Heaven is real

The recent warm, sunny days have lifted our spirits after the cold days of early Spring. The cloudless blue skies, awakening nature, and the quiet, warmth of longer evenings have brought joy to our hearts. The beauty of the natural world around us, with the magnolia and cherry blossoms, the daffodils and primroses, and the green of the new leaves now beginning to adorn the trees, reveals the unique splendour of planet Earth, on which we are privileged to live. At such times we might wish to be able to stop and stay in the pleasure and happiness of the moment, but it isn’t possible. The daffodils fade, the blossoms fall and the most glorious of sunsets leads only to the darkness of the night.

The deep longing to find lasting peace, joy and fulfilment is something we all experience. The joys and pleasures of this world are real, but all transient. Because we have been created by God with an eternal soul we, inevitably, long for more, for that which endures. King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom, wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” A prayer, based on words of Augustine, expresses the desires of many, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you; so lead us by your Spirit that in this life we may live to your glory and in the life to come enjoy you for ever.”

Today we seldom talk about heaven and the life to come, but it is fundamental to our very being. We can only make sense of the sadnesses and mysteries of this life in the light of eternity. God is passionately concerned about justice and has set a day when he will righteously judge all people. Heaven is real and is the realm where God dwells in glory, love and unending blessing. Jesus said he was the Way to heaven.

The book of Revelation beautifully describes heaven, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. The one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new! To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. I will be their God, and they will be my children.”

Remembering Stephen Lawrence

Stephen Lawrence was murdered as he waited for a bus in Eltham, south-east London, on 22 April 1993. He was attacked and stabbed by 5 youths because he was black and died from his wounds before reaching hospital. He was just 18 years old. It took 19 years for two of the gang to be convicted of his murder. A judicial enquiry into the police investigation concluded that it was marred by “professional incompetence and institutional racism.” Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, have always behaved with great dignity. Both were awarded the OBE in 2003 for their services to community relations. Recently Doreen asked that the investigation into Stephen’s death be closed because there are no fresh leads.

In an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of Stephen’s death, his father, Neville, has spoken about his Christian faith. He said that he forgives his son’s killers and plans to spend the anniversary in church. He said the decision to forgive them was the hardest one he would ever make. He described the profound impact of Stephen’s death on all the family, “The fact that I had to lose my first child has been devastating. I can’t begin to explain the pain and the anguish I and my family have suffered over the past 25 years.” Neville speaks to young people to spell out the dire consequences of carrying a weapon. He said, “Right now with the violence, and the knife crime violence, it is even more urgent that I talk to these youngsters and explain to them the pain and the suffering they inflict on families.”

Neville’s decision to forgive Stephen’s killers, even though they have never expressed any remorse for what they did, is very significant. He has found the strength to do this because of his own experience of God’s forgiveness through Jesus. When he was dying on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He also taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

When we forgive those who have sinned against us, we are set free to move forward and rebuild our lives. As we open ourselves to God, and experience his love and grace in Jesus, he takes away the bitterness that paralyses us. We cannot fully enter into all the sadness and pain Neville and the family have experienced, but we can pray that they will all know the love and comfort of God.

The water of life

Cape Town, a beautiful coastal city, is running out of water. The second largest city in South Africa, and tenth largest city in Africa, has been affected by a 3-year drought, a greater than normal increase in population and ineffective administration. If dam levels continue to decline the city taps will run out by June. Water restrictions are already in place limiting daily consumption per person to 50 litres a day. In this very modern city people are already queuing to draw water at the 200 stand pipes that have been set up in the streets. Many people are praying earnestly for God’s intervention and help.

Earth has been called “The Water Planet”, with 71% of the planet’s surface covered by water. Yet in many parts of the world there is a serious water shortage. Water is essential to sustaining life and drinking unsafe water causes illness and many deaths. 844 million people in the world do not have access to safe water. 2.3 billion people do not have access to a toilet. Many women and girls spend 6 hours every day collecting water for themselves and their families. More people have a mobile phone than access to a toilet!

The worldwide water crisis reminds us of another very real crisis that touches the lives of us all. Whether we live in a rich or a poor country there is an inner dissatisfaction that leaves us unfulfilled at the deepest level of our being. Jesus once met a woman at a well in Samaria. It was the middle of the day and very hot, the sun was at its height. Jesus was on a journey and was thirsty and the woman had come to draw water for herself and her family. When Jesus asked her for a drink the woman refused because of a longstanding dispute between Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Through her conversation with Jesus that day the woman’s life was transformed. She still came to the well every day to draw water but now, through Jesus, God’s gift to the world, her life had new meaning and her deepest needs had been met.

Teach us to pray

Tearfund, a major Christian relief and development charity, recently commissioned a survey on prayer. Over 2000 adults took part in the survey which revealed that more than 50% of people in Britain pray. One in three people pray regularly at a place of worship. Many people also pray as they go about their daily activities in the home, as they travel and exercise, and before they go to sleep.

People pray to thank God and to ask him to bless their family and friends, especially in times of illness. More women (56%) pray than men (46%) and even some who would describe themselves as “non-religious” pray in times of crisis and desperation. Previous surveys revealed that more teenagers and people in their early 20s are likely to pray than their parents’ generation. Younger people tend to be more conscious of the needs of others and often pray for peace in the world and for an end to poverty.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him to teach them to pray and he taught them what we call The Lord’s Prayer; “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”

This is a wonderful example of how to pray. Our prayers don’t need to be long or complex as if we need to impress God with fine words. The Lord’s Prayer is so simple a young child can say it. When we pray we focus our thoughts on the one true, living God, the creator of all things. We are small and vulnerable but he is almighty and gracious. His name is holy, and he is worthy to be praised. Wherever his kingdom comes on earth there is a foretaste of heavenly joy and peace.

We can ask him for our daily food and to forgive us for the wrong things we say, think and do every day. All of us need his protection in the face of the temptations to sin and many evil influences that are all around us. And, amazingly, Jesus taught us that we can know God, in an intimate way, not as some remote, impersonal power, but as our heavenly Father who knows us and loves us!

When we are in debt

Christmas has passed, the decorations have been taken down and life is returning to normal. Yet for many people living in Britain January is a worrying month because the bills for Christmas will soon arrive. Millions of people are entering 2018 with a debt hanging over them because they overspent during the festive period. One advice line estimates that 7.9 million people are likely to fall behind with their finances in January because of credit card debt incurred over Christmas.

Being in debt is oppressive. I remember visiting a man who was in debt. He had been injured in a car accident and had lost his job. The debts had begun to accumulate and he was unable to pay them. The bank had refused to increase his overdraft and the red letters, with their demands and threats, were arriving regularly. He no longer opened letters from the companies to which he owed money. Debt had paralysed him and filled him with fear for the future. He felt very alone and had seriously considered ending his life.

When we are in debt we need to seek help. I was able to come alongside the man and to work out with him ways to begin to address his debts. In time, all his debts were cleared and he was able to move to a new flat. A great burden had been lifted from him and he was able to enjoy life again. Organisations like Christians Against Poverty offer practical help to people overwhelmed by debt enabling them to manage their repayments and, in time, to be debt-free.

When I visited the man I was also able to pray with him and to ask God to help him. God is just and is particularly concerned for the poor and for widows and orphans. He sees the oppression of the poor and vulnerable through immorally high interest rates and he will call such lenders to account. God also provides for us in our need. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition is not only for our food but for all our daily needs. God is the One who gives us all good gifts. If you are overwhelmed by debt, ask God to help you. In Psalm 34 the Psalmist says, “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles.”

O little town of Bethlehem

Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.

“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. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”

In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “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.”

Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Blessed are the peacemakers

Last weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb. At 10.43am on 8 November 1987, as people were gathered at the town’s cenotaph for the Remembrance Day service, the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb. The explosion killed 11 people and injured 64. One of those who died was a 20-year-old nurse, Marie Wilson, who was with her father Gordon. As they lay buried under rubble Gordon held Marie’s hand as she told him, “Daddy, I love you very much.”

In an interview soon after the bombing Gordon Wilson said, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” One historian said, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”

Gordon also pleaded that no Loyalists take revenge for Marie’s death and, until he died in 1995 at the age of 67, Gordon campaigned for peace and an end to the violence. When he was voted Man of the Year by the BBC’s Today programme, ahead of world-famous figures, Gordon said, “I’m not worthy of it. The others are very important people. I’m not in their class. I’m just an ordinary guy.”

We still live in a violent world and, at times, it may seem as if the terrorists have the power, but in reality it is extraordinary “ordinary” people like Gordon Wilson whose example and influence will ultimately triumph. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Gordon’s personal faith in Jesus as his Saviour and Lord was the source of his strength and his hope. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. When he died on the Cross he made a way of peace for sinful people like us all. In that apparently weak act God reconciled the world to himself and provided the way in which we can all experience forgiveness and know peace with him. Gordon was right. He and Marie have indeed been reunited in heaven in the presence of Jesus who has wiped every tear from their eyes.

The power of forgiveness

When the Allied forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Tony Lucas, who died recently, was one of 80,000 troops who became prisoners of war. For the next three and a half years he, along with many others, were slave labourers on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Tony was one of 17,000 PoWs packed into Selarang barracks, which was designed to take 800, with all water supplies, barring one tap, disconnected to compel them to sign a pledge not to escape.

Tony was transported by rail to Thailand. Thirty prisoners were locked into each airless steel-roofed truck, in toxic heat. The journey lasted five days. Lucas thought he would die; several did. In Thailand, hacking out the 258-mile railway line, reveille was at 4.30am, followed by a three-mile march through the jungle to the area the Australians named “Hellfire Pass”. Men worked in pairs, alternately swinging a 7lb hammer and holding a 3ft iron bar. They never returned before 10.30pm.

He and the other prisoners survived on a daily ration of a cupful of degraded rice. Tony suffered dysentery, malaria and jungle ulcers; his weight dropped from 11-stone to 6. On his twenty-first bout of malaria, an Allied doctor gave him a massive dose of paludrine. After that he remained free from malaria, but contracted cholera whilst helping carry corpses out for burning. On one occasion a guard, who was nicknamed “The Undertaker” because he had killed prisoners with an iron bar, attacked Tony and knocked out 3 of his teeth.

After the war, Tony suffered nightmares and terrible bouts of depression. Understandably, he at first despised the Japanese. However, as he understood more he realised that it was the military in Japan and not the wider civilian population who were responsible for the atrocities. Later, in his work with an associate company of ICI, he visited Japan on business and showed a remarkable capacity to forgive the extreme suffering he experienced. A forgiving spirit is much more powerful than a spirit of hate and vengeance.

Tony was a private person who had a very deep Christian faith. His father was an Anglican clergyman and, from childhood, Tony had been taught about Jesus and his great love for a sinful world. Tony often prayed the Lord’s Prayer including the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also knew that when he was dying on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Remembering Martin Luther

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther, until then a little-known monk, nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther’s intention was to initiate a debate within the Church of his time about how people come to know peace with God. However, for Luther personally his action led to his excommunication by the Church in 1521 when he refused to recant his views saying, “Here I stand. I can do no other, God help me!” His rediscovery of the Gospel message led to the Protestant Reformation that changed the history of Europe and the Western World.

At the age of 13 Martin Luther went to the University of Erfurt to study law. He earned both his baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the shortest possible time. In 1505, when he was 21, he was nearly struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm. He cried out in fear to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk. He kept his vow and gave away all his possessions before entering a monastery.

Luther became a totally dedicated monk plunging himself into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices, including going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. He later wrote, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was me.” Yet he did not find peace with God and was increasingly terrified by the wrath of God. Whenever he thought of the righteousness of God he felt condemned because he knew the sinfulness of his own heart.

After completing a doctorate in theology Luther became a professor in Wittenberg Cathedral and gave lectures on the Book of Romans in the New Testament. During this time, he came to understand the meaning of the righteousness of God through reading Romans, Chapter 1, verse 17; “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” He realised that, as we put our faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us his righteousness based on the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus.

Luther found peace with God and wrote, “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

When we lose everything

What do you do when you lose everything? Pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma on islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands, are heart-breaking. People have lost their homes and all their possessions. They were helpless in the face of the power of the hurricane. When reporters talked to them you could see the shock and bewilderment on their faces as they looked at the ruins of what was once their home. Re-establishing normal life again is a daunting task. Some, however, said that, although they have lost everything, they are thankful to God that they and their loved ones are alive.

In America people have been remembering the events of the 9th September 2001, when the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York killed 2,997 people and injured more than 6000 others. The total collapse of the towers stunned all who witnessed it and those around the world who saw the pictures. Hearing the stories of those who lost loved ones in the attacks brings home their sense of absolute helplessness as, in the minutes after the attacks, they spoke on the telephone to relatives who were trapped in the towers with no possibility of escape. All they could do was tell each other “I love you” and pray.

The Bible tells the story of a man called Job. He was a blameless and upright man who feared God. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys. He also had many servants. On the same day, all his animals were stolen or killed by lightning and all his sons and daughters died as the house in which they were enjoying a meal together was struck by a tornado and collapsed. He lost everything. When the news of these devastating events came to Job, he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Devastating loss is not a sign of God’s displeasure or an indication that those who experience it are worse people than others. We can pray for those who are seeking to rebuild their lives that God will give them the strength they need and also that he will make us truly thankful for all the blessings he has graciously given us.