The Joy of Spring

When does Spring begin? The Met Office regards 1 March as the first day of Spring but the heavy snowfalls on that day this year made it feel much more like winter! Amazingly, when the snow cleared from our garden we found the crocuses in flower despite the cold blanket that had covered them. However, the days are getting warmer and longer, and the daffodils are beginning to bloom, which means that winter really is passing and springtime has arrived! Spring is an encouraging time for us all as we see nature coming to life again and anticipate the brighter, warmer days of summer.

The passing seasons remind us of the faithfulness of God. Following the devastating flood, which happened in the time of Noah, God gave a wonderful promise for all subsequent generations. He said, “As long as the earth remains, there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” He also gave the rainbow as a sign of his everlasting covenant with Noah and his descendants and all living creatures. God told Noah, “I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is a sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth.”

The great reality of our life on earth is that God exists. He is eternal and created each one of us. The heavens and the earth declare his glory and the changing seasons reveal his loving care. There is something deep in every one of us that is instinctively drawn to him. In every way we are dependent on him. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone; but while mortals rise and perish God endures unchanging on. Praise him, praise him, praise the high Eternal One!”

Thomas Chisholm’s well-known hymn affirms, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not, as thou hast been thou for ever will be. Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided – Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

As we move forward into the Spring it is good to know that we can do so trusting in the living God. We can rejoice in his presence with us each day to cheer us and guide us. He gives us strength for each day, bright hope for the future, and every blessing we need along the way.

Remembering Billy Graham

The evangelist Billy Graham died at his home in North Carolina on 21 February at the age of 99. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, as World War I was coming to an end. His father owned a 400-acre dairy farm and Billy grew up during the Depression, working long hours to keep the family business going. In 1934, when he was 15, he heard the evangelist Mordecai Ham preach and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. Neither he nor anyone else realised that night that he would become an international evangelist and preach to more people than any other preacher in history.

During his life Billy Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and to billions more via television, satellite and film. More than 3 million people responded to his invitation to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour.” In 1954 he led the Greater London Crusade at Harringay that was attended by 1.75 million people. He was a spiritual adviser to every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and was invited to speak at times of national crisis, including the memorial service following the 9/11 attacks. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King Jr to preach jointly at a crusade in New York.

I first heard Billy Graham preaching in 1966 at a relay in Cardiff from his Earls Court crusade. I had grown up in church and was a church member. Billy’s preaching challenged me as to whether I had ever received Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour. Like many other people who belonged to a church I had no such assurance. I “tried my best” and hoped that when I died I would be accepted by God and go to heaven. What I believed was a mixture of what I had been taught in church and my own ideas. Time and again Billy affirmed, “the Bible says” and I realised that my faith needed to be Bible-based and centred on Jesus Christ.

As I listened to Billy preaching from the Bible I realised that I could experience forgiveness and find peace with God through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to pay the price of my sins. In the quietness of my heart I confessed my sins to God and asked Jesus Christ to be my Saviour. It was a life-changing experience. Every day since then I have struggled with my sinful heart but know that in Jesus my sins have been forgiven fully and for ever.

Spiritual heart surgery

Recent major news stories have all been about really bad things that are happening in our world today. In Syria the indiscriminate bombing of eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, has killed than 500 people in a week with thousands more injured. Women and children are hiding in basements while the White Helmets bravely try to rescue casualties. A Serious Case Review into grooming gangs in Newcastle has revealed the systematic sexual abuse of 700 vulnerable girls. A 19-year-old man gunned down 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and wounded others. Major relief agencies have disclosed cases of senior employees abusing women in countries struck by natural disaster.

The responses to these situations have proposed a number of helpful things such as a UN resolution for a cease fire, more gun control, seeking a better understanding of different cultures, better safeguarding procedures, transparency, and more training of relief personnel. But it seems clear that the problems of our human condition go much deeper and affect us all. As human beings we have both the capacity for great goodness and kindness and also the ability to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and wickedness. Why do we all struggle with the darker side of our nature and personality?

The Bible teaches that human beings were created by God in his image but that our first parents rebelled against God by breaking his command. As a result of their disobedience sin and death became universal features of life in this world affecting all people. Our relationship with God has been fractured and we have a constant bias towards what is wrong. The fundamental problem is internal and has to do with our hearts, that is our inner desires and motivation. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

The Bible also tells us that God has provided a solution to our deepest need. The prophet Ezekiel gave the people a wonderful promise from God, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” The Apostle Paul experienced this great change as he was approaching Damascus on a mission to arrest and imprison Christians. He saw a vision of the risen Jesus and became a new man. Later he wrote, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

The water of life

Cape Town, a beautiful coastal city, is running out of water. The second largest city in South Africa, and tenth largest city in Africa, has been affected by a 3-year drought, a greater than normal increase in population and ineffective administration. If dam levels continue to decline the city taps will run out by June. Water restrictions are already in place limiting daily consumption per person to 50 litres a day. In this very modern city people are already queuing to draw water at the 200 stand pipes that have been set up in the streets. Many people are praying earnestly for God’s intervention and help.

Earth has been called “The Water Planet”, with 71% of the planet’s surface covered by water. Yet in many parts of the world there is a serious water shortage. Water is essential to sustaining life and drinking unsafe water causes illness and many deaths. 844 million people in the world do not have access to safe water. 2.3 billion people do not have access to a toilet. Many women and girls spend 6 hours every day collecting water for themselves and their families. More people have a mobile phone than access to a toilet!

The worldwide water crisis reminds us of another very real crisis that touches the lives of us all. Whether we live in a rich or a poor country there is an inner dissatisfaction that leaves us unfulfilled at the deepest level of our being. Jesus once met a woman at a well in Samaria. It was the middle of the day and very hot, the sun was at its height. Jesus was on a journey and was thirsty and the woman had come to draw water for herself and her family. When Jesus asked her for a drink the woman refused because of a longstanding dispute between Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Through her conversation with Jesus that day the woman’s life was transformed. She still came to the well every day to draw water but now, through Jesus, God’s gift to the world, her life had new meaning and her deepest needs had been met.

Crushing guilt and true forgiveness

The appalling case of Larry Nassar revealed how he used his position as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University to sexually abuse more than 250 women and girls over a period of 20 years. In January, Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 7 girls, including US Olympic gymnasts, and was sentenced to 175 years in prison. He had previously been sentenced to 60 years for child pornography offences and last week received an additional sentence of 40-125 years. He will spend the rest of his life in a high security prison. He will never be released.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was 15 years old when Nassar began abusing her. She was the first of Nassar’s victims to make allegations against him. She was also the last of more than 150 survivors to share her impact statement in court. Rachael is now a lawyer and is married with 3 children. Her statement was powerful and deeply moving.

Rachael said, “Throughout this process, I have clung to a quotation by C.S. Lewis, where he says: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?'”

“Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimisation or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt, so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.”

Treasure on earth or treasure in heaven?

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

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

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

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

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

Teach us to pray

Tearfund, a major Christian relief and development charity, recently commissioned a survey on prayer. Over 2000 adults took part in the survey which revealed that more than 50% of people in Britain pray. One in three people pray regularly at a place of worship. Many people also pray as they go about their daily activities in the home, as they travel and exercise, and before they go to sleep.

People pray to thank God and to ask him to bless their family and friends, especially in times of illness. More women (56%) pray than men (46%) and even some who would describe themselves as “non-religious” pray in times of crisis and desperation. Previous surveys revealed that more teenagers and people in their early 20s are likely to pray than their parents’ generation. Younger people tend to be more conscious of the needs of others and often pray for peace in the world and for an end to poverty.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him to teach them to pray and he taught them what we call The Lord’s Prayer; “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”

This is a wonderful example of how to pray. Our prayers don’t need to be long or complex as if we need to impress God with fine words. The Lord’s Prayer is so simple a young child can say it. When we pray we focus our thoughts on the one true, living God, the creator of all things. We are small and vulnerable but he is almighty and gracious. His name is holy, and he is worthy to be praised. Wherever his kingdom comes on earth there is a foretaste of heavenly joy and peace.

We can ask him for our daily food and to forgive us for the wrong things we say, think and do every day. All of us need his protection in the face of the temptations to sin and many evil influences that are all around us. And, amazingly, Jesus taught us that we can know God, in an intimate way, not as some remote, impersonal power, but as our heavenly Father who knows us and loves us!

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.”

The greatest story ever told

The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Joseph and Mary were a young couple living in the small Galilean town of Nazareth. Joseph was about 18 years old and was the village carpenter. He was very much in love with Mary, who was about 14 years old, and their families had agreed that they should marry. One day, before they had married, God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she had found favour in God’s sight and was going to conceive a very special son. She would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and the child would be the Son of God. Mary humbly responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he was shocked and thought she must have been unfaithful to him. He decided to divorce her quietly to try to protect her from public disgrace. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So, Joseph did what the angel had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

When the time drew near for the baby to be born Joseph and Mary had to travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. So it was in Bethlehem that their first-born son was born. An angel of the Lord announced the birth to some shepherds, ordinary working men, living in the nearby fields, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds went to see the baby and returned to their fields glorifying and praising God.

Later, Wise Men from the east, probably Persia, came in search of the child. They had followed a special star which signified the birth of a King. When they arrived at the house where Joseph and Mary and the child were staying they were overjoyed. They bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The shepherds and Wise Men show us that the birth of Jesus is reason for us all to wonder and worship him.

O little town of Bethlehem

Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.

“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. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”

In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “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.”

Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”