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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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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

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The faith of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was a great French military general and statesman. He played a key role in the French Revolution and became the first emperor of France. His armies conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. After a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba. In 1815 he briefly returned to power but suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died at the age of 51.

Near the end of his life, the exiled Napoleon expressed his convictions about Jesus. He wrote, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ was not a mere man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity.”

Napoleon knew the difference between the empire he had established, and all other human empires, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated. He wrote, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon sheer force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men will die for him. In every other existence but that of Christ how many imperfections! From the first day to the last he is the same; majestic and simple; infinitely firm and infinitely gentle. He proposes to our faith a series of mysteries and commands with authority that we should believe them, giving no other reason than those tremendous words, ‘I am God.’”

As he read the Bible, Napoleon, who had himself exercised great authority over men, recognised its divine authority and entrusted his own eternal destiny to Jesus Christ. He wrote, “The Bible contains a complete series of acts and of historical men to explain time and eternity, such as no other religion has to offer. If it is not the true religion, one is very excusable in being deceived; for everything in it is grand and worthy of God. The more I consider the Gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there which is not beyond the march of events and above the human mind. Even the impious themselves have never dared to deny the sublimity of the Gospel, which inspires them with a sort of compulsory veneration. What happiness that Book procures for those who believe it!”

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Remembering the Battle of Britain

This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940 and continued until 31 October 1940. It was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as the RAF’s finest hour. France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany who now dominated Western Europe. British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Despite being in a seemingly hopeless military situation, Britain refused to surrender.

Britain was the last bastion against what Churchill called “the menace of tyranny.” The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was mounting destructive bombing air raids against Britain, the Blitz, in preparation for an invasion by the German army. In July 1940 the Luftwaffe had 2800 aircraft, mostly bombers. They were experienced and confident and anticipated taking only a few days to defeat the RAF. At the start of the Battle of Britain the RAF had 650 aircraft and 1300 pilots, some of whom came from Commonwealth countries, Nazi-occupied countries and the USA. Britain ramped up factory production of aircraft, especially Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and by October 1940 had more planes that the Luftwaffe.

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe lost 1887 aircraft and 2600 pilots. The RAF lost 1023 aircraft and 544 pilots. The outstanding courage and skill of the RAF pilots led to success in the Battle of Britain and saved many lives. It was a decisive turning point in the course of World War II and the history of the world. In a speech on 20 August 1940 Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem was the decisive moment in human history. He had come from heaven to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The self-sacrifice of God’s eternal Son has brought new life and hope to countless people around the world. Horatius Bonar’s hymn explains it well: “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die, another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed: not on the sorrows I have known, another’s tears, another’s griefs, on them I rest, on them alone. Jesus, O Son of God, I build on what thy cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, my pardon there I see.”

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The story of Ricky Valance

Ricky Valance has died at the age of 84. In 1960, he had one big hit, the song “Tell Laura I love her.” He was the first Welshman to have a Number One hit song. The song was controversial because it told the story of Tommy, a teenager who was desperately in love with a girl called Laura. Tommy entered a stock car race so he could use the prize money to buy Laura a wedding ring. His car crashed and Tommy was fatally injured. As he lay dying, he said, “Tell Laura I love her … my love for her will never die.” The BBC banned it, which only increased the sales, reaching more than a million copies and topping the charts. Ricky never had another hit song.

Ricky was born David Spencer, the eldest of 7 children, and grew up in Ynysddu, in the Gwent Valleys, where he was the lead soprano in St Theodore’s Church. His father worked in the mines and when he was 15 Ricky, too, went to work in a mine. When he was 17, he joined the RAF serving as a leading aircraftsman in Tripoli during the Suez crisis. After his one hit song Ricky sang in clubs and on cruise ships. He also experienced a number of crises.

By the 1990s he was clinically depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown. He said, “I experienced fear, loneliness and desolation in a way that I wouldn’t wish on any other person.” During this time Ricky visited his local golf club and played with Brian, whom he’d never met before. Brian encouraged Ricky to rediscover his Christian faith. Ricky went to Brian’s church and attended an Alpha course, a programme designed to introduce people to the Christian faith. Ricky said, “It was following that course that I asked Jesus to take full control of my life.”

After becoming a Christian Ricky said, “I’ve started to understand myself more and found that I don’t need to be so hard on myself. If God forgives me for the things I do, then I need to be able to do the same. And I guess it’s made me see others in a different light too. I don’t understand why so many Christians don’t tell others the Good News about what Jesus did for us all on the Cross.” In his last years Ricky suffered from dementia. He is now at peace in heaven with his Saviour, who loved him and died that he might have eternal life.

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John Wesley’s Story

The 24th May 1738 was a very significant day in the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England. He became one of the greatest spiritual leaders in English history playing a key role in the 18th century revival of religion. John was the son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Of the 19 children Susanna bore, only 3 sons and 7 daughters survived. Samuel was the Rector of Epworth and Susanna was a strongminded mother who practised strict discipline with her children.

John and his brother Charles, the great hymnwriter, went to Oxford University, where they started a small group of students, nicknamed “the Holy Club”, which met for prayer and Bible study. The group stressed the need for both a deep inward faith and practical service to those in need. They visited the sick and those in prison. When he left Oxford in 1735, John accepted an invitation to go, with his brother Charles, as missionaries to the recently founded colony of Georgia.

During the voyage to America there was a terrifying storm and John was afraid he was going to die. He attended a service on board ship with a group of German Moravian Christians. During the service a huge wave engulfed the ship and water poured down into the cabins. The Moravians continued singing – men, women and children – seemingly unafraid. Later John asked one of the Moravians why they hadn’t been afraid. The man told him that because they knew God they were not afraid to die. John realised that they had something he didn’t have. They were able to face death because they knew that God was never going to let them go.

After returning from Georgia, John attended a meeting of Moravian Christians in Aldersgate Street on 24th May 1738. He was not keen to go but at that meeting he had a profound spiritual experience. John described what happened to him, “About a quarter before nine, while the man was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” John was no longer afraid of dying. Between 1738 and his death in 1791 he travelled more than 250,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons proclaiming to many people the same message by which he had come to know God and England was transformed.

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Remembering VE Day

This weekend there will be an international celebration of the 75th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. On 8 May 1945 there was a great joy when the Allied Forces announced the surrender of Germany; World War II in Europe was over. More than a million people celebrated in the streets, including the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”

A Service of Thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey gratefully acknowledging that God had heard the many prayers offered through the dark years of the war. The service opened with these words, “The Lord has done great things for us, which ought to be remembered. Let us, therefore, offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which he has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through years of danger and suffering: for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen: for the hope that we are about to enter upon a righteous and abiding peace: for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.”

The planned VE Day celebrations will be severely curtailed because of the coronavirus restrictions. Today the peoples of the world are involved in a different kind of deadly conflict. We are under threat from an unseen enemy and many have already died. The courage and skill of medical teams and carers have been an inspiration to us all. Victory over the virus is still in the future as great efforts are made to develop an effective vaccine.

At Easter we remembered the greatest victory ever accomplished when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, confronted our greatest enemies of sin and death. Human sinfulness causes untold misery and suffering and every day many face the last enemy, death. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty our sins deserve. His death was a great victory. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” His resurrection on the third day showed he had broken the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality. As we pray for those seriously ill with coronavirus, and those who have lost loved ones, we can rejoice in the hope Jesus gives; “for those who die believing die safely through his love.”

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Overcoming fear

The coronavirus pandemic has created widespread fear. The daily UK government briefing reports the number of new cases and deaths. The pandemic is the main news in newspapers and the media generally. Lockdown continues with no sign of being significantly eased soon. Many have financial fears about their jobs and increasing debt. People are taking greater care to keep well away from each other, and more people are wearing face masks or scarves. Medical staff and carers are afraid they may catch the virus. Fewer people are going to A&E departments for fear of contracting the virus so many hospital beds are unoccupied. We are told to have confidence in the scientists who are advising the government, but still many are afraid.

What does the Bible say? God promises his protection. In times of plague people have turned to the God for safety and reassurance. In Psalm 91 the psalmist 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 plague.”

God promises his presence. People who have contracted the virus have been put in isolation. Their families and friends are not able to visit them in hospitals and care homes even when they are dying. They have experienced acute aloneness. In Psalm 23 David says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.”

God promises a future hope. When we face the finality of death ourselves, or see loved ones dying, we need to find hope. In Psalm 23 David says, “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” On the last night before he died Jesus comforted his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

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Finding peace and hope

Plagues and epidemics have ravaged human beings throughout history. Between 1347 and 1351 the Black Death, the most fatal pandemic, resulted in the deaths of between 75-200 million people in Eurasia, North Africa and Europe. The plague created religious, social and economic upheavals with profound effects on the course of European history. Between 30% and 60% of the people in Europe died and it took 200 years for the population of Europe to recover.

Influenza is a major cause of death. During the 20th century, three flu pandemics caused many deaths in Britain: 200,000 died in 1918-1919 from Spanish flu; 33,000 died in 1957-1958 from Asian flu; and 80,000 died in 1968-1969 from Hong Kong flu. Between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide die every year from flu. Between 2014 and 2019 an average of 17,000 people died each year from flu in England.

How did former generations respond to plagues? In the 16th century, when there was a serious plague, Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, wrote, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he shall surely find me, and I have done what is expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely.”

Pat Allerton the vicar at St Peter’s Church, Notting Hill, has been visiting streets in his parish to pray and play the hymn “Amazing Grace” through a speaker. He holds a 10-minute service in a different place each day, sometimes outside major hospitals. He wants to give people hope. One lady wrote to him saying, “Hello, I’m not a religious person, but I want to thank you for what you did on Thursday night outside Charing Cross Hospital. My uncle was in there at the time and passed away alone the following morning due to coronavirus. Knowing he could have heard this song on his last night on this planet brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart.” A nurse who was treating a patient who was fighting the virus, and later died of it, said that hearing the hymn brought “a peace to her heart and to the patient she will never forget.”