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When you pray, I will listen

Yesterday morning my wife and I attended the first service in our local church building since 15 March. It was good to see our friends again, but it was very different. Normally there would be more than 100 people of all ages present, but yesterday we were only 25 because of government restrictions on church services. We queued to enter the building, used hand sanitiser on the way in and out of the service, sat at 2 metres distance and wore face masks. We were not allowed to sing the hymns, but simply followed the words. After the service we spoke briefly to others in the congregation through our masks and at a distance and then went home.

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister his most senior advisers prevented him from discussing his faith in public. During one interview, at the time of the second Iraq war, a journalist asked Mr Blair about his religious faith. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s director of strategy and communications, an atheist, intervened, “Is he on God? I’m sorry we don’t do God.” When he was preparing to speak to the nation on the eve of hostilities in Iraq, Mr Blair was also told he must not end his speech with “God bless you.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic our political leaders have made no reference to faith in God and the need to pray for his gracious intervention. We are “following the science” even though it has become increasingly clear that the scientists don’t agree with each other and are fallible. Yet during the past 6 months nearly 400,000 people have caught the virus and more than 40,000 have died. Many are anxious and afraid.

Our need to know God is greater than ever and many people, especially the young, sense it. In the summer Tearfund, a Christian aid agency, commissioned a survey in which 25% of adults in the UK said they had watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown began and many had started praying. A third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service, as had one in five adults over 55. One in five of those who tuned into services said they had never gone to church. In a time of national crisis many years ago God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah and gave them a wonderful promise which is still true today, “When you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you.”

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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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Don’t be afraid, just trust me

In 1992 I was invited to speak at a conference in Zambia. It was my first visit to Africa, and it was good to meet people who have become lifelong friends. As I prepared to go, I read a number of books about how to stay healthy while I was travelling. I took prophylaxis medication to protect me from malaria and tried to drink bottled water. Thankfully I kept very well.

During my time in Zambia I stayed with a lovely Christian couple, David and Christine, on their farm in Mkushi River. Some of David’s farmworkers had contracted the HIV/AIDS virus but were able to continue working. As David was driving me from the Copper Belt to his farm, I asked him what people did when they became ill, because the farm was a long way from a hospital. His answer was, “We pray!”

During his ministry Jesus healed many sick people. Today, Christians all over the world who are sick, or who are anxious about becoming sick, pray to God knowing that he can heal them. One day when Jesus was in Capernaum and was teaching the people by the Sea of Galilee a synagogue leader called Jairus came seeking his urgent help. Jairus fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying, please come and lay your hands on her and heal her so she can live.”

Jesus immediately went with him. But progress was slow because the crowd of people followed them. Then a woman who had suffered from constant bleeding for 12 years came up in the crowd and touched Jesus’ robe and was immediately healed. Jesus stopped until the woman came forward and then said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.”

While Jesus was still speaking to her, messengers arrived from Jairus’ home and told him, “Your daughter is dead. There’s no use troubling the Teacher now.” Jairus’ heart sank, but Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.” Jesus then sent the crowd away and went with Jairus, and three of his disciples, to Jairus’ house where they were greeted by mourners weeping and wailing loudly. Jesus made them all leave and then took the girl’s father and mother and his three disciples into the room where the girl was lying. Holding her hand, he said to her, “Little girl, get up!” And the girl, who was twelve years old, immediately stood up and walked around! They were overwhelmed and totally amazed. In this time of fear and anxiety Jesus’ words to Jairus speak powerfully to us, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.”

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Resting in the shadow of the Almighty

Our world is in crisis. Political leaders are struggling to contain the spread of the Covid-19 so that medical facilities are not overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses are courageously treating patients at risk of being infected themselves. Business, commerce and travel are seriously disrupted. Financial markets are falling. Shoppers are panic buying and food rationing may be imposed. Elderly people may be told to self-isolate in their homes. It’s like living in wartime. People are afraid and anxious and feel helpless. What can we do?

Remember God. He has made it very clear to everyone in the world that he is the creator and sustainer of all things. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech; they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Spring has come, the days are getting longer, and the natural world is coming to life with beautiful flowers that remind us of God’s faithfulness.

Remember our vulnerability and dependence on God. One virus has thrown the plans of great nations into confusion. In his letter James says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'”

Pray to God who hears us and helps us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray to their heavenly Father and to ask him “to deliver them from evil.” The apostle Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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 your minds in Christ Jesus.”

In Psalm 91 the psalmist, who lived in very uncertain times, says, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely, he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly disease. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

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God cares about you

Mental health is in the news. More people in Britain than ever before are experiencing depression and anxiety. In 2018 a total of 71 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were dispensed in England. This is almost double the number dispensed in 2008. The trend in other parts of Britain is similar. GPs fully investigate a patient’s circumstances and other alternatives, such as talking therapy, before prescribing anti-depressants and many people find their mental health improves when they take them.

This time of year creates additional anxiety for many people. The days are shorter and darker and financial pressures increase with Black Friday sales and the cost of paying for Christmas. Many people are already in debt and this is likely to increase in the coming weeks. The general election has added to the stress and the uncertainty about Brexit. The parties are displaying a greater level of hostility to one another and the genuine interests of different groups within our society are being set against each other. People are divided and there are fears for the future.

Jesus spoke about anxiety and how we can cope with it. He lived at a time when his country was under Roman rule and harsh taxes were imposed on the people. So Jesus reminded the people about God’s care for them, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

The best talking therapy is talking to God in prayer. He knows us, cares about us and is willing and able to help us. The apostle Peter said, “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”

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That Great Day

This is the time of year when students receive their A level and GCSE exam results. It is an anxious time! Some are elated as they achieve the grades they need to move on to university or sixth form. Others are very disappointed when they fail to achieve the necessary grades.

It is a crucial time in the life of each student. Success opens the way for the future; failure seems to cast a shadow, although this is by no means always the case. In the past many who have not achieved the grades they needed to go to university have gone on to do very well in their chosen careers.

In preparing students for exams teachers always encourage them to work hard in order to achieve the best possible grades. Not all students take the advice and some hope that by a combination of natural talent and good luck they will get through. Often, however, the exams reveal their lack of preparation and poor results follow.

In many aspects of our lives we face assessment. Many employees have some form of appraisal which indicates their performance and effectiveness in their job. It is good to be appreciated and praised, but not easy to take constructive criticism which identifies areas of weakness and poor performance.

The Bible teaches that at the end of our lives we must all appear before God to be judged. This judgment will be totally fair and will be based on how we have kept God’s laws. There is no escape from God’s justice. Tyrants and evil people may seem to get away with their evil deeds, but God will call every one of them to account and they will be justly punished. History provides many examples of unspeakable wickedness. It is a great comfort to know that those who have done these things are called to account by God, who knows all things.

But the certainty of God’s judgment is a solemn thing for us all. None of us has kept God’s laws. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of what God requires. On that great day we will all need someone to stand with us to be our Advocate and Saviour. When he was dying, David Dickson, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, said, “I have taken all my good deeds and all my bad deeds, and cast them in a heap before the Lord, and fled from both, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in him I have sweet peace!”

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Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

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Giving thanks for the NHS

On 5 July 1948 the National Health Service in Britain was launched by Aneurin Bevan, the then minister of health. The NHS is based on 3 core principles: that it meets the needs of everyone, is free at the point of delivery and is based on clinical need, not the ability to pay. For 70 years the people of Britain have benefited greatly from the skills and dedication of the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff who have treated them and cared for them.

I recently watched a programme about the work of junior doctors in a busy Accident and Emergency department. They were in their early 20s and worked long hours alongside their senior colleagues dealing with a wide range of conditions, some of which stretched their knowledge and skills to the limit. At one point the department was overwhelmed with patients, with beds in the corridors and patients waiting in ambulances outside. Yet the staff maintained a highly professional and caring attitude, taking time with each patient to carefully assess their needs. I was very impressed by their dedication and thankful that such amazing care is available to us all without the anxiety of wondering if we can afford the cost.

During his 3-year ministry Jesus healed many people of all kinds of diseases. Crowds of people came to him, sometimes late in the day, and he healed them all. Blind people received their sight, deaf people their hearing, dumb people were able to speak, lame people were able to walk, and lepers were cleansed. On at least 3 occasions he raised people back to life. The people who witnessed the healing ministry of Jesus were filled with awe and said, “A great prophet has appeared among us, God has come to help his people.”

God is deeply concerned with our physical needs and well-being. In Psalm 103 David wrote, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” In their daily work doctors and nurses face complex medical conditions and are often conscious of their limitations. Some patients die suddenly and unexpectedly, others, with a very poor prognosis, recover. A good friend of ours is a doctor in a rural Christian hospital in Kiwoko in Uganda. She is responsible for the neonatal department which treats hundreds of mothers and babies every year. The motto of the hospital is “We treat, Jesus heals.”

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The peace of God

A few years ago we were given a red mug with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On” on it. The design of the mug is based on a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The aim of the poster was to raise public morale in anticipation of the mass air attacks on major British cities. In 1940 and 1941 the Blitz killed more than 40,000 civilians and destroyed more than 1 million houses in major cities around Britain, but the 2.5 million copies of the poster were never used. However, the British people, especially those living in London, show amazing courage and resilience in the face of the terrible bombing they endured.

The motto on the poster was an appeal for stoicism – a “stiff upper lip” and calm resolve in the face of adversity. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy which encourages people to subdue their emotions through self-control and fortitude. Today, a stoic is seen as an unemotional person who seems to be indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and who accepts hardship without any display of feelings or complaint. In hard times a stoic does not look for, or expect, love and comfort, but simply accepts what life throws at them.

In his letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul presents another approach to the challenges of life. He wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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 your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When he was in Philippi Paul had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned. At midnight, when he and his companion Silas were in prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God. Their response to suffering was to rejoice in the Lord remembering his love for them in Jesus and thanking him for the many times he had blessed them in their lives. They knew that, even in prison, the Lord was with them. So they prayed to him and gave thanks to him and asked him to help them and give them his peace. When we experience adversity, as we all do, it is good to pray to God and rejoice in who he is. He hears our prayers and will give us his peace.

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Give us today our daily bread

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples important principles about daily living. He was preparing them for their future life’s work when they would be sent out into the Roman world to proclaim the good news about the forgiveness of sins through his death and resurrection. Daily life for them was going to be very difficult as they experienced persecution and great hardship. So, it was important for them to know how to cope with these challenges. The life principles Jesus taught his disciples are also important for us.

Jesus told them, “Do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.” He reminded them how God provides for the birds every day, “They do not sow or reap or store away into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable that they?” He also spoke of how God clothes the ordinary flowers of the field whose beauty exceeds even the splendour of King Solomon’s fabulous wardrobe. The same God who clothes the flowers would also provide for the disciples as they learned to trust in him.

Worry and anxiety are common experiences for us all. Many of our worries centre around the daily necessities of life – having enough to eat and drink and clothes to wear. Parents bringing up their children worry about having food to feed them and money for their dinner in school. They worry about having enough money to buy the “designer” clothes their children feel they need if they are not to be made fun of by their friends, as well as the latest mobile phone.

Worry wears us out and wears us down. It takes the joy out of life. It’s made worse by the many authoritative voices that repeatedly tell us there is no God but that one day, maybe, we will discover life on some distant planet. How much better to listen to Jesus and to look at God’s beautiful creation that unmistakably tells us that He is and that He cares for us. Then we can tell Him all our worries and ask Him to help us as we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread.”