

Those who die unrepentant in the state of mortal sins go to hell. It is an eternal tragedy to end up in hell, which is a place or condition of eternal punishment. Some people ask, "How can the merciful Father sentence his children to hell?" The answer is that God rewards and punishes justly. It is better to suffer here on earth than to languish eternally in hell fire. In order to avoid hell, we must try to lead good lives and repent as soon as we see ourselves fall into mortal sins. Saint John makes distinction between mortal and venial sins including their implications as we read: "If you see your brother committing sin, a sin which does not lead to death, pray for him, and God will give life to your brother. I speak, of course, of the sin which does not lead to death. There is also a sin that leads to death; I do not speak of praying about this. Every kind of wrongdoing is sin, but not all sin leads to death" (1 Jn. 5:16 - 17). The death he is talking about here is hell fire. Hell means second death.

We must run our race well to end it in heaven. God created us to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him here on earth and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. That is the essence of our existence. Talking about heaven, Saint Paul remarks, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it dawned on the mind what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor. 2:9). Heaven is our eternal home. We run the race daily by doing the will of God in our lives, in our families, in our businesses, in our professions, in the toilet and wherever we find ourselves. God is everywhere. He takes note of our thoughts, words, actions and omissions. Jesus urges each of us to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect (Mtt.5:48). However, no human being can boast of perfection. We only struggle towards perfection. This struggle plus the grace of God can qualify one for heaven. Can we with St Paul at the point of departure from this world assert: "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness with which the Lord, the just judge, will reward me on that day" 2 Tim. 4:7-8). The die is cast!

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