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Facing our fears

Fear is in the air. During the pandemic many people have been afraid of catching the virus, of being seriously ill and even dying. Every day we are told on national television how many people are infected and how many have died. Some scientists are forecasting a very difficult winter ahead with more people dying from the virus and from seasonal flu. At the COP26 Climate Change Conference some scientists have projected the devastating consequences of global warming. Unless world leaders act now it will be too late.

Young people are being especially impacted by fear. They look to people like Greta Thunberg who has become a global voice on climate change. She is disdainful of the broken promises of world leaders to effect change while saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” Greta says, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Fear can be a good response. Good parents teach their children to be careful crossing roads because they may be knocked down by a car. They teach their children that fire burns and that electricity can give them a nasty shock. Such fear protects us from danger. It only does us good. But fear can also paralyse us, especially when there is little we can do to avoid the danger, and our safety depends totally on the actions of others. This fear is increased when people constantly tell us there is no God. We are on our own in this vast universe and there’s no one there to help.

The Bible tells us that knowing the living God enables us to face our fears. David, who was a courageous man, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” In a time of national crisis, God spoke to the people through the prophet Isaiah, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” In Psalm 23 David says that when the Lord is our shepherd, we can even face death without fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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Be near me when I’m dying

The House of Lords has been debating the Assisted Dying Bill that proposes making a new law to enable adults who are of sound mind and have six months or less to live to be provided with life-ending medication. The person wanting to end their life would have to sign a declaration approved by two doctors, which would be signed off by the High Court. The bill is being proposed by Baroness Meacher who said that it would help a “small but significant number of dying people avoid unwanted suffering at the end of life”. The proposed law would mean that helping a person to plan for an assisted death would no longer be a criminal offence.

Anyone who has cared for a loved one who is terminally ill will understand the pain and heartache this involves. I am visiting two very good friends who are very seriously ill. They are being lovingly cared for by their families and are being supported by excellent palliative care teams. Everything possible is being done to help them and their loved ones to cope with a very difficult situation. It is a privilege to be able to come alongside them and their families at this time knowing that one day I too will have to face death. We talk together, read the Bible, and pray to God, our heavenly Father, who helps us in a way no other can as we face death.

David’s words in Psalm 23 have been a great comfort to countless people, “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.” As we face death we can feel very alone. We leave those we love so much and must pass through that dark valley on our own. The Lord, who is the good Shepherd, knows our fears and promises that he will be with us to keep us safe and bring us into the presence of our heavenly Father.

The death and resurrection of Jesus were decisive and give us a sure hope. The apostle Paul told the early Christians that Jesus, our Saviour, “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” A well-known hymn about Jesus dying on the cross says, “Be near me when I’m dying: O show thy cross to me; thy death, my hope supplying, from death shall set me free. These eyes, new faith receiving from Jesus shall not move; for those who die believing die safely through Thy love.”

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Love your enemies

Sadly, there are many examples of hatred in our world today. Hatred between peoples leads to conflict, such as the present hostilities between Israel and Hamas. In Africa inter-tribal conflicts blight the lives of many people. The systematic persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China seeks to rob them of their human dignity. Many Rohingya people in Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh because of the brutal military regime in Myanmar. Some people use social media as a vehicle for hateful messages and threats of violence.

In Britain legislation has been enacted against “hate crimes”. The Metropolitan Police define a hate crime as, “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.” This can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property.

In the hostile worlds of both the 1st and 21st centuries the teaching of Jesus is radical and challenging. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus not only commanded us to love our enemies, but he also exemplified it. He came to bring reconciliation in the face of the deep-seated hostility between human beings and God. Even in the hearts of apparently respectable people there can be a deep hostility against God. Yet God, who could justly condemn us, sent his Son to be our Saviour. On the Cross God made Jesus, who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The Cross was a place of deep hatred as Jesus’ enemies tried to destroy him. Yet as he hung on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The life and teaching of Jesus shines a bright light of hope into the darkness of our world.

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The light shines in darkness

Are you one of those people who really looks forward to Christmas? It’s a special time as the Christmas celebrations brighten up the long dark days of winter. It’s a joy to gather our family and friends together to spend quality time with each other. But, because of Covid-19, Christmas 2020 will be different. Although some restrictions have been eased large family gatherings are not permitted. People are getting ready for a “digital” Christmas.

Yet the wonderful thing about Christmas is that, whatever our circumstances, the Person who is at the centre of it all can fill our lives with joy and peace and hope. Jesus Christ was born in a lowly stable in busy Bethlehem in the middle of winter. Hardly anyone noticed as his teenage mother gave birth to her first-born son, but the birth of Jesus shone light into a dark world and that same light still shines into the darkness that sometimes invades our lives. Phillips Brooks’ carol “O little town of Bethlehem” says, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The world into which Jesus was born was evil and dangerous. Not long after he was born, King Herod tried to kill him and wickedly ordered that all the little boys aged two years or under in Bethlehem and its vicinity should be slaughtered. Many mothers were broken hearted at the loss of their babies and little children. The young Jesus only escaped the slaughter because Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt for safety, taking him with them, and remained there until Herod died.

Thankfully, when Christmas focuses on Jesus it is can never be diminished or cancelled. In fact, the wonderful message about Jesus speaks powerfully into the darkest places of our lives. Seven hundred years before his birth the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Phillips Brooks’ carol closes with a prayer, “O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.”

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Aslan is 70!

Aslan is 70! C. S. Lewis’ popular children’s story “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was published in 1950. Aslan is the name of Lion, who is the hero of the story. The story is about four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, who, during World War II, were sent to live in a large house in the country. One rainy day Lucy is exploring the house and finds an enormous wardrobe in one of the spare rooms. When she steps inside it, she finds herself in a strange snowy wood. She is in Narnia, a land of talking animals and mythical creatures that is ruled by the evil White Witch. The White Witch claims to be the Queen of Narnia and has put a spell on the land so that it is “always winter and never Christmas.”

On Lucy’s second visit to Narnia her brother Edmund follows her. He meets the White Witch who gives him enchanted Turkish Delight and encourages him to bring his brothers and sisters to meet her. Edmund’s greed and gluttony bring him under the power of the White Witch who wants to kill him and his brothers and sisters. The only one who can set Edmund free is Aslan, who is the true King of Narnia. When the White Witch realises that Aslan has come to Narnia, she determines to kill Edmund at the Stone Table because he is a traitor. In order to rescue Edmund, Aslan agrees to sacrifice his life on the Stone Table in Edmund’s place. The White Witch and her followers torment, humiliate and then kill Aslan.

Susan and Lucy are heart-broken and stay all night with Aslan’s dead body. In the morning, they hear a great cracking noise and are amazed to see the Stone Table broken. Aslan has disappeared but then, suddenly, they hear his voice behind them. Aslan had arisen from the dead. He carries the girls to the Witch’s castle where they set all the prisoners free and kill the Witch. Narnia is no longer under her power and Aslan crowns the children, including Edmund, Kings and Queens of Narnia.

Lewis’ story is based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In this world there is a very real battle between good and evil. Like Edmund it is very easy for us to be led astray and to become helpless slaves to evil. Because of his great love Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to set us free from the power of evil by his death in our place and his triumphant resurrection.

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Hope in a world of injustice

Many people in the world today are experiencing injustice. In Hong Kong tens of thousands protested against the postponement of the planned election and Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong. They face long prison sentences. In Minsk, Belarus, thousands demonstrated against the alleged vote-rigging in the recent re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. They face heavy fines and imprisonment. In Russia the opposition politician Alexi Navalny has been poisoned. In Xinjiang, China, more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in ‘re-education’ camps in an attempt to force them into being more obedient to the Communist party.

Throughout history power has been used to oppress people and to deny them justice. Three thousand years ago, as King Solomon surveyed the world of his time, he wrote about the injustices he saw, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

God is just. The Bible makes it very clear that there will be a Final Judgment at which all people who have ever been born will appear. The oppressors and tyrants will not escape divine justice because we are all “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” When the Apostle Paul was speaking in the sophisticated ancient city of Athens, which prided itself on its wisdom and its broad-minded worship of many gods, he told them that God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed and has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

God is also gracious and compassionate. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of sinful people. By his death he paid the price of our sins and satisfied the demands of divine justice. The hymnwriter, William Rees, wrote, “On the Mount of Crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide. Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in 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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Love and life in Jesus

On Easter Sunday terror came to Sri Lanka. Coordinated bomb attacks on churches in the capital Colombo, and other towns, killed and seriously injured many people. Hotels were also attacked. The bombs were timed to go off when the churches were packed with worshippers rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. At least 290 people have died, and more than 500 have been injured. Those who died include people from at least 8 other nations. These bombings are the deadliest violence since the end of the civil war in 2009 and the whole country is in shock. In many churches around the world people prayed for those caught up in these atrocities.

The Easter message speaks very powerfully into the tragic events in Sri Lanka. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who were responsible for his death, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He had taught his disciples to love their enemies and demonstrated this in the midst of his own profound sufferings. He told his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake but said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

On Easter Day Christians rejoice that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died. His resurrection was witnessed by many of his disciples, both men and women, and transformed them. When he died their hopes had died but when they saw their risen Lord they were filled with joy. Jesus sent them out into the world to proclaim to all people the good news of his resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross.

The hope that Christians have of being raised to eternal life is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. His promise is “because I live you also will live.” He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So, the Easter message of love and life in Jesus declares that evil and hatred will not ultimately triumph. As one Easter hymn proclaims, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered!”

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Light and life

The recent Spring-like weather has been a real blessing to us all. The warm sunny days have lifted our spirits and have been an anticipation of the summer months to come. The spring flowers have come early this year. The delicate snowdrops, the bold colours of the crocuses and the bright yellow of the daffodils are beautiful signs of nature coming to life after the cold, dark days of winter. It is a time of light and life as the days begin to lengthen again.

We were created to live in the light because God, who gave us life, is light. In the majestic creation story in the book of Genesis God’s first command was, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and God saw that the light was good. Later he created the sun, moon and stars. On the darkest night the light of the moon and twinkling stars can be seen. They speak to us about God.

In Psalm 19 the psalmist is moved to worship as he reflects on the awesome creation in which he and all people on earth live, “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.”

There is a deep sadness at the heart of our Western society because we have turned away from God. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” But many people rejected him, and still do, and the consequences are plain to see. Jesus spoke about the importance of “coming to the light.” He said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

Springtime speaks eloquently to us about God and invites us to come to him to find the light and life for which we were created and which we all so desperately need to rediscover.

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The love of money

There is an epidemic of child gambling. The Gambling Commission says that 450,000 children aged 11-16 bet regularly of whom 55,000 are “problem” gamblers. This represents a quadrupling of child problem gamblers in two years. The average stake is £16 a week each. Experts blame the sharp increase on the explosion of television adverts. Betting company adverts dominate the commercial breaks in televised Premier League football matches. 60% of the teams in the Premier League and Championship now have betting companies’ names on their shirts and receive large sums of money for doing so.

The exploitation of children and others by betting companies is shameless and is attended by hypocrisy. Betting companies say, “It means more when you have a bet on it” and “Betting should only enhance the enjoyment.” Even while encouraging people to place a bet, including offers of a free first bet, they encourage people to “bet responsibly” and say, “When the fun stops, stop.” In an effort to reduce gambling addiction Italy and Albania have recently placed restrictions on the activities of betting companies and football teams.

Betting companies make big profits for their owners and shareholders and most gamblers lose money they can’t afford to lose. I remember meeting a young man who had received compensation for serious injuries he had sustained in a road accident. A good friend had died in the accident. He told me he had been depressed and had started gambling online. When he lost money he would place another bet in the hope of recouping his losses. In a short time he lost all the money he had received. Some young problem gamblers have even taken their own lives.

In perfect justice, God will judge those who use their wealth and power to exploit the poor and vulnerable. The book of Proverbs says, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.” We all need to guard against the temptation to want to be rich and to help and protect young people who are being tempted. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”