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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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The love that transforms

Last week a man suddenly threatened to blow up the Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, where a prisoner rehabilitation conference, organised by Cambridge University, was being held. He then began attacking people with two knives. The man, who had been convicted of a terror offence, was invited to attend the conference. He had served half his 16-year sentence and had been released on licence in 2018 with an electronic tag. The man moved on to London Bridge where he was restrained by members of the public and then shot by the police. Two people were killed and 3 were injured.

As one hate-filled man was trying to kill people, others showed great courage in seeking to save lives. Lukasz from Poland, who works as a chef at Fishmongers’ Hall, bought time for others to escape by fighting the terrorist with a narwhal tusk he pulled off the wall. Despite being stabbed 5 times, he continued to confront the man. His actions, and those of others who confronted the terrorist, undoubtedly saved lives.

Tragically two young people who were attending the conference died. Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were involved with Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme for prisoner rehabilitation. Jack’s father said, “Jack: you were a beautiful spirit. You lived your principles; believing in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and always took the side of the underdog. Cambridge lost a proud son and champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.” He went on to say that Jack “would not wish his death to be used as a pretext for more draconian sentences or to detain people unnecessarily.”

Jesus was a man who was committed to helping and changing people. He is still doing that today by the power of the Holy Spirit. During his ministry many people who had failed in life, and wanted to change, were drawn to him. He loved them and gave them new hope. Knowing him and experiencing his love changed them. Jesus died not for his own sins, but for ours. He laid down his life that we might know God and receive the gift of eternal life. He loves people who are his enemies and changes their hearts so that they truly love him. The apostle Paul was an enemy of Jesus, but he was changed. Seeing the transformation in him Christians were amazed and said, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!”

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God cares about you

Mental health is in the news. More people in Britain than ever before are experiencing depression and anxiety. In 2018 a total of 71 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were dispensed in England. This is almost double the number dispensed in 2008. The trend in other parts of Britain is similar. GPs fully investigate a patient’s circumstances and other alternatives, such as talking therapy, before prescribing anti-depressants and many people find their mental health improves when they take them.

This time of year creates additional anxiety for many people. The days are shorter and darker and financial pressures increase with Black Friday sales and the cost of paying for Christmas. Many people are already in debt and this is likely to increase in the coming weeks. The general election has added to the stress and the uncertainty about Brexit. The parties are displaying a greater level of hostility to one another and the genuine interests of different groups within our society are being set against each other. People are divided and there are fears for the future.

Jesus spoke about anxiety and how we can cope with it. He lived at a time when his country was under Roman rule and harsh taxes were imposed on the people. So Jesus reminded the people about God’s care for them, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

The best talking therapy is talking to God in prayer. He knows us, cares about us and is willing and able to help us. The apostle Peter said, “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.”

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Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up 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 these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

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The peace that passes all understanding

On a recent Songs of Praise programme Simon Thomas spoke about the way in which God has given him strength since his wife Gemma died in November 2017. Simon became well-known to millions of people as a Blue Peter presenter before moving to Sky Sports news, becoming a lead presenter of Football League and Premier League programmes. In November 2017 his wife Gemma, who was also a Christian, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just 3 days later. Simon and his 8-year-old son, Ethan, were devasted. At that time Simon said, “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. If you pray – please pray for my boy Ethan, precious and in bits.”

On Songs of Praise Simon said he had never truly understood the “peace that passes all understanding.” He said, “I just thought it was a nice place to be, but actually it’s because you feel that sense of peace in almost impossible situations in which to find peace.” In the three days after Gemma was diagnosed, he said, “Everything’s coming at you – we’re wondering what on earth acute myeloid leukaemia is, and is she going to survive? Yet I experienced peace, amidst the noise and fear, that gives me the hope that one day I’m going to see her again.”

Simon continued, “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on, and yet at times that’s impossible to get your head around and to draw comfort from. At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith because it gives direction to everything else. It was the glue in our marriage, and it helps in terms of how we, and now I, bring up Ethan. You know, it’s the reference point for my life.

A hymn was sung at the Thanksgiving Service for Gemma which was also sung at Simon and Gemma’s wedding. The words of the hymn meant a lot to both Simon and Gemma and have given Simon strength since Gemma died. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand, till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

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The call for justice

The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong have brought back memories of the Tiananmen Square protests in May 1989. On 9 June more than one million people in Hong Kong marched against a controversial extradition bill which, if approved, would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Three days later, Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at a crowd of hundreds of thousands surrounding a government complex. On 15 June Hong Kong’s leader decided to suspend the bill rather than scrapping it. The next day two million people took to the streets in protest calling for her resignation.

In 1989 in Tiananmen Square, in central Beijing, hundreds if not thousands of unarmed peaceful pro-democracy protesters were massacred and tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across China were arrested. The Chinese authorities have never disclosed the total number of people detained, tried or executed throughout China since the 1989 crackdown. Even today the authorities forbid all mention of the protest. One image that symbolised the Tiananmen Square protest is of a lone man in a white shirt carrying shopping bags standing in front of a tank sent to disperse protesters. It was a David and Goliath moment!

People protests against longstanding political leaders are happening in many countries including France, Algeria, Venezuela, Haiti, Sudan, Georgia and the Czech Republic. Ordinary people are standing together to protest against corruption and the abuse of power and to call for justice.

God is passionately concerned about justice. His people were once slaves in Egypt and were ruthlessly oppressed with forced labour. The Egyptian midwives were told to kill all Hebrew boy babies. In their suffering the people cried out to God and he heard them. He raised up Moses who confronted Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler of the day, demanding that he let God’s people go. God rescued his people and set them free. Today God holds all people responsible for their actions and he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice.

God is also merciful. None of us is able to stand before God’s judgement and be declared righteous. So, God, against whom we have all rebelled, in love sent his Son, Jesus, to deal with our sins by dying in our place. His death satisfied the demands of God’s justice and offers mercy and forgiveness to us all. Through the cross on which his Son died God shows us that he is fair and just and also makes sinful people right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

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The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

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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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No change my heart shall fear

We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.

Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.

Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.

When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “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? 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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Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.