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A father to the fatherless

The Bible teaches us that God is deeply concerned for vulnerable people, and especially widows and orphans. In the Law he commands, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.” The book of Psalms says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” The prophet Isaiah reminded the people of their responsibilities before God, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” In the New Testament, James tells us that true religion is practical, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Wilfried Zaha is a very skilful and successful footballer. He plays for Crystal Palace in the Premier League and internationally for Ivory Coast. Recently he spoke about being homeless when he was 6 years old. One day an older brother met him from school and took him to a shelter where his whole family was now staying. His family had lost their home. Later they stayed with relatives until they were given a three-bedroomed house where the family of 11 people lived. Wilfried shared a bedroom with his 5 brothers. He says, “I have been that kid who had nothing and now I have the opportunity to help people, so why not?”

When he was 16 Wilfried signed his first professional contract and vowed to donate 10% of his earnings to an orphanage in Daloa, Ivory Coast, called “Tomorrow’s Hope”, that is run by his sister, Carine. He says, “Me and my mum would pray and say to God, ‘You have done this for me, I am going to give back’. My family, especially my mum, are heavily Christian, so it felt like a duty to help. I feel like my life is a testament to God helping me – 100 per cent. So as soon as I was able to help, I helped. That’s why, with everything that’s going on now, if I have the opportunity to help out, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Wilfried doesn’t like speaking about donating a percentage of his wages to the orphanage, “I haven’t spoken about it much, because it’s a duty for me. I have been there, and I just want to help. I thank God he blessed me with the opportunity to be a footballer and now I have the things I couldn’t have as a child.”

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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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Now thank we all our God

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony, at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, which was fought between 1618 and 1648. It is estimated that between 4.5 and 8 million people, both military and civilians, died in that war, most from disease and starvation. In some parts of Germany as many as 60% of the population may have died. Many people sought refuge in the walled city of Eilenburg, which led to severe overcrowding, a deadly plague and famine. The city was overrun three times by armies. Pastor Rinkart opened his home as a refuge for the victims but was hard-pressed even to provide for his family.

By 1637 Pastor Rinkart was the only surviving pastor in Eilenburg and was totally committed to meeting the massive needs of the people around him. In that year he took more than 4,000 funerals, including his own wife’s funeral. Sometimes he conducted as many as 50 funerals in a day. It was heart-breaking pastoral work as social and political unrest induced daily fear as the pandemic threatened people’s lives and livelihoods. People were desperate to find light and hope.

At that time Pastor Rinkart, who was a prolific hymnwriter, wrote a hymn to help the people and to point them to God in the midst of the most terrible suffering. The hymn has been translated into English and continues to be sung today by millions of people around the world. The great theme of the hymn is thankfulness to God for all the blessings he has graciously bestowed on us. The hymn speaks to us as we continue to struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic. It reminds us of the living God who “frees us from all ills in this world and the next.”

These are the words of the hymn Pastor Rinkart wrote, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next. All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, and him who reigns, with them in highest heaven. The one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

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Through my own fault

Frank Bough, who died recently, was described by his colleagues as a “consummate broadcaster”. For many years he presented BBC’s Saturday afternoon sports programme, Grandstand, and later the early-evening news programme Nationwide. His calmness and easy style made him very popular and, in 1983, he was chosen to present the BBC’s new breakfast show which became a great success.

Frank was a very able man. He grew up in Shropshire and was educated at Oswestry High School from where he went to Merton College, Oxford. He won a football Blue as a centre half, played county hockey for Shropshire and played league cricket. However, his career with the BBC came to a sudden end in 1988 when tabloid newspapers exposed sexual indiscretions and drug taking in his private life. In 1992, following further revelations of his private life, Frank said, “A lot of men are stupid. I am among the most stupid. The prime object now is to keep the family together.” With the loving support of his wife and three sons, Frank survived these crises and continued to work for Sky and ITV.

In 2001 Frank was diagnosed with cancer, had a liver transplant and retired from broadcasting. Looking back on his experiences he said, “The pain never, never goes away. I will never, never forget it. Having said all that, I have to say very loudly, ‘Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’” This Latin phrase means, “Through my own fault, through my most grievous fault.”

As I read about Frank’s life a parable of Jesus came to mind which tells of two men going to the Temple to pray. One was a proud, religious leader who in his prayer told God what a good man he was. The other man was a tax collector who had betrayed his own people by collecting taxes for the hated Romans who occupied Israel. The tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” The tax collector was in a place to which we must all come if we are to know God and experience his forgiveness. All of us have sinned; we all “fall short of God’s glorious standard”, and it’s our own fault. Jesus’ conclusion of the parable is good news for all who feel the deep pain of their past sins. He said that God heard the tax collector’s prayer and that very day he went home forgiven and in a right relationship with God.

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When life changes

I have a friend who has experienced a number of life-changing events. Kristian grew up in Barry in South Wales. His father suffered from mental health issues and the family home was a place of fear and guilt. Kristian felt guilty because he couldn’t stop the violence against his mother. He also experienced bullying at school, but he was very good at football, and when he was on the pitch, he didn’t have any worries.

The first big change in Kristian’s life happened in his early teens. He started playing for Cardiff Academy then Swansea and played internationally for Wales. When he was 15, he was signed by Crystal Palace and moved to London. The football club looked after everything for him and even paid him while he was still in school. Kristian was being recognised as a technically gifted midfield/central defender. He had lots of money and was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Then he broke his ankle very badly. Despite the best possible treatment his ankle didn’t fully heal, and it soon became clear to him that, at the age of 20, his football career was over. He was devastated but threw himself into building a successful business career. He was determined to regain the money and lifestyle he had had in football. He returned to Barry, married his girlfriend and had a family. He bought a big house, had nice cars, expensive holidays and extravagant things he bought for himself and his family. He was successful and happy.

Kristian wasn’t expecting the next, and biggest change, in his life. His wife, Carla, started going to a mums and tots’ group at a local church and soon became a Christian. Kristian didn’t like her talking about her Saviour Jesus but could see that she had completely changed and was so caring towards him. Reluctantly Kristian went to some church services. As he listened to one sermon he said, “Suddenly I realised that God loved me. I realised that Jesus had come to this world to live the perfect life and that he died on the cross to take the punishment I deserved.”

Kristian and Carla now live in a village near Hereford with their 5 children where Kristian is the minister of a small church. He says, “I once had thought that contentment was to be found by having the best and the latest stuff, but I’ve realised that life is more than that. Life is about a relationship with God and knowing his love and forgiveness through Jesus. That is something that will last.”

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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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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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A precious gift from God

We have had an addition to our family. Our youngest daughter gave birth three weeks ago to her first child, a little boy. My wife and I are thankful to God that they are both safe and well. This baby is a precious gift from God. We have seen him but have not yet held him because of the present restrictions. We are thankful for the excellent care our daughter received from the consultant and midwife during her pregnancy and, especially, their skills during a difficult delivery.

During our daughter’s pregnancy it was lovely to see the scan photos of the baby in the womb and to see him growing and developing. Those photos reminded us of King David’s words in Psalm 139, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful; I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Every human life is precious and little babies are vulnerable and dependent. We are praying for our daughter and son-in-law to have wisdom as they bring up their son. We do not know what the future holds for them or for this world. But whatever the future holds we know that God is faithful and that he is the One who guides both the history of the world and our personal histories. A Christian song says, “I know who holds the future and he’ll guide me with his hand. With God things don’t just happen everything by him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to him my all.”

The birth of a little boy in Bethlehem, more than 2000 years ago, brought light to this dark world. His birth was the dawn of hope and a revelation of God’s love for the peoples of the world. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We pray that our new grandson will one day realise God’s love for him in Jesus and receive the gift of eternal life.

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The life and faith of Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby was a prolific hymn writer who wrote more than 9000 hymns. Remarkably, she did this despite being blind from a very early age. When she was 6 weeks old, Fanny caught a cold and a quack doctor prescribed hot mustard poultices for her inflamed eyes which resulted in her becoming totally blind. Her father died when she was 10 months old and her mother, Mercy, was forced to work as a maid to support the family. Fanny was mostly raised by Eunice, her Christian grandmother.

When Eunice heard that nothing could be done about Fanny’s blindness she said, “Then I will be her eyes.” She taught Fanny about the wonderful colours in nature and all the things she could not see. She also encouraged her to memorise Bible passages. Fanny memorised 5 chapters a week and, when still a child, had memorised whole books from the Bible. In 1835, when she was 15 years old, Fanny was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind. She lived there for 23 years: 12 as a student and 11 as a teacher.

Fanny accepted her blindness without bitterness against the doctor or against God. When she was 8 years old, she wrote a poem: “Oh, what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be. How many blessings I enjoy, that other people don’t; to weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot, and I won’t!” Her love for Jesus gave her great inner strength. She said, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour.”

Fanny expressed her faith in Jesus in her hymns so that others, too, might know her Saviour. Here are some memorable lines from her hymns. “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God; the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine: O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.” “All the way my Saviour leads me: what have I to ask beside? Can I doubt his tender mercy, who through life has been my guide? Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, here by faith in him to dwell! For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.”

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Finding forgiveness

The lives of some well-known people are coming under critical scrutiny. In the past statues have been erected to men who did notable things that benefited the societies in which they lived. Now, however, attention is being drawn to the bad things they did, including being involved in or supporting the evil slave trade.

William Gladstone was a 19th century Liberal politician who is the only person to have been British prime minister on four separate occasions. After slavery was abolished in Britain, Gladstone campaigned for slave owners, such as his father, to be compensated. Later he called slavery the “foulest crime” in British history. His family, who are not opposing the removal of his statute in Hawarden, have said, “By 1850, he was a changed man and cited the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.”

The lives of us all are a mixture of both good and bad things. Some of the things we have done are very seriously wrong, but should we be forever defined by these bad things or is it possible to really change and become a different person?

When we critically judging the actions of others, we also need to look at ourselves. Jesus warned against hypocritical judgement saying, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Final judgement belongs to God who judges justly. Our sins matter and no-one will escape his righteous judgement. Yet, in Jesus, God also reveals his mercy and grace. Every sin can be forgiven, and the experience of God’s forgiveness is life changing. In Psalm 130 the psalmist is in the depths of despair because of his sinful failures and cries out to God for mercy. He says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”