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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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Finding contentment

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has led many people to reassess their situations. The length of the lockdown and continuing uncertainty about the future have had a significant impact on people’s jobs and young people’s plans for employment training and university courses. Many people are experiencing mental health problems. The “new normal” will be very different from the past. The impact of lockdown on many people’s lives has been negative.

During lockdown Billy Vunipola, who plays international rugby for England, has engaged in serious self-reflection. He has suffered injuries and experienced the disappointment of losing the Rugby World Cup 2019 final to South Africa. He says that during the Rugby World Cup “his head was in the clouds” and feels he has to grow up and set a better example to others. He feels that during the tournament he personally let England down and failed to support his brother Mako, who also plays for England. He has apologised to his team-mates and his brother and now wants to make up for lost time.

Billy, and his brother Mako, were born in Tonga. Their parents were Christians and from an early age they taught their children the priorities of life – God, school and rugby. Billy recognised that in recent years his priorities had changed and spoke to his parents. He said, “I always looked to blame someone else or something else and I finally realised, when I spoke to my parents, that I need to take ownership. Those guys never lie to me. It was hard to look at myself and I didn’t want to take ownership for things that I did. It’s hard to admit it sometimes and tell people around you that you are wrong.”

Billy has spoken about how he has rediscovered his faith in Jesus Christ. Despite being prevented from playing rugby, he has found contentment because of his faith in God. He said, “I went back to what I had been taught all my life about Jesus: whatever we do, whether we are playing rugby, or we’ve just woken up, we say thank you to God. Everything is a gift. Everything I have has been given to me; even my talent is a gift from God. I’m thankful for this gift. Knowing that Jesus is with me makes me a stronger person. I know that whatever I try to do, even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always have Jesus to lean back on. I know there is more to life than winning and losing rugby games. Everything I do must be backed up by the love of Christ.”

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Our lives have meaning

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

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

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

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

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I am with you always

The Remembrance Services this year have been deeply moving as we have remembered the millions of people who died in the World Wars of the 20th century, and especially in the Great War of 1914-1918. The casualty statistics are hard to take in. In the Great War 65 million men were mobilised across Europe: more than 8 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died and 21 million were wounded. Many soldiers from countries in the Commonwealth, including India, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Africa and the West Indies also died. In the Battle of the Somme, 1 July to 18 November 2016, 1 million people on all sides were killed. British forces suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day, of whom more than 19000 were killed.

Theo Chadburn, a miner from Sheffield, was a member of the Salvation Army and played in the band. He served at Ypres and, 3 days before he died, wrote a letter to his wife Lily in which he said, “I believe that every day I learn more of his goodness.” He told her that on Easter Day 1918 he saw 150 soldiers go forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour and said, “It was the best Easter Sunday night meeting I have ever spent. I was greatly blessed.”

Albert Penn came from Hasland, near Chesterfield. He was married to Florence who was expecting their first child. They met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the village where Albert led the boys’ Bible class and Florence led the girls’ class. They were enjoying their first home and looking forward to the sharing the rest of their lives together. But the war changed all that. In 1916 Albert volunteered and was told to come back when their baby, Mary Estelle, was 3 months old. He did and was killed on 30 October 1917 at Passchendaele when Mary was just 11 months old. He was 28 years old and his body was never found.

A wounded solider, who had been a member of Albert’s Bible class at home, told the family that he had seen Albert standing in an open field with a Bible in his hand talking to the young soldiers and then leading them in singing the hymn “Rejoice the Lord is King!” Five days later Albert and his regiment went over the top and he died. His granddaughter said, “I know that, in that terrible time, it wasn’t so much that he kept his faith in God, but that the God in whom he trusted kept him.”

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Treasure on earth or treasure in heaven?

As many of the world’s wealthiest people gathered at Davos recently for the World Economic Forum, Oxfam International published a report calling for action to address the growing gap between rich and poor. The report reveals that the 42 richest people in the world own as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people who live in the poorer half of the world. 8 billionaires possess the same wealth as 50% of the world’s population.

Between 2006 and 2015 the wealth of billionaires rose by an average of 13% per year, a total of £550bn, enough to end extreme poverty in the world seven times over. The founder of Amazon is now the richest man in the world because an increase in the Wall Street stock market in the first 10 days of 2017 saw his personal wealth increase by £4.3bn. So, is being rich the key to happiness in this life and in eternity?

A rich young ruler once came to Jesus and, falling on his knees, asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.'” The man declared, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Many of those who live in poverty, surviving on a dollar a day, are richer than the richest people on earth because they have put their faith and hope in God. Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”