Asking the big questions

In December 2015, Major Tim Peake became the first British European Space Agency astronaut to visit the International Space Station. In a recent interview, he said that one of the things he misses most is seeing his home planet from space. He said, “I might see a picture of a spacecraft and suddenly it takes me right back to being on board the space station and looking out at the universe. You do have to kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘Yes, I was up there, looking back at Earth’. It’s mesmerizing; it’s constantly changing, every time you look out of the window you see a different part of the world. You might be at a night part of the orbit looking at thunderstorms or the aurora; you might be in a day time looking at volcanoes erupting and glaciers and lakes, so it’s just stunning both by day and by night.”

Tim has started a new role as an official UK Scout Association ambassador. He said, “As a cub scout I remember going out on those early night hikes and first sleepovers in the outdoors. Sleeping under the stars and looking up is when the big questions come out: What’s out there? How did life begin? Where is it all going?” These are the big questions for us all.

Johannes Kepler was an eminent scientist and a Christian. He developed a love for astronomy at an early age. In 1577, when he was six, he observed the Great Comet and in 1580 the Lunar Eclipse. Kepler is best known for discovering the three mathematical laws of planetary motion. He also discovered the elliptical patterns in which the planets travel around the sun. As he studied the universe Kepler said, “O God, I am thinking your thoughts after you.”

The heavens bear eloquent testimony to God. He created all things, guides history, and knows every one of us intimately. In Psalm 8 the psalmist says, “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour. You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority.”

The inspiration of the Invictus Games

The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.

In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”

He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”

The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.

On the third day he rose from the dead

The findings of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey on religion reveal a marked decline in religious affiliation in Britain today. For the first time, more people identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’ (53%) than those who profess an affiliation to a particular religion. Only 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans, whereas in 2000 half the population identified themselves with the Church of England. The decline in living faith in Britain is in marked contrast to the situation in the majority world, where Christianity is growing strongly.

Some of those who identify themselves as being of ’no religion’ do, however, have some faith. For example, one in five of them a say they believe in life after death. This shows that, even if we opt out of formal religion, which can be less than inspiring, we cannot avoid the fundamental questions posed by our life in this world. Very few are committed atheists. Someone I know attended the funeral service of man who was an atheist. Nothing was said. The family sat at the front of the crematorium for a short time then stood by the coffin briefly before leaving. For an atheist death is the end, there is nothing to say.

Christians are followers of Jesus who died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection. Seeing the resurrected Jesus transformed them and they fearlessly proclaimed the good news about him everywhere they went. The early Christians were so committed to Jesus that they were prepared to suffer persecution for their faith in him and even to die for him. It is like that for some Christians today. For them, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The apostle Paul wrote about the hope the resurrection of Jesus inspires, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

When we lose everything

What do you do when you lose everything? Pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma on islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands, are heart-breaking. People have lost their homes and all their possessions. They were helpless in the face of the power of the hurricane. When reporters talked to them you could see the shock and bewilderment on their faces as they looked at the ruins of what was once their home. Re-establishing normal life again is a daunting task. Some, however, said that, although they have lost everything, they are thankful to God that they and their loved ones are alive.

In America people have been remembering the events of the 9th September 2001, when the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York killed 2,997 people and injured more than 6000 others. The total collapse of the towers stunned all who witnessed it and those around the world who saw the pictures. Hearing the stories of those who lost loved ones in the attacks brings home their sense of absolute helplessness as, in the minutes after the attacks, they spoke on the telephone to relatives who were trapped in the towers with no possibility of escape. All they could do was tell each other “I love you” and pray.

The Bible tells the story of a man called Job. He was a blameless and upright man who feared God. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys. He also had many servants. On the same day, all his animals were stolen or killed by lightning and all his sons and daughters died as the house in which they were enjoying a meal together was struck by a tornado and collapsed. He lost everything. When the news of these devastating events came to Job, he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Devastating loss is not a sign of God’s displeasure or an indication that those who experience it are worse people than others. We can pray for those who are seeking to rebuild their lives that God will give them the strength they need and also that he will make us truly thankful for all the blessings he has graciously given us.

A love that changes us

When you read the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus you are struck by the number of individuals he met and helped. He responded to people of all kinds and always had time for them. No-one was unimportant to Jesus. An encounter with Jesus was a life-changing experience. Jesus visited the house of Zacchaeus, a covetous tax collector, and that day Zacchaeus became a changed man. A woman, who had lived a very sad life, talked to Jesus at a well and, for the first time, met someone who truly loved her.

The transforming love of Jesus is still being experienced by people today. We know a young lady who has had a very sad life. She grew up in a very unhappy home and in her teens moved into a hostel where she was, humanly speaking, alone. There was no-one to love and support her. Later, she had to leave the town in which she lived to find a place of safety for herself and her children. She has been a wonderful mother but, during a time of very great stress, all her children were taken into care. She, and they, were heartbroken.

On Christmas Day last year, she went to an evening service at the church she had been attending. She was feeling very low, but that night God showed her that the story of Jesus is true and she experienced God’s love in a way she had never known before. She knew a real peace in her heart and was transformed. She was a new person. She still had to face all the problems she had before, but the love of Jesus had transformed her and given her new life. Everyone who knows her can see the change knowing Jesus has brought to her life.

When she was baptised she told her story. She said, “Since I have known Jesus as my Saviour I have found peace in my life. I still experience hard times but have learned how to deal with them. I listen to hymns and sing along with them. I read my Bible and pray to God and he gives me the strength to cope and to come through the hard times. I find strength and great encouragement in God’s promises. I know that in the future there will be other hard times but I know that because my saviour Jesus Christ is with me I will be able to face them and deal with them. I can do everything through Jesus who gives me strength.”

I am making everything new!

We are living in very uncertain times. Climate change is causing great concern. Economic instability threatens our future prosperity with unsustainable levels of national and personal debt. Unemployment is increasing, especially amongst the young. Progressive social policies are establishing a new morality with, as yet, unknown consequences. Political extremism of both left and right is becoming more active. Nuclear proliferation raises the real possibility of international conflict. Terrorist movements have proved impossible to defeat even by the massive military strength of the “super powers”. Mass migration is causing social tension and instability. Political leaders are either weak and ineffective or strong and erratic. Hope is in desperately short supply.

The Bible teaches that world history is in God’s hands. From beginning to end it is “his story.” He is the One who created the amazing universe around us and this beautiful, tiny, planet on which we live. The whole creation points to him from the simplest life forms to the complex laws of physics. Is it possible that all these things could have come about by pure chance? God created this world, and gave life to each one of us, for a purpose.

Jesus spoke about future world history. He said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, also promises a new creation. The apostle John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”

When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”

The love that transforms

At the World Athletics’ Championships two great athletes completed outstanding careers. Usain Bolt is the first person to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records. He has won 8 Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. He is the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in three consecutive Olympics. Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, winning gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between 2011 and 2017 he won 10 successive global finals. It has been a delight to watch both men run.

At this World Championships, however, Usain won a bronze medal in the 100 metres and Mo won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres. Both were disappointed and the sports’ commentators spoke as if they were “failures” when they had won world championship medals; something most athletes only dream of doing. After completing a lap of honour, Usain said, “It’s really sad, I’m saying goodbye to everything.” From now on Mo wants to be known as Mohamed. He said, “I just feel like Mo is done. I need to forget about what I achieved and what I’ve done.”

The story of South African long jumper, Luvo Manyonga, is remarkable and encouraging. He won the gold medal at the World Championships. Just 3 years ago his life was very different. Luvo grew up in poverty in Mbekweni township. His mother, a domestic cleaner, raised him on her own. Luvo was an outstanding young athlete winning the world junior championship in 2010 and the All-Africa Games’ in 2011. However, the prize money disrupted his life. He started using tik, a recreational drug commonly used in the townships, and as a result gave a positive drug test in competition. He described his drug-taking as “hooking up with the devil.” He admitted taking the drug for non-performance-enhancing reasons and was suspended from competition for 18 months. The lower sentence was based on his “exceptional social circumstances.” Luvo underwent drug rehabilitation and was greatly helped by two new coaches.

After winning the World Championship gold medal, Luvo knelt by the side of the long jump pit and gave thanks to God. When he was interviewed by Gabby Logan, he told her he was a Christian and that Jesus had changed his life. What a wonderful encouragement this is. When we fail, as we all do, we can find new life and hope through experiencing the transforming love of Jesus.

Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

The Lord God omnipotent reigns!

Following their latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, there is growing concern around the world about North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, claims that the entire US is now within striking range of his missiles. The North Koreans are also working on a project to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to fit on their long-range missiles. The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the USA are not sure how to respond. China is a key player in influencing Kim Jong-un, but is reluctant to act.

Throughout history there have been leaders who have been ambitious to extend and display their power. The Bible tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon that was the world super-power of that day. One night Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that deeply disturbed him. He saw a large tree in the middle of the earth that reached high into the heavens for all the world to see. Then a messenger shouted, “Cut down the tree and lop off its branches! But leave the stump and the roots in the ground, bound with a band of iron and bronze. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the wild animals among the plants of the field. Let him have the mind of a wild animal instead of the mind of a man.”

King Nebuchadnezzar asked Daniel to interpret his dream. He told Nebuchadnezzar that the tree represented him. Nebuchadnezzar had grown strong and great; his rule reached up to heaven and to the ends of the earth. Through the dream, God was telling Nebuchadnezzar that he would be driven from human society and would live in the fields with the wild animals until he learned “that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.” Nebuchadnezzar would receive his kingdom back when he learned that heaven rules. Then Daniel gave the King some advice, “Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor.”

The dream God gave Nebuchadnezzar came to pass. After his sanity returned he praised and worshipped God and said, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honour the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble the proud.” Today the leaders of the nations, and those who aspire to great power, should humbly remember that heaven rules. All of us can also find great comfort in knowing that the Lord God omnipotent reigns!