What do you think about?

What do you think about? Our minds are an important part of who we are. Many are keen to make sure their bodies are fit, so they eat the right things and exercise regularly, but do we have the same concern to maintain a healthy mind? Near the end of his letter to the Christians at Philippi the apostle Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

These words seem especially helpful for our world at this time. It is easy for our minds to be filled with bad and depressing things. We hear news reports of desperately evil things being done. We see pictures of towns and communities destroyed by bombs and children being killed or maimed. Much of the internet and many television programmes are characterised by cynicism, bad language, and unwholesome content. Our newspapers expose the failures and corruption of prominent people, whose decisions may affect our lives. At a personal level many of us struggle with unhappy family situations, with unemployment, or just the daily grind of making ends meet.

Paul is not encouraging us to be escapists, who can’t cope with the real world. He and the Christians in Philippi lived under the domination of Rome. Daily life was hard. Paul was in a Roman prison and would soon be executed because he was a Christian. It would have been easy to simply dwell on the bad and evil things that were happening, but he knew it was important not to lose sight of the best things because they are the things that will ultimately endure. All the evil things which now dominate our world and our lives will one day pass away.

Last Sunday afternoon I was driving along the Gower coast. It was a beautiful, tranquil, autumn evening. The sun was setting, the sea was calm and the landscape was tinged with beautiful autumn colours. The whole scene spoke to my heart about God, our wonderful Creator. He is eternal and is the source of all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. He has revealed his amazing love for the world in his Son Jesus, who came that we might have life and have it to the full. Because Jesus came into this world we can look forward to the time when there will be “a new heaven and a new earth filled with God’s righteousness.”

Secure in the love of God

The terrorist atrocities in Paris have left 129 people dead and more than 350 injured, some critically. The 7 suicide bombers all died after they had attacked restaurants, cafes, bars, a rock concert and the Stade de France. The 3 groups of terrorists used bombs and Kalashnikov assault rifles in a way not seen before on the streets of Western Europe. The attacks have left the French people traumatised and other nations fearing that similar attacks may also come to their streets. Our hearts go out to those who have so tragically lost loved ones.

It is not possible to make sense of the events of this life without reference to God and eternity. Some people believe that this life is the only life there is, but this leaves big questions unanswered. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God and have both a body and a soul, that can never die. We also have a conscience by which we know the difference between right and wrong. So we know that doing what is right matters and that we are all accountable to God for the things we do.

The sacredness of every human life and the evil of wilfully killing human beings is something we all affirm because of who we are. We are created in God’s image. Tragically it seems that some people are being deceived into believing that committing terrorist acts and killing yourself with a bomb takes you to a reward in paradise. But we know that cannot be true. Sinful actions cannot be rewarded and no-one can escape the eternal consequences of their actions by taking their own life.

The events in Paris also remind us of the fragility of our lives. People who set out on Friday evening to relax with friends over a meal died in a way they could not possibly have anticipated. We all need to find refuge in God and to know that, whatever happens, there is nothing that can separate us from his love in Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to persecuted Christians living in Rome, some of whom would die for their faith in Jesus. He told them, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Transforming hearts and minds

The destruction of Metrojet Flight KGL9268 on 31 October over the northern Sinai desert seems to have been caused by an explosive device on board. The plane was carrying Russian holidaymakers returning from Sharm el-Sheikh and had reached its cruising altitude of 32000 feet when, suddenly, it disappeared from the radar. The 217 passengers and 7 crew were killed. They didn’t know the person who planted the bomb and the bomber didn’t know them. The reason they were targeted seems to be that they came from Russia. Tragically, and without warning, many families have lost loved ones and have been plunged into mourning.

Sadly, terrorism is now an established part of life in our world. The activities of the terrorists touch the lives of us all. They have a cause for which they are fighting and to which they are passionately committed. They are ready to brutalise and kill other people and, in some cases, to die themselves through suicide bombs. Security and intelligence services use highly sophisticated technology to try to track and foil terrorist plots but no one has an answer to the problem. It seems to be impossible to change the hearts and minds of terrorists so that they abandon their hateful and destructive purposes. Increasing numbers of young people are being radicalised.

Jesus had 12 disciples who spent 3 years with him. One of them was Simon the Zealot. Before he became a disciple of Jesus, Simon belonged to a radical Jewish sect known as the Zealots who were committed to opposing the Roman occupation of their country. They incited the people to rebel against Roman authority and were ready to kill to further their cause. They even killed their own people who collaborated with the Romans. Matthew was also a disciple of Jesus. Before he met Jesus, Matthew collaborated with the Romans by collecting their taxes from his own people. Simon hated men like Matthew. Yet, amazingly, Simon and Matthew were both transformed by their relationship with Jesus and became friends.

A friend of mine, Michael, grew up in the Republic of Ireland and, as a young man, became involved with terrorists. One day he was making a bomb when it exploded and he lost both his hands. Later he met some Christians and heard the good news of Jesus. He became a disciple of Jesus and a preacher of the Gospel. Michael is an example of the power of Jesus to change hearts and minds today, as no one else can.

The Garden of Eden

A research study undertaken by the universities of Westminster and Essex has concluded that tending an allotment is good for our mental health. Just 30 minutes a week spent digging and weeding can improve our mood and sense of self-esteem by reducing tension, depression, anger and confusion. People who work on an allotment also tend to be more physically fit.

One reason why tending an allotment may be a blessing to people is that it takes us back to our origins. The book of Genesis tells us that the first man, Adam, lived in the Garden of Eden. The garden was fertile with many beautiful plants and trees. God gave Adam the task of working in the garden and keeping it. His work was a delight and he and his wife were able to eat the fruit of the trees. Eating the fruit of his work gave Adam great pleasure and satisfaction. Our roots are not in the modern urban sprawl but in the rich abundance of God’s creation.

Tragically the delightful relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was lost when they disobeyed his command and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were sent from the Garden of Eden and from the presence of God. Because of their disobedience they would die and so would every other human being born into this world. Adam’s work became wearying toil. God told him, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

However, it was in another garden that hope dawned when Jesus rose from the dead. After Jesus died on the Cross two of his disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, tenderly laid his body in Joseph’s garden tomb. Early in the morning of the third day Mary Magdalene came to the garden and discovered that the tomb was empty! Jesus had risen from the dead! The tragedy of Eden had been reversed by the victory Jesus won over sin and death. His resurrection offers hope to all in our sad world. In him we find eternal life that will never end. He gives us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

The beauty and splendour of autumn

Early on the Sunday morning after the clocks went back I drove to North Wales. It was a sunny morning and the autumn leaves were resplendent. The yellows, browns and reds were brilliant in the early morning sun. Scattered amongst them was the occasional green fir tree. It made me realise afresh that God has made our earth a very beautiful place and I thanked him for his wonderful kindness to all of us who live on this little planet.

The autumn colours remind us that the long, warm days of summer are passing and the dark days of winter lie ahead. The regularity of the seasons points us to the faithfulness of God. He has promised, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” So we know that winter will not last for ever, however dark and cold it may be, but that springtime will come and the trees and flowers will come to life again.

There are also seasons in our lives. The early years of childhood are full of hope and promise. The energy and enthusiasm of children hold out great potential for their future lives. Childhood gives way to adult years when physical and mental powers are at their height. It is a time for striving to achieve our full potential at home and work. Loving families and homes provide a secure and loving environment for the next generation to be born and thrive.

Then comes the autumn of our lives when mind and body are not so strong and grey hairs appear. In the early senior years there can be a beauty and poise that make it seem that things may continue as they are but, in our hearts, we know that our lives are moving inevitably to their appointed end.

Solomon, who was legendary for his wisdom, wrote, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.” It is best to remember God and entrust our lives to him when we are young so that he is at the centre of all we do. But we can also draw near to him in the autumn of our life and find in him the peace we need now and the hope we need for the future. His beautiful creation proclaims that he exists and encourages us to seek him and find him.

Swing low, sweet chariot

Antonín Dvořák composed the New World Symphony in 1893, when he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. It is by far his most popular symphony. In 1969 Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission and first Moon landing. During his time in the “New World” Dvořák came to admire the beauty of the African-American spirituals and plantation songs of the American South and these may have influenced his New World Symphony.

In the 17th century the Pilgrim Fathers left England and established the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. They were Christians who were seeking the freedom to practice their religion independent of the state. Their desire for freedom influenced the history and culture of the United States. Before and after the Pilgrim Fathers arrived boats brought African slaves to America to work on the plantations. The land was vast and the life of many slaves was harsh. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished and the principle was reaffirmed that all men are created with equal dignity and an equal right to liberty.

The African-American spirituals express the faith and hope of a people living as slaves. They found comfort in the Bible which tells of how God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land and how God’s Son, Jesus, came to set people free from the bondage of sin and death. The words and music of the African-American spirituals powerfully express both the present sufferings of the people and their hope of future happiness in heaven.

“Swing low, sweet chariot” speaks of the forgiveness found in Jesus and the strong hope of life beyond death, symbolised as the Jordan River. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down, but still my soul feels heavenly bound. The brightest day that I can say, when Jesus washed my sins away. If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming there too. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” In our sophisticated, yet tragically sad, modern world the joy of forgiveness and the hope of heaven speak powerfully to our deep longings to find true freedom.

Remembering Edith Cavell

On 12 October 1915 Edith Cavell stood before a German firing squad. Her “crime” was that she had sheltered British soldiers and helped them to escape to safety in neutral Holland. About 200 soldiers escaped in this way. Edith, and those with her, knew they could be shot for harbouring Allied soldiers. At the Red Cross Clinic in Brussels where she worked, Edith had impressed on the nurses that their first duty was to care for wounded soldiers irrespective of their nationality. German soldiers received the same level of care as Belgian.

Edith was the daughter of Frederick Cavell, who was the vicar of Swardeston Church in Norfolk. She trained as a nurse at the London Hospital. In 1907 she went to Brussels where she was put in charge of “L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomas”, a pioneer training school for lay nurses. She was on holiday in Norfolk when she heard that the Germans had invaded Belgium. Immediately she prepared to return to Belgium saying, “At a time like this I am more needed than ever,”

The evening before she died Stirling Gahan, a German Lutheran chaplain, visited Edith in St Gilles prison. He found her perfectly calm and resigned. Edith said, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I expected my sentence and believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

They observed the Lord’s Supper together and then the chaplain said the hymn “Abide with me.” Edith softly joined him in saying, “I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness; Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Edith was a Christian who loved and followed Jesus, her Saviour. The teaching of Jesus is radically different. He taught his disciples not only to love their family and friends, but also to love their enemies. As a nurse, Edith did that at great personal cost. The gracious and courageous life and death of Edith Cavell is a powerful example and challenge to us all to live “in view of God and eternity.”

Nigel Mansell reflects on his life

Nigel Mansell was a great racing driver. He won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1992. In the course of his career he broke his back, neck, legs, arms, wrists and feet. A crash at Le Mans in 2010 left him with a blood clot on the brain that caused memory loss and difficulty in talking. He feels his greatest achievement in the 62 years of his life is that he is still alive!

In a recent interview Nigel gave a fascinating insight into the kind of man he is and the things that matter most to him. He has lived with danger and knows the fragility of life. This has given him an appreciation of what is truly important in life. His family is a priority. He first met his wife when he was 17, and they have been married for 45 years. His biggest regret is that he did not spend more time with his mother, Joyce, who died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 60. He didn’t realise how ill she was and, at that time, he was busy developing his career with Lotus. He often thinks about her.

People matter to Nigel. He is a special constable and has seen how crime wrecks people’s lives. For 16 years he has been the President of the UK Youth charity that seeks to inspire young people to have greater self-esteem. He is committed to trying to make people’s lives better. He wants to think the best of everyone and never do anyone down.

When he was asked which figure of history he would most like to buy a pie and a pint his answer was, “A pint with Jesus would be interesting, if a little daunting!” Out of all the people who have ever lived Jesus stands supreme. Anyone who is really seeking to discover the meaning and purpose of life must encounter him. Jesus was both very approachable and also created a sense of awe in those who met him.

Jesus wasn’t a religious leader who lived in a palace with great riches. He lived an extraordinary life amongst ordinary people. Because Jesus mixed with all kinds of people, the religious leaders of his day accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners.” Knowing Jesus transforms our lives. He answers all the questions we have and gives real meaning to our lives. Jesus came into this world that we may have life in all its fullness.

O thank the Lord for all his love

This weekend I led a Harvest Thanksgiving service in a nearby church. These services have changed over the years. Today harvest displays are mainly comprised of tins and packets rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. This is more practical when the harvest gifts are distributed because the food lasts longer. The food at the service I led was given to the local Foodbank. Such gifts give a boost to the Foodbanks around the country and provide much needed food for poorer families.

In the Western world today we are less conscious of the importance of the harvest than we were. Throughout the year our supermarket shelves are filled with a massive variety of different kinds of food from all parts of the world. Most of us don’t know, or even think to ask, whether the farmers have had a good harvest. The people in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, however, are experiencing severe food shortages because of a sustained drought. People are dying because the harvest has failed.

The Earth is a tiny planet in a vast universe and is, as far as we know, unique. We have an abundance of water and much of the land is fertile and can be cultivated. Enough food is grown every year to feed all the people in the world, but there is an unequal distribution. Many have more than they need and others go hungry. The World Food Programme says that one in nine people in the world don’t have enough food to lead an active and healthy life and the number is growing. Children, women and rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia are in the frontline of hunger.

It is important to remember God and to give thanks to him. He is the One who created the earth and the abundance of good things that sustain our lives. In the Old Testament the people were told, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” One of the best known harvest hymns says, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.”

Come to me all you who are weary

Jesus is the heart of Christianity. He is the focus for the faith of his people. His life is the inspiration for their lives and his teaching is the light that guides them through the all the perplexing experiences of life. Christian are not adherents of a religion but followers of a divine person, Jesus, who is both God and man. Jesus can identify with us in every part of our lives because he has been where we are. He has been “touched with the feelings of our infirmities.” For this reason people from every nation are drawn to Jesus and find in him the strength and hope they need.

Jesus knew what it was to be an asylum seeker. Soon after he was born his parents had to flee from their own land to Egypt because of the threat from King Herod to kill him. This was no idle threat because Herod did kill all the little boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. This wicked act caused great grief and weeping in the little town where Jesus was born.

Jesus grew up in a working class home in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee at a time when his home country was under enemy occupation. Throughout his ministry he had no home of his own. He said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” At the end of his life he was hated by the religious leaders, betrayed by one of his own disciples, falsely accused and unjustly condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal.

So whatever struggles we may face in life we can find in Jesus the help we need. He understands our needs and is able to give us his grace and strength and to supply our needs. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” A well-known hymn says, “I know not how this saving faith to me he did impart, nor how believing in his Word wrought peace within my heart. But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.”