When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”

The right work-life balance

This week MPs will vote on a Bill to end Sunday trading laws. If the Bill is passed then, by the autumn, large supermarkets and stores will be able to open for as long as they wish, instead of the present 6 hours’ limit. Shopping will become a 24/7 activity for some. Shop workers, who object on religious or family grounds, will be able to give one month’s notice that they no longer wish to work on Sundays. In practice those who exercise this option may be discriminated against when they apply for jobs. There is significant opposition to the Bill, but does it really matter?

Rest really does matter. It is vital for our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. God intends us all to have a right work-life balance which protects us from being exploited and also from being taken over by excessive greed. The Bible opens with a majestic description of God the Creator. In 6 days he created the heavens and the earth and then on the seventh day he rested from all his work. He blessed the seventh day and made it holy. God’s example of six days labour, followed by one day of rest, established the work-life pattern for all people.

The Ten Commandments establish the moral and spiritual foundations for us all. The fourth commandment is, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigners living among you.” So, not only must we rest ourselves, but we must also ensure that others don’t have to work for our benefit or convenience.

God’s laws are not an arbitrary imposition on us, but are for our well-being and blessing. Creating the “freedom” to work 24/7 is really a new form of slavery which exalts consumerism and threatens to destroy people’s health and wellbeing and their family life. We used to buy apples from a self-pick fruit farm in Herefordshire which closed on Sundays. The owners were Christians and kept Sunday as a special day. Many people came to pick fruit at their farm on a Monday knowing there would be a better crop because the fields had rested for a day. Both we and the world we live in really do benefit from a weekly day of rest.

Coming home

In the coming weeks birds, who have migrated to warmer countries for the winter, will begin to return to Britain. In recent years a pair of swallows was spotted on the last day of February. Swallows winter in Southern Africa and fly more than 9000 miles to return to Britain. Returning early has its risks, especially if we have a spell of cold winter weather and their food is in short supply.

If we have a happy home, then coming home, after being away, is a very positive experience. Familiar places, and people we know and love, are very reassuring. Home is where we belong and find security. When we are at home we can relax and know we are accepted. When we arrive at our home we don’t knock the door so that someone can let us in, because we have a key to the door. However enjoyable a visit to another place may be, there is nothing quite like coming back to our own home.

Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son asked his father if he could have his share of the inheritance. When his father gave it to him, the son left home and went to a distant country. He wanted to be free to enjoy himself and do what he wanted to do. It wasn’t long before he had spent all the money and was alone in a strange place. He realised that there was only one place to which he could go, so he set off on the long journey home. He knew he would have to admit to his father that he had made a big mistake, and had done many wrong things, and ask for his forgiveness. As he got near his father’s house, his father saw him and ran to him and embraced him and kissed him. He experienced his father’s love in a way he had never known before, because he had been taken up with himself and the pleasures the world offers. Now he had truly come home.

We all need to know where we belong and to come home to God. Like the son in Jesus’ story, we may feel we have failed and be sad and lonely. We need to experience the love of God in Jesus as we have never known it before. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

All work and no play

The summer holidays have arrived and many families have already gone away for their annual break. Children are looking forward to 6 weeks when they don’t have to go to school and there is no homework. Hopefully the weather will be good and they will be able to relax, play with their friends and do things they enjoy doing. They, and their teachers, will return to school in September refreshed and ready to start a new academic year.

We all need a balance between work and rest. So it is very sad that there are plans to allow larger shops to open longer hours on Sundays. Local councils will be allowed to extend opening hours if this might “boost economic activity”. The chancellor thinks there is a “growing appetite” for shopping on a Sunday and feels that some people consider shopping to be one of their leisure activities. There are understandable concerns that if larger shops open longer hours this will put pressure on their employees to work extra hours and some smaller shops may close.

The Ten Commandments, which establish the moral basis for our lives, include a commandment about a weekly day of rest. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

All of us, whether we are religious or not, need and benefit from regular times of rest. The proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is true. When we don’t have times of rest and recreation we do become bored and boring people. For Christians Sundays also have a special significance because they remind us about heaven and the wonderful blessings God has prepared for all who love him. At many funeral services these words from the Book of Revelation are read, “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.’”

Coping in a 24/7 World

When Mrs Thatcher was our Prime Minister I remember hearing, for the first time, that Cabinet meetings were being held on a Sunday. The emphasis was that we all had to work hard and follow the example of the successful Japanese economy. Later the Labour Party began to prescribe how many hours homework secondary school children should do each night. It was said that A level students should do 3 to 4 hours per night, after a full day at school. Between 9 and 10 on a Saturday evening Tesco apologises to its customers that, “because of current government legislation”, the store will close at 10 o’clock.

It seems we have lost sight of the importance and benefit of rest. The book of Genesis describes how God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh day. It says, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done.” In this way God established the pattern for our lives. It is also enshrined in the 10 Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God, on it you shall not do any work.”

God’s laws are not arbitrary rules, but are all for our good. We all need times of rest and recreation. Working long hours every day, without a break, is not good for our health or our effectiveness. A young teacher I knew was considering becoming a Christian. She was worried that, if she did, she would need to keep Sunday as a special day. She was caring for her elderly father and used Sundays to catch up on house work and prepare for the coming school week. She felt she wouldn’t cope if she rested on Sundays. After she became a Christian she found, to her surprise, that when she began keeping Sundays special, she was able to complete all her work in the other 6 days. She also felt far more relaxed and less stressed.

Many of us need to break out of our 24/7 world, which creates so much pointless stress. A weekly day of rest gives us the opportunity to change the pace of life, to have time to think and focus on God and the ultimate spiritual realities of life.

Two shall become One

Genesis is the first book in the Bible. It describes the majestic creation of the heavens and the earth by the power and wisdom of God. Then it describes the creation of the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve. They were created by God “in his image.” They had bodies and also eternal souls and enjoyed wonderful fellowship with their Creator.

Adam was created “from the dust of the earth” and worked in the beautiful Garden of Eden. His working pattern followed God’s activity in creation. Adam worked for six days and rested on the seventh day. He enjoyed the fruit which grew on the trees of the garden. This pattern of life was the model God intended us all to enjoy with a good work-life balance.

Then God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of his ribs. From the rib he made Eve and brought her to Adam who said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is united in marriage to his wife and they become one flesh.

Matthew Henry, the Bible commentator, says, “The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.” This is a beautiful description of marriage which has been the foundation of human life and society from the beginning of time. Through the sexual union of a husband and wife children are born and grow up in the security of the family.

Marriage brings a man and a woman into the closest relationship we can ever know. In marriage a man and a woman make solemn promises to each other to live together in an exclusive relationship of lifetime faithfulness and, so, two people become one. This is why problems in marriage are so deeply painful and lifelong love in marriage is so deeply fulfilling.

Finding Rest in God

Do you ever stop in the rush of life to think about God? We have enjoyed two beautiful days with cloudless blue skies. The sun brought out the beauty of the autumnal colours. Another year is passing and, although our human world is in turmoil, the beauty and splendour of God’s creation spoke to my heart. Our amazing little planet stands alone in a vast and bleak universe and speaks to us all of God.

Above the cacophony of voices telling us that it all happened by chance, over a very long time, something deep in my very being tells me that there is a Creator and he is good. His creation is amazing and tells me he is very great. It makes me want to worship him and say with the psalmist, in Psalm 8, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. You have set your glory above the heavens.”

The psalmist goes on to reflect on the significance for each of us of God’s greatness revealed in his creation. “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.”

We haven’t evolved from monkeys, but have been created by God, in his image, with a glorious purpose. Life only makes sense when we relate to him. Many years ago Augustine of Hippo wrote, “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find rest in you.” Rest and peace are not characteristics of our lives in the 21st century. The reason is that we live in a godless society in which many people, including our leaders, have decided to exclude God from everything. So there is no warmth or love, and none of us really matters.

Last week I heard that an elderly man, who was my friend, had died. I also heard of a young couple we know well and love, whose new born baby died. At such times it is so important to rest in the God who is there. He really is mindful of us and cares deeply for us.