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.”

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.”

The face of God

Facial recognition is in the news. This new technology can uniquely identify a person by analysing patterns based on their facial textures and shape. Facial recognition is now a security feature on expensive mobile phones and many people have biometric passports. Photo apps scan our photo libraries and identify people who appear in the different photos. But concern is being expressed because for some time private companies have been secretly scanning people’s faces and are refusing to say what they are using the information for. There is uncertainty about whether mass surveillance using facial recognition is legal or if it is an invasion of civil liberty.

One major premier league football club is considering using facial recognition instead of tickets at its matches. The technology would recognise the faces of fans and would be quicker than checking a ticket, although fans would still need to be searched before entering the stadium. To opt in, fans would register a selfie they have taken on their mobile phone, but the technology also makes it possible for fans to be identified from the growing databases of facial images.

Moses was a man who was given great privileges by God. On Mount Sinai he received the Ten Commandments from God who spoke to him “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” However, when Moses asked to see God’s glory God replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

When Jesus, God’s eternal Son, came to this earth he revealed his Father in a wonderful way. His life, teaching and love for people revealed the heart of God through a human life. To know Jesus is to know God and to experience his grace and love. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Because of what Jesus did it is now possible for people to see the face of God and live, in fact, it is the glorious hope offered to all in Jesus. The Apostle John wrote, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

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!”

Open my eyes that I may see

Scientists at the University of California have developed a remarkable new treatment for infants who have been born with congenital cataracts. The scientists removed the damaged lens and used the patient’s own stem cells to regrow a “living lens” in their eye. In just 3 months the regenerative stem cells have grown into a new, fully functioning and transparent lens. The procedure was successful in all 12 infants under the age of 2, and was without complication compared to the traditional use of plastic lens. The treatment has real potential to be used for other eye conditions.

I remember seeing a programme about North Korea. Eye surgeons from America had gone to the country to perform cataract operations on many patients. When the bandages were taken off the people were full of joy that they could see again. The first thing they saw was a large photograph of their President and they immediately began enthusiastically to give thanks to him for restoring their sight. They knew that, if they were not enthusiastic in their praise, their lives would be in danger. It was very sad.

Our bodies are a masterpiece of God’s creative wisdom and power. In Psalm 139 David reflects on the way God had created him and given him life. “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. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

Thankfully we are free to recognise the goodness and kindness of God who blesses us in countless ways. So we must be careful not to close our eyes to the glory of God revealed in the creation around us and especially in his Son, Jesus Christ. One hymn encourages us to ask God to open our eyes to see his truth. “Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me; place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!”

The man who saved 669 children

Sir Nicholas Winton has died at the age of 106. About 6000 people in the world today owe their lives to Nicholas. He was a stockbroker who became aware of the plight of Jewish families when he was on holiday in Prague at Christmas 1938. In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II he organised the rescue of 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia through an operation known as Kindertransport. He found homes for the children and arranged safe passage for them to Britain. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland. Many of the parents perished in Auschwitz.

Nicholas kept the wonderful things he did, in saving so many Jewish children, secret for more than 40 years until in 1988 his wife, Greta, found a detailed scrapbook in the attic. In 2002, at the age of 93, he received a Knighthood for this work.

Nicholas illustrates the amazing contrasts there are in the actions of human beings. Seeing the growing power of the Nazis in Europe, which led to the death of millions of Jewish people, he took action to save lives. He said, “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.” The death of millions of Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps was one of the greatest acts of evil in the history of the world. It is a warning to us all of the frightening capacity of the human heart for evil. The courageous act of one man in saving so many lives also shows us the amazing capacity of human beings for goodness and kindness.

The reticence of Nicholas to tell people what he did is remarkable. Jesus spoke of the great day when we will all stand before God in judgement. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When the righteous say they can’t remember doing these things for him, the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”