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Remembering God

The scale of the United States of America’s debt is staggering. A fierce battle has been fought in the Senate and Congress about raising the ceiling for the national debt from $14.3 trillion to $16.7 trillion. Successive American administrations have overspent. Raising the debt limit has implications not only for Americans but also for all of us. If the increase is not agreed then the richest nation in the world will not be able to pay its bills. In the past investors have assumed that America is a very safe place to put their money and that the dollar is the most secure currency, but now that confidence has been seriously undermined.

Not all Americans are wealthy. There are great contrasts between the rich and poor. But life in America is very different from the experience of millions of people around the world who survive on just one dollar a day. The people affected by the famine in the Horn of Africa have even less, they have nothing, and some are losing even their lives.

When we are wealthy and doing well it is easy to forget God. As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land Moses warned them not to forget God. He said, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees.” In America and Europe many have forgotten God and his moral laws. Secularism and materialism have turned the hearts and minds of many people away from God. They worship created things rather than the Creator. It is time for us to remember him and to thank him for all the good things he has given us.

Those who are poor and vulnerable often look to God for help and put their hope in him. God, who made the heavens and the earth, cares for them and hears their prayers. The Psalmist writes of God’s faithfulness, “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow.” As we face the problems of life we, too, can look to him for help and know that he hears our prayers.

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I was hungry and you gave me something to eat

The recent news reports of the famine in the horn of Africa have been very sad. The pictures of emaciated adults and children in the aid camps are deeply moving. They have all walked many miles in the hope of finding the food and water they need to survive the worst drought in 60 years in East Africa. Children and adults are dying each day and it is taking a massive aid operation to try to save many lives. More than 10 million people are threatened by starvation in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Over the past 2 years 25% of Somalia’s population have been displaced.

The drought has been caused by the lack of rains and the failure to finance agriculture and irrigation schemes. Somalia is worst affected because it is a failed state. Two decades of non-stop fighting have had devastating consequences on ordinary people. A militant group, al-Shabab, controls many southern and central areas, including those where the famine is worst. In 2009 al-Shabab forced most Western aid agencies out of the areas they control, severely hampering the aid effort in much of Somalia.

We are all capable of being indifferent to the needs of others. We can be busy pursuing our own agenda, like the Somali militants, who are callously indifferent to the desperate plight of their own people. In the UK the government is cutting back on spending and some have suggested that the international aid budget should be slashed. Yet, we have food to eat and plenty of rain to ensure a good harvest. International aid is a life and death issue for many in our world, like the people in East Africa.

Caring for the needs of others matters. When we experience the love of God in Jesus we are delivered from our preoccupation with ourselves and are filled with a love for other people. Jesus said that at the end of history all nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them into two groups. To those on his right hand he will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

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Righteousness Makes a Nation Great

Leaders carry heavy responsibilities. The decisions they make affect the lives of many people and have consequences for the present and for the future. A man called Caiaphas was high priest at the time Jesus was condemned to death. He and his fellow leaders were opposed to Jesus because he challenged their teaching and way of life. The growing popularity of Jesus was undermining their position and power base. They were afraid that the Romans, who occupied Israel at that time, might intervene and take control of the nation. So they decided that Jesus must die. Caiaphas summed it up when he said, “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He was wrong. The consequences for the nation of their decision were catastrophic. Within 40 years the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem.

Leaders are not always in touch with reality. The big issues in their world are not always the big issues for ordinary people. Like Caiaphas, they can be very concerned about their own position and power. The temptation to act on the basis of what is expedient, rather than what is right, can be very strong. It is also easy to make an example of someone else rather than examine ourselves and our own actions. Caiaphas’s preoccupation with his own position, and desire to justify his own actions, made him deaf to the challenge of Jesus’ teaching.

Our nation is being rocked by a series of moral scandals. Our leaders are keen to show decisive leadership and to call to account those who have done wrong. They are also aware of the need to maintain their own position and interests. The key issue is not expediency, which identifies and deals with a few scapegoats and then assumes that all will be well.

These events raise more fundamental issues for us and our leaders. What is the moral basis of our society? Successive governments have deliberately rejected the Judaeo-Christian legal and moral foundation of our nation for the shaky relative standards of secularism. There is no place for God and his absolute truth in Britain today. We are seeing the early consequences of this being worked out at all levels in our society. Psalm 14 is a challenge to us all, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no-one who does good.”

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Living in the Light

The News of the World has been published for the last time. After 168 years, the most widely read newspaper in Britain has closed because of a scandal over alleged phone hacking and bribery. The decision to close the newspaper may not to be an act of contrition on the part of the owners, expressing sorrow over what has happened, but rather a hard-headed business decision which seeks to limit the damage done to the parent company.

Many people are very interested in knowing what happens behind closed doors. We are told that people have “a right to know” and that exposing the weaknesses of prominent people is “in the public interest.” This scandal has revealed the lengths to which some people are willing to go in order to pry into, and then expose, the private affairs of celebrities, politicians and even victims of crime. The hacking and bribery was done in secret, but has now been brought into the open. The hunters have become the hunted.

Jesus warned people against the danger of hypocrisy by which we pretend to be something we are not. He said, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what has been whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear.” He was referring to the day when God will judge everyone’s secret lives. Ultimately we are all accountable to God.

Jesus also warned against hypocrisy in religion when people do things in order to win the praise of other people. He said that people who give money to help the poor should not “blow trumpets in the synagogues and streets” to call attention to their acts of charity. He said that although such people may receive praise from other people, they will not receive praise from God. Then he said, “But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

The words of Jesus challenge us all. Instead of finding pleasure in the weaknesses and failures of others, our lives need to be open before God. We need to live in the light as God is in the Light.

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Mercy Triumphs Over Justice

There has been a heated debate about the controversial proposals made by the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to offer criminals a 50% reduction in their sentence, if they make an early guilty plea. At the moment an early guilty plea brings a 33% reduction in sentence. The proposals were intended to reform sentencing, reduce court time and cut the prison population in order to save £130 million from the Ministry of Justice budget.

Objectors to the proposals said the Justice Secretary was going “soft on crime” and was failing to maintain a commitment to upholding law and order. They maintain that serious criminals and serial offenders should pay the full penalty for their crime and receive no reduction in their sentence. The government has withdrawn the proposals.

This debate raises some interesting points for us all, even if we have never committed a serious crime worthy of a prison sentence. Many people today pay little attention to God’s moral law. They “worship” money and success, they misuse God’s name, they are abusive to their parents, they to not keep Sunday as a special day, they can be hateful to other people, they are sexually immoral, may be dishonest with other people’s possessions, be “economic with the truth” and be envious of what others have and do. In God’s eyes these are serious offences and we are serial offenders. Every day of our lives we break God’s laws. We do not love him with all our heart, soul and mind or love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Does it matter? Will we, one day, be called to account for what we have done? What penalty do we deserve? Is there any possibility of finding mercy and a reduced sentence? Is God “soft” on sin? Can he forgive us, while at the same time remaining just and righteous? Is it important to make an early guilty plea?

The good news is that in Jesus Christ God has dealt with our law-breaking. God has intervened in an act of amazing love. At great personal cost he gave his Son to die in our place. By his death on the cross, Jesus paid the full penalty of our sins and fully satisfied the demands of God’s justice. When we confess our guilt and ask for his forgiveness, God is satisfied to look on what his Son has done and pardon us. An early guilty plea is essential and always brings God’s mercy for all our sins.

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The Journey of Life

Every day millions of people around the world travel by air to other parts of the world. As I wait for my flight from Sao Paul to London the airport is full of people. Some travel alone, others are with family and friends. In departures there are tears as people say “good-bye”, in arrivals there are tears of joy as loved ones are reunited. Some browse the duty free shops with their high-priced luxury goods.

Life is a journey. Time passes quickly and opportunities come and go. We cannot stand still and the choices we make sometimes have far-reaching consequences. None of us chooses the place where our life’s journey begins.

This week I visited people living in a poor area of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas. They live in simple houses in “invasion” areas. People from small communities move to the city and build wooden houses on unoccupied land. The facilities are very basic and people have little money. Those who find work receive a minimum monthly salary of just over £200, or £7 per day. The cost of living is similar to the UK.

I visited a home where a single mother is bringing up 4 young children. They are starting their life’s journey with great disadvantages – no father to love them, poor education, little food, vulnerable to disease and likely to spend their whole life in poverty. I reflected on how much I have to thank God for! I have been blessed with so much because I was born in a loving family in the UK.

A flight has just departed. The last call was made for passengers to board and then the gate closed. One day we will all reach the end of our life’s journey and will enter into eternity. Some who have had so much in this life may find the door to eternal life closed. They lived for the pleasures of this life and made no preparations for the life to come. While some who have been poor all their lives may enter into eternal life. Perhaps those children, and their mother, will go to the little church which has just opened at the end of their street and hear the good news that Jesus loves them. Then one day they will hear him say to them, “Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world!”

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Hope for the Children on the Streets of Brazil

I have just checked in for a 2 hour early morning flight from Belém, a city on the mouth of the Amazon, to Manaus, in the heart of Amazonas. Brazil is a very large country with a population of 190 million people. It has one of the fasting growing economies in the world and also one of the best football teams. In 2014 the World Cup will be held in Brazil, and already there is great excitement at the prospect. The Amazon, the greatest river in the world, contains 20% of all the fresh water in the world. Brazilian people are warm and friendly and for many there is a great optimism about the future.

I have been visiting missionaries from the UK who are working in Brazil. Some of them work with street children. It is estimated that there may be as many as 12 million children living on the streets of Brazil. Life on the streets is very hard. Violence, drug and solvent abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and the lack of access to medical care mean that many of the children will die before they reach the age of 20. Problems in the family, especially in the favelas where people live in simple wooden houses with no amenities, cause many children to run away to the streets. The scale of the problem is overwhelming.

Teams of missionaries and Brazilian Christians work on the streets of Belém to try to help the children. There is a drop-in centre which is open each day and also homes where boys and girls can begin to build a new life. The children need long term help if they are to find real stability for the future. Like us all, they also need to experience God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Last Saturday I attended the wedding of a lady missionary from the UK to a Brazilian pastor. One of the bridesmaids was Aline, a teenager they have adopted. She is a slim, gentle girl who lived on the streets. Her family were not able to care for her and she was alone. Now she belongs to this new family and is surrounded by love. Aline also knows that God is her heavenly Father, because to all who receive Jesus as their Saviour God gives the right to become his children. Now she has a sure hope for the future both in this world and the next.

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Charlotte – a Very Special Daughter

Charlotte was born on 10 October 2008, her parents’ first child. The birth was normal and she was a good weight, but there were concerns because she was slow to feed and experienced fast breathing. She was transferred to a specialist baby unit. Over the coming weeks there were many tests. Eventually it was established that Charlotte suffered from Zellweger’s syndrome, a genetic condition that affects the brain, liver and kidneys. Her parents were told that she would probably live for only 6 months. She would live to Christmas, but probably not to her first birthday.

The diagnosis was a great shock to her parents and also to the whole family. Her Mum and Dad took her home and tried to take in the implications of Charlotte’s condition. The hopes and plans they had made would not now be fulfilled. They needed space to think things through and to pray to the Lord for his help and strength. As they prayed, and spoke to their family and close friends, the way forward became clearer.

They realised that Charlotte was a unique human being with the capacity to give and receive love. In the womb God had watched over her and preserved her life and she was precious to him. Each day God would give her Mum and Dad the strength and grace they needed. So they learned how to cope with Charlotte’s particular needs and to cope with the daily routine of caring.

Charlotte’s Mum and Dad surrounded her with love and communicated that love to her through their total commitment to her care and frequent cuddles. Charlotte could not speak or apparently understand much of what she heard, but she knew that she was deeply loved. There were times of crisis, but Charlotte saw her first and her second birthday and plans were beginning to be made for when she would go to nursery school. Then towards the end of May she began to experience serious problems and died peacefully on 31 May 2011.

At the service of thanksgiving for her life, attended by family and many friends, there was a spirit of heartfelt thankfulness to God for his goodness to Charlotte and to her Mum and Dad. They know that Charlotte is now safe in the arms of Jesus and all is well. They wrote to their friends, “Please pray for us now and for our family. Times of peace, relief, strength, grief and sorrow all mixed together.”

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Jesus Loves Little Children

A recent report has highlighted the increasing commercialisation and sexualisation of children. Manufacturers and retailers have been targeting children with advertising on television and the internet, and near schools. Food retailers and toy makers have recruited 330,000 children, some as young as 5, to take part in market research for their products. Most of the children have been paid and some schools are paid £4000 a year when their pupils take part in these surveys.

Jesus had a special concern for children. When mothers brought their children to him he blessed them and prayed for them. On one occasion he put a little child in front of the people and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Children are naturally trusting and believe what they are told by those they trust. They have a capacity for awe and wonder. When they are taught the truth about God and Jesus they respond with trust and love. Those of us who are older need to learn from them. We can be sceptical and cynical and lose the ability to be moved by the greatness of God and the wonder of the love of Jesus. If we are to know God and enter his kingdom we need to change and become like little children.

Jesus also gave a solemn warning about those who seek to corrupt and exploit little children. He said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones, who believe in me, to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Moral standards in our society are in freefall. This is reflected in many television programmes and on the internet. Parents and grandparents need to be more vigilant than ever in protecting their children from moral corruption. Governments are also responsible for protecting children from harm. God holds us all responsible for safeguarding children so that they can grow up free from exploitation by immoral and unprincipled people. We are keen to safeguard the environment for the good of our children. It is even more important that we safeguard their moral and spiritual development.

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Do not be Anxious about Anything

Worry and anxiety are on the increase. A high percentage of people who go to see a doctor are not suffering from a physical illness, but from anxiety and stress. It is a sign of the times in which we live. Some people have lost their jobs or are afraid they may be made redundant. Others have large debts, which they fear they will never be able to repay.

People in every generation have experienced worry and anxiety. The apostle Paul wrote about anxiety to Christians living in first century Philippi. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

He didn’t simply say, “Don’t worry!” Instead he reminded the people of their need to trust God. It makes such a difference when we live in constant dependence on God. He is the One who created us and gave us life. In every way we are dependent on him. We need to learn to pray to God about “everything”. We can bring all our needs to him and ask for his help in big things and small things. It is good to pray “with thanksgiving”, as we remember God’s goodness to us in the past. Remembering how God has brought us through other crises in our lives can be so encouraging. When we bring our anxieties to God and ask for his help he gives us his peace and the strength to face the future without fear.

A Christian friend of mine had lost his job. It was a difficult time for him and his wife and young family. He was very worried about how he would be able to pay the bills. One morning, after his wife had gone to work and his children to school, he was reading the Bible and praying. He told God all about his situation and, in desperation, asked him to help. While he was praying he heard something coming through the letter box. After he finished praying he went to see what it was. It was a plain envelope with £500 in it, but no note to say who it was from. Even before he had prayed that morning, God had put it into the heart of someone to help my friend and his family. My friend was full of thankfulness to God.