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When sorrows like sea billows roll

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well-known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to express our faith in God and to rest in his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and sent them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said, “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal, O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

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If anyone is without sin

Personal attacks on individuals through social media have become a common feature of modern life. People who express what may be perfectly legitimate opinions find themselves being condemned on social media by strangers. Or they may receive hundreds of abusive emails, some making serious threats to personally attack them or their families. Those who make these attacks claim the moral high ground and seem oblivious to their own faults. In such situations the words of Jesus come to mind, “If anyone is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.”

Jesus spoke these words when he was at the Temple in Jerusalem. While he was teaching the people, some religious leaders pushed through the crowd dragging with them a woman whom they had caught committing adultery. It was at the Feast of Tabernacles when the nation remembered how God had provided for them during the 40 years they had spent in the wilderness on their way to Canaan. During the feast some people lived in temporary shelters, called tabernacles, and the woman and the man may have been among them.

In their deep antagonism against Jesus the religious leaders were using the woman as a test case to find a reason for accusing him. They declared before all the people that the woman had been caught in the act of adultery and, according to the law of Moses deserved to die, although this penalty had not been carried for centuries. Then they asked Jesus, “Now what do you say?” If he did not condemn the woman, they would accuse him of false teaching.

Jesus looked them in the eye and said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” To the amazement of the woman one by one all the men began to go away. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” She replied, “No-one sir.” Jesus declared, “Then neither do I condemn you, go now and leave your life of sin.”

It is a wonderful thing to know that God doesn’t condemn us. All of us have sinned, sometimes grievously, as this woman had. We are all guilty in God’s sight and have no right to expect his mercy. But God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Jesus is the Lamb of God who, by his death on the cross, took away the sin of the world.

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Tomorrow will be a good day

Captain Sir Tom Moore has been a bright shining light in dark times. He captured the hearts of many people when he decided, at the age of 99, to raise money to help the NHS cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. Before his 100th birthday he walked 100 laps of his garden and raised £39 million. He received a well-deserved knighthood and, when interviewed, humbly expressed amazement at the massive amount of money people had given.

Captain Tom’s experiences in life had taught him to be optimistic about the future. In one television interview he said, “I’ve always considered that if things are very hard, don’t worry. You’ll get through them. Don’t give in, just keep going and things will certainly get better. That’s the way to look at it.” In World War II he had served as a dispatch rider in the 8th Battalion, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was sent to Burma, now Myanmar, shortly after the Japanese had overrun a British medical station, not only killing the handful of soldiers but bayoneting the doctors, orderlies and patients. He and his fellow soldiers were each given a tablet of cyanide, a lethal dose to swallow if they were captured.

He survived the war but never forgot his fellow soldiers who didn’t come back. In the early years after the war, he had difficulty finding a settled job but later became managing director of a concrete manufacturing company. His first marriage was loveless and unhappy and ended in divorce, but his second marriage to Pamela was very happy and they had 2 daughters. When Pamela developed dementia and went into a care home Tom, then in his mid 80s, visited her for hours every day. After Pamela died, he moved to live with his daughter Hannah and her family.

Captain Tom spoke of his hope for the future in heaven. He was not afraid of dying and often thought about being reunited with loved ones who had died before him. He wrote: “So, even if tomorrow is my last day, if all those I loved are waiting for me, then that tomorrow will be a good day, too.” When we are trusting in Jesus, he promises a glorious eternal home in heaven. One hymn says, “Through the love of God our Saviour, all will be well. Free and changeless is his favour, all, all is well. We expect a bright tomorrow, all will be well. Faith can sing through days of sorrow, ‘All, all is well.’ On our Father’s love relying, Jesus every need supplying, in our living, in our dying, all must be well.”

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The boy in the striped pyjamas

My wife and I recently watched the holocaust film “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” The film portrays the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp in Poland through the eyes of two 8-year-old boys: Bruno, the son of the camp’s Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish inmate. Bruno and his family moved from Berlin to live in a house near the camp. Only his father knows what the camp really is. Bruno can see it from his bedroom and thinks it’s a farm. Bruno has no friends to play with and sneaks into the woods. When he comes to the barbed wire fence, he sees Shmuel who, with his parents, is a prisoner in the camp. The two boys become friends.

Bruno thinks Shmuel’s striped prison uniform is pyjamas. Bruno takes food to Shmeul and they play board games through the barbed wire. One day when Shmuel is working in his home Bruno gives him a cake but doesn’t admit it when a soldier discovers Shmeul eating the cake. The solider punishes Shmeul by beating him badly. Bruno cries because he has let his friend down and later apologises to Shmeul who forgives him. Shmeul tells Bruno that his father has gone missing in the camp. Bruno, thinking the camp is a pleasant place, tells him that, to make up for letting him down, he will help him find his father. The next day Bruno puts on a prisoner’s striped uniform and cap and digs under the fence to join Shmuel.

The boys go into one of the huts and Bruno is shocked to see the many sick and malnourished Jewish people. Suddenly a siren sounds and everyone in the hut, including Bruno and Shmeul, is marched to a changing room where they are told to remove their clothes for a “shower” before they are herded into the gas chamber. As the lights go out Bruno and Shmeul hold hands to comfort each other as a soldier pours the gas pellets into the chamber. When they realise he is missing, Bruno’s parents run desperately to the camp but are too late to save him. Behind the locked door of the now silent gas chamber all the prisoners, including Bruno and Shmeul, are dead.

The film vividly portrays both unspeakable wickedness and a true friendship that transcended man-made barriers. It also reminds us of God’s amazing love. Out of love for us Jesus left his eternal home in heaven to come to this sinful world and willingly died on the Cross to pay the penalty our sins deserve so that we might receive eternal life. Jesus said, “Greater love has no-one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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As white as snow

We have had the first snowfalls of winter. There is a stillness as the dark days are illuminated by the pure brightness of the snow. Each of the trillions of snowflakes is unique, carrying the Creator’s signature. In 1885, scientist Wilson Bentley devised a way of attaching his camera to a microscope so he could take photographs of snowflakes in greater detail than ever before. Getting this close made it even clearer that no two flakes are the same. Every snowflake has its own unique pattern.

The snow reminds us of one of God’s great promises, “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.” God made this promise to people who had rebelled against him. They worshipped other gods, lived immoral lives and were dishonest. They looked for happiness in material things. They knew God’s law, but they wilfully and deliberately went their own way. As a nation they had turned away from the living God. So, God called them to account. In his mercy, he did not immediately bring on them the judgement their sins deserved but held out the promise of forgiveness and cleansing.

There are real parallels between those people and the way we are living today. Encouraged by politicians and unchallenged by weak church leaders our nation has turned from God. His moral law has been rejected and together we are fulfilling the desires of our own hearts. Inevitably we are reaping the painful consequences both personally and nationally. Even the terrible pandemic we are experiencing has not humbled us and made us seek God.

There are times, however, when we need to face the reality of how we are living. Like a person who wakes after a night on the town and looks in the mirror, we won’t like what we see, we won’t like what we have become. In the light of who God is we will see the tawdry life we are living and the deep stains our sins have left on our God-given conscience. We may long that we could go back and change the things we have done, but we can’t.

God’s wonderful promise is deep and real forgiveness. His Son, Jesus, died on the Cross to pay the price of our sin and rebellion. When we humbly confess our sins, and receive him as our Saviour, the scarlet stains of our sins are cleansed, and we become as white and pure in God’s sight as the driven snow.

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When I am afraid

Fear is a common human emotion. The coronavirus pandemic has created sustained fear in the hearts of many people, especially the elderly, who are afraid to leave their homes in case they catch the virus. Some people I know have not left their homes since last March.

Fear can protect us from danger. Parents use fear in a positive way to teach their children to be careful when crossing the road or not to touch electric sockets in case they receive a shock. It is helpful for people to be aware that the coronavirus is easily transmitted and, in some cases, produces serious illness and even death. It is wise to be afraid of enclosed spaces, crowds, and close contact with others, especially those who may have the virus.

Fear can also paralyse us and prevent us from coping with daily life. So, it’s really important to know how to cope with fear. The psalms of David help us to know how to handle our fears. In Psalm 56, which he wrote when his enemies had captured him and his life was in danger, he says, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?” Instead of being overcome by fear, he put his trust in God’s promise that he would be king. When we are afraid, we can put our trust in God.

When we are afraid, we can also pray for God’s help and protection. A few weeks ago, some good friends were in a very difficult situation with the virus. The husband is elderly and vulnerable. His wife is caring for him with the help of a team of carers who come into their home every day. One of the carers contracted coronavirus and, soon after their son, who lives with them also picked up the virus at work. All we could do was to pray for God’s protection for the couple and God graciously heard our prayers. When we are afraid, we can pray to God.

In Psalm 23 David speaks of his confidence in the Lord, who was his shepherd, even when facing death. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Despite the excellent care of doctors and nurses, good friends have died from coronavirus, and their families had only been able to visit them at the very end, but they, like David feared no evil because the Lord was with them.

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A father to the fatherless

The Bible teaches us that God is deeply concerned for vulnerable people, and especially widows and orphans. In the Law he commands, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.” The book of Psalms says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” The prophet Isaiah reminded the people of their responsibilities before God, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” In the New Testament, James tells us that true religion is practical, “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.”

Wilfried Zaha is a very skilful and successful footballer. He plays for Crystal Palace in the Premier League and internationally for Ivory Coast. Recently he spoke about being homeless when he was 6 years old. One day an older brother met him from school and took him to a shelter where his whole family was now staying. His family had lost their home. Later they stayed with relatives until they were given a three-bedroomed house where the family of 11 people lived. Wilfried shared a bedroom with his 5 brothers. He says, “I have been that kid who had nothing and now I have the opportunity to help people, so why not?”

When he was 16 Wilfried signed his first professional contract and vowed to donate 10% of his earnings to an orphanage in Daloa, Ivory Coast, called “Tomorrow’s Hope”, that is run by his sister, Carine. He says, “Me and my mum would pray and say to God, ‘You have done this for me, I am going to give back’. My family, especially my mum, are heavily Christian, so it felt like a duty to help. I feel like my life is a testament to God helping me – 100 per cent. So as soon as I was able to help, I helped. That’s why, with everything that’s going on now, if I have the opportunity to help out, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Wilfried doesn’t like speaking about donating a percentage of his wages to the orphanage, “I haven’t spoken about it much, because it’s a duty for me. I have been there, and I just want to help. I thank God he blessed me with the opportunity to be a footballer and now I have the things I couldn’t have as a child.”

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I know who holds the future

It is good to be beginning a new year after what has been a very different and difficult year. However, significant uncertainties remain. Will the Covid-19 vaccination bring the pandemic to an end? When will life return to a more familiar pattern? How will school children and students cope with missing so much teaching time? Will people who have been made redundant be able to find new jobs? How will Britain fare outside the EU? In uncertain times faith in God makes all the difference. Knowing God means we can face whatever lies ahead of us in the strength he gives us.

In Psalm 139 David reflects on the fact that God knows him personally and cares for him. “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Singing praise to God and expressing our confidence in him gives us strength and hope. We may be facing uncertainties in our personal lives, but God is eternal and unchanging, and Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

As we face a new year one popular hymn expresses the comfort and security we can find as we put our trust in God. “I do not know what lies ahead, the way I cannot see; yet One stands near to be my guide, he’ll show the way to me. I do not know how many days of life are mine to spend; but One who knows and cares for me will keep me to the end. I do not know the course ahead, what joys and griefs are there; but One is near who fully knows, I’ll trust his loving care. I know who holds the future, and he’ll guide me with his hand; with God things don’t just happen, everything by him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to Him my all.”

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The God who gives hope

As we enter a new year one of our great needs is to find hope. The problems of our world are great and there are no easy solutions. In our personal lives and families, we may be experiencing sadness and pain. On Christmas Day a good friend died of Covid-19. Even the dark, damp days tend to depress us. So, we don’t find it easy to be optimistic.

Real hope is found in God. Secular humanism, which is energetically promoted by some and implicitly accepted by others, offers no hope. The Apostle Paul prayed a remarkable prayer for the early Christians in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” This is a prayer we can make our own for the coming year as we put our trust in the God of hope. How does God give us hope whatever our circumstances may be?

God helps us to deal with the past. Memories of the past can cast a long shadow over the future. All of us have reason to be troubled by our past sins. Other people may also have done bad things to us. We need to find forgiveness and to be able to forgive. In Jesus God provided a way for us to be forgiven. When Jesus died he suffered the punishment our sins deserve. The moment we receive Jesus as our Saviour we are forgiven and have nothing to fear. Through experiencing God’s forgiveness, we also find the grace to forgive others.

God promises to provide our present needs. As we enter a new year, we may be anxious about how we will be able cope financially and pay the bills. We may have lost, or be in danger of losing, our job. What a difference it makes to be able to pray to God and to trust him to provide all our needs. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread.” God knows our needs. We can bring all our anxieties to him and trust him to help us.

God gives us hope for the future. None of us knows what will happen in the coming year. All may go well, or we may face serious illness or even death. Jesus is a living Lord who gives us a certain hope whatever happens. When we trust in him, he promises, “Because I live you will live also.” Nothing that happens can rob us of the hope Jesus gives us as we put our trust in him.

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The Greatest Gift

The last days leading up to Christmas are normally very busy. A few cards to write and post and presents to find and buy. Making sure we have everything for Christmas dinner and the days following as we look forward to getting together with our extended family and friends. But this year it’s very different. Christmas plans have had to be changed; only small family gatherings are permitted and only on Christmas Day. Most shops are closed; pubs and restaurants are closed; travel is restricted; and we must stay at home.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving. At Christmas we give special gifts to those we love. Perhaps you won’t be able to buy the presents you had planned to give, but the person who gives us the gift, and the love it expresses, are far more precious than the gift itself.

At the first Christmas God gave a very special gift to the people of his world. It is the greatest gift ever given. Then, as now, the world was a sad place with many troubles. The Roman Empire dominated many nations, and most people were poor. Jesus came, not to solve the problems of the day, but to solve the biggest problem we all face – our sinful hearts and lives. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord!” Our sins spoil our relationship with God and separate us from him. Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his perfect life and his death on the cross to pay the price of our sins. The name Jesus means “Saviour!” In love God, against whom we have all rebelled, took the initiative by giving his one and only Son to be our Saviour.

Opening a present from someone we love brings great joy. Parents enjoy watching their children opening their present and seeing their delight when they see what it is. The child’s instinctive response is to give their parents a hug and to tell them they love them. Have you ever responded to God’s gift of Jesus like that? Do you love him for giving you such an amazing gift? It brings great joy to God when anyone receives Jesus as their Saviour. This Christmas, like the shepherds, why not take time to receive Jesus, God’s gift to you, and to thank him for his love for you.