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.”

Wes Hall – Pace like Fire

The England cricket team has a new fast bowler. Jofra Archer stands in a line of formidable fast bowlers who have all come from the West Indian island of Barbados. He bowls at more than 90mph and has been causing real difficulties for the best batsmen in the world. Jofra’s father is British and in March he qualified to play for England. In just 3 months he has been the leading wicket-taker in the England team that won the World Cup and has played an important role in the Ashes series against Australia.

In the 1960s, Wes Hall was a fiery West Indian fast bowler. He had one of the longest run ups in the history of cricket and bowled at more than 90mph. The batsmen who faced him needed great skill and courage. He wanted to get his opponents out but never intended to injure them. A former captain of England, who faced Wes many times, said, “There was never a hint of malice in him or his bowling.” During his playing days, and since, Wes has been known as a lovely human being and in 2012 he received a knighthood.

Wes’s mother was a remarkable woman of faith who worked hard to create a home full of love for her children. Wes really looked up to her and her influence and discipline shaped his character. Looking back on his upbringing he said, “When I was young, I was religious, but it wasn’t until much later when I understood that I could accept Christ as my Saviour and experience a significant spiritual relationship with God.”

It was in 1990, when Wes was in Florida, that he heard a Christian preacher and made the greatest decision of his life. He wrote, “I turned to Christ as Lord, asking him to forgive my sins and be my personal Saviour. That’s when my new life began.” Wes went to Bible College and became a minister in the Pentecostal Church.

Reflecting on his life, Wes wrote, “I wasted some of the best years of my life not following Jesus. It has been wonderful in the years since to grow as a follower of Christ, to serve many cricketers and the West Indies team. One of the most special times was when Malcolm Marshall, another of our West Indies famous fast bowlers, in the last month of his life, entered into a conversation with me about his eternal life, and I had the joy of introducing Malcolm to his life-changing personal faith. It is a joy to know the Lord personally and to serve others.”

True happiness

All people long to find true and lasting happiness. The American Declaration of Independence says all people have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including the “pursuit of happiness.” However, many people around the world are unhappy. The UN World Happiness Report 2018 asked people in every country in the world how happy they were. People living in Finland, Norway and Denmark were the happiest. People in these countries live in stable society with a high standard of living. People living in Yemen, South Sudan and Burundi were the unhappiest. People living in these countries are experiencing terrible conflicts and are very poor with no immediate prospect of improvement.

However, people living in affluent countries also experience profound and tragic unhappiness. In South Korea many elderly people commit suicide. The tradition of children caring for their aging parents has declined in the 21st century. Elderly parents are ending their lives because they don’t want to be a financial burden on their families. There is also a higher-than-average suicide rate amongst students. One reason is the pressure put on them by their parents to succeed academically. When students fail to achieve the goals set for them by their parents, they feel they have dishonoured their families and commit suicide.

True happiness is not found in economic prosperity or academic success but in knowing God and in experiencing his grace when we fail, as we all do. King David sinned very greatly when he committed adultery with another man’s wife and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. After he had committed these sins David tried to hide them and to carry on as normal. But God sent a prophet to confront him and then David confessed his sin to God and experienced God’s gracious forgiveness.

David wrote about his experience of forgiveness in Psalm 32, “O, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

Stop doubting and believe

The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and to the message Christians proclaim to the peoples of the world. It is a message that speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart. Every day we hear news of people who have died, sometimes in tragic circumstances; a serious illness, a road accident, a plane crash, a terrorist atrocity or simply of old age. There are many things in life that are uncertain, but all of us know that one day we must face death. The resurrection of Jesus gives us reason for real hope.

The Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus have an unmistakable ring of authenticity. All his disciples, both men and women, struggled to believe that their beloved Lord really was alive. Early on the resurrection morning Mary Magdalene went to the tomb taking spices to anoint Jesus’ body. When she arrived at the tomb, she saw that the stone had been removed. She assumed that Jesus’ enemies had stolen his body and immediately ran to tell Peter and John saying, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and John ran to the tomb but didn’t understand what they saw.

Mary stayed at the tomb and it was there, in the garden, that Jesus appeared to her. She ran to the disciples with the amazing news, “I have seen the Lord!” That evening, in a house in which the disciples were hiding because they were afraid of the authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

One of the disciples, Thomas, wasn’t there that night. When the other disciples told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later when the disciples, including Thomas, were together in the house again, Jesus came and stood among them. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It truly is a blessed thing to believe in the risen Lord and his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.”

Love and life in Jesus

On Easter Sunday terror came to Sri Lanka. Coordinated bomb attacks on churches in the capital Colombo, and other towns, killed and seriously injured many people. Hotels were also attacked. The bombs were timed to go off when the churches were packed with worshippers rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. At least 290 people have died, and more than 500 have been injured. Those who died include people from at least 8 other nations. These bombings are the deadliest violence since the end of the civil war in 2009 and the whole country is in shock. In many churches around the world people prayed for those caught up in these atrocities.

The Easter message speaks very powerfully into the tragic events in Sri Lanka. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who were responsible for his death, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He had taught his disciples to love their enemies and demonstrated this in the midst of his own profound sufferings. He told his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake but said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

On Easter Day Christians rejoice that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died. His resurrection was witnessed by many of his disciples, both men and women, and transformed them. When he died their hopes had died but when they saw their risen Lord they were filled with joy. Jesus sent them out into the world to proclaim to all people the good news of his resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross.

The hope that Christians have of being raised to eternal life is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. His promise is “because I live you also will live.” He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So, the Easter message of love and life in Jesus declares that evil and hatred will not ultimately triumph. As one Easter hymn proclaims, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered!”

Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.

All the lonely people

Many people are lonely, especially in the developed world. People are living longer than ever before and see their close friends and family die. Broken relationships, between husbands and wives and parents and children, mean that many people live on their own. At our work place or college we may be surrounded by people but at the end of the day we return to our homes and are alone. Almost 50% of people in America say they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. It is not only the elderly who feel lonely, many young people are lonely. Even those who have many “friends” on social media miss meaningful human friendship and companionship.

A new pet robot called Lovot, has been designed in Japan to be a comforting presence for lonely elderly people. It uses Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition and will be on sale in the USA next year for more than $5000. It has cartoon eyes and furry arms and doesn’t speak or respond to commands. It has been designed to respond to those who talk to it and hug it and it gravitates to those who show it most love. Its designer says, “We try to train people with the power of love to be ready for loving something else.” He claims Lovot will make people “truly happy.” However, after 50 minutes activity Lovot needs to be recharged!

Human relationships are important because God is a personal God. The Bible teaches us there is only one God and that within the godhead there are three “persons”, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are bound together in a relationship of eternal love. God has created us as relational beings with an innate capacity to love God and one another. The greatest commands God has given us are profoundly relational. We are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength and also to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. When we love God and each other we experience the joy and fulfilment God created us to know.

When we pray we are talking to the living God who hears us, loves us and knows all our needs. He is always with us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we also forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”

They followed the star

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem wise men from the east came to visit him. They probably came from Persia, modern Iran, and travelled hundreds of miles to get to Bethlehem. These men were Magi and were experts in astronomy and astrology. They had seen a new star appear and knew it was a sign that something very important had happened. The star was God’s sign to the people of the world that his Son, Jesus, had been born. The Magi understood that the child who had been born was a great king, so they followed the star in order to visit him.

God revealed himself to the Magi, who studied the stars, in a way they could understand. He still does that today as he makes us aware of his presence and his power through everyday events. I once met a man who worked on a North Sea oil rig. He told me that he knew God existed and cared about him because of something that happened to him. After a period of shore leave, he had travelled to Aberdeen to catch a helicopter back to his rig. His train was delayed and he missed the flight he was meant to be on. That helicopter crashed into the sea killing everyone on board. The man felt God had protected him, but it didn’t make any difference to his life. The Magi weren’t like that because when they saw the star they followed it until they found the Christ-child.

The star guided the wise men until it stopped over the place where Jesus was. They were overjoyed and went into the house where Jesus, and his mother Mary, were. They bowed down and worshipped him. It was an amazing scene as these learned, dignified and important men bowed in humble and joyful worship before this child who was born to be king. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, for a king, frankincense, for worship, and myrrh, in preparation for the pain and suffering this child would later experience.

The wise men are a great example to us. They wanted to know God and were determined to follow the star wherever it went until they found the new king who had been born. When they saw the Christ-child their lives were transformed. They experienced the truth of one of God’s great promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

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”

Being inspired by the Invictus Games

The fourth Invictus Games has just been held in Sydney, Australia. The Games is an international event created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in which wounded, injured or sick armed personnel and veterans compete in a wide range of sports. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered” or “undefeated.” The Sydney Games drew 500 competitors and 1000 family and friends from 17 countries and featured 11 sports.

The stories of the competitors are inspiring. Some have suffered terrible life-changing physical injuries in armed combat, others have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic illness. Invictus has inspired them not to be overcome by their injuries and suffering but to become overcomers and to do it together. There is a wonderful spirit of friendship and mutual encouragement amongst competitors in addition to the loving and persevering support of family and friends. People who thought their lives were over have found new hope and joy.

Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton was one of the Australian competitors at the Sydney Games. He was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an amputation. He suffered from PTSD and found it difficult to face each day. He hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. He said, “I was left lying on my shed floor crying and thinking to myself, ‘I need help and I need to do something about it. I need to try to find a way to regain my life.’ The biggest thing that I found on my road to recovery was how tough it was to ask for help. You know, I think that probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was to reach out and physically ask someone for help. This is my life, I’ve only got one and I nearly lost it. So, I wish I’d asked for help a lot earlier.”

When bad things happen to us, as they have to ‘Bear’ and other competitors at the Invictus Games, we, too, need to ask for help. Many people have asked God to help them when they have been going through dark times in their lives and he has given them new strength and hope. The Bible says that Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same trials we do”, and so we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and will find grace to help us when we need it most.”