The crushing burden of debt

After all the talks and proposals there is still no resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis. Banks in Greece are running out of money because there are no more loans available from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund and ordinary people have withdrawn billions of euros from their accounts. The crisis is hitting all sections of Greek society. Unemployment is at 25%, pensions will be capped and an increase in VAT is unavoidable. This week the banks are closed and people are only allowed to draw a maximum of €60 per day from cash machines.

Massive national debts are a feature of our world today. The UK government debt is £1.56 trillion, which is 81% of our annual Gross Domestic Product. The annual interest payments alone are £43 billion. The reason we are not in the same situation as Greece is that our government is able to raise the money it needs to finance its debt because institutions and people believe we are able to make the repayments and so we also pay lower interest rates. It’s when you can’t pay your debts that the problem gets out of hand, as it has in Greece.

Personal debt is also an overwhelming burden for many ordinary people. One of the early credit cards encouraged people to take their credit because it “takes the waiting out of wanting.” People are encouraged to take the money now and pay later, often at high interest rates. Payday loan companies charge extortionate interest rates. It’s easy to get a small loan, but it’s very costly indeed to repay it.

The Bible reminds us of another kind of debt, which is even more serious, but to which we may give little thought. Each day of our lives our debt to God accumulates as we commit sins by breaking his commands. The debt we owe to him is overwhelming. The amazing message of the Gospel is that Jesus came from heaven in order to pay our debt by his death on the Cross. Each of us can come to God and ask him to forgive the debt we owe him.

The Welsh preacher, John Elias, wrote a hymn expressing his amazement at the wonderful kindness and love of God in Jesus. “And was it for my sin that Jesus suffered so, when moved by His all-powerful love he came to earth below? Thy holy law fulfilled, atonement now is made, and our great debt, too great for us, He now has fully paid.”

The beauty of forgiveness

Beautiful things sometimes arise out of dark and ugly events. The brutal murder of 9 black people at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was a wicked act. The murderer hates black people and believes white people should be supreme. He attended a Bible study and prayer meeting at the church and was there for an hour before pulling out his gun and killing 9 defenceless people, including the pastor of the church. While he sat in the meeting he nearly changed his mind because the people were so nice to him.

When the man appeared in court some of the relatives of the nine people whom he killed spoke to him and told him they forgave him. Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, said, “I just want everybody to know I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

Anthony Thompson, the husband of Myra Thompson, said, “I forgive you, and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Jesus, so he can change it, and change your ways no matter what happened to you and you’ll be okay through that. And better off than how you are right now.” Alana Simmons spoke on behalf of her family, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

The amazing responses of these Christian people are a clear reflection of their Saviour, Jesus. When he was nailed to the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” Two criminals were crucified at the same time as Jesus. One of them experienced a dramatic change of heart. He said to the other criminal, “We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your Kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” So heaven is real and, because Jesus is King, love, not hate, does win!

The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer remembered

This year we have been marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. We thank God for the many service men and women who courageously served in the Allied Forces against the Third Reich and the other Axis Powers. Many of them lost their lives in the conflict. There were also people in Germany who, both before and during the war, courageously stood against the power of Adolph Hitler.

One of them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor and theologian. As Hitler rose to power and his anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions intensified, Bonhoeffer, and others, united in opposition to him. They organised the Confessing Church that publicly announced its first allegiance to be to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer was banned from teaching theology and taught in an underground seminary at Finkenwalde until it was discovered and closed in 1937. Bonhoeffer went into hiding for two years and was banned from Berlin. Yet when synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned and demolished in November 1938 he went to Berlin.

In June 1939 Bonhoeffer left Germany to take a teaching post at Union Seminary, New York. Within a month, however, he returned to Germany and became a leader in the German underground movement. He raised money to enable Jewish refugees to be evacuated and was actively involved in seeking to undermine Hitler and his evil regime. The Gestapo arrested him in April 1943, soon after he had been engaged. In February 1945 he was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp and was hanged at the Flossenbürg extermination camp on 9 April 1945, just days before the camp was liberated. He was 39 years old.

A camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging described the scene: “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he prayed and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

In 1937 Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship” that was a call to faithful and costly obedience to Jesus Christ. In it he wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” His life and death are a great example of what it means to choose to follow Jesus Christ whatever the cost.

Understanding corruption

Corruption is in the news. Prime Minister David Cameron has said, “Corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many of the problems we face around the world today.” He has in mind particularly the misuse of the billions of pounds given in overseas aid to developing nations by Britain and other countries. Criminals and unscrupulous politicians are siphoning off much of the money. Poor people are not receiving the help they need. It is estimated that as much as £1 trillion is paid in bribes across the world every year.

Corruption touches every part of human life. The world of football is facing a major investigation into corruption in FIFA. It seems that very large sums of money have been paid to secure the rights to host major football tournaments around the world. Dishonesty in managing the international LIBOR exchange rate has led to heavy fines for some banks. Individuals have been found guilty of child abuse, as have institutions including children’s homes and churches.

The Bible says that corruption comes from our hearts and especially when we live as if there is no God. Psalm 14 says, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Nobody ultimately escapes justice because of their corruption, dishonesty or wicked abuse of children because, one day, all of us must stand before God. He sees all things and he judges justly.

We all need spiritual heart surgery. Five hundred years before Jesus was born the prophet Ezekiel gave a wonderful promise about what God was going to do through his Son. He said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” That inner change is always seen in a transformed life. In his letter James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Abide with me

For nearly 90 years a hymn has been sung before the FA Cup Final begins. Since 1927 the crowd has sung the well-known hymn “Abide with me.” This year a choir representing each team that played in the 3rd round of the Cup led the singing. The hymn has also been sung at every Rugby League Challenge Cup Final since 1929 and was sung at the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

The hymn was written by Henry Frances Lyte. He was a curate in the fishing village of Lower Brixham in Devon. The hymn is a prayer to God asking that we might know his presence with us in all the experiences of life and in death. It expresses the aloneness we often feel and our longing to know God’s presence and peace in times of trial and especially when the time comes for us to die. “Abide with me” was sung by soldiers in the trenches in World War I and is always sung at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance. Nurse Edith Cavell sang it the night before the Germans shot her for helping British soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium.

The hymn reminds us of our human frailty and the brevity of life. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” All the experiences of this life are fleeting as we move inexorably to our last hour, which we must each face alone.

How wonderful it is to know that we can turn to the eternal God who will hear our prayer so that we will never be alone! “I need Thy presence every passing hour. What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me. 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. Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

When the Holy Spirit comes

Christian churches around the world have just celebrated Pentecost. Six weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus the Holy Spirit came to the early Christians who were gathered in a small room in Jerusalem. There were just 120 of them and they were living in a very hostile environment, but when the Holy Spirit came to them they received power to proclaim the good news of Jesus without fear. The Holy Spirit enabled Peter to speak to the crowd in Jerusalem in the people’s own heart- languages. The crowd came from many nations including what are now Italy, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On that one day 3000 people believed in Jesus and the Christian church was born.

Today nearly one third of the people of the world, 2.18 billion, profess to be Christians. The spread of the Gospel message, and the growth of the church, are the result of the work of the Holy Spirit of God. In the early centuries Christians faced severe persecution, especially from the Roman Empire, yet still many people put their faith in Jesus. Christianity has always been at its best and strongest when it has not been recognised by political powers as the “official” religion. T.S. Eliot said that when the church and the state are in conflict there is something wrong with the state, but when they get on too well there is something wrong with the church.

In the past 100 years the number of Christians in the world has grown significantly in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Today most Christians live in the Global South and in these places the churches are dynamic. The overwhelming number of people in these countries who are becoming Christians are ordinary people. Their faith in Jesus has brought them into a new relationship with God. He gives them strength in their daily lives and a certain hope for the future..

The continuing growth in the number of Christians around the world is evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. People from every culture and language, in mega cities and remote rural communities, are experiencing God’s love in Jesus and finding new hope in him. The Holy Spirit can transform anyone. The hymn of Daniel Iverson is a prayer that many people have prayed, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me, break me, melt me, mould me, fill me, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”

Being thankful and content

Many people in the world experience profound suffering and sadness. Sometimes it comes through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis in which people lose everything – loved ones, homes and possessions. Some die from deadly diseases like Ebola. Others perish in the deserts of Africa or the Mediterranean Sea as they flee oppressive regimes and persecution. Some are imprisoned or executed by religious fanatics or megalomaniac rulers.

The pictures of the Rohingya Muslim people on boats in the Andaman Sea vividly portrayed human misery and helplessness. They come from Myanmar where they are not recognized as citizens and face persecution. The people have paid people smugglers to take them to Thailand but have been turned away. Malaysia and Indonesia have also refused to accept them. Men, women and children have been trapped on dilapidated boats with little food or water for weeks. Many are sick and dying. No one seems ready to accept them; they have nowhere to turn.

Watching the report of the people on the boat I felt both a compassion for their plight and a deep thankfulness that I, and my family, have never been in such a terrible situation. We have faced difficulties in our lives but have always had someone to turn to for help. It is easy to complain about relatively minor things that go wrong and not to realize the amazing privileges we enjoy. Seeing the people in the boat puts our problems into their proper perspective.

In the Western world today contentment is very rare. Complaining seems to be the norm in our materialistic society. We are encouraged never to be content with what we have and always to want more. Yet no amount of material possessions can ever bring lasting fulfilment. The apostle Paul wrote, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

Every human being is precious because we have been created in God’s image. When everyone rejects the people in the boats, and they have nowhere to turn, God sees and cares. He hears their cries for help and will hold to account those who are so terribly mistreating them. He is also the one to whom we can give thanks for the many blessings he has given us, none of which we deserve. His greatest gift to a lost and dying world was his Son, Jesus, who came that through him we might have eternal life.

Give to God what is God’s

The General Election is over. The people have spoken. A new government has been elected. In our parliamentary democracy we have been able to vote for the people and party we want to govern us. It is a great privilege and blessing to live in a democratic country; a privilege denied to many people in our world today. In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln said the war was a struggle for the preservation of the Union and democracy, that he defined as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Jesus lived in a country ruled by a Roman governor where Roman soldiers enforced the so-called “Pax Romana”. It is interesting, therefore, to see how Jesus and his followers responded to the Roman Emperor and his absolute power. Jesus was once asked a question about paying Roman taxes, which were deeply resented by his fellow countrymen. Some religious leaders asked him, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus replied, “Show me a coin used for paying the tax. Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The early Christians lived under totalitarian Roman rule and experienced cruel and unjust persecution. Men, women and children were imprisoned, crucified, and killed by wild animals in the arena to “entertain” wealthy and privileged Roman citizens. Yet Christian leaders, who were themselves eventually executed by the Romans, encouraged Christians to obey the authorities and to pray for kings and rulers. The apostle Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

So whichever party governs us, it is good to pray for them. Ultimately they are accountable not to the electorate but to God for the way they rule. Each of us must also face the challenge of giving to God what is rightfully his because he is the ultimate ruler of us all.

VE Day Remembered

This week is the 70th anniversary of VE Day when, on 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. As World War II in Europe came to an end celebrations erupted from Moscow to Los Angeles. In Britain more than one million people celebrated on the streets of London. King George VI and the Queen, accompanied by Winston Churchill, appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were allowed to join the celebrating crowds incognito.

It is no wonder there were great celebrations. The dark years of World War II, the deadliest conflict in history, were over in Europe, and 3 months later the war in the Pacific also ended. During the War the Allies lost 61 million people, of whom 45 million were civilians. The Axis countries lost 12 million people, including 4 million civilians. Many millions of people were also injured.

The history of the world reveals the constant reality of evil and wickedness. In every generation wicked people kill and maim men, women and children in pursuit of their own evil ambitions. Every day we hear reports of the wars and conflicts in our world today. Will it ever come to an end?

The Bible answers this question and provides a coherent view of history. The universe didn’t come into existence by chance, but by the creative act of God. He created the heavens and the earth. Everything he created, including men and women, was good. In early history, however, sin entered the world as the first man, Adam, disobeyed the command of God. From that time on sin and evil have always been with us and stem from our rebellion against our Creator. The course of human history reveals the tragic consequences of this rebellion.

In his Son, Jesus, God decisively intervened in the history of the world to bring hope to the nations. By his death on the cross Jesus defeated death and the devil and brought a new age of hope for the peoples of the world. He sent his disciples into all the world to preach a message of good news and hope to all. As they have received Jesus as their Saviour, people from all nations have found peace with God and hope for the future. One day the Kingdom of God will be consummated and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” What a celebration there will be when that day comes!

Tragedy strikes Nepal

More than 3000 people are known to have died in the massive earthquake which has hit Nepal. Thousands of people have been injured. Buildings and houses in the capital city Kathmandu have been destroyed and many rural villages have been devastated. Tented villages have sprung up around Kathmandu providing shelter for thousands of people. Up to 1 million children need help. International aid agencies have begun an emergency operation to help the homeless people who are short of food and water.

The 7.8 magnitude quake also hit Mount Everest causing avalanches killing at least 18 people. Many more are missing. Nepal is home to 8 out of the 10 highest mountains in the world and has more than 240 peaks over 20,000 feet high. The grandeur of the mountains, and the challenge of climbing them, draws thousands of people to the Himalayas every year. The earthquake came at the start of the climbing season.

Tragedies like the Nepal earthquake make us feel small and helpless before the immense power of natural forces. Our hearts go out to the thousands of men, women and children whose lives have been so suddenly and unexpectedly devastated. To whom can they, and we, turn to find comfort and help at such times?

The book of Psalms has been a source and strength and comfort to generations of people. In Psalm 121 we read, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” The mighty mountain peaks of Nepal create a sense of awe and wonder but are powerless to help us in times of need. Many people have perished on those impassive mountains. So we must look beyond them to the Lord, the living God, who created the mountains and who is able to draw near to us in our times of deepest need.

In Psalm 46 we read “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” In the face of the uncertainties of life, and the fears we all experience, we need a place of refuge from danger where we can find strength to face the future. When tragedy strikes only God can fully meet our deepest needs and give us his comfort and strength.