When I am afraid

Britain is due to leave the European Union on 29 March. It will be a time of great change for the country and many things about the future are uncertain. During the debate about leaving the European Union the phrase “Project Fear” has been used by those who want to leave the EU. They have accused those who wish to remain of trying to frighten people into voting to stay because leaving will lead to catastrophic consequences. The fears include our currency being devalued, prices going up, jobs being lost and travel becoming more difficult.

Fear is a powerful emotion which is not easy to handle. It is a natural response to anything that might be dangerous, painful or harmful. We may respond to fear by fighting, fleeing or freezing. Fear can be a positive emotion that protects us from danger. Parents teach their children to be careful when crossing the road in case they are knocked over by a car. People walking near the edge of a high cliff take care in case they fall.

The Bible speaks of fear and shows us how to handle our fears. King David wrote Psalm 56 when he had been captured by his enemies and was in great danger. He said, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise – in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?” The great antidote to fear is faith – trusting in God. It is not easy to know who to trust. People trust nurses, doctors and teachers to tell them the truth but levels of trust in politicians, journalists and bankers are low.

Jesus often told people not to be afraid. A religious leader once came to Jesus begging for help because his only daughter, who was just 12 years old, was dying. Jesus agreed to help him but as they were on their way to the leader’s house some men came with news that the little girl had died. The leader was devastated. Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid, just trust me.” When they came to the house Jesus raised the little girl to life.

Edward Bickersteth’s hymn encourages us to put our trust in Jesus. “Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown? Jesus we know, and he is on the throne. Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours? Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers. It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease, and Jesus calls us to heaven’s perfect peace.”

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.

A time for giving and receiving

The days leading up to Christmas are very busy. There are cards to write and send and presents to find and buy. It is an exciting time, especially for children. This year times are hard for many people and they have less money to spend. There are already many special offers in the shops. Many families are apprehensive about how they will afford the cost of Christmas, but are still looking forward to precious time together.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving. At Christmas we want to give special gifts to those we love. This need not involve great expense. We want to express our love in a gift which has been carefully planned and which we know they will really like. Christmas morning is eagerly awaited, and not only by the children!

At the first Christmas God gave a very special gift to the people of his world. It is the greatest gift ever given. Then, as now, the world was a sad place with many troubles. The Roman Empire dominated many nations, including Israel, and most people were poor. Jesus came, not to solve the problems of the day, but to solve the biggest problem we all face – our sinful hearts and lives. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord!” Our sins spoil our relationship with God and separate us from him. Jesus came to reconcile us to God by living a sinless life and dying on the cross for our sins. The name Jesus means “Saviour!” God, against whom we have all rebelled, took the initiative by giving his only Son to be our Saviour.

Opening a present from someone we love brings great joy. Parents enjoy watching their children opening their present and seeing their delight when they see what it is. The child’s instinctive response is to give their parents a hug and to tell them they love them. Have you ever responded to God’s gift of Jesus like that? Do you love God for giving you such an amazing gift? It brings great joy to God when anyone receives Jesus as their Saviour. This Christmas, like the shepherds, why not take time to receive Jesus, God’s gift to you, and to thank him for his love to you.

To us a Son is given

Christmas is a special time as people around the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth was prophesied hundreds of years before he was born. The prophet Micah said where he would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” The prophet Isaiah spoke about his special conception: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah also said this child would be a gift from God: “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.”

Now more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, he is still remembered with joy and thanksgiving by countless people from many nations. Christmas carols will be heard in shopping centres, schools will have nativity plays and many people who don’t normally go to church will attend carol services. The focus will be on this special child who was born so long ago. Well-known carols explain why his coming was so important.

Jesus brought light into this dark world: “O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Angels, and the very creation itself, rejoiced at his birth: “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth.”

Jesus has transformed the lives of countless people and is still changing lives today. This Christmas many will come to know him for the first time: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in. 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”

Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

We will remember them

At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.

This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.

In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

When we are in debt

Christmas has passed, the decorations have been taken down and life is returning to normal. Yet for many people living in Britain January is a worrying month because the bills for Christmas will soon arrive. Millions of people are entering 2018 with a debt hanging over them because they overspent during the festive period. One advice line estimates that 7.9 million people are likely to fall behind with their finances in January because of credit card debt incurred over Christmas.

Being in debt is oppressive. I remember visiting a man who was in debt. He had been injured in a car accident and had lost his job. The debts had begun to accumulate and he was unable to pay them. The bank had refused to increase his overdraft and the red letters, with their demands and threats, were arriving regularly. He no longer opened letters from the companies to which he owed money. Debt had paralysed him and filled him with fear for the future. He felt very alone and had seriously considered ending his life.

When we are in debt we need to seek help. I was able to come alongside the man and to work out with him ways to begin to address his debts. In time, all his debts were cleared and he was able to move to a new flat. A great burden had been lifted from him and he was able to enjoy life again. Organisations like Christians Against Poverty offer practical help to people overwhelmed by debt enabling them to manage their repayments and, in time, to be debt-free.

When I visited the man I was also able to pray with him and to ask God to help him. God is just and is particularly concerned for the poor and for widows and orphans. He sees the oppression of the poor and vulnerable through immorally high interest rates and he will call such lenders to account. God also provides for us in our need. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition is not only for our food but for all our daily needs. God is the One who gives us all good gifts. If you are overwhelmed by debt, ask God to help you. In Psalm 34 the Psalmist says, “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles.”

I was a stranger and you took me in

The birth of Jesus brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but it also involved significant trauma. The news that Mary was pregnant seriously threatened her reputation for purity and integrity in her home village of Nazareth. The circumstances of the birth were extremely difficult as Mary gave birth to her first child in a stable, in a strange town, without the support of family and friends. Then, soon after the birth, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So they left Bethlehem at night and went to Egypt to live in exile while Herod sent soldiers to kill all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. It was several years before Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to their home village of Nazareth.

In our world today there are many people who have left their home countries in fear of their lives. Some have been threatened by those with political power, others fear religious persecution. They have experienced significant trauma in leaving their home country, family and friends and settling in a strange place. They still face a very uncertain future.

In both the Old and New Testaments God commands his people to welcome strangers and to be kind to them. The reason for this is that the Jews had suffered as slaves in Egypt until God delivered them, setting them free and giving them a home of their own. Many of the early Christians also experienced persecution and had to flee to places of safety. The kindness we show to people from other countries living amongst us is a response to the kindness we have experienced from God.

A few years ago, a young couple from the Middle East arrived in Britain as refugees. They were facing persecution in their own country. When they arrived in Britain they were detained in separate holding centres. It was their first experience of Britain and they were afraid, especially as the wife was expecting her first child. In the holding centre she was given a Bible and read these words from Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” God spoke to her through these words and gave her hope and his peace.

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah

This month rugby fans around Britain have gathered for the Autumn International matches. One of the features of matches played in Cardiff is that the Welsh supporters sing hymns, especially “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.” In the past male voice choirs would stand together on the terraces to ensure the singing was high quality. Most of those who sing the hymns don’t attend church services yet the power of the words seems to move them.

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah was written by William Williams Pantycelyn, who was born in 1717. He is Wales most famous hymn writer and was called “the sweet singer of Wales.” Williams was one of the leaders of the Calvinistic Methodists during the 18th century revival and wrote more than 900 hymns in either Welsh or English. A memorial plaque at Pantycelyn farm, where he lived, records that during his life he travelled 111,800 miles on foot or by horse visiting societies of Christians in every part of Wales. The tune Cwm Rhondda was written soon after the 1904-05 revival. The words and tune brought great strength and encouragement to the mining communities of the South Wales Valleys where life was hard.

Life is a journey and Williams hymn is a prayer based on the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They spent 40 years in the desert and felt a deep need to know the presence of their God, Jehovah, being with them on their difficult journey. They were small and weak, but he was great and powerful. The words of the hymn resonate with us today because, although outwardly our lives are very different, inwardly we have the same need to know that this all-powerful God is with us. “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou are mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand: bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”

The last verse speaks of dying. As the Israelites had to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land so all of us will one day face death, the last enemy. Then, more than ever, we will need God to be with us and the victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection to be ours. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side: songs of praises I will ever give to thee.”

Remembering Martin Luther

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther, until then a little-known monk, nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther’s intention was to initiate a debate within the Church of his time about how people come to know peace with God. However, for Luther personally his action led to his excommunication by the Church in 1521 when he refused to recant his views saying, “Here I stand. I can do no other, God help me!” His rediscovery of the Gospel message led to the Protestant Reformation that changed the history of Europe and the Western World.

At the age of 13 Martin Luther went to the University of Erfurt to study law. He earned both his baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the shortest possible time. In 1505, when he was 21, he was nearly struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm. He cried out in fear to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk. He kept his vow and gave away all his possessions before entering a monastery.

Luther became a totally dedicated monk plunging himself into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices, including going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. He later wrote, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was me.” Yet he did not find peace with God and was increasingly terrified by the wrath of God. Whenever he thought of the righteousness of God he felt condemned because he knew the sinfulness of his own heart.

After completing a doctorate in theology Luther became a professor in Wittenberg Cathedral and gave lectures on the Book of Romans in the New Testament. During this time, he came to understand the meaning of the righteousness of God through reading Romans, Chapter 1, verse 17; “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” He realised that, as we put our faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us his righteousness based on the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus.

Luther found peace with God and wrote, “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”