Forgive us our debts

Student debt is a massive problem. Young people who go to university or college in Britain are given loans to help pay their tuition fees and living costs. Every year £16 billion is loaned to students. The value of outstanding loans is more than £105 billion. The Government forecasts the value of outstanding student loans will rise to £450 billion in the next 30 years. The average debt of a recent cohort of students, who have completed their courses, is £32,000. It is estimated that only 30% of current full-time graduates who take out loans will repay them in full.

In America the problem is even greater and has become an issue in the run up to the 2020 presidential election. The total U.S. student loan debt is more than $1.3 trillion and affects 44 million people. The average loan balance is $37,000 and increases every year because of interest charges. Today many Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s consider themselves fortunate if their job pays them enough to make their student loan repayments. Some former students refer to their loans as a “debt sentence” which they will carry throughout their whole life.

The recent action of billionaire technology investor Robert F Smith has brought great joy to one class of students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Morehouse College was established soon after the American Civil War to provide education for black male students. Martin Luther King Jnr. was a student at Morehouse. When he was at the College to receive an honorary doctorate, Robert Smith told the students in the class of 2019 that he would pay their student loans. More than 400 students will benefit from this gift which will cost tens of millions of dollars. The College President said the gift will give the students “the liberty to follow their dreams.”

The biggest problem we all face is not financial debt but the debt we owe to God because of our sins. Every day this debt grows, and we can never repay it. The greatest act of love and generosity in the whole of human history was when Jesus, God’s Son, gave his life to pay the debt of our sins. Every day millions of people pray to God, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When we confess our sins to God, and experience his forgiveness, he sets us free to live a new life in fellowship with him; the life for which we were created.

Swing low, sweet chariot

Antonín Dvořák composed the New World Symphony in 1893, when he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. It is by far his most popular symphony. In 1969 Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission and first Moon landing. During his time in the “New World” Dvořák came to admire the beauty of the African-American spirituals and plantation songs of the American South and these may have influenced his New World Symphony.

In the 17th century the Pilgrim Fathers left England and established the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. They were Christians who were seeking the freedom to practice their religion independent of the state. Their desire for freedom influenced the history and culture of the United States. Before and after the Pilgrim Fathers arrived boats brought African slaves to America to work on the plantations. The land was vast and the life of many slaves was harsh. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished and the principle was reaffirmed that all men are created with equal dignity and an equal right to liberty.

The African-American spirituals express the faith and hope of a people living as slaves. They found comfort in the Bible which tells of how God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land and how God’s Son, Jesus, came to set people free from the bondage of sin and death. The words and music of the African-American spirituals powerfully express both the present sufferings of the people and their hope of future happiness in heaven.

“Swing low, sweet chariot” speaks of the forgiveness found in Jesus and the strong hope of life beyond death, symbolised as the Jordan River. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down, but still my soul feels heavenly bound. The brightest day that I can say, when Jesus washed my sins away. If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming there too. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” In our sophisticated, yet tragically sad, modern world the joy of forgiveness and the hope of heaven speak powerfully to our deep longings to find true freedom.

Give to God what is God’s

The General Election is over. The people have spoken. A new government has been elected. In our parliamentary democracy we have been able to vote for the people and party we want to govern us. It is a great privilege and blessing to live in a democratic country; a privilege denied to many people in our world today. In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln said the war was a struggle for the preservation of the Union and democracy, that he defined as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Jesus lived in a country ruled by a Roman governor where Roman soldiers enforced the so-called “Pax Romana”. It is interesting, therefore, to see how Jesus and his followers responded to the Roman Emperor and his absolute power. Jesus was once asked a question about paying Roman taxes, which were deeply resented by his fellow countrymen. Some religious leaders asked him, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus replied, “Show me a coin used for paying the tax. Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The early Christians lived under totalitarian Roman rule and experienced cruel and unjust persecution. Men, women and children were imprisoned, crucified, and killed by wild animals in the arena to “entertain” wealthy and privileged Roman citizens. Yet Christian leaders, who were themselves eventually executed by the Romans, encouraged Christians to obey the authorities and to pray for kings and rulers. The apostle Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

So whichever party governs us, it is good to pray for them. Ultimately they are accountable not to the electorate but to God for the way they rule. Each of us must also face the challenge of giving to God what is rightfully his because he is the ultimate ruler of us all.

What happens when we forget God

During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln approved a Senate resolution to proclaim a day for National humiliation, fasting and prayer on 30 April 1863. The President and the Senate “devoutly recognised the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations.” They affirmed, “It is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.”

They acknowledged, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

This all seems far removed from Britain in the 21st century. We give the impression that we have outgrown the Christian faith and rejoice that we are a “progressive” secular society. But the reality is that we have “forgotten God” and are proud of our “superior wisdom.” This may explain why we are facing so many serious problems in every part of our national life. Some politicians have been dishonest in claiming their expenses; some banks have acted without integrity, threatening the financial stability of our country; sexual immorality is commonplace and accepted as the norm; the appalling abuse of children by media celebrities, and some church leaders, has come to light; the neglect and abuse of vulnerable people and the elderly in care homes has shocked many.

The Bible teaches us wisdom, which is practical instruction for life. This wisdom applies to us both as individuals and as nations. The book of Proverbs says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” It would be good for us to humbly acknowledge, both as individuals and as a nation, our sin and disgrace. Like Abraham Lincoln and his people we, too, need the blessing of the living God.