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It’s not good to be alone

Personal relationships are very important. On a morning walk I saw young children going back to school. They were happy, smiling and singing. They were looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers again. Soon elderly people living in care homes will be able to see one close relative face to face after, for many, having had no physical contact with loved ones for a year. Mothers teaching their children at home have experienced real loneliness. People working at home are feeling the loss of regular contact with their colleagues in the office. Protecting life is important, but life without warm relationships with family and friends can feel very empty.

In the Bible’s account of the creation of human beings we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is the first insight into who God is. There is only one God, but there are three persons within the Godhead – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are united in an eternal relationship of love. God’s image is seen equally in both men and women who long for and find fulfilment in warm personal relationships. When those relationships are lost or spoiled, life itself is diminished and people are impoverished.

God’s supreme revelation of himself is in a person, his eternal Son, Jesus, who shows us what God is like. His gracious life and death for our sins reveal God’s love and compassion for us. Jesus’ disciples walked and talked with him. They experienced his warm love for them and witnessed the compassion he showed to all who came to him need. The Apostle John wrote about Jesus, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

Recently a good friend died of Covid-19. In an attempt to save his life, the doctors put him into an induced coma. Just before he went into the coma my friend said, “God is good.” He was separated from his family, but he was not alone. Like David, who wrote Psalm 23, he trusted in the Lord, who was his shepherd, and could say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

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When sorrows like sea billows roll

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well-known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to express our faith in God and to rest in his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and sent them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said, “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal, O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

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The boy in the striped pyjamas

My wife and I recently watched the holocaust film “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” The film portrays the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp in Poland through the eyes of two 8-year-old boys: Bruno, the son of the camp’s Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish inmate. Bruno and his family moved from Berlin to live in a house near the camp. Only his father knows what the camp really is. Bruno can see it from his bedroom and thinks it’s a farm. Bruno has no friends to play with and sneaks into the woods. When he comes to the barbed wire fence, he sees Shmuel who, with his parents, is a prisoner in the camp. The two boys become friends.

Bruno thinks Shmuel’s striped prison uniform is pyjamas. Bruno takes food to Shmeul and they play board games through the barbed wire. One day when Shmuel is working in his home Bruno gives him a cake but doesn’t admit it when a soldier discovers Shmeul eating the cake. The solider punishes Shmeul by beating him badly. Bruno cries because he has let his friend down and later apologises to Shmeul who forgives him. Shmeul tells Bruno that his father has gone missing in the camp. Bruno, thinking the camp is a pleasant place, tells him that, to make up for letting him down, he will help him find his father. The next day Bruno puts on a prisoner’s striped uniform and cap and digs under the fence to join Shmuel.

The boys go into one of the huts and Bruno is shocked to see the many sick and malnourished Jewish people. Suddenly a siren sounds and everyone in the hut, including Bruno and Shmeul, is marched to a changing room where they are told to remove their clothes for a “shower” before they are herded into the gas chamber. As the lights go out Bruno and Shmeul hold hands to comfort each other as a soldier pours the gas pellets into the chamber. When they realise he is missing, Bruno’s parents run desperately to the camp but are too late to save him. Behind the locked door of the now silent gas chamber all the prisoners, including Bruno and Shmeul, are dead.

The film vividly portrays both unspeakable wickedness and a true friendship that transcended man-made barriers. It also reminds us of God’s amazing love. Out of love for us Jesus left his eternal home in heaven to come to this sinful world and willingly died on the Cross to pay the penalty our sins deserve so that we might receive eternal life. Jesus said, “Greater love has no-one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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I know who holds the future

It is good to be beginning a new year after what has been a very different and difficult year. However, significant uncertainties remain. Will the Covid-19 vaccination bring the pandemic to an end? When will life return to a more familiar pattern? How will school children and students cope with missing so much teaching time? Will people who have been made redundant be able to find new jobs? How will Britain fare outside the EU? In uncertain times faith in God makes all the difference. Knowing God means we can face whatever lies ahead of us in the strength he gives us.

In Psalm 139 David reflects on the fact that God knows him personally and cares for him. “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Singing praise to God and expressing our confidence in him gives us strength and hope. We may be facing uncertainties in our personal lives, but God is eternal and unchanging, and Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

As we face a new year one popular hymn expresses the comfort and security we can find as we put our trust in God. “I do not know what lies ahead, the way I cannot see; yet One stands near to be my guide, he’ll show the way to me. I do not know how many days of life are mine to spend; but One who knows and cares for me will keep me to the end. I do not know the course ahead, what joys and griefs are there; but One is near who fully knows, I’ll trust his loving care. I know who holds the future, and he’ll guide me with his hand; with God things don’t just happen, everything by him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to Him my all.”

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Great is your faithfulness

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again, we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there, and that this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So, don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So, as we continue to live under the long shadow of Covid-19, and share the sadness of those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, we and they can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God who cares for us.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

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In heavenly love abiding

This has been a very strange year. Covid-19 has changed the world and the lives of us all. Every news programme begins by telling us how many new infections there have been and how many people have died. As we move towards winter, scientists and politicians tell us that the second wave of infections will continue well into next year and that we can expect regular “lockdowns” in an attempt to restrict the spread of the virus. Life will not return to “normal” any time soon and, sadly, many people’s livelihoods are in jeopardy. Some are already experiencing unemployment and financial hardship. The future prospects for young people are very uncertain. The hope of having an effective vaccine seems some way off.

The pandemic is having a serious effect on people’s mental health and sense of wellbeing. Elderly people living in residential homes are not being allowed to see their close family in order to protect them from the virus and possible death. But some have said they don’t feel their lives are worth living if they can’t see, kiss and hug their loved ones. For many people there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.

In these difficult times we need to find strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. We are not allowed to sing hymns in church services at the moment, but we can find great comfort in their words. In 1850, when she was a young, single woman of 27, Anna Waring wrote a hymn expressing her confidence in God and his love for her. “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me; my heart may low be laid; but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed?”

Anna’s hymn encourages us to look beyond our immediate situation to the unchanging, eternal God and to rest and abide in him. “Wherever he may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh; his sight is never dim; he knows the way he taketh, and I will walk with him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure; my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and he will walk with me.”

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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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Rays of sunshine that penetrate the darkness

At the end of January more than 200 survivors gathered at the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, most of them Jews. The emphasis of the commemoration was on the survivors who had travelled from many parts of the world. They are now aged between 75 and 101 and this may be the last major commemoration for them.

Angela Orosz, 75, from Montreal was born in the camp. Her mother gave birth to her in secret on a top bunk in December 1944. She said, “I always claimed to my kids that I had suffered no trauma from having been here, until my daughter asked me why then, unlike other families, did I never throw potato peelings away? Because my mother had probably survived because of the peelings she had eaten and the goodness in them had enabled her to give birth to me and so I had survived. So, of course, the survival instinct I inherited from her made me always do the same.”

David Lenga, who became a successful tailor in Beverly Hills, said he refused to let the Holocaust define his life despite the fact that it claimed 98 members of his family. Only David and his father survived. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish and lost members of his family in the Holocaust, said the world should learn about humanity from the survivors whose stories of endurance and forgiveness are exemplary. “You are truly amazing. You are strong and incredibly courageous. So, you are an example that we should follow. The Holocaust is called the dark period in the history of humanity and you are the rays of sunshine that penetrate that darkness.”

The Holocaust is an example of the terrifying capacity for evil in the human heart. Political and military leaders planned the wicked extermination of millions of Jewish people and ordinary citizens carried it out. There are great mysteries in life, but there is no doubt that no one escapes God’s righteous judgement. God’s promises also offer survivors comfort in their devastating pain and loss. The prophet Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

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Remember your Creator

People are living longer. The Queen now sends more 100th birthday cards than ever before – over 10,000 cards each year to people who are 100 years old or more. However, living a long life often brings significant challenges. In the past few months three elderly friends have died. Two were over 80 years old and one was in his nineties. Each faced difficulty in the last years of their lives. One had cancer and needed surgery and chemotherapy which meant many weeks in hospital and a severely restricted quality of life. One suffered from dementia and moved into a care home where, sadly, he no longer recognised his children and grandchildren. One fell at home and was no longer able to live independently. He moved into a care home where, because of immobility, he spend many long days in his room with little variation in the routine.

Each of them was a Christian and found comfort and strength through their relationship with God. They put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour when they were young, healthy and active; old age seemed a long way off. But as they grew older the promises of the Bible gave them strength and hope. They knew the personal love and care of God and experienced the truth of Psalm 23 where David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

When they realised their life was drawing to a close they were able to face death with confidence and hope because they knew their Saviour was with them. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David’s son Solomon was a wise king. In the book of Ecclesiastes he considered the meaning of life and came to a clear conclusion, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’ Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

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Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”