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The Hope Mars probe

This week the Arab world’s first mission to Mars was launched. An H-2A rocket carrying the unmanned Al-Amal, or Hope, probe lifted off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. This UAE project is one of three racing to Mars, including Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the United States, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest. Hope is expected to reach Mars’ orbit by February 2021. The launch was met with great excitement in Dubai. The UAE Mars mission’s deputy project manager Sarah al-Amiri said it was “an indescribable feeling” to see the probe blasting off and added, “This is the future of the UAE.”

The Bible presents us with a big view of God. The opening words of the book of Genesis are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The majestic account goes on to describe God’s creating activity including the sun and the moon and then adds the simple, but staggering, statement, “He also made the stars.” Recent exploration of the universe has discovered that there are more stars than there are grains of sand on the seashores of earth.

In Psalm 8 David expresses his sense of awe at the greatness of God, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.” People all over the world can gaze in wonder at the heavens God has created. In Psalm 19 David wrote, “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.”

David was also amazed that he could know this great God personally. He was just one small man on a tiny planet in a vast universe, but God knew him and he knew God. In Psalm 8 he wrote, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour.” The UAE probe, Hope, is well-named. When we know the God, who knows us, we have a sure hope and a future that is secure.

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Remembering Dr Li Wenliang

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is in the news as more and more people are diagnosed with the virus. There are now 110,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and nearly 4000 people have died. The countries most affected to date are China, Italy, South Korea and Iran with growing numbers in France and Germany. There are nearly 300 cases in Britain and 3 people have died. Medical staff are doing a great job treating people but their energies and the hospitals themselves are being stretched way beyond their normal capacity. People who think they may have the virus are being encouraged to self-isolate.

Covid-19 has created economic uncertainty with stock markets around the world registering big falls and factories in China being temporarily closed. Large sporting events are being affected, including possible problems for the summer Tokyo Olympic Games. In Italy, where 366 people have died, strict new quarantine measures have been imposed on 16 million people, a quarter of the population. In Britain some people have been panic-buying basic commodities and Tesco is restricting the sales of essential food and household items to discourage stockpiling.

The virus was first identified in December by Dr Li Wenliang, a young ophthalmologist working in Wuhan Central Hospital. He noticed seven patients with a Sars-like virus who were in quarantine in his hospital. On 30 December he sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group warning them about the outbreak and advising them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. Three days later police paid him a visit and told him to stop. He was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” Dr Li returned to work and caught the virus from a glaucoma patient. At the end of January, he received an apology from the local authority but died from Covid-19 on 7 February.

Despite the persecution of Christians in Communist China the churches are growing. It seems that Dr Li had joined a chat room about Christianity and was a “seeker of the faith.” When he realised he was dying, and medical treatment could not save him, he may have called out for mercy to the God whom he was seeking. If he did, it is a prayer to which God always responds positively. On the day Jesus was crucified a criminal, who was dying alongside him, made a moving request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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Our lives have meaning

A global survey conducted by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of 15-year-olds in 79 countries revealed that UK young people came second from last in ‘the meaning of life’ index. Teenagers in the UK are among the least likely to agree with the idea that “my life has clear meaning and purpose.” Although the survey also revealed modest improvements in reading and maths the deeper crisis teenagers in the UK are experiencing is more significant. Whilst the survey revealed that UK young people are relatively ‘happy’ they come near the bottom in terms of ‘life satisfaction’. Only young people in Turkey and the Macao region of China rate their life less highly than British young people.

The countries that came near the top for ‘meaning in life’, or ‘human flourishing’ were ones where the Catholic or Muslim faiths are strong. Secular countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK came near the bottom. The UK is now one of the most secular countries in the world. The OECD report also found that in the UK “students with an immigrant background were much more likely to report a greater sense of meaning in life than their native-born counterparts.” The greater influence of religion and culture in these communities may explain the difference.

This survey raises important challenges for secularism which rules our all references to God and moral absolutes. Faith in God and recognising that we are all moral beings, created in God’s image, are the foundation stones of meaning in life and human flourishing. The American evangelist Billy Graham preached the Christian message to more people all around the world than anyone else in history. In his public speaking and in interviews he frequently said, “The Bible says.” In one of his sermons he challenged his hearers, “I know where I’ve come from! I know why I’m here! I know where I’m going! Do you?”

For all of us the key to finding meaning and purpose in life is in seeking answers to those key questions. The earth and the universe clearly reveal a wise and all-powerful Creator. We are not the product of time and chance. God “created our inmost being and knit us together in our mother’s womb.” He made us to live in fellowship with him and in the light of his commandments. He made us both body and soul and “put eternity in our hearts” with a longing in the very depths of our being to be with God in the blessed happiness of heaven forever.

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The God of hope

As a new year and a new decade begin our world is a troubled place. Perhaps you have thought carefully before wishing family and friends a happy new year because you sense the coming year may be not be altogether happy. Increased tensions in the Middle East suggest there are turbulent times ahead. The bush fires in Australia continue to rage and make us all aware of the consequences of climate change. The increasing global influence of China and Russia brings new challenges. In many places in Africa there is conflict, drought, disease and poverty. Personally, family life may not be easy. We, or other family members and friends, may be facing serious illness or the challenges of living longer.

So where is hope to be found? When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome he said, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Paul himself, and the Christians in Rome, knew what it was to suffer. The Roman Empire was cruel and severely punished those it disapproved of, especially Christians. Soon after Paul wrote this letter, he became a prisoner and was later beheaded by the Roman authorities. In 64 AD Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a great fire in Rome. Innocent Christians were nailed to crosses, torn apart by dogs the arena, and set on fire to provide evening lights.

However, Paul and the Christians knew that whatever happened to them in this life they had a sure future hope because they trusted in the living God who is “the God of hope.” They and their loved ones were powerless to stand against the unjust persecution they faced, but they were safe in the hands of God. Knowing God gave them a true peace and joy even in the face of the most terrible adversities and their hope even overflowed. They knew that whatever happened to them in this world they were safe in the care of Jesus and would one day go to be with him in heaven for ever.

One Sunday evening a Christian minister went to visit one of his members who was very seriously ill in hospital. Another Christian in the same ward overheard their conversation. The sick man said to his minister, “They’ve told me there’s no hope.” The minister replied, “Dear brother, from now on it’s all hope!” That’s what it means when we trust “the God of hope.”

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Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.

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When enemies become friends

Captain Bill Smyly, who died recently at the age of 95, was one of the last veterans of the Chindit expeditions in the Burma Campaign in World War II. In 1943, when serving with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles, he was appointed Animal Transport Officer and was put in charge of the mules. He marched with 3000 Chindits from India into Burma on a mission to cut the main railway line between Mandalay and Myitkyina and to harass the Japanese forces. Heavy weapons, equipment and rations were carried by the mules.

Marching through the jungle in intense heat and torrential rain, they endured repeated bouts of malaria and dysentery. If they were badly injured, they were left at a village. This usually meant capture or death. After achieving their objectives, the troops returned to India in small groups. Bill contracted beriberi, which affected his eyesight and made his feet swell up making it difficult to walk. He became separated from his unit and had to struggle on alone. For many weeks he trekked hundreds of miles through the jungle, receiving food and shelter from local tribesmen. His family were told that he had died but, eventually, he reached Fort Hertz, a remote British military outpost in north-east Burma.

Bill was born in China, the son of Irish missionary doctors. After the war he gained a degree at Cambridge University and became a journalist. Later, he taught at a Chinese University before retiring to Bedford. Bill was a Christian and was an active member of his local church. He also belonged to the Burma Campaign Society which was established in 1983 by Masao Hirakubo. The aim of the society is to encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding between British and Japanese soldiers who had previously been enemies, and especially those who had been involved in the Burma Campaign.

Reconciliation is a great priority in our divided world and is at the heart of what Jesus Christ came into the world to accomplish. The apostle Paul wrote, “God brought us back to himself through Christ and has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them and he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” Because Bill Smyly had himself been reconciled to God through Jesus he was committed to seeking reconciliation with people who, previously, had been his enemies.

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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!

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The Inspiring Example of Eric Liddell

The Olympic Games is going well and many medals have already been won. Winning athletes have been ecstatic whilst others have sometimes been in despair. The pressure to win is very great. After 4 years of preparation, everything depends on the performance on the day and not everyone can succeed. The greater the expectation of success the greater the disappointment when you do not win a medal.

At the medal ceremonies for London 2012 the Chariots of Fire theme tune has been played. The tune reminds us of Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman”, who competed for Great Britain in the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. When the schedule for the heats of the 100 metres was announced, Eric realised that the first heat would be run on a Sunday. He was a Christian and always kept Sunday as a special day set apart to worship God and rest. He realised that he would not, therefore, be able to compete in his best event and quietly withdrew from the 100 metres. He began instead to train for the 400 metres in which he was not expected to win a medal.

When Eric was at the starting block for the 400 metres race an American man slipped a piece of paper into his hand with the words of 1 Samuel Chapter 2, verses 30 written on it, “ Those who honour me I will honour.” Eric won the race and broke the Olympic and world records. He also won a bronze medal in the 200 metres. Eric’s example of putting God first above everything else continues to inspire people today. Although he was as keen to win as any athlete competing in London 2012 he knew that honouring God was more important.

Eric was born in China in 1902, where his parents were missionaries. In 1925 he went to China as a missionary where he worked amongst poor people and proclaimed the good news of Jesus. In 1943, when the fighting between the Chinese army and the invading Japanese army was very fierce, he was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp. Whilst in the camp Eric refused an offer to leave and gave his place instead to a pregnant woman. He died in the camp on 21 February 1945 from an inoperable brain tumour. His last words were, “It’s complete surrender.” He had gladly given his whole life to Jesus Christ, and has now received the ultimate victor’s crown which his Saviour won for him.