My grace is sufficient for you

When my father was in hospital waiting for an operation to remove his bladder he was, understandably, anxious. Scans had revealed a cancerous tumour in his bladder and surgery was the best way to deal with it. After evening visiting on the day before the operation, when my father was on his own in his room, he opened the Gideons’ New Testament at the side of his bed. He found an index in the front of the New Testament that suggested Bible verses to read when experiencing different situations in life. He turned to the one suggested for those who are ill.

He read 2 Corinthians Chapter 12 where the Apostle Paul writes of an illness he had. We don’t know what it was, but Paul calls it “a thorn in the flesh” and makes it clear it was something that caused him to suffer. In verses 8 and 9 Paul says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Like Paul, my father had prayed that God would heal him but that evening he felt that God had spoken to him through those words and had promised to be with him and to give him the strength to face whatever lay ahead. The operation did not fully resolve the problem and, after further surgery, my father died in hospital a few weeks later. He was able to face death confident from the verses he read in the Bible that the Lord was with him.

Gideons distribute free copies of the Bible and New Testament in many countries in the world. Children starting secondary school are given a New Testament and copies of the Bible are also placed in hotel rooms, hospitals and care homes. In April 2015 the Gideons placed their two billionth copy of the Scriptures. Many people have found comfort and strength in times of crisis when they have picked up a Gideons’ Bible and read it. It has literally saved lives.

The Bible is a unique book in which the living God speaks to us. What the Bible says, God says. He makes wonderful promises in which we can put our trust like the promise of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Words matter

Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.

One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”

Help, I need somebody!

In 1965 John Lennon wrote the song “Help!” It went to number one in the charts in both the UK and USA. In an interview some years later, John spoke of the stress he experienced because of his sudden rise to success, “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was fat and depressed and was subconsciously crying out for help.”

Many people can identify with the words of the song; “Help, I need somebody. Help, not just anybody. Help, you know, I need someone. Help! When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But now these days are gone, I’m not so self- assured and now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors. And now my life has changed in, oh, so many ways. My independence seems to vanish in the haze, but every now and then I feel so insecure, I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before. Help me if you can, I’m feeling down, and I do appreciate you being ’round. Help me get my feet back on the ground. Won’t you, please, please help me?”

Many of us go through experiences which shake our self-confidence and make us feel insecure. Even when we are surrounded by people we become conscious that we need help from someone, and not just anybody. At such times a cry of “Help!” comes from our hearts. We need to know, as we have never needed before, that there is someone there.

The Bible declares that there is someone there and he is willing to help us. The opening words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The universe and our lives have meaning and purpose because God is there. We are not alone. Augustine, an early Christian leader, wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

One day Jesus saw a widow following the coffin of her only son. A large crowd of people was with her. The heart of Jesus went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. The people were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.”

Holidays are important

The summer holiday season is in full swing. The number of people in Britain taking holidays is increasing. In 2017 87% of British people took a holiday at home or abroad. On average British people take 3.8 holidays each year of which nearly 50% are overseas holidays. People living in London and Northern Ireland take least holidays; less than 2 per year. 18% of people don’t take a holiday. In 2017 the average British family spent £1284 per person on their summer holiday.

In the Old Testament God commanded the people of Israel to celebrate annual feasts and festivals. They were communal holy days which focussed on remembrance, thanksgiving, joy and celebration. The people remembered the great things God had done for them in delivering them from slavery in Egypt and in providing food and water for them through their 40 years in the wilderness. Other festivals were related to the annual harvest when the people thanked God for his faithful provision for their needs and offered their gifts to him. Each year the people also remembered their need for God’s forgiveness and offered sacrifices to him.

The weekly Sabbath day was God’s gracious provision for his people to rest from their daily work. “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work.” In our secular society we have lost sight of the importance of a weekly day of rest. All of us need to rest. A weekly day of rest enables us to do our work more efficiently, to spend time with our families and those in need and to thank God for his love and faithfulness.

Holy days are also an opportunity to think about eternity. In the midst of our busy lives it is good to reflect on the fact that we are mortal. When someone we love dies we may put on their gravestone the words “Rest in peace” because we want them to find eternal rest and peace. Christians in the first century patiently endured persecution as they lived in obedience to God’s commands and maintained their faith in Jesus. In the book of Revelation John hears a voice from heaven saying, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”

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.”

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.