To whom shall we go?

The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.

According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.

What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.

The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.

Choose a good reputation

Cliff Richard has won his case against the BBC for seriously infringing his right to privacy. When the South Yorkshire police advised the BBC that they had received an allegation that Cliff sexually assaulted a child in the 1980s, the BBC covered the police search of Cliff’s apartment and named him. The judge, Mr Justice Mann, ruled that naming Cliff was unlawful and awarded him substantial damages. The ruling means that an individual’s right to privacy takes precedence over the public’s right to know.

In interviews following the case an emotional Cliff spoke of the immense stress he has experienced, even though he has never been arrested or charged. He feels that, because he was named, his reputation has been irreparably damaged by a false accusation. He feels it is impossible to undo what has been done by the BBC naming him when the investigation had only just begun. He feels it is unjust that, after spending a lifetime trying to do the right thing, his reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many people. At first he felt hate towards his accuser, but then prayed to God for the grace to forgive him.

Having a good reputation is more important than enjoying success, being rich or living a celebrity lifestyle. The reputations of some well-known people have been totally destroyed because they have been found guilty of terrible crimes. The book of Proverbs says, “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.”

Cliff has stood out in the entertainment world because of his clean image. He is known as a Christian and his life has often been scrutinised in an attempt to find some flaw or fault. Cliff became a Christian in 1966 and, at first, thought he should quit rock and roll, but was persuaded by friends to continue to sing and perform and to be a witness for Jesus in the pop music scene. He has been an ambassador for Christian relief agencies, such as TEAR Fund, and has tried to use his good name and fame to help others.

Jesus told his disciples that they would be persecuted and falsely accused, as he himself was. He told them, “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.”

Spiritual heart surgery

Recent major news stories have all been about really bad things that are happening in our world today. In Syria the indiscriminate bombing of eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, has killed than 500 people in a week with thousands more injured. Women and children are hiding in basements while the White Helmets bravely try to rescue casualties. A Serious Case Review into grooming gangs in Newcastle has revealed the systematic sexual abuse of 700 vulnerable girls. A 19-year-old man gunned down 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and wounded others. Major relief agencies have disclosed cases of senior employees abusing women in countries struck by natural disaster.

The responses to these situations have proposed a number of helpful things such as a UN resolution for a cease fire, more gun control, seeking a better understanding of different cultures, better safeguarding procedures, transparency, and more training of relief personnel. But it seems clear that the problems of our human condition go much deeper and affect us all. As human beings we have both the capacity for great goodness and kindness and also the ability to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and wickedness. Why do we all struggle with the darker side of our nature and personality?

The Bible teaches that human beings were created by God in his image but that our first parents rebelled against God by breaking his command. As a result of their disobedience sin and death became universal features of life in this world affecting all people. Our relationship with God has been fractured and we have a constant bias towards what is wrong. The fundamental problem is internal and has to do with our hearts, that is our inner desires and motivation. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

The Bible also tells us that God has provided a solution to our deepest need. The prophet Ezekiel gave the people a wonderful promise from God, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” The Apostle Paul experienced this great change as he was approaching Damascus on a mission to arrest and imprison Christians. He saw a vision of the risen Jesus and became a new man. Later he wrote, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

Crushing guilt and true forgiveness

The appalling case of Larry Nassar revealed how he used his position as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University to sexually abuse more than 250 women and girls over a period of 20 years. In January, Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 7 girls, including US Olympic gymnasts, and was sentenced to 175 years in prison. He had previously been sentenced to 60 years for child pornography offences and last week received an additional sentence of 40-125 years. He will spend the rest of his life in a high security prison. He will never be released.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was 15 years old when Nassar began abusing her. She was the first of Nassar’s victims to make allegations against him. She was also the last of more than 150 survivors to share her impact statement in court. Rachael is now a lawyer and is married with 3 children. Her statement was powerful and deeply moving.

Rachael said, “Throughout this process, I have clung to a quotation by C.S. Lewis, where he says: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?'”

“Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimisation or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt, so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.”

The Judge of all the earth will do what is right

The trials of high profile men who have been accused of historic sexual abuse are in the news. Some accusations go back more than 40 years. Children and young girls were abused by powerful men who told them that, if they reported the abuse, no one would believe them. As a result, many have suffered in silence, while the abusers have enjoyed successful careers and big salaries. But the past crimes of their abusers, now elderly men, have come to light and justice is being done.

Many, however, are troubled that some of the most serious abusers of children have died and escaped justice in this life. They seem to have “got away with it.” But, is this true? Can we escape the consequences of our sins by dying? Something in the very depth of our being says that this cannot be right. The wicked acts of those who, for example, sexually abuse young children or torture and kill innocent people must be called to account. The Bible teaches us that, after we die, we must all appear before God. He “will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.”

Justice is something to be admired. The wisdom of King Solomon was widely known. One day two prostitutes came to him. They lived in the same house and each had a baby boy of the same age. One night, when they were asleep, one of the women lay on her son, without knowing it, and he died. When she realised what had happened, she took her dead son and put him next to the other woman, then took the live baby as if it were her own. When the other women awoke, and saw the dead baby next to her, she knew it wasn’t her baby. She came to Solomon in the hope that he would give her justice.

After listening to both women Solomon said, “Bring me a sword. Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.” One woman said that seemed fair, but the other said, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!” Solomon said, “Give the living baby to her; she is his mother!” Everyone who heard what Solomon had done held him in awe because of the way he administered justice. We, too, should hold God in awe because he is the Judge of all the earth and he will do what is right.