To whom shall we go?

The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.

According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.

What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.

The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.

The water of life

Cape Town, a beautiful coastal city, is running out of water. The second largest city in South Africa, and tenth largest city in Africa, has been affected by a 3-year drought, a greater than normal increase in population and ineffective administration. If dam levels continue to decline the city taps will run out by June. Water restrictions are already in place limiting daily consumption per person to 50 litres a day. In this very modern city people are already queuing to draw water at the 200 stand pipes that have been set up in the streets. Many people are praying earnestly for God’s intervention and help.

Earth has been called “The Water Planet”, with 71% of the planet’s surface covered by water. Yet in many parts of the world there is a serious water shortage. Water is essential to sustaining life and drinking unsafe water causes illness and many deaths. 844 million people in the world do not have access to safe water. 2.3 billion people do not have access to a toilet. Many women and girls spend 6 hours every day collecting water for themselves and their families. More people have a mobile phone than access to a toilet!

The worldwide water crisis reminds us of another very real crisis that touches the lives of us all. Whether we live in a rich or a poor country there is an inner dissatisfaction that leaves us unfulfilled at the deepest level of our being. Jesus once met a woman at a well in Samaria. It was the middle of the day and very hot, the sun was at its height. Jesus was on a journey and was thirsty and the woman had come to draw water for herself and her family. When Jesus asked her for a drink the woman refused because of a longstanding dispute between Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Through her conversation with Jesus that day the woman’s life was transformed. She still came to the well every day to draw water but now, through Jesus, God’s gift to the world, her life had new meaning and her deepest needs had been met.

God is wonderfully kind

Last week the BBC reluctantly revealed the salaries received by its presenters, actors, pundits and contributors who earn more than £150,000 a year. The general response was that the salaries were high, with many whose roles appear to be straightforward receiving higher salaries than the Prime Minister. People struggling to pay their mandatory licence fee out of the benefits they receive to support them and their families must have seen the salaries as very generous indeed.

The biggest debate, however, has been the obvious inequality between the salaries paid to men and women who fulfil the same kind of roles, in some cases, presenting the same programme. More than 40 high-profile women have written a letter to the BBC director-general urging him to act now to close the gender gap and to “do the right thing.” In their letter they acknowledge, “Compared to many women and men, we are very well compensated and fortunate.” It is not clear, however, whether they think the BBC should increase their, already generous, salaries or reduce the salaries paid to some men.

Jesus told a parable about a landowner who, early one morning, hired workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them the normal daily labourer’s wage. At 9 o’clock, noon, 3 o’clock, and even 5’oclock, he saw people who had no work to do and hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right. At the end of the day he paid all the people a full day’s wage. Those who had worked all day complained that he had been unfair. The landowner replied that he had paid them the full day’s wage he had promised and said, “Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” Then Jesus added, “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

Jesus was teaching that God is wonderfully generous and kind. He doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor people or give preference to those who have had the privilege of knowing Christian teaching all their lives. At whatever time in our lives we come to God, he receives us and promises us forgiveness and eternal life. In Jesus, there is true equality that transcends all the great divisions between people in this world. The apostle Paul told the early Christians, “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Because I live, you also will live

A poll carried out on Palm Sunday revealed that 23% of people in the UK who regard themselves as Christians do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Amongst regular churchgoers 5% said they did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. It is, perhaps, not surprising that churchgoers are uncertain when a significant percentage of clergy say they don’t believe in the resurrection. Interestingly, the survey also found that 46% of the population in general believe in some form of life after death, including a fifth of those who describe themselves as non-religious. These issues are vitally important to every one of us, because, one day, we will all die.

The Taliabo people live on a small island in Indonesia. They live a very simple life with very little contact with the outside world, but were deeply troubled by the fact that everyone in their tribe died. The stories handed down from generation to generation said that long ago their ancestors knew the secret of eternal life, but they left the island and, since then, the people have become poor and everyone dies. The stories also told of a river of life. Whoever drank water from the river would live for ever. But no one could find the river.

Death was the Taliabo people’s biggest fear. They cried out to the spirits, and used charms, but everyone still died. They would put the bones of relatives who died in a box in the hope someone would come and bring them back to life. But they never did. They prayed to those who had died, but no answer came. The shamans couldn’t help them because they, too, all died. The people even made a raft and loaded it with gifts and put the bones of 2 dead people, a man and a woman, on it. They sent the raft out into the ocean in the hope that the ones who knew the secret of eternal life would see it, take pity on them, and return to the island.

When two Christian couples came to the Taliabo’s island they told the people about Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again on the third day. The Taliabo were overjoyed because now they knew that someone really had overcome death. As they believed the Bible’s teaching about Jesus, their lives were wonderfully transformed. They were no longer afraid of death. In our outwardly sophisticated society we, too, need to believe the wonderful promise of the risen Jesus, “Because I live, you also will live.”

Look at the birds

The nights are dark and we have had the first frosts of winter. We may envy the birds that have begun to migrate to sunnier and warmer places. Bird migration is an amazing phenomenon. Scientists have recently studied the Alpine swift, a swallow-like bird found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Some of the swifts breed in Switzerland and then fly across the Sahara to West Africa. A team of scientists caught six Alpine swifts in Switzerland and tagged them with data loggers which enabled them to track the birds’ migration.

When the swifts returned to Switzerland three were caught and the data was analysed. It revealed that the swifts can fly for 200 days consecutively, eating and sleeping on the wing. They eat insects in mid-air and seem to be able to control their flying even when sleeping. The scientists concluded that it is possible that some swifts stay on the wing for their whole lifetime, except for breeding.

Jesus taught that we can learn an important lesson from the birds. He said, “I tell you not to worry about everyday life – whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?”

We all worry about everyday things and how we will find the money we need to buy the necessities of life. Poor people worry about finding the food they need for each day. Unemployed people worry about how they will be able to live on the lower allowances they are receiving. Students and young people worry about how they will repay their loans and save up a deposit to buy their own home. People nearing retirement worry about whether they will be able to live on their pension. Pensioners worry about how they will pay big bills and have enough money to pay for the care they may need in later years.

When we worry it’s so important to remember God, our heavenly Father, and to tell him about our anxieties. He feeds the Alpine swifts on the wing. He feeds the birds in our gardens through the food we put out for them. We are much more valuable to him than the birds. So valuable that, out of love for us, he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins, that we might receive eternal life through him.

Remembering Aberfan

On 21 October 1966 I was at work in Cardiff when we heard there had been a disaster in a small valley community near Merthyr Tydfil. We assumed it must have happened underground and that miners had probably been injured or killed. Such tragic events had happened before in the South Wales valleys. Later that day, however, as we watched the evening news on our black and white televisions, we realised that a disaster like no other had struck the small mining village of Aberfan.

By 9 o’clock that Friday morning 240 children and 9 teachers had arrived at Pantglas Junior School for the last day of school before the half-term holiday. It was a damp and misty morning after a week of heavy rain. At 9.15 the school was engulfed by an avalanche of 100,000 tons of black slurry. The school building was demolished, as were some houses. Many of the men of the community were at work in the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. When they heard about the disaster they rushed to the school to try to help. The women went to the school and felt utterly helpless as they saw the devastating scene. Their children were in that school. Were they alive or dead?

The Aberfan disaster claimed 128 lives – 116 children, 4 teachers, the headmistress and 23 local people. The following Thursday there was a mass funeral when the bodies of many who had died were buried side by side in one long grave over which a beautiful memorial was later built. The Aberfan Disaster touched the hearts of people around the world and £1,750,000 was donated to the Disaster Fund.

Aberfan was a man-made disaster and, eventually, the National Coal Board accepted their responsibility. The tip had been sited on a spring and had been poorly managed. Warnings about what could happen had been ignored. Eventually the Board paid families £500 compensation for each child who had died and the Disaster Fund gave them £5000.

To whom can we turn when tragedy strikes? At the heart of the Christian Gospel is a young man called Jesus, the only Son of his heavenly Father, who died a cruel death on a Roman Cross. He died in our place and for our sins. On the third day he rose again. He is uniquely able to help us in the darkest experiences of life because he understands our deepest grief, comforts us when our hearts are broken and gives us a sure hope of eternal life.

Running so as to win the prize

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has been a great event as more than 11,000 athletes, from 206 countries, have competed in 28 sports. Men and women from all over the world have been training for years for the opportunity to win an Olympic medal. The focus of their whole lives has been on Rio 2016. Their personal event is one tiny moment after thousands of hours in practice, dedication and sacrifice in the hope of achieving glory.

21-year-old Adam Peaty from Staffordshire won the gold medal in the 100 metres men’s breaststroke, breaking his own world record. Adam joined the City of Derby swimming club when he was 14 years old. His mother got up at 4am to drive him 40 minutes to Derby, where she would sit and wait for 2 hours while he was training. Then she would drive home before going to work as a nursery manager. In the evening she would do it again. She said, “It was really hard going, I’d have given up many a time. Adam never complained about getting up. If I wanted to stay in bed another hour, he’d say, ‘Come on Mum, champions aren’t made in bed!’” When Adam won the Olympic gold medal both he and his Mum felt that all the sacrifices had been worthwhile.

We all need a purpose in our lives; something to aim for. The first question in the Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” The Bible teaches us that we are all created in the image of God in order to enjoy eternal life in heaven with him. We are not an accident of history, a chance event. Death is not the end because every man and woman in this world was created with an eternal soul. So our lives are to be lived with our ultimate goal in mind.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.”

The Garden of Eden

A research study undertaken by the universities of Westminster and Essex has concluded that tending an allotment is good for our mental health. Just 30 minutes a week spent digging and weeding can improve our mood and sense of self-esteem by reducing tension, depression, anger and confusion. People who work on an allotment also tend to be more physically fit.

One reason why tending an allotment may be a blessing to people is that it takes us back to our origins. The book of Genesis tells us that the first man, Adam, lived in the Garden of Eden. The garden was fertile with many beautiful plants and trees. God gave Adam the task of working in the garden and keeping it. His work was a delight and he and his wife were able to eat the fruit of the trees. Eating the fruit of his work gave Adam great pleasure and satisfaction. Our roots are not in the modern urban sprawl but in the rich abundance of God’s creation.

Tragically the delightful relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was lost when they disobeyed his command and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were sent from the Garden of Eden and from the presence of God. Because of their disobedience they would die and so would every other human being born into this world. Adam’s work became wearying toil. God told him, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

However, it was in another garden that hope dawned when Jesus rose from the dead. After Jesus died on the Cross two of his disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, tenderly laid his body in Joseph’s garden tomb. Early in the morning of the third day Mary Magdalene came to the garden and discovered that the tomb was empty! Jesus had risen from the dead! The tragedy of Eden had been reversed by the victory Jesus won over sin and death. His resurrection offers hope to all in our sad world. In him we find eternal life that will never end. He gives us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

Mo wins gold again!

It was a joy to watch Mo Farah’s victories in the 5000 and 10000 metres races at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing. He is a great champion who delights to run. He has dominated major athletics championships for the past 6 summers. He has won gold medals at three European Championships, three World Championships and one Olympic Games. He was so much in control of the 5000 metres race that he even had time to make a detour for a bottle of water!

Mo has a wonderful story. He was born in Somalia, a country ravaged by a long civil war. His father was British and Mo spent his childhood in Djibouti before moving to Britain when he was 8 years old. His PE teacher at Feltham Community College recognised and encouraged his athletic talent, which was then developed through a local athletics club. Mo’s success has been based on years of sustained and dedicated training. His daily regime is punishing as he strives to reach his full potential and achieve success.

The Bible uses athletics to teach us important lessons about the purpose of life. In a letter to a church at Corinth in Greece, where the Isthmian Games were held, Paul writes, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should.” So Paul lived his whole life in the light of eternity.

It is important for us all to have a clear sense of purpose in our lives. This is far more significant than achieving success in sport or any other field of human activity. It has to do with the kind of people we are and the vision we have for our future. God created us to enjoy life in this world and also to enjoy eternal life with him in heaven. A recent hymn reminds us of this, “For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

Being thankful and content

Many people in the world experience profound suffering and sadness. Sometimes it comes through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis in which people lose everything – loved ones, homes and possessions. Some die from deadly diseases like Ebola. Others perish in the deserts of Africa or the Mediterranean Sea as they flee oppressive regimes and persecution. Some are imprisoned or executed by religious fanatics or megalomaniac rulers.

The pictures of the Rohingya Muslim people on boats in the Andaman Sea vividly portrayed human misery and helplessness. They come from Myanmar where they are not recognized as citizens and face persecution. The people have paid people smugglers to take them to Thailand but have been turned away. Malaysia and Indonesia have also refused to accept them. Men, women and children have been trapped on dilapidated boats with little food or water for weeks. Many are sick and dying. No one seems ready to accept them; they have nowhere to turn.

Watching the report of the people on the boat I felt both a compassion for their plight and a deep thankfulness that I, and my family, have never been in such a terrible situation. We have faced difficulties in our lives but have always had someone to turn to for help. It is easy to complain about relatively minor things that go wrong and not to realize the amazing privileges we enjoy. Seeing the people in the boat puts our problems into their proper perspective.

In the Western world today contentment is very rare. Complaining seems to be the norm in our materialistic society. We are encouraged never to be content with what we have and always to want more. Yet no amount of material possessions can ever bring lasting fulfilment. The apostle Paul wrote, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

Every human being is precious because we have been created in God’s image. When everyone rejects the people in the boats, and they have nowhere to turn, God sees and cares. He hears their cries for help and will hold to account those who are so terribly mistreating them. He is also the one to whom we can give thanks for the many blessings he has given us, none of which we deserve. His greatest gift to a lost and dying world was his Son, Jesus, who came that through him we might have eternal life.