A radical alternative to materialism

Materialism has been adopted by many people in the developed world as the basis for their lives. They believe that nothing exists except physical matter and that the universe in which we live is evolving. We, too, are caught up in an impersonal evolutionary process. Materialism tells us that we are all essentially animals and that physical things are the only things that exist. As a result, some people have become materialistic, seeking to accumulate wealth and possessions in the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction.

One very serious consequence of a materialistic life is that the true value of people is lost. The Urban Dictionary defines being materialistic as, “The act of caring more about things than people; judging yourself and others on the cost of your stupid things.” From childhood we are encouraged to believe that the things we possess give us value and worth. Our “stuff” defines us. The sad and tragic lives of some rich and famous people teach us that money and possessions do not guarantee happiness, but may even destroy us.

The Bible warns us of the dangers of being materialistic. Jesus told a man who wanted to inherit a legacy, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” The apostle Paul said, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

The example of Jesus provides a radical alternative to materialism and points the way to true and lasting happiness for us all, as people who have been created by God as both body and soul. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus left the heavenly riches, that were his of right, in order to come to this world and become poor. On the Cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven and receive eternal life. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection teach us that every one of us is valuable in God’s sight and that heaven is real.

The God of Hope

The signs of new life are beginning to appear in the gardens. How encouraging it is to see the delicate snowdrops, the crocuses and the first of the daffodils. They create in us the anticipation of the coming of Spring, and the end of another winter. Winter can be a difficult time with the long dark days, the frost and the snow, and the violent storms. But now the days are getting longer, the mornings are lighter and each day sunset is a little later. These things give us hope; something to which we can look forward.

Hope is in short supply today. Our world leaders are struggling to cope with many crises. There is little hope for the future. Economic prospects are not good, even for the prosperous countries of Europe. Austerity must continue for some time yet. In parts of Africa, South America and Asia poverty blights the lives of millions of people. They live in simple homes, eat one meal a day and find it hard to find the fees for their children, the next generation, to go to school. Life is very fragile and uncertain in the face of diseases like Ebola and HIV/AIDS. The threat of extremism and terrorism is growing and will, we are told, be with us for at least a generation.

Hope comes from God even when we are passing through the darkest of situations. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians living in Rome. They were already experiencing persecution and within a few years would face terrible persecution under Emperor Nero. Near the end of the letter Paul writes, “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.” What a wonderful view of the living God; he is “the God of hope!” He can “fill us with all joy and peace”, so that we “overflow with hope.” He gives us power and strength by his Holy Spirit to face the future with hope.

This hope becomes real in our lives as we look to God and “trust in him.” In Psalm 146 the psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”

I was a stranger and you invited me in

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows little sign of ending despite the recent high-level meetings. Ukraine has two official languages: those in the west speak Ukrainian and those in the east speak Russian. Russia, and the rebels they are backing, are exploiting this by appearing to support the grievances some Russian speaking Ukrainians in the east have against the government in Kiev.

Over the past year Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, which conveniently gives them control of the warm water seaport of Sebastopol. A Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down killing 298 people. Major cities in eastern Ukraine are now war zones with massive destruction of property. The brand new international airport in Donetsk, built for the European Football Championships in 2012, is now rubble. Donetsk is the same size as Birmingham. In the conflict 5300 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless. Thousands of men, women and children have fled for safety to cities outside the war zone including Kharkov, the second city of Ukraine.

Yet in the midst of this appalling situation good things are happening. I have friends who live in Kharkov. They are Christians and attend a small Baptist church. Christians in the Baptist churches have been helping the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. When buses carrying refugees arrive in Kharkov they are met by Christians who provide food and clothing for the people and help them to find somewhere to stay. The Baptist church buildings have become temporary homes for refugee families and the Christians have also welcomed refugees into their own homes. Ukraine is a poor country and the war has increased the price of everything, yet the Christians are willing to share their own limited resources with strangers who are in great need. Christians in Britain are also sending gifts to help them.

One of the greatest commandments God has given us is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus said that his people feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide homes for the homeless. Then he added, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do for me.” Jesus himself is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

World Cup 2014

World Cup 2014 has begun. The people of Brazil are experiencing football fever. International footballers are amongst the highest paid sportsmen in the world. One of the England players is paid £300,000 per week. Brazil has spent £7 billion on the World Cup. After the Final on 13 July the people of Brazil will return to the challenges of their normal lives.

In the days before the World Cup began there were demonstrations in at least 10 Brazilian cities. Riot police fired percussion grenades and used tear gas to subdue the demonstrators. Some of the protests are against the high cost of building new stadiums and other facilities for the World Cup. Trade union leaders have also used the occasion of the World Cup to press claims for higher wages for their members.

Most people in Brazil are poor. Brazil has a thriving economy, one of the strongest in the world, but the rich are becoming richer and the poor are still poor. The richest 1% of Brazil’s population control 50% of its income. The poorest 50% of society live on just 10% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 10% receive less than 1%!

Many people live in favelas, which are shanty towns. They have sprung up as people from the rural areas have moved into big cities and built homes on spare ground. Often there is no water supply, sanitation or legal electricity. Millions of children in Brazil live on the streets because of problems in their families. They live in abandoned buildings, parks, cardboard boxes, or on the streets themselves. Drugs, crime and sexual exploitation are a way of life for these tragic children. When the 600,000 foreign fans attending the World Cup leave Brazil little will have changed for the better for ordinary Brazilians.

How very different Jesus is! He came into our world to transform our lives for the better at great cost to himself. Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus left all the privileges of heaven, which were rightly his, to share our life and to die on the Cross to pay the price of our sins. Because of his visit to this world, and all he did while he was here, we can experience the forgiveness of our sins and one day go to be with him in heaven.

Give me neither poverty nor riches

A project in Staffordshire which gave foodbank vouchers to some shoplifters has been suspended after the police and crime commissioner intervened. The commissioner ordered a review and said it was “absolutely not acceptable” for it to appear criminals were being rewarded for stealing. During the 5 months the project has been running just 7 vouchers have been given to people who had been caught shoplifting. The vouchers entitled the people to receive an emergency supply food from a local foodbank. A recent report said that one in five British households is now borrowing money to buy their weekly food.

The first food bank was established in a garden shed and garage in Salisbury in 2000. There are now more than 300 foodbanks nationwide run by churches and communities. In 2011/12 they gave emergency food to over 128,000 people. The Trussell Trust, which coordinates the foodbank project, is concerned that people in crisis should not go hungry. They prioritise families with children under the age of 16 and people over 65.

The film Les Misérables tells the moving story of Jean Valijean who was sent to prison in 19th century France for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. When he was released on parole his life was changed when a Bishop offered him food and shelter and graciously intervened to stop him being sent back to prison again. Because of the Bishop’s kindness Jean was a transformed man. He tried to find freedom and a new life, but spent the rest of his days in constant fear of being discovered, all because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his wife and children.

In the book of Proverbs Agur prays, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.” Agur was a wise man who knew that poverty may bring great pressure on us so that we do things we know to be wrong. But he knew also that riches are a greater danger. Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Kindness and compassion can transform lives in a way that self-righteous condemnation never does.

The transforming power of love

Some years ago I visited Cambodia. On the flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh I sat next to an American lady. She told me she was going to visit a Cambodian child whom she was sponsoring. Each month she sent money to an aid agency to help provide food, clothing and school fees for this child. More than 9 million children around the world have sponsors like this lady. The total value of the sponsorship is £2 billion pounds each year. The aim of sponsorship is to give children living in the poorest countries of the world the opportunity to overcome deprivation and achieve their potential.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) “children living in poverty are those who experience deprivation of the material, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive, develop and thrive, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, achieve their full potential or participate as full and equal members of society” A recent study assessed the effectiveness of sponsorship in 6 developing countries across the world. The results showed that sponsored children stayed in school longer, were more likely to have white collar jobs and were more likely to be leaders in their communities and churches.

The study also showed that the spiritual aspect of sponsorship plays a vital part in transforming children’s lives. Sponsorship builds children’s self-esteem and aspirations. It makes them happier and more hopeful. In Uganda the impact on education was particularly striking. Sponsored children were 42% more likely to finish secondary education and 83% more likely to complete university. The leader of one aid agency said, “There’s a huge psychological benefit for a child to know that someone on the other side of the world really loves and cares about them.”

Knowing there is someone who really loves and cares about us is a need we all have, whether we are children or adults or live in a poor or prosperous country. Loves gives, not takes; it does not seek its own interests, but seeks to enrich the lives of others. The Christian message declares the amazing love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul, whose life was transformed by an encounter with the risen Jesus, said, “I live my life by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Experiencing the love of Jesus, who really cares about us, transforms our lives and gives us hope!

Becoming like little children

This week I have been visiting Sierra Leone in West Africa. In the 1990s the country suffered a very violent civil war. Many people were killed and thousands were maimed; losing hands and legs. The whole country was traumatised by these experiences. Many of the rebels were young boys who, under the influence of drink or drugs, were told to brutalise their friends and neighbours. Since 2002 there has been peace and the people have been able to begin rebuilding their lives.

It has been a great privilege for me to meet leaders from some of the churches in Sierra Leone. These men are working amongst people in some of the poorest communities, where people live on less than £1 per day. The pastors themselves receive very low salaries. One young man is working, with the help of some Christian ladies, amongst young girls in their early teens who work as prostitutes and live in appalling circumstances. They are seeing lives being transformed as these girls are helped to escape and find new hope and dignity in Jesus Christ.

Early this year one of the pastors was ministering to 7 families who each had a seriously ill child. All the children died. Shortly after his own 8 year old daughter, Efia, became very ill and, despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses, she died. While she was ill Efia showed a bright faith in Jesus. She spoke to all who visited her of his love for her and her love for him. She brought comfort to many who were in the hospital with her. She seemed to know that she was going to die and she was ready to go to heaven to be with Jesus.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In our affluent and, often, cynical society we can learn so much from the short life of little Efia. God often “chooses the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him.” I pray that the people of Sierra Leone will succeed in rebuilding their country and will escape grinding poverty. I also pray we will find that childlike faith which puts our trust in Jesus Christ for this life and the one to come.