The place we are born has very significant implications for how long we will live. According to the United Nations average life expectancy for all countries in the world is 67. In Japan it is 82, whilst in Swaziland and Mozambique it is only 39. Many countries in Africa have a low level of life expectancy because of high infant mortality rates and high levels of HIV/AIDS. In Britain the fact that people are living longer is creating a crisis in the cost of funding pensions and caring for old people.
At a personal level, those who have retired face the question of how they spend their retirement years. On average men live 13 years after they retire and women live 22 years. It is a significant proportion of our lives. Some have adequate pensions whilst others face financial hardships. Many people assume that living to a great age is only a blessing but don’t realise that all the extra years come at the end of life when health and strength may not be good.
So how should we face the later years of life? Some employers provide retirement planning seminars which focus mainly on finance. These seminars are usually provided for those who have an adequate pension and who hope to enjoy a good lifestyle in retirement. But there are other very important considerations which affect us all. One important question is, “For what am I living?” Another is, “What is my hope for the future?” Financial advisers rightly emphasise the importance of preparing for retirement when we are young. Preparing for the later years of life and for eternity is even more important..
In Psalm 92 we read that the righteous “will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.’” Our focus throughout our lives needs to be on God and on living in a personal relationship with him. I remember a lady who suddenly went blind at the age of 68. She lived, as a widow, into her 90s. Yet I never heard her complain. She was always thankful and took a lively interest in those around her, especially the new babies whose cries she heard. She was a wonderful example of what the psalmist meant. She trusted God, even when things were very tough, and she drew her strength from him. He was her Rock!
Does it really matter what we believe about God? Is there a link between what we believe and how we live? Can private morality and public morality be separated? These are important questions in our increasingly secular society. Recent events have raised the question of integrity in the BBC and in the lives of public figures in politics and entertainment. There is an understandable expectation that those who influence the lives of so many people should act with integrity both in their public and private lives. Sadly, it seems, this has not always been the case.
Yet this raises an important question. What is the foundation for integrity in both our public and private lives? Is it based on our sense of duty to society or to our fellow human beings? Is it something we can teach children in our schools and so ensure that they become good citizens? There are countries in the world which seek to inculcate a spirit of obedience and duty in their citizens, but this is usually imposed by a regime of strict laws and very little personal freedom.
The history of the USA has been shaped by Christians who believed the Bible. Their faith in God and in Jesus Christ provided the framework for both their private and public lives. Whilst they held their own beliefs firmly they did not seek to impose these beliefs on others. They maintained the freedom of all people to practice their religion. The Pilgrim Fathers left England and established a new colony in North America because they were seeking religious freedom. Their convictions have shaped the history and values of the USA.
Jesus taught that there are two great commandments which cannot be separated. They are the essential basis for both moral integrity and personal freedom. The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Because he loved God William Wilberforce fought for the abolition of slavery. Lord Shaftesbury fought for better working conditions and schools for children from poorer homes. Elizabeth Fry campaigned for better conditions for women in prison. Florence Nightingale, out of her experience in the Crimea War, became the founder of modern nursing. For each of these people their experience of God’s love in Jesus inspired in them a love for those around them and a determination to do them good.
Remembrance Day is a deeply significant day as people around the world stand in silence to remember the millions of people who died in the great wars of the 20th century. The First World War ended at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1918. It was hoped that this would be “the war to end all wars”, but sadly this was not fulfilled. Because it was felt that the dead should be honoured, King George V initiated a two minute silence at exactly 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month to commemorate those who had died for their country.
In recent years we have also remembered the service men and women who are still dying in conflicts around the world. A short time after Remembrance Day services had been held in Afghanistan another British soldier was killed. 438 British soldiers have died in that campaign. 2012 also marks the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, when 255 armed forces and Merchant Navy personnel died, as well as 649 Argentinians and 3 islanders. Because many who die in war are young people, at Remembrance services someone says, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”
In a world in which war and conflict, death and bereavement are daily realities, many people seek for comfort, strength and hope. In a wonderful way Jesus Christ is able to meet us at our point of deepest need. He was a young man who was committed to winning a great victory, whatever the personal cost to himself. He told his disciples, “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus knew that he could only win life and peace for people from all nations by dying on the Cross. He offered his life willingly. He said, “No-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” On the third day after he died, he rose from the dead.
Remembering can be very painful and even traumatic, especially for those who have survived. We need someone who is great enough and good enough to help us. We must never forget that Jesus is a living Lord. He comes alongside us in our sadness and, through his resurrection triumph, offers us comfort, strength and hope.
Hurricane Sandy is the largest recorded Atlantic hurricane in diameter. Winds spanning 1000 miles have wreaked destruction on a massive scale. After causing widespread damage in the Caribbean, Sandy moved north and struck the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, including New Jersey and New York. Many people have died. More than 30,000 people in New York need to be rehoused as the winter weather begins and another storm approaches. The cost of repairs and rebuilding will be more than $20 billion.
Hurricanes make people feel helpless. They know the hurricane is coming and that they and their homes are in danger, but there is very little they can do except to wait and try to minimise the damage. The people who live in the Caribbean and the east coast states of America are used to tropical storms and hurricanes, they happen every year. When reports come of an approaching hurricane some residents of states like Florida leave their homes and drive north in order to avoid it. After it has passed they return to assess the damage to their property.
Throughout history people around the world have faced natural disasters. Nearly 3000 years ago the author of Psalm 46 reflected on the relationship he and his nation had with God as they faced the powerful upheavals of nature. “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear, even if earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge!” He rejoiced in the eternal power and personal presence of God; “The Lord Almighty is here among us.”
In one community in New Jersey people gathered in a church building. No outside help had yet reached them, but they were helping each other and receiving encouragement from the church staff and members. They were able to pray together and ask God for his help. Many of them had lost everything they had, but they were finding help and comfort in the realisation that God was with them. They were not alone. One lady expressed the confidence of many of them when she told a reporter, “God is good!” Sandy has done real damage, but the goodness and mercy of God are even more real. He really is a refuge and strength for us all and is always ready to help us in times of trouble.