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When you pray, I will listen

Yesterday morning my wife and I attended the first service in our local church building since 15 March. It was good to see our friends again, but it was very different. Normally there would be more than 100 people of all ages present, but yesterday we were only 25 because of government restrictions on church services. We queued to enter the building, used hand sanitiser on the way in and out of the service, sat at 2 metres distance and wore face masks. We were not allowed to sing the hymns, but simply followed the words. After the service we spoke briefly to others in the congregation through our masks and at a distance and then went home.

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister his most senior advisers prevented him from discussing his faith in public. During one interview, at the time of the second Iraq war, a journalist asked Mr Blair about his religious faith. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s director of strategy and communications, an atheist, intervened, “Is he on God? I’m sorry we don’t do God.” When he was preparing to speak to the nation on the eve of hostilities in Iraq, Mr Blair was also told he must not end his speech with “God bless you.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic our political leaders have made no reference to faith in God and the need to pray for his gracious intervention. We are “following the science” even though it has become increasingly clear that the scientists don’t agree with each other and are fallible. Yet during the past 6 months nearly 400,000 people have caught the virus and more than 40,000 have died. Many are anxious and afraid.

Our need to know God is greater than ever and many people, especially the young, sense it. In the summer Tearfund, a Christian aid agency, commissioned a survey in which 25% of adults in the UK said they had watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown began and many had started praying. A third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service, as had one in five adults over 55. One in five of those who tuned into services said they had never gone to church. In a time of national crisis many years ago God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah and gave them a wonderful promise which is still true today, “When you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you.”

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Baby Asher

The birth of a first child is an occasion for great joy. In June Pete and Grace, who work at Hebron School in India, rejoiced in the birth of their son Asher and their families and friends rejoiced with them. When he was five weeks old Asher was taken ill with vomiting and admitted to hospital with septic shock. Doctors discovered a twisted bowel which, sadly, could not be saved except for just 6 centimetres. Where he was in India basic treatment like replacement nutrition was not feasible.

When we were first sent news about Asher, in early August, we were asked to pray for him and Pete and Grace, because the medical team at the hospital had, reluctantly, decided to turn off his life support the following morning. However, when morning came the medical team reviewed Asher’s situation and saw that, apart from the very serious problem with his bowel, he was otherwise healthy, bright and alert. So, it was decided to continue to care for him and to seek possible places where he could be treated.

Pete, who is from the UK, discovered that there are hospitals in England that could treat Asher either by lengthening his bowel or by a small intestine transplant and that these hospitals would be willing to treat Asher. But there was one big problem – finance. There would be no charge for Asher’s treatment in England but transferring him on a special medical plane from India to England would cost £102,000, and there would also be other costs. It was decided to pray that God would provide the finance and to set up a crowdfunding page. Wonderfully, gifts have been received from thousands of people around the world to cover the costs of bringing Asher to England and he is now at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

When we experience trials in our own life, or in the lives of those we love, we, too, can pray to God for his gracious help and he will hear our prayers. Even when the way ahead is full of uncertainties, we can commit our way to him and trust him. The kindness and practical care of other people, who may be strangers to us, is a great encouragement. Every human life is precious to God, however small and vulnerable. And, amazingly, the God to whom we pray is the One who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

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A precious gift from God

We have had an addition to our family. Our youngest daughter gave birth three weeks ago to her first child, a little boy. My wife and I are thankful to God that they are both safe and well. This baby is a precious gift from God. We have seen him but have not yet held him because of the present restrictions. We are thankful for the excellent care our daughter received from the consultant and midwife during her pregnancy and, especially, their skills during a difficult delivery.

During our daughter’s pregnancy it was lovely to see the scan photos of the baby in the womb and to see him growing and developing. Those photos reminded us of King David’s words in Psalm 139, “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.”

Every human life is precious and little babies are vulnerable and dependent. We are praying for our daughter and son-in-law to have wisdom as they bring up their son. We do not know what the future holds for them or for this world. But whatever the future holds we know that God is faithful and that he is the One who guides both the history of the world and our personal histories. A Christian song says, “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.”

The birth of a little boy in Bethlehem, more than 2000 years ago, brought light to this dark world. His birth was the dawn of hope and a revelation of God’s love for the peoples of the world. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “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.” We pray that our new grandson will one day realise God’s love for him in Jesus and receive the gift of eternal life.

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John Wesley’s Story

The 24th May 1738 was a very significant day in the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England. He became one of the greatest spiritual leaders in English history playing a key role in the 18th century revival of religion. John was the son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Of the 19 children Susanna bore, only 3 sons and 7 daughters survived. Samuel was the Rector of Epworth and Susanna was a strongminded mother who practised strict discipline with her children.

John and his brother Charles, the great hymnwriter, went to Oxford University, where they started a small group of students, nicknamed “the Holy Club”, which met for prayer and Bible study. The group stressed the need for both a deep inward faith and practical service to those in need. They visited the sick and those in prison. When he left Oxford in 1735, John accepted an invitation to go, with his brother Charles, as missionaries to the recently founded colony of Georgia.

During the voyage to America there was a terrifying storm and John was afraid he was going to die. He attended a service on board ship with a group of German Moravian Christians. During the service a huge wave engulfed the ship and water poured down into the cabins. The Moravians continued singing – men, women and children – seemingly unafraid. Later John asked one of the Moravians why they hadn’t been afraid. The man told him that because they knew God they were not afraid to die. John realised that they had something he didn’t have. They were able to face death because they knew that God was never going to let them go.

After returning from Georgia, John attended a meeting of Moravian Christians in Aldersgate Street on 24th May 1738. He was not keen to go but at that meeting he had a profound spiritual experience. John described what happened to him, “About a quarter before nine, while the man was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” John was no longer afraid of dying. Between 1738 and his death in 1791 he travelled more than 250,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons proclaiming to many people the same message by which he had come to know God and England was transformed.

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Give us this day our daily bread

The coronavirus pandemic is having a massive financial impact on the world. Governments are borrowing very large sums of money in order to help their people and keep their economies going. Businesses, both large and small, are suffering and some may never reopen. Many people are likely to lose their jobs, with far-reaching consequences for them and their families. Britain’s billionaires have lost £54 billion in the past two months. At the other end of the social scale more people than ever are now dependent on food banks to feed their families. At the end of December 2019, the total personal debt in Britain was £225 billion, the equivalent of £4300 for every adult. Now, because of the virus, personal debt has significantly increased.

The impact, however, is even greater in the Developing World. The World Bank estimates that 1.4 billion people worldwide normally live on under a $1.25 a day and another 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day. In Sub-Saharan Africa nearly 75% of the population fall into this category. We have a doctor friend who works in a rural Christian hospital in Uganda where the government has imposed a very strict lockdown to stop the virus spreading. This has had a devastating impact on the poorest people who are struggling to buy food and, also, on seriously sick people and expectant mothers who can’t get to the hospital.

The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples, is very realistic and relevant to us all. The prayer begins with the words “Our Father in heaven.” As good human fathers care for their children and provide for them, so God is the One who provides for us. One of the petitions, which in normal times we hardly notice, is especially meaningful in hard times and for those facing crushing poverty – “Give us this day our daily bread.”

A few years ago, the 4-year-old daughter of a good friend of ours was taken into foster care. Her foster parents noticed that, before each meal, the little girl’s lips were moving as she spoke silently. They asked her what she was saying. She said she was praying to God, thanking him for her food and for the kind people who were looking after her. Praying, too, for her Mummy and her brothers and sisters. The foster parents were deeply moved and asked the little girl to pray out loud for them all at every meal. Through that little girl they became conscious of God, their heavenly Father, in a new way. They said, “she has changed our lives.”

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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “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.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.

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Remembering VE Day

This weekend there will be an international celebration of the 75th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. On 8 May 1945 there was a great joy when the Allied Forces announced the surrender of Germany; World War II in Europe was over. More than a million people celebrated in the streets, including the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”

A Service of Thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey gratefully acknowledging that God had heard the many prayers offered through the dark years of the war. The service opened with these words, “The Lord has done great things for us, which ought to be remembered. Let us, therefore, offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which he has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through years of danger and suffering: for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen: for the hope that we are about to enter upon a righteous and abiding peace: for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.”

The planned VE Day celebrations will be severely curtailed because of the coronavirus restrictions. Today the peoples of the world are involved in a different kind of deadly conflict. We are under threat from an unseen enemy and many have already died. The courage and skill of medical teams and carers have been an inspiration to us all. Victory over the virus is still in the future as great efforts are made to develop an effective vaccine.

At Easter we remembered the greatest victory ever accomplished when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, confronted our greatest enemies of sin and death. Human sinfulness causes untold misery and suffering and every day many face the last enemy, death. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty our sins deserve. His death was a great victory. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” His resurrection on the third day showed he had broken the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality. As we pray for those seriously ill with coronavirus, and those who have lost loved ones, we can rejoice in the hope Jesus gives; “for those who die believing die safely through his love.”

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Finding peace and hope

Plagues and epidemics have ravaged human beings throughout history. Between 1347 and 1351 the Black Death, the most fatal pandemic, resulted in the deaths of between 75-200 million people in Eurasia, North Africa and Europe. The plague created religious, social and economic upheavals with profound effects on the course of European history. Between 30% and 60% of the people in Europe died and it took 200 years for the population of Europe to recover.

Influenza is a major cause of death. During the 20th century, three flu pandemics caused many deaths in Britain: 200,000 died in 1918-1919 from Spanish flu; 33,000 died in 1957-1958 from Asian flu; and 80,000 died in 1968-1969 from Hong Kong flu. Between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide die every year from flu. Between 2014 and 2019 an average of 17,000 people died each year from flu in England.

How did former generations respond to plagues? In the 16th century, when there was a serious plague, Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, wrote, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he shall surely find me, and I have done what is expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely.”

Pat Allerton the vicar at St Peter’s Church, Notting Hill, has been visiting streets in his parish to pray and play the hymn “Amazing Grace” through a speaker. He holds a 10-minute service in a different place each day, sometimes outside major hospitals. He wants to give people hope. One lady wrote to him saying, “Hello, I’m not a religious person, but I want to thank you for what you did on Thursday night outside Charing Cross Hospital. My uncle was in there at the time and passed away alone the following morning due to coronavirus. Knowing he could have heard this song on his last night on this planet brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart.” A nurse who was treating a patient who was fighting the virus, and later died of it, said that hearing the hymn brought “a peace to her heart and to the patient she will never forget.”