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God’s promises

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Around 5 billion copies have been purchased, five times more than the next best-seller. It is also the most translated book in human history. The whole Bible has been translated into more than 700 languages, the New Testament has been translated into more than 1500 languages and portions of the Bible have been translated into 3400 languages.

The Bible is a big book and often lies on a shelf unread. The best places to start reading the Bible are the New Testament, which tells us about the life and teaching of Jesus, or the book of Psalms, which is in the middle of the Bible and tells us about people’s experiences of God. When we read the Bible God speaks to us so that we may know him and find strength to face the challenges of life. I know people who started reading the Bible during the pandemic and have come to know Jesus as their Saviour.

Before we read the Bible, we can ask God to speak to us. One psalmist prayed, “Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions.” You don’t have to read large sections of the Bible to find help and strength. Many people have found help in single verses to which they often turn in times of stress and trouble. The night before my father had major surgery for cancer, he read the Gideons’ New Testament by his bedside and found comfort in these words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

In the Bible God makes wonderful promises which we can fully trust. He spoke to his people through the prophet Isaiah, “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, ‘Do not fear; I will help you.’” In Psalm 23 David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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Facing our fears

Fear is in the air. During the pandemic many people have been afraid of catching the virus, of being seriously ill and even dying. Every day we are told on national television how many people are infected and how many have died. Some scientists are forecasting a very difficult winter ahead with more people dying from the virus and from seasonal flu. At the COP26 Climate Change Conference some scientists have projected the devastating consequences of global warming. Unless world leaders act now it will be too late.

Young people are being especially impacted by fear. They look to people like Greta Thunberg who has become a global voice on climate change. She is disdainful of the broken promises of world leaders to effect change while saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” Greta says, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Fear can be a good response. Good parents teach their children to be careful crossing roads because they may be knocked down by a car. They teach their children that fire burns and that electricity can give them a nasty shock. Such fear protects us from danger. It only does us good. But fear can also paralyse us, especially when there is little we can do to avoid the danger, and our safety depends totally on the actions of others. This fear is increased when people constantly tell us there is no God. We are on our own in this vast universe and there’s no one there to help.

The Bible tells us that knowing the living God enables us to face our fears. David, who was a courageous man, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” In a time of national crisis, God spoke to the people through the prophet Isaiah, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” In Psalm 23 David says that when the Lord is our shepherd, we can even face death without fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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Be near me when I’m dying

The House of Lords has been debating the Assisted Dying Bill that proposes making a new law to enable adults who are of sound mind and have six months or less to live to be provided with life-ending medication. The person wanting to end their life would have to sign a declaration approved by two doctors, which would be signed off by the High Court. The bill is being proposed by Baroness Meacher who said that it would help a “small but significant number of dying people avoid unwanted suffering at the end of life”. The proposed law would mean that helping a person to plan for an assisted death would no longer be a criminal offence.

Anyone who has cared for a loved one who is terminally ill will understand the pain and heartache this involves. I am visiting two very good friends who are very seriously ill. They are being lovingly cared for by their families and are being supported by excellent palliative care teams. Everything possible is being done to help them and their loved ones to cope with a very difficult situation. It is a privilege to be able to come alongside them and their families at this time knowing that one day I too will have to face death. We talk together, read the Bible, and pray to God, our heavenly Father, who helps us in a way no other can as we face death.

David’s words in Psalm 23 have been a great comfort to countless people, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” As we face death we can feel very alone. We leave those we love so much and must pass through that dark valley on our own. The Lord, who is the good Shepherd, knows our fears and promises that he will be with us to keep us safe and bring us into the presence of our heavenly Father.

The death and resurrection of Jesus were decisive and give us a sure hope. The apostle Paul told the early Christians that Jesus, our Saviour, “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” A well-known hymn about Jesus dying on the cross says, “Be near me when I’m dying: O show thy cross to me; thy death, my hope supplying, from death shall set me free. These eyes, new faith receiving from Jesus shall not move; for those who die believing die safely through Thy love.”

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It’s not good to be alone

Personal relationships are very important. On a morning walk I saw young children going back to school. They were happy, smiling and singing. They were looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers again. Soon elderly people living in care homes will be able to see one close relative face to face after, for many, having had no physical contact with loved ones for a year. Mothers teaching their children at home have experienced real loneliness. People working at home are feeling the loss of regular contact with their colleagues in the office. Protecting life is important, but life without warm relationships with family and friends can feel very empty.

In the Bible’s account of the creation of human beings we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is the first insight into who God is. There is only one God, but there are three persons within the Godhead – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are united in an eternal relationship of love. God’s image is seen equally in both men and women who long for and find fulfilment in warm personal relationships. When those relationships are lost or spoiled, life itself is diminished and people are impoverished.

God’s supreme revelation of himself is in a person, his eternal Son, Jesus, who shows us what God is like. His gracious life and death for our sins reveal God’s love and compassion for us. Jesus’ disciples walked and talked with him. They experienced his warm love for them and witnessed the compassion he showed to all who came to him need. The Apostle John wrote about Jesus, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

Recently a good friend died of Covid-19. In an attempt to save his life, the doctors put him into an induced coma. Just before he went into the coma my friend said, “God is good.” He was separated from his family, but he was not alone. Like David, who wrote Psalm 23, he trusted in the Lord, who was his shepherd, and could say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

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When I am afraid

Fear is a common human emotion. The coronavirus pandemic has created sustained fear in the hearts of many people, especially the elderly, who are afraid to leave their homes in case they catch the virus. Some people I know have not left their homes since last March.

Fear can protect us from danger. Parents use fear in a positive way to teach their children to be careful when crossing the road or not to touch electric sockets in case they receive a shock. It is helpful for people to be aware that the coronavirus is easily transmitted and, in some cases, produces serious illness and even death. It is wise to be afraid of enclosed spaces, crowds, and close contact with others, especially those who may have the virus.

Fear can also paralyse us and prevent us from coping with daily life. So, it’s really important to know how to cope with fear. The psalms of David help us to know how to handle our fears. In Psalm 56, which he wrote when his enemies had captured him and his life was in danger, he says, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?” Instead of being overcome by fear, he put his trust in God’s promise that he would be king. When we are afraid, we can put our trust in God.

When we are afraid, we can also pray for God’s help and protection. A few weeks ago, some good friends were in a very difficult situation with the virus. The husband is elderly and vulnerable. His wife is caring for him with the help of a team of carers who come into their home every day. One of the carers contracted coronavirus and, soon after their son, who lives with them also picked up the virus at work. All we could do was to pray for God’s protection for the couple and God graciously heard our prayers. When we are afraid, we can pray to God.

In Psalm 23 David speaks of his confidence in the Lord, who was his shepherd, even when facing death. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Despite the excellent care of doctors and nurses, good friends have died from coronavirus, and their families had only been able to visit them at the very end, but they, like David feared no evil because the Lord was with them.

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Remember your Creator

People are living longer. The Queen now sends more 100th birthday cards than ever before – over 10,000 cards each year to people who are 100 years old or more. However, living a long life often brings significant challenges. In the past few months three elderly friends have died. Two were over 80 years old and one was in his nineties. Each faced difficulty in the last years of their lives. One had cancer and needed surgery and chemotherapy which meant many weeks in hospital and a severely restricted quality of life. One suffered from dementia and moved into a care home where, sadly, he no longer recognised his children and grandchildren. One fell at home and was no longer able to live independently. He moved into a care home where, because of immobility, he spend many long days in his room with little variation in the routine.

Each of them was a Christian and found comfort and strength through their relationship with God. They put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour when they were young, healthy and active; old age seemed a long way off. But as they grew older the promises of the Bible gave them strength and hope. They knew the personal love and care of God and experienced the truth of Psalm 23 where David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

When they realised their life was drawing to a close they were able to face death with confidence and hope because they knew their Saviour was with them. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David’s son Solomon was a wise king. In the book of Ecclesiastes he considered the meaning of life and came to a clear conclusion, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’ Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

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Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

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We will remember them

At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.

This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.

In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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Remembering Joost van der Westhuizen

Last week Joost van der Westhuizen died at the age of 45. Joost played scrum half for South Africa and was one of the greatest players ever to wear a Springbok jersey. He won 89 caps and scored a record 38 tries. He was a member of the Springbok team that won the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995. Many people remember Joost’s try-saving tackle in the final on the giant All Black wing Jonah Lomu that ensured South Africa won the cup. He captained his country in the 1999 Rugby World Cup and retired in 2003 as South Africa’s most-capped player.

After he retired from rugby, Joost faced very serious problems in his life. In 2009 he was unfaithful to his wife, which led to the breakup of his marriage, and was also suspected of taking drugs. As a result, he lost his job as a television presenter. Then in 2011 he was diagnosed with moto neurone disease and was given 2 years to live. MND is a progressive muscular disease and Joost faced the greatest challenge of his life. Eventually he was confined to a wheelchair and could barely speak. Throughout the time he was ill he worked hard to raise awareness of the disease and formed the J9 charitable foundation.

How can anyone face such a desperately difficult situation? In recent years Joost spoke openly about the mistakes he had made and about his faith in God. “What I did went against all my principles – my life was controlled by my mind and I had to make my mistakes to realise what life is all about, I led my life at a hundred miles an hour. I’ve learned that there are too many things that we take for granted in life and it’s only when you lose them that you realise what it is all about. But I know that God is alive in my life and with experience you do learn. I can now talk openly about the mistakes I made because I know my faith won’t give up and it won’t diminish. It’s only when you go through what I am going through that you understand that life is generous.”

Joost found in Jesus someone who is greater than the greatest problems we may ever face. Even as he experienced the increasingly debilitating effects of MND Joost knew God’s loving presence with him. Psalm 23 really is true, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, 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.”