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God had a plan

Charlie Duke is a former NASA astronaut. In 1972 as Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 16, he became the 10th and youngest person to walk on the Moon. As he waited for take-off he said, “I was really tense. Every part of my being vibrated with the throb of the Saturn V rocket engine. After 6 years of intensive training, I was anxious to finally be on my way, and then we were off into the atmosphere and beyond – starting eleven of the most exciting days of my life.”

“Our view of Earth was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen. From 18,000 miles the Earth was like a beautiful jewel – the blue oceans, white snow and clouds, and brown of land masses. The little crystal jewel of Earth hung there in the blackness of space. I walked in wonder on the Moon, breathless in admiration. It was just the way it had been created – pure, unspoiled, untouched. I was proud to be one of the few men to have such an experience.”

Charlie had always been success-oriented and being an astronaut was the pinnacle of success. He was famous and his ego swelled bigger and bigger. But on his return to earth, he realised his marriage to Dotty was in serious trouble. He had neglected her, and his two sons, and she felt her marriage and life were hopeless. Charlie threw himself into a new business career, but Dotty started going to church and gave her life to Jesus Christ. Charlie saw the change in Dotty and was curious. He could see a new peace and purpose in her life that she had never known before. She began to love and accept him in a new way.

Charlie had gone to church on Sundays but, even though he had walked on the moon, hadn’t found God. He went to a two-day Bible study with Dotty. He said, “The scales fell from my eyes. I saw that God loved Charlie Duke from the time he created the world. We have all turned away from God, but he says, ‘Turn to me, and I will be your God and bless you.’” As he and Dotty drove home Charlie said, “Love, there’s no doubt in my mind. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Charlie had been born again and had found new life in Jesus. He says, “I have never known such an exciting life – a life filled with the love, peace, joy and power of God. You might not be able to walk on the moon with me, but we can all walk together with Jesus, and that walk lasts forever.”

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They are mothers just like us

We live in a world of seemingly irreconcilable divisions and conflicts that take lives and spoil lives. So, it is very encouraging to hear of a Palestinian Christian mother, living in Bethlehem, who has taking steps to bridge one of the great divides in today’s world. She is building relationships with Israeli mothers through Musalaha, a faith-based organisation that facilitates reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

When she was a young mother with three children, she went on a desert trip to Jordan. She said, “It was wonderful. It was really amazing, enjoying the desert and the nature. But before I went, I thought: ‘How can I meet with my enemy, how can I speak to the Israelis?’ I was suffering a lot at this time because of the war, the second intifada. It was a terrible time in our lives with shooting, tanks, and curfews. It was really hard to wake up in the morning and find bullets outside your house and worry that the next night you might be hit.” One night her mother prayed for her and she said, “I saw God and he comforted me, and this pain went. It was the only thing that helped.”

On the desert trip she heard Israeli mothers sharing how they had only just moved to Israel from Europe or America. She said, “It was hard. For the first day I couldn’t look at them or speak to them or enjoy being with them. I just thought: ‘You have come here and taken our land and now you are having fun. We cannot go out of Bethlehem. We are suffering, and you moved here and are living a peaceful life.’” But on the second day she started to look at them as human beings and thought: “It’s not them; it’s their government. It’s not them; it’s what they believe and have been taught. So, I started to see them as people and things changed in my heart.”

Now she goes to monthly meetings with young mothers where they learn about each other. She hears Israeli mothers talking about their fears. Their lives are not perfect either. She says, “Now I see that the Israelis are good people. They are mothers just like us and they have Jesus in their heart. Meeting together gives us the opportunity to be together and get to know each other rather than building a wall between us. I hope that in the future we can all live peacefully together and eat with each other, that we won’t look at each other as either Palestinian or Israeli, just as followers of Jesus and as human beings.”

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The God who gives hope

As we enter a new year one of our great needs is to find hope. The problems of our world are great and there are no easy solutions. In our personal lives and families, we may be experiencing sadness and pain. On Christmas Day a good friend died of Covid-19. Even the dark, damp days tend to depress us. So, we don’t find it easy to be optimistic.

Real hope is found in God. Secular humanism, which is energetically promoted by some and implicitly accepted by others, offers no hope. The Apostle Paul prayed a remarkable prayer for the early Christians in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” This is a prayer we can make our own for the coming year as we put our trust in the God of hope. How does God give us hope whatever our circumstances may be?

God helps us to deal with the past. Memories of the past can cast a long shadow over the future. All of us have reason to be troubled by our past sins. Other people may also have done bad things to us. We need to find forgiveness and to be able to forgive. In Jesus God provided a way for us to be forgiven. When Jesus died he suffered the punishment our sins deserve. The moment we receive Jesus as our Saviour we are forgiven and have nothing to fear. Through experiencing God’s forgiveness, we also find the grace to forgive others.

God promises to provide our present needs. As we enter a new year, we may be anxious about how we will be able cope financially and pay the bills. We may have lost, or be in danger of losing, our job. What a difference it makes to be able to pray to God and to trust him to provide all our needs. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread.” God knows our needs. We can bring all our anxieties to him and trust him to help us.

God gives us hope for the future. None of us knows what will happen in the coming year. All may go well, or we may face serious illness or even death. Jesus is a living Lord who gives us a certain hope whatever happens. When we trust in him, he promises, “Because I live you will live also.” Nothing that happens can rob us of the hope Jesus gives us as we put our trust in him.

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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.”