A number of years ago when I was working in a prison, one of the inmates compared his life in prison to my life in a religious order. He put aside the fact that I had chosen my lifestyle while he hadn't. After all, he said, his sentence was only three years, or less if he behaved himself, while mine was a life sentence.
He tried to think why anyone would voluntarily restrict their own freedom -- perhaps, he thought, for something called heaven. But his final comment was, "You're in for a big let down if at the end of your life you discover there's nothing there!"
But I could not agree. It was not that I was so utterly clear about what was going to come after death. Quite the contrary. Life after death is a matter of faith, trusting in what we can never see in this life. The reason I disagreed was that I could see a value in what I was trying to do there and then, without waiting for something in the future.
I was not thinking particularly of my life in a religious order. I was thinking more of trying to live in line with what the gospel offers. That meant accepting a certain discipline in what I did, being committed to love others as well as myself, having ideals that were not always easy to live up to. But I felt that trying to live in God's way was giving a shape to my life.
But there was more to it than that. It was not just that the gospel was making demands on me. It was also giving support. Not that the support was always easy to recognise. Sometimes God just seemed to be making things more difficult.
One of my favourite passages from the Psalms has always been the one (Ps 77) which describes all the wonderful things God had done for his people and asks why he does not do things like that any more. It ends by admitting that even when God was leading his people through their difficulties, they could not see his footsteps.
That is what I think is meant by talking about the Kingdom of Heaven: trying to live with ideals and live through difficulties even when we cannot see how God is helping, but still being prepared to live in the trust that that help is real. Believing that there is going to be something better after I die is not enough to carry me through the difficulties that life brings. A heaven in the future is not enough. I need heaven here and now. I need help here and now.
That is why Paul is so insistent in his first letter to the people of Corinth that Christ has risen from the dead. If all we had was his teaching and the ideals that he set before us without the help of his risen life here and now, we would in Paul's words, be 'unfortunate' to say the least. As he points out in his later letter to the Romans, we would be confronted with the demands of countless ideals without having the power to rise to them.
But life is not easy when we cannot see God's footsteps, when we cannot feel that God is helping. At times there is the feeling that we have to do everything ourselves because there is no one else to help. And then we work harder and harder, getting more and more wound up and leaving less and less space for anyone, even God, to share the load. Jesus said, "Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," (Mt 11:28) but those are just the times when I find it hardest to become still, to rest, to hand back the responsibility to God.
It may be a struggle to keep up with all that God seems to want me to do but it is also a struggle to find time in the middle of all that to pray. At first praying is as busy and hectic as the rest of life. All my worries come tumbling out on top of one another, my anger, my frustrations, my fears.
It takes a conscious effort gradually to slow things down and become as still as possible. I do not expect the worries to disappear but, if I can carry some of the stillness back into the things I have to do, it can be a little easier to see something of God's footsteps there as well.