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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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Baby Asher

The birth of a first child is an occasion for great joy. In June Pete and Grace, who work at Hebron School in India, rejoiced in the birth of their son Asher and their families and friends rejoiced with them. When he was five weeks old Asher was taken ill with vomiting and admitted to hospital with septic shock. Doctors discovered a twisted bowel which, sadly, could not be saved except for just 6 centimetres. Where he was in India basic treatment like replacement nutrition was not feasible.

When we were first sent news about Asher, in early August, we were asked to pray for him and Pete and Grace, because the medical team at the hospital had, reluctantly, decided to turn off his life support the following morning. However, when morning came the medical team reviewed Asher’s situation and saw that, apart from the very serious problem with his bowel, he was otherwise healthy, bright and alert. So, it was decided to continue to care for him and to seek possible places where he could be treated.

Pete, who is from the UK, discovered that there are hospitals in England that could treat Asher either by lengthening his bowel or by a small intestine transplant and that these hospitals would be willing to treat Asher. But there was one big problem – finance. There would be no charge for Asher’s treatment in England but transferring him on a special medical plane from India to England would cost £102,000, and there would also be other costs. It was decided to pray that God would provide the finance and to set up a crowdfunding page. Wonderfully, gifts have been received from thousands of people around the world to cover the costs of bringing Asher to England and he is now at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

When we experience trials in our own life, or in the lives of those we love, we, too, can pray to God for his gracious help and he will hear our prayers. Even when the way ahead is full of uncertainties, we can commit our way to him and trust him. The kindness and practical care of other people, who may be strangers to us, is a great encouragement. Every human life is precious to God, however small and vulnerable. And, amazingly, the God to whom we pray is the One who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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Remembering VE Day

This weekend there will be an international celebration of the 75th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. On 8 May 1945 there was a great joy when the Allied Forces announced the surrender of Germany; World War II in Europe was over. More than a million people celebrated in the streets, including the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”

A Service of Thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey gratefully acknowledging that God had heard the many prayers offered through the dark years of the war. The service opened with these words, “The Lord has done great things for us, which ought to be remembered. Let us, therefore, offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which he has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through years of danger and suffering: for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen: for the hope that we are about to enter upon a righteous and abiding peace: for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.”

The planned VE Day celebrations will be severely curtailed because of the coronavirus restrictions. Today the peoples of the world are involved in a different kind of deadly conflict. We are under threat from an unseen enemy and many have already died. The courage and skill of medical teams and carers have been an inspiration to us all. Victory over the virus is still in the future as great efforts are made to develop an effective vaccine.

At Easter we remembered the greatest victory ever accomplished when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, confronted our greatest enemies of sin and death. Human sinfulness causes untold misery and suffering and every day many face the last enemy, death. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty our sins deserve. His death was a great victory. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” His resurrection on the third day showed he had broken the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality. As we pray for those seriously ill with coronavirus, and those who have lost loved ones, we can rejoice in the hope Jesus gives; “for those who die believing die safely through his 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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When tragedy strikes

After school on 13 January the school minibus dropped 7-year-old Samuel Barker at his home in Monmouth. Tragically Samuel was then knocked over by the minibus. His mother, Cat, rushed to him and knew the moment she got there that little Samuel was not alive. She said, “I was there in seconds, I picked him up off the road and put him on my lap. I knew he was dead straight away and there was no suffering. I praised God for his life and that I knew exactly where he was now, and that it had been so quick. I kissed his head – his very tousled hair.” Cat and two friends then prayed as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Cat and her husband are Christians and have known God comforting and strengthening them in their grief. The day after Samuel died, Cat went to the school and explained to his class that Samuel is in heaven. After praying with them she went outside to the playground and comforted other parents. Cat is “desperately sad” for the driver of the minibus and prays that he will not be wracked with guilt.

Cat said, “Samuel was exuberant and bouncy. There was never a dull moment. He often had messy hair, paint on his jumper, and muddy knees. He made the best of every moment.” A year ago, Cat bought some new notebooks for Samuel and his two brothers. Samuel was very excited to receive his notebook and took it to his bedroom. He sat down at his desk and started busily writing.

This is what Samuel wrote that day, “I love Jesus and God because they look after me and are nice to me. They love me very much and they make me better and they are the best adults in the whole wide world. And I love them very, very much. They are so nice to me. So, I will always believe in them. They like me so much. They are so, so, so, so, so kind to me and I trust them. They give me strength. He loves me all the time, I praise the Lord. I can trust in them. They are the best. I am so excited to go to heaven. I will never hurt myself. I will never, never get a stitch. And he died on the cross for me. He saved my life.”

Cat said, “The Bible tells us that all you need is the faith of a child. You don’t need to have a degree in theology or your life together perfectly. You just need to say, ‘Yes – I believe, help me in my unbelief.’”

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The God of hope

As a new year and a new decade begin our world is a troubled place. Perhaps you have thought carefully before wishing family and friends a happy new year because you sense the coming year may be not be altogether happy. Increased tensions in the Middle East suggest there are turbulent times ahead. The bush fires in Australia continue to rage and make us all aware of the consequences of climate change. The increasing global influence of China and Russia brings new challenges. In many places in Africa there is conflict, drought, disease and poverty. Personally, family life may not be easy. We, or other family members and friends, may be facing serious illness or the challenges of living longer.

So where is hope to be found? When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome he said, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Paul himself, and the Christians in Rome, knew what it was to suffer. The Roman Empire was cruel and severely punished those it disapproved of, especially Christians. Soon after Paul wrote this letter, he became a prisoner and was later beheaded by the Roman authorities. In 64 AD Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a great fire in Rome. Innocent Christians were nailed to crosses, torn apart by dogs the arena, and set on fire to provide evening lights.

However, Paul and the Christians knew that whatever happened to them in this life they had a sure future hope because they trusted in the living God who is “the God of hope.” They and their loved ones were powerless to stand against the unjust persecution they faced, but they were safe in the hands of God. Knowing God gave them a true peace and joy even in the face of the most terrible adversities and their hope even overflowed. They knew that whatever happened to them in this world they were safe in the care of Jesus and would one day go to be with him in heaven for ever.

One Sunday evening a Christian minister went to visit one of his members who was very seriously ill in hospital. Another Christian in the same ward overheard their conversation. The sick man said to his minister, “They’ve told me there’s no hope.” The minister replied, “Dear brother, from now on it’s all hope!” That’s what it means when we trust “the God of hope.”

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The uncertainties of riches

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has just become the richest person in the world again with a net worth of $110 billion ($110,000,000,000). He has overtaken the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who, because of a fall in Amazon’s profits, now has a net worth of $108 billion. The number of billionaires in the world is increasing and has reached a total of more than 2500. There are 700 billionaires in North America with a total wealth of more than $3 trillion. The combined total wealth of the billionaires in the next 8 countries on the billionaire list is $2.9 trillion. In total, the world’s richest 1% owns about half of the world’s wealth.

Many people think that being rich will make them happy and that the more money they have the happier they will be. Every week people buy lottery tickets in the hope of winning large sums of money. The EuroMillions jackpot last week was £98 million. When people win the lottery there are pictures of them celebrating and looking very happy but, sadly, their new-found wealth often leads to great sadness in broken marriages, addictions and loneliness through losing their friends.

A man once asked Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over an inheritance. His brother was refusing to give him his share. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He then told a parable about a rich farmer who had a bumper harvest and wondered how he could store all his crops. The farmer said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

On the face of it the farmer was being prudent, but he had not considered the uncertainties of life and the ultimate importance of eternity. Jesus went on to say, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Jesus is the supreme example of selflessness because although he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.

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Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed sunny weather this summer and the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well, and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks.

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, thank you for every fresh new day, thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, thank you for everyone I know, thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, thank you for every heartfelt joy, thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, thank you for grace to hold it fast, thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well, we can gladly thank him and when hard times come, we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”

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My talent is a gift from him

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the women’s 100 metres gold medal at the 2019 World Athletic Championships in Doha. Her time was one of the fastest she has ever recorded. This is the fourth time she has won the 100 metres gold medal at the World Championships and the first she has won since becoming a mother. She won gold medals in 2009, 2013, 2015 but missed the 2017 Championships because of the birth of her son Zyon. Shelly-Ann has also won two Olympic 100 metres gold medals. Her nickname is the “Pocket Rocket” because she is just 5 feet tall and explodes out of the blocks. Some experts say she is possibly the greatest female sprinter in history.

Shelly-Ann was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in a deprived community. Her mother, Maxine, was a single parent who worked as a street vendor to feed and care for her family. Recently Shelly-Ann spoke about her childhood, “I suffered from self-esteem issues because I didn’t have nice clothes and a nice house and had to take the bus. I wanted to fit in and would make up stories just to be accepted, so I can relate to issues of poverty.”

Shelly-Ann grew up in church. When she was 12 years old, she made a decision at a church camp that changed her life. “That week was so refreshing because we were separated from the world and I was able to make the decision that Christ is what I wanted. When I came home, I got baptized.” But as a young Christian Shelly-Ann had serious struggles. “I had just started high school. In the second or third form I went off track because I wanted to be with my friends and be a part of the crowd – it didn’t fit in with being a Christian.”

In 2008 Shelly-Ann went to the Olympics and won but was still struggling. “Everything I had asked God for and prayed about I got. I had the money, I had everything I really wanted, but I wasn’t happy. Then in 2009 I won again and still wasn’t happy. I knew something was missing and I decided it was time to go back to church and start living for Christ. Now Christ is in everything I do, and I talk to him every day. People ask why I’m always smiling at the line – it’s because it’s a privilege and an honour to run and God is with me no matter what. Whether I win or lose, it doesn’t matter to me because my talent is a gift from him.”

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Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”