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Hope in the face of death

More than 3 million people from more than 200 countries have died from Covid-19. These people come from every strata of society and every age group. Most deaths have been of elderly people but that doesn’t diminish the significance their deaths. None of us can escape the reality of death for ourselves and also for our loved ones. In 1750 Thomas Gray wrote his poem “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” reflecting on those buried in the churchyard, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, and all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, awaits alike th’ inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

The Bible teaches that death is the consequence of Adam’s disobedience at the beginning of history, which affected the whole human race. In his letter to Christians in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote, “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many.” Underlying the diversity seen in the different peoples of the world two things are common to us all – we all sin and we all die.

But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought hope to people of all nations. The Apostle John wrote, “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.” The Apostle Paul explained the significance of God’s gracious intervention in Jesus, “The result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

Because of Jesus, Christians are able to face death with confidence. They believe his promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” Writing to Timothy, a fellow Christian leader, the Apostle Paul wrote, “This grace has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

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Resurrection joy

Easter is a time of great joy. The resurrection of Jesus lifted his first disciples from a spirit of defeat and despair to an experience of great joy and hope. They saw their risen Lord who sent them out into the world to proclaim the wonderful message of the resurrection. This message has transformed many lives and the very course of history. The Apostles faced great opposition from their own people, and from the Roman authorities, but were unafraid. Most of them died for their faith – some were beheaded, others were crucified – but through their message countless people from many nations have found new life in Jesus.

Christian faith centres on the person of Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again to give us hope. Christians put their faith in Jesus, not in their religious observances. They don’t think they are better than other people, or sit in judgement on them, but are deeply conscious of their personal failures and need. They rejoice that Jesus has done everything needed to secure their salvation and gratefully trust in him as their Saviour. They have been delivered from the need to achieve their own salvation and, in response to his love, are free to live for Jesus and to tell others about him.

Many in the Western world have turned away from a living faith in God and Jesus and the consequences are clear to see. Evolutionary theory dominates. It offers no hope to our deepest needs, but declares its doleful message, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” Yet God’s wonderful creation, which is plain for all to see, constantly proclaims that he is. He created this amazing universe and our little planet, which teems with life. He created each of us and put eternity in our hearts. We were created to live with him for ever and God’s freely offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Every day during the Covid-19 pandemic we have been reminded of death. Nearly 3 million people around the world have died and their families feel the loss deeply. Most who have died were elderly, but that in no way diminishes the value of their lives. Every single life is precious in God’s sight. The great evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

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They are mothers just like us

We live in a world of seemingly irreconcilable divisions and conflicts that take lives and spoil lives. So, it is very encouraging to hear of a Palestinian Christian mother, living in Bethlehem, who has taking steps to bridge one of the great divides in today’s world. She is building relationships with Israeli mothers through Musalaha, a faith-based organisation that facilitates reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

When she was a young mother with three children, she went on a desert trip to Jordan. She said, “It was wonderful. It was really amazing, enjoying the desert and the nature. But before I went, I thought: ‘How can I meet with my enemy, how can I speak to the Israelis?’ I was suffering a lot at this time because of the war, the second intifada. It was a terrible time in our lives with shooting, tanks, and curfews. It was really hard to wake up in the morning and find bullets outside your house and worry that the next night you might be hit.” One night her mother prayed for her and she said, “I saw God and he comforted me, and this pain went. It was the only thing that helped.”

On the desert trip she heard Israeli mothers sharing how they had only just moved to Israel from Europe or America. She said, “It was hard. For the first day I couldn’t look at them or speak to them or enjoy being with them. I just thought: ‘You have come here and taken our land and now you are having fun. We cannot go out of Bethlehem. We are suffering, and you moved here and are living a peaceful life.’” But on the second day she started to look at them as human beings and thought: “It’s not them; it’s their government. It’s not them; it’s what they believe and have been taught. So, I started to see them as people and things changed in my heart.”

Now she goes to monthly meetings with young mothers where they learn about each other. She hears Israeli mothers talking about their fears. Their lives are not perfect either. She says, “Now I see that the Israelis are good people. They are mothers just like us and they have Jesus in their heart. Meeting together gives us the opportunity to be together and get to know each other rather than building a wall between us. I hope that in the future we can all live peacefully together and eat with each other, that we won’t look at each other as either Palestinian or Israeli, just as followers of Jesus and as human beings.”

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Loved with everlasting love

The bright sunny days and glorious blue skies have lifted our spirits. People are out walking, jogging and cycling and there is a feeling of springtime in the air. The natural world is coming to life again with the beautiful snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils bringing colour to our gardens and hedgerows. The winter is passing and longer, warmer days are in prospect.

The world around us speaks eloquently to us about God. The beauty and splendour of his creation reveal his great wisdom and love. Amazing television programmes show us close-up the magnificent wonders of God’s creation. Can all these things really have happened by chance over millions of years or is there a Creator whom we can know and whose love we can experience?

The coronavirus lockdowns have denied us normal contact with the people we love. We have been starved of their love and affection. People seriously ill in hospital, and in some cases dying, are surrounded by machines and caring strangers in masks. The loneliness and fear they experience must be overwhelming. Elderly people in care homes can’t understand why they have not seen their loved ones for almost a year. Children and young people haven’t seen their teachers and friends.

How uplifting it is, therefore, to walk in God’s creation and to be conscious that he is there. We are not alone in the universe, desperately seeking some kind of life on neighbouring planets. In love God has come to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Knowing his love makes all the difference and fills our hearts with hope.

George Wade Robinson, who died at the age of 39, wrote a hymn about his faith in Jesus: “Loved with everlasting love, led by grace that love to know; Spirit breathing from above, thou hast taught me it is so. O this full and perfect peace, O this rapture all divine! In a love that cannot cease, I am his and he is mine. Heaven above is deeper blue, earth around is sweeter green, something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen. Birds with gladder songs overflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine, since I know, as now I know, I am his and he is mine. His forever, only his; who the Lord and me shall part? Ah, with what a rest of bliss Christ can fill the loving heart. Heaven and earth may fade and flee, firstborn light in gloom decline, but while God and I shall be I am his and he is mine.”

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When sorrows like sea billows roll

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well-known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to express our faith in God and to rest in his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and sent them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said, “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal, O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

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I know who holds the future

It is good to be beginning a new year after what has been a very different and difficult year. However, significant uncertainties remain. Will the Covid-19 vaccination bring the pandemic to an end? When will life return to a more familiar pattern? How will school children and students cope with missing so much teaching time? Will people who have been made redundant be able to find new jobs? How will Britain fare outside the EU? In uncertain times faith in God makes all the difference. Knowing God means we can face whatever lies ahead of us in the strength he gives us.

In Psalm 139 David reflects on the fact that God knows him personally and cares for him. “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Singing praise to God and expressing our confidence in him gives us strength and hope. We may be facing uncertainties in our personal lives, but God is eternal and unchanging, and Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

As we face a new year one popular hymn expresses the comfort and security we can find as we put our trust in God. “I do not know what lies ahead, the way I cannot see; yet One stands near to be my guide, he’ll show the way to me. I do not know how many days of life are mine to spend; but One who knows and cares for me will keep me to the end. I do not know the course ahead, what joys and griefs are there; but One is near who fully knows, I’ll trust his loving care. 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.”

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The God who gives hope

As we enter a new year one of our great needs is to find hope. The problems of our world are great and there are no easy solutions. In our personal lives and families, we may be experiencing sadness and pain. On Christmas Day a good friend died of Covid-19. Even the dark, damp days tend to depress us. So, we don’t find it easy to be optimistic.

Real hope is found in God. Secular humanism, which is energetically promoted by some and implicitly accepted by others, offers no hope. The Apostle Paul prayed a remarkable prayer for the early Christians in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” This is a prayer we can make our own for the coming year as we put our trust in the God of hope. How does God give us hope whatever our circumstances may be?

God helps us to deal with the past. Memories of the past can cast a long shadow over the future. All of us have reason to be troubled by our past sins. Other people may also have done bad things to us. We need to find forgiveness and to be able to forgive. In Jesus God provided a way for us to be forgiven. When Jesus died he suffered the punishment our sins deserve. The moment we receive Jesus as our Saviour we are forgiven and have nothing to fear. Through experiencing God’s forgiveness, we also find the grace to forgive others.

God promises to provide our present needs. As we enter a new year, we may be anxious about how we will be able cope financially and pay the bills. We may have lost, or be in danger of losing, our job. What a difference it makes to be able to pray to God and to trust him to provide all our needs. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread.” God knows our needs. We can bring all our anxieties to him and trust him to help us.

God gives us hope for the future. None of us knows what will happen in the coming year. All may go well, or we may face serious illness or even death. Jesus is a living Lord who gives us a certain hope whatever happens. When we trust in him, he promises, “Because I live you will live also.” Nothing that happens can rob us of the hope Jesus gives us as we put our trust in him.

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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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Great is your faithfulness

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again, we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there, and that this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! 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!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So, don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So, as we continue to live under the long shadow of Covid-19, and share the sadness of those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, we and they can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God who cares for us.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”