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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

Saving lives in Yemen

For more than 3 years Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, has been devastated by a civil war between Houthi rebels and the supporters of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Children are paying the heaviest price as they face the threat of bombs, hunger and disease. Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 and that more than 11 million children now need humanitarian assistance. A recent airstrike hit a school bus carrying children under the age of 10 on a summer school trip: 40 children died, and dozens were injured.

Cholera is a major threat because the sewage and sanitation systems have been destroyed during the civil war. In 2017 there were more than 1 million cholera cases in Yemen. More than 2000 people died, many of them children. However, a new international initiative has reduced the number of new cases by 95%.

Using NASA satellite technology, the Met Office in the UK produces a rainfall forecast for Yemen 4 weeks ahead of time which pinpoints areas likely to be hit by heavy rain. This is important because downpours overwhelm the sewage system leading to a spread of cholera. The forecasts are analysed by a team of scientists in the USA to predict the areas where outbreaks of cholera are likely to occur. They use information such as population density, access to clean water and seasonal temperatures. The information is passed to the UN’s children’s charity, UNICEF, which then deploys resources to prevent the spread of the disease. Simple sanitation advice, such as washing hands and drawing water from safe sources saves thousands of lives.

The situation in Yemen illustrates our human predicament. On the one hand human beings are capable of great evil, leading to the death of many people, and on the other hand our God-given intelligence and skill can save many lives. In Yemen both facets are seen side by side. In our personal lives we also struggle with our natural inclination to selfishness and our ability to express love and kindness.

The apostle Paul vividly described his own struggle; “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Paul and many other people have found the answer to this struggle in Jesus Christ through whom they have experienced forgiveness for their sins and have been given strength to live a new life.

The challenge of digital dependency

For the first time in many years sales of dumb phones have increased. Dumb phones only enable people to make phone calls and send texts. Some people want to escape round the clock access to social media. One lady said, “I just hated the fact I was always on it. My friend told me I checked my smartphone 150 times a day and told me I was always on Facebook pages and Instagram. The more you do it the more you feel you need to do it. Switching to a dumb phone is not full cold turkey because I do have an iPad, but it’s more about choice. If I go out with just a dumb phone then I can make a choice and have a day without all the noise of the notifications and apps.”

A recent report by Ofcom entitled “A Decade of Digital Dependency” says that 78% of people in Britain now have a smartphone and most of them say they couldn’t live without it. People spend less time making phone calls and more time messaging and accessing the internet. Many check their phones every 12 minutes and spend more than a day a week online. 40% of adults check their phone within 5 minutes of waking up and just before they switch out the light at night. On average young people aged 15-24 spend 4 hours a day on their phones and check them every 8 minutes. For the first time women are spending more time online than men.

While the Ofcom report highlights benefits such as keeping in touch with family, it also says that smartphone use increases stress and disrupts personal and family life. More than 50% of people admitted that using their smartphone interrupts conversations with friends and family. Using a smartphone at mealtimes was deemed inappropriate by 72% of 18-34s and 90% of those aged over 55.

Smartphones must be used wisely. Time is valuable, and our lives fly by so quickly. Personal face-to-face relationships are really important. Our family and real friends are very precious. Real friends do not demand our constant attention but love and give. There are many things we don’t need to know but some things are so important we dare not miss them. Time to listen to God and to speak to him is vital. He hears our prayers and he cares. When we begin and end each day speaking to him in prayer he gives us his peace and the strength to face whatever may come.

Harry and Meghan’s Wedding

The joy of Harry and Meghan’s wedding was shared by 2 billion people around the world. The glorious sunshine and historic setting of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, made it a very special day for Harry and Meghan. At the heart of the day was the marriage service. Marriage is the most significant commitment any two people can make. It is a lifelong, exclusive relationship, based on promises made to each other in the presence of God and before those attending the wedding. The marriage relationship is unique as two people become one. This is why the breakdown of a marriage is so profoundly painful.

In the introduction to the service, the Dean of Windsor said, “Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.”

The vows Harry and Meghan made expressed their deep commitment to each other. Harry was asked, “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” Meghan made the same affirmation. Then they both promised to take one another “to have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law.”

One image the Bible uses to describe heaven is marriage. What an amazing privilege to be in heaven at the marriage feast of Jesus, the divine bridegroom, to his bride, the church he redeemed, comprising people from every nation. A hymn written by Anne Ross Cousin beautifully describes that heavenly marriage, “The bride eyes not her garments, but her dear Bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory but on my King of grace; not at the crown he giveth, but on his pierced hand; the Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.”

The Joy of Spring

When does Spring begin? The Met Office regards 1 March as the first day of Spring but the heavy snowfalls on that day this year made it feel much more like winter! Amazingly, when the snow cleared from our garden we found the crocuses in flower despite the cold blanket that had covered them. However, the days are getting warmer and longer, and the daffodils are beginning to bloom, which means that winter really is passing and springtime has arrived! Spring is an encouraging time for us all as we see nature coming to life again and anticipate the brighter, warmer days of summer.

The passing seasons remind us of the faithfulness of God. Following the devastating flood, which happened in the time of Noah, God gave a wonderful promise for all subsequent generations. He said, “As long as the earth remains, there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” He also gave the rainbow as a sign of his everlasting covenant with Noah and his descendants and all living creatures. God told Noah, “I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is a sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth.”

The great reality of our life on earth is that God exists. He is eternal and created each one of us. The heavens and the earth declare his glory and the changing seasons reveal his loving care. There is something deep in every one of us that is instinctively drawn to him. In every way we are dependent on him. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone; but while mortals rise and perish God endures unchanging on. Praise him, praise him, praise the high Eternal One!”

Thomas Chisholm’s well-known hymn affirms, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not, as thou hast been thou for ever will be. 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.”

As we move forward into the Spring it is good to know that we can do so trusting in the living God. We can rejoice in his presence with us each day to cheer us and guide us. He gives us strength for each day, bright hope for the future, and every blessing we need along the way.

Immanuel – God with us

The birth of Jesus Christ really is a cause for great celebration! His coming into the world has changed the lives of millions of people for the better. His birth was foretold in detail by prophets who lived more than 600 years earlier and their prophecies were fulfilled. The prophet Micah foretold where he would be born and spoke of his greatness. “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus came from heaven to earth with kingly power to do us good.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that he would be born to a young virgin mother. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus reveals God to us. When he came into the world God himself drew near to a troubled world. Throughout history Christians have experienced the presence of God with them, often in very difficult circumstances. One of our greatest needs this Christmas is to know that God is with us.

The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the greatness of the child who would be born, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Jesus came into this world from the presence of his heavenly Father with divine power to execute God’s great plan of salvation for the peoples of this world and to do it as the “Prince of Peace.”

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that is often sung at Christmas and expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free! from our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be. Israel’s strength and consolation, born salvation to impart; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us for ever, now your gracious kingdom bring: By your own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by your all-sufficient merit raise us to your glorious throne.”

When we lose everything

What do you do when you lose everything? Pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma on islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands, are heart-breaking. People have lost their homes and all their possessions. They were helpless in the face of the power of the hurricane. When reporters talked to them you could see the shock and bewilderment on their faces as they looked at the ruins of what was once their home. Re-establishing normal life again is a daunting task. Some, however, said that, although they have lost everything, they are thankful to God that they and their loved ones are alive.

In America people have been remembering the events of the 9th September 2001, when the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York killed 2,997 people and injured more than 6000 others. The total collapse of the towers stunned all who witnessed it and those around the world who saw the pictures. Hearing the stories of those who lost loved ones in the attacks brings home their sense of absolute helplessness as, in the minutes after the attacks, they spoke on the telephone to relatives who were trapped in the towers with no possibility of escape. All they could do was tell each other “I love you” and pray.

The Bible tells the story of a man called Job. He was a blameless and upright man who feared God. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys. He also had many servants. On the same day, all his animals were stolen or killed by lightning and all his sons and daughters died as the house in which they were enjoying a meal together was struck by a tornado and collapsed. He lost everything. When the news of these devastating events came to Job, he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Devastating loss is not a sign of God’s displeasure or an indication that those who experience it are worse people than others. We can pray for those who are seeking to rebuild their lives that God will give them the strength they need and also that he will make us truly thankful for all the blessings he has graciously given us.