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Facing fear and vulnerability

Michael Johnson, the retired American sprinter, had an outstanding athletics’ career. He won 4 Olympic gold medals and 8 World Championship gold medals. He held the world and Olympic records in both the 200m and 400m and the world indoor 400m record. He is the only athlete in history to win both the 200m and 400m events in the same Olympics. After retiring from athletics, he opened Michael Johnson Performance centres and became an athletics’ pundit on BBC Sport. He has always made physical fitness a top priority; eating healthily, drinking alcohol moderately, exercising regularly and watching his weight.

In early September 2018, however, he suffered a TIA – a transient ischaemic attack. He lost mobility and co-ordination in his left side and in the days after it took him 15 minutes to walk 200 metres – the same distance he often ran in under 20 seconds. Thankfully Michael has made a good recovery. He approached his rehabilitation with the same determination he approached training during his athletics’ career and after 4 months he was paddle-boarding, rowing, cycling and running.

For the first time, he experienced fear and vulnerability because neither he nor his doctors could explain why he suffered the stroke. He said, “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable being vulnerable. I’m still working through this need I have to be superman. My persona, personally and publicly, has been that I have got everything under control, and I don’t need anyone else’s help, don’t need anyone’s sympathy. I don’t like sympathy or empathy. Now I have been faced with the vulnerable position of not being able to walk. Needing help to do that and some regular normal daily activities was tough for me. But I realised that in order to get back to where I needed to be, people’s help was something I was going to need and to open up to.”

Michael’s honesty highlights the fears and vulnerability we all experience. In Psalm 56 David, who was a great military leader, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in God.” The Apostle Paul, who was a man of great energy, suffered what he called a “thorn in the flesh”, a physical weakness with which he had to live. But God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Rays of sunshine that penetrate the darkness

At the end of January more than 200 survivors gathered at the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, most of them Jews. The emphasis of the commemoration was on the survivors who had travelled from many parts of the world. They are now aged between 75 and 101 and this may be the last major commemoration for them.

Angela Orosz, 75, from Montreal was born in the camp. Her mother gave birth to her in secret on a top bunk in December 1944. She said, “I always claimed to my kids that I had suffered no trauma from having been here, until my daughter asked me why then, unlike other families, did I never throw potato peelings away? Because my mother had probably survived because of the peelings she had eaten and the goodness in them had enabled her to give birth to me and so I had survived. So, of course, the survival instinct I inherited from her made me always do the same.”

David Lenga, who became a successful tailor in Beverly Hills, said he refused to let the Holocaust define his life despite the fact that it claimed 98 members of his family. Only David and his father survived. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish and lost members of his family in the Holocaust, said the world should learn about humanity from the survivors whose stories of endurance and forgiveness are exemplary. “You are truly amazing. You are strong and incredibly courageous. So, you are an example that we should follow. The Holocaust is called the dark period in the history of humanity and you are the rays of sunshine that penetrate that darkness.”

The Holocaust is an example of the terrifying capacity for evil in the human heart. Political and military leaders planned the wicked extermination of millions of Jewish people and ordinary citizens carried it out. There are great mysteries in life, but there is no doubt that no one escapes God’s righteous judgement. God’s promises also offer survivors comfort in their devastating pain and loss. The prophet Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

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God’s laws are good

In the UK and the Western world, we are experiencing a moral revolution. There is now a new morality. What, from the beginning of time, has been regarded as morally wrong is now morally right. What was morally right is now morally wrong. Positive words are used to give the impression that this is all for the better. Promoting the new morality is “progressive”. Politicians often tell us that what they are doing is “the right thing to do.” This seldom means doing what is morally right but rather that they are pursuing what they believe to be the correct policy or action to deal with a problem. The new morality involves key words and ideas; “freedom”, “choice”, “respect”, “tolerance”, “discrimination”, “phobic”, “hate”. Armed with these concepts you can justify almost any action and present anyone who disagrees as a religious bigot or being out of touch.

But morality is fundamental to the lives of every one of us and to any society. Being honest matters. Working hard is good. Sexual purity is precious. Being faithful to our husband or wife is vital to personal happiness and social stability. Respecting people who are different from us is a fundamental principle. To disagree with people of another faith or of another sexual disorientation is not “phobic” or “hateful” but arises from personal moral convictions and spiritual beliefs. A Muslim may fundamentally disagree with a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, but he isn’t being “Christian-phobic”. Nor do fundamental disagreements always lead to hostility. I have Muslim friends. We like and love one another. Love transcends fundamental differences of religious belief and lifestyle.

Those who promote the new morality present it as an absolute standard and are intolerant of anyone who dares to disagrees. People who disagree may be attacked, hounded or denied the right to speak. God has been removed from the scene. There is no vertical dimension in the new morality, no ultimate accountability, no place for God and his moral laws. In his book “The God Delusion” Richard Dawkins quotes the atheist Bertrand Russell saying that when he met God he would say, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” Did this very intelligent man really believe that he would talk to Almighty God on equal terms?

God’s two great commandments are a sure guide for life and the secret of true happiness. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

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Remember your Creator

People are living longer. The Queen now sends more 100th birthday cards than ever before – over 10,000 cards each year to people who are 100 years old or more. However, living a long life often brings significant challenges. In the past few months three elderly friends have died. Two were over 80 years old and one was in his nineties. Each faced difficulty in the last years of their lives. One had cancer and needed surgery and chemotherapy which meant many weeks in hospital and a severely restricted quality of life. One suffered from dementia and moved into a care home where, sadly, he no longer recognised his children and grandchildren. One fell at home and was no longer able to live independently. He moved into a care home where, because of immobility, he spend many long days in his room with little variation in the routine.

Each of them was a Christian and found comfort and strength through their relationship with God. They put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour when they were young, healthy and active; old age seemed a long way off. But as they grew older the promises of the Bible gave them strength and hope. They knew the personal love and care of God and experienced the truth of Psalm 23 where David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

When they realised their life was drawing to a close they were able to face death with confidence and hope because they knew their Saviour was with them. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David’s son Solomon was a wise king. In the book of Ecclesiastes he considered the meaning of life and came to a clear conclusion, “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.’ Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

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Our lives have meaning

A global survey conducted by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of 15-year-olds in 79 countries revealed that UK young people came second from last in ‘the meaning of life’ index. Teenagers in the UK are among the least likely to agree with the idea that “my life has clear meaning and purpose.” Although the survey also revealed modest improvements in reading and maths the deeper crisis teenagers in the UK are experiencing is more significant. Whilst the survey revealed that UK young people are relatively ‘happy’ they come near the bottom in terms of ‘life satisfaction’. Only young people in Turkey and the Macao region of China rate their life less highly than British young people.

The countries that came near the top for ‘meaning in life’, or ‘human flourishing’ were ones where the Catholic or Muslim faiths are strong. Secular countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK came near the bottom. The UK is now one of the most secular countries in the world. The OECD report also found that in the UK “students with an immigrant background were much more likely to report a greater sense of meaning in life than their native-born counterparts.” The greater influence of religion and culture in these communities may explain the difference.

This survey raises important challenges for secularism which rules our all references to God and moral absolutes. Faith in God and recognising that we are all moral beings, created in God’s image, are the foundation stones of meaning in life and human flourishing. The American evangelist Billy Graham preached the Christian message to more people all around the world than anyone else in history. In his public speaking and in interviews he frequently said, “The Bible says.” In one of his sermons he challenged his hearers, “I know where I’ve come from! I know why I’m here! I know where I’m going! Do you?”

For all of us the key to finding meaning and purpose in life is in seeking answers to those key questions. The earth and the universe clearly reveal a wise and all-powerful Creator. We are not the product of time and chance. God “created our inmost being and knit us together in our mother’s womb.” He made us to live in fellowship with him and in the light of his commandments. He made us both body and soul and “put eternity in our hearts” with a longing in the very depths of our being to be with God in the blessed happiness of heaven forever.

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Blessed are the merciful

There are strange contradictions in our contemporary society. On the one hand, a previous morality has been swept aside and people now tolerate things that earlier generations regarded as morally wrong. On the other hand, people in the public eye who fall foul of the moral judgements of social media are mercilessly attacked. Their faults are magnified with no possibility of being able to put things right. Social media morality is the new absolute.

But the reality is that all of us make mistakes and do wrong things. Pointing out other people’s faults can be a way of deflecting attention from our own faults. Jesus warned his disciples about hypocritically judging other people. He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We all need to find God’s forgiveness for the many wrong things we do. The Bible reveals that God is merciful. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” The Apostle John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

When we experience God’s forgiveness, we must be ready to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus underlined the importance of this when he said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Our lives and our society would be transformed if we could regain our moral integrity by being honest about our own sinfulness and also being merciful towards others who, like us, fail and sin. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

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The God of hope

As a new year and a new decade begin our world is a troubled place. Perhaps you have thought carefully before wishing family and friends a happy new year because you sense the coming year may be not be altogether happy. Increased tensions in the Middle East suggest there are turbulent times ahead. The bush fires in Australia continue to rage and make us all aware of the consequences of climate change. The increasing global influence of China and Russia brings new challenges. In many places in Africa there is conflict, drought, disease and poverty. Personally, family life may not be easy. We, or other family members and friends, may be facing serious illness or the challenges of living longer.

So where is hope to be found? When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome he said, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Paul himself, and the Christians in Rome, knew what it was to suffer. The Roman Empire was cruel and severely punished those it disapproved of, especially Christians. Soon after Paul wrote this letter, he became a prisoner and was later beheaded by the Roman authorities. In 64 AD Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a great fire in Rome. Innocent Christians were nailed to crosses, torn apart by dogs the arena, and set on fire to provide evening lights.

However, Paul and the Christians knew that whatever happened to them in this life they had a sure future hope because they trusted in the living God who is “the God of hope.” They and their loved ones were powerless to stand against the unjust persecution they faced, but they were safe in the hands of God. Knowing God gave them a true peace and joy even in the face of the most terrible adversities and their hope even overflowed. They knew that whatever happened to them in this world they were safe in the care of Jesus and would one day go to be with him in heaven for ever.

One Sunday evening a Christian minister went to visit one of his members who was very seriously ill in hospital. Another Christian in the same ward overheard their conversation. The sick man said to his minister, “They’ve told me there’s no hope.” The minister replied, “Dear brother, from now on it’s all hope!” That’s what it means when we trust “the God of hope.”

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Murder on Christmas Eve

Late on Christmas Eve 2012 Alan Greaves kissed his wife, Maureen, as he left the house to go to his local church in High Green, Sheffield, to play the organ at the midnight service. It was a special Christmas for Alan and Maureen because their youngest daughter, a missionary working in Mozambique, was home for the first time in several years. It was a bitterly cold night.

Alan never got to the church because he was attacked by two young men with pickaxe handles who savagely beat him around the head leaving him unconscious. Maureen, who had gone to bed to wait for Alan’s return, heard an ambulance go past their house and quietly prayed that God would help whoever needed medical help

Two Police officers rang Maureen’s doorbell just after midnight to tell her Alan had had an accident. Not knowing how serious Alan’s injuries were, Maureen drove to the hospital expecting to be able to bring him home to share Christmas Day with the family. As soon as the consultant walked into the room Maureen knew it was bad news. She asked, “Is he dying?” and the consultant said, “I’m afraid so.”

On the way to the room where Alan was Maureen prayed, “Please Heavenly Father, be with me on this very unexpected journey and may this great heartache I am going through be for your glory.” When she got to the room, she couldn’t recognise her beloved husband because his injuries were so horrific. She knew he was dying. She sat with him for two and a half days until he went to heaven to be with Jesus. Maureen and their 4 children were truly heartbroken and felt the loss of Alan deeply.

When, a few days later, Maureen spoke to reporters they asked her why she still believed in God if he had allowed this to happen? She replied, “I can sincerely say that I have never felt angry with God. Ever since becoming a Christian I have believed, read and loved the Bible. It is God’s message to humanity and explains so much of what is going on in this world. Terrible things happen because people have turned their backs on God. Instead of asking ‘Why?’ I ask, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ As a Christian, I have Someone who is walking the journey with me. God is there, and he makes all the difference. Whoever I meet knows that I have suffered, but I can share with them that God’s peace and presence with me has been real throughout the years.”

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Good news of great joy

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His parents, Mary and Joseph, lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. Everyone had to return to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. Because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. It was a long and gruelling journey of 90 miles. On foot it took from 4 to 7 days to complete and the time for Mary’s baby to be born was very near.

When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was crowded and there were no relatives who could offer them hospitality. So, when Mary’s baby was born the only place she could lay him was in a manger, an animal feeding trough. It must have been a traumatic time for Mary and Joseph, amongst strangers, far from home, and learning for the first time how to care for a new-born baby. They gave him the name Jesus, as the angel of the Lord had told Joseph. The name Jesus means Saviour.

The same night that Jesus was born an angel of the Lord announced his birth to some shepherds guarding their flocks just outside Bethlehem. When the angel appeared the radiance of God’s glory surrounded them, and the shepherds were terrified. The angel reassured them saying, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

When the angels had left them the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields, they glorified and praised God for all the things they had heard and seen. In one sense their lives went on just as they had before, they still worked as shepherds, but in a deeper sense everything was new because they had seen the Saviour. Christmas can be a busy time of special things after which life returns to normal. Nothing changes. But the good news that still brings great joy to all people is that knowing Jesus, the Saviour, transforms our lives.

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Light and life to all he brings

More than 2 billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three people in the world are followers of Jesus. This is an amazing statistic. Jesus came from a small village in Galilee. His parents were ordinary people. He learned his father’s trade and was a carpenter. He never travelled more than 100 miles from his home. His remarkable ministry lasted just 3 years. When he was 33 years old he was executed by the Romans. Yet today millions of people from every nation on earth know him as their Saviour and follow him as his disciples. How can this be explained?

Jesus was the Son of God. One of our carols says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all.” When the wise men from Persia, who followed the star, found the baby they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They recognised him as a divine King and offered him their gifts. Because Jesus was the Son of God he rose again from the dead. It was not possible for death to keep its hold on him. One of his disciples, Thomas, who at first doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saw him personally and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promise. From the beginning of time God had promised that a child would be born who would bring blessing to the peoples of the world. Through this child God’s great purpose for his world was going to be fulfilled. God is still carrying forward his gracious purpose for the nations. Today the good news of Jesus is being proclaimed around the world and many are receiving him as Saviour and Lord. One day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

Jesus came to give us hope. The world into which he was born knew great sadness and pain. Our world today is very much the same. Jesus is the One who gives us a sure and certain hope both in this life and when we die. Many carol services close with these words, “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!”