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Great is your faithfulness

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again, we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there, and that this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So, don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So, as we continue to live under the long shadow of Covid-19, and share the sadness of those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, we and they can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God who cares for us.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

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Finding contentment

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has led many people to reassess their situations. The length of the lockdown and continuing uncertainty about the future have had a significant impact on people’s jobs and young people’s plans for employment training and university courses. Many people are experiencing mental health problems. The “new normal” will be very different from the past. The impact of lockdown on many people’s lives has been negative.

During lockdown Billy Vunipola, who plays international rugby for England, has engaged in serious self-reflection. He has suffered injuries and experienced the disappointment of losing the Rugby World Cup 2019 final to South Africa. He says that during the Rugby World Cup “his head was in the clouds” and feels he has to grow up and set a better example to others. He feels that during the tournament he personally let England down and failed to support his brother Mako, who also plays for England. He has apologised to his team-mates and his brother and now wants to make up for lost time.

Billy, and his brother Mako, were born in Tonga. Their parents were Christians and from an early age they taught their children the priorities of life – God, school and rugby. Billy recognised that in recent years his priorities had changed and spoke to his parents. He said, “I always looked to blame someone else or something else and I finally realised, when I spoke to my parents, that I need to take ownership. Those guys never lie to me. It was hard to look at myself and I didn’t want to take ownership for things that I did. It’s hard to admit it sometimes and tell people around you that you are wrong.”

Billy has spoken about how he has rediscovered his faith in Jesus Christ. Despite being prevented from playing rugby, he has found contentment because of his faith in God. He said, “I went back to what I had been taught all my life about Jesus: whatever we do, whether we are playing rugby, or we’ve just woken up, we say thank you to God. Everything is a gift. Everything I have has been given to me; even my talent is a gift from God. I’m thankful for this gift. Knowing that Jesus is with me makes me a stronger person. I know that whatever I try to do, even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always have Jesus to lean back on. I know there is more to life than winning and losing rugby games. Everything I do must be backed up by the love of Christ.”

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Facing fear and vulnerability

Michael Johnson, the retired American sprinter, had an outstanding athletics’ career. He won 4 Olympic gold medals and 8 World Championship gold medals. He held the world and Olympic records in both the 200m and 400m and the world indoor 400m record. He is the only athlete in history to win both the 200m and 400m events in the same Olympics. After retiring from athletics, he opened Michael Johnson Performance centres and became an athletics’ pundit on BBC Sport. He has always made physical fitness a top priority; eating healthily, drinking alcohol moderately, exercising regularly and watching his weight.

In early September 2018, however, he suffered a TIA – a transient ischaemic attack. He lost mobility and co-ordination in his left side and in the days after it took him 15 minutes to walk 200 metres – the same distance he often ran in under 20 seconds. Thankfully Michael has made a good recovery. He approached his rehabilitation with the same determination he approached training during his athletics’ career and after 4 months he was paddle-boarding, rowing, cycling and running.

For the first time, he experienced fear and vulnerability because neither he nor his doctors could explain why he suffered the stroke. He said, “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable being vulnerable. I’m still working through this need I have to be superman. My persona, personally and publicly, has been that I have got everything under control, and I don’t need anyone else’s help, don’t need anyone’s sympathy. I don’t like sympathy or empathy. Now I have been faced with the vulnerable position of not being able to walk. Needing help to do that and some regular normal daily activities was tough for me. But I realised that in order to get back to where I needed to be, people’s help was something I was going to need and to open up to.”

Michael’s honesty highlights the fears and vulnerability we all experience. In Psalm 56 David, who was a great military leader, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in God.” The Apostle Paul, who was a man of great energy, suffered what he called a “thorn in the flesh”, a physical weakness with which he had to live. But God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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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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We will remember them

In 1919 King George V inaugurated Remembrance Day when Commonwealth member states remember those of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. It is held each year at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which was the time when hostilities ceased in World War I. Many other non-Commonwealth countries also observe the day. There are now very few former soldiers alive who experienced the terrible conflicts of World War II, but what they say reminds us of the horrific nature of battles like those on the beaches of Normandy following the D-Day landings.

On 6 June 1944 infantry and armoured divisions from America, Britain and Canada began landing on the French coast. As soon as they landed, they came under heavy enemy gunfire. Many of the 24,000 Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches died or were seriously injured on the first day. Alan King, who survived D-Day, said, “We weren’t heroes, we were just boys. We were terrified. Since our life expectancy after landing was just one hour, we kept each other going. After I got back, for the first 40 years, I didn’t think about it. Didn’t want to.”

Harry Billinge, a 94-year-old veteran of D-Day, decided to raise £22,442, a pound for every British soldier who died in the Normandy campaign, to help with the construction of the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer. He has exceeded his target. When he was interviewed on the BBC’s Breakfast programme and was shown the Memorial under construction, he choked back tears as he saw the names of those who had died. He said, “Don’t thank me and don’t say I’m a hero. All the heroes are dead, and I’ll never forget them as long as I live. My generation saved the world and I’ll never forget any of them.”

Harry said that when he was 4 years old, he went to Sunday School where his teacher, Miss Thompson, taught the children a chorus that he said was as source of strength to him amidst the horrors on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. “In loving-kindness Jesus came my soul in mercy to reclaim, and from the depths of sin and shame through grace he lifted me. Now on a higher plain I dwell, and with my soul I know ‘tis well; yet how or why, I cannot tell, he should have lifted me. From sinking sand he lifted me, with tender hand he lifted me, from shades of night to plains of light, O praise his name, he lifted me!”

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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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The peace that passes all understanding

On a recent Songs of Praise programme Simon Thomas spoke about the way in which God has given him strength since his wife Gemma died in November 2017. Simon became well-known to millions of people as a Blue Peter presenter before moving to Sky Sports news, becoming a lead presenter of Football League and Premier League programmes. In November 2017 his wife Gemma, who was also a Christian, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just 3 days later. Simon and his 8-year-old son, Ethan, were devasted. At that time Simon said, “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. If you pray – please pray for my boy Ethan, precious and in bits.”

On Songs of Praise Simon said he had never truly understood the “peace that passes all understanding.” He said, “I just thought it was a nice place to be, but actually it’s because you feel that sense of peace in almost impossible situations in which to find peace.” In the three days after Gemma was diagnosed, he said, “Everything’s coming at you – we’re wondering what on earth acute myeloid leukaemia is, and is she going to survive? Yet I experienced peace, amidst the noise and fear, that gives me the hope that one day I’m going to see her again.”

Simon continued, “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on, and yet at times that’s impossible to get your head around and to draw comfort from. At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith because it gives direction to everything else. It was the glue in our marriage, and it helps in terms of how we, and now I, bring up Ethan. You know, it’s the reference point for my life.

A hymn was sung at the Thanksgiving Service for Gemma which was also sung at Simon and Gemma’s wedding. The words of the hymn meant a lot to both Simon and Gemma and have given Simon strength since Gemma died. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand, till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

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Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.

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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.”

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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.”