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God is merciful

The case of Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, in northern Kano state in Nigeria has attracted international attention. In August Omar was convicted in a Sharia court of making uncomplimentary remarks about Allah during an argument with a friend and was sentenced to 10 years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy. Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, said the sentence “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice.”

In a remarkable intervention, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland, has asked President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to pardon the teenager. In an open letter Piotr wrote, “He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities and stigmatised physically, emotionally and educationally for the rest of his life.” Omar’s case has struck a painful chord for Piotr because countless children were imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz by the German Nazi regime.

In his letter Piotr also said that if Omar cannot be pardoned then he would be willing to serve part of his sentence along with other volunteers from around the world. He wrote, “However, if the words of this child absolutely require 120 months of imprisonment, and even you are not able to change that, I suggest that in place of the child, 120 adult volunteers from all over the world, gathered by us – myself personally among them – should serve a month in a Nigerian prison.” More than 120 people from around the world have already offered to serve part of Omar’s sentence. If Omar is pardoned, Piotr also offered to personally fund his education resulting in “an aware and educated young citizen” rather than a “destroyed young man.”

Piotr’s intervention reminds us of the words of the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the Bible the principle of substitution was the foundation of the sacrificial system. When anyone sinned, they were commanded to offer an animal in their place and were told that because the animal died their sins would be forgiven. The supreme substitute is the Lord Jesus. Philip Bliss’ hymn says, “’Man of Sorrows’, what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood; Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was he; full redemption—can it be? Hallelujah! what a Saviour!”

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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “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.’”

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The Hope Mars probe

This week the Arab world’s first mission to Mars was launched. An H-2A rocket carrying the unmanned Al-Amal, or Hope, probe lifted off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. This UAE project is one of three racing to Mars, including Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the United States, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest. Hope is expected to reach Mars’ orbit by February 2021. The launch was met with great excitement in Dubai. The UAE Mars mission’s deputy project manager Sarah al-Amiri said it was “an indescribable feeling” to see the probe blasting off and added, “This is the future of the UAE.”

The Bible presents us with a big view of God. The opening words of the book of Genesis are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The majestic account goes on to describe God’s creating activity including the sun and the moon and then adds the simple, but staggering, statement, “He also made the stars.” Recent exploration of the universe has discovered that there are more stars than there are grains of sand on the seashores of earth.

In Psalm 8 David expresses his sense of awe at the greatness of God, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.” People all over the world can gaze in wonder at the heavens God has created. In Psalm 19 David wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

David was also amazed that he could know this great God personally. He was just one small man on a tiny planet in a vast universe, but God knew him and he knew God. In Psalm 8 he wrote, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour.” The UAE probe, Hope, is well-named. When we know the God, who knows us, we have a sure hope and a future that is secure.

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Precious in the sight of God

Every individual life matters. No-one is unimportant. The “Black Lives Matter” protests around the world, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis, are rightly demanding that black people must not be treated as second-class citizens, each one matters. The renewed investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, who was abducted 13 years ago, shows that she matters. The British government has spent £12 million on the investigation because the life of a 4-year-old little girl matters. When a seriously ill person is taken into hospital doctors and nurses do everything they can to save their life, whatever their age or social circumstances, because every life matters.

Societies that have been deeply influenced by the Bible have a high view of the preciousness of every individual person because they understand what God is like. No-one is unimportant in God’s eyes. He knows each of us as individuals and cares deeply for us. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. How precious are your thoughts concerning me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

During his ministry many people came to Jesus for help and healing. Jesus never met an unimportant person and never turned anyone away. He welcomed people who were outcasts in their society and taught that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. His love changed people and gave them new hope.

In his early life the apostle Paul hated the name of Jesus and persecuted Christians. He arrested men and women and put them into prison because they were followers of Jesus. When the ascended Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus he was totally changed. He realised that, despite the evil things he had done, God was concerned for him and loved him. God’s love for him was revealed in the cross where Jesus died for his sins. Later Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

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Our lives have meaning

A global survey conducted by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of 15-year-olds in 79 countries revealed that UK young people came second from last in ‘the meaning of life’ index. Teenagers in the UK are among the least likely to agree with the idea that “my life has clear meaning and purpose.” Although the survey also revealed modest improvements in reading and maths the deeper crisis teenagers in the UK are experiencing is more significant. Whilst the survey revealed that UK young people are relatively ‘happy’ they come near the bottom in terms of ‘life satisfaction’. Only young people in Turkey and the Macao region of China rate their life less highly than British young people.

The countries that came near the top for ‘meaning in life’, or ‘human flourishing’ were ones where the Catholic or Muslim faiths are strong. Secular countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK came near the bottom. The UK is now one of the most secular countries in the world. The OECD report also found that in the UK “students with an immigrant background were much more likely to report a greater sense of meaning in life than their native-born counterparts.” The greater influence of religion and culture in these communities may explain the difference.

This survey raises important challenges for secularism which rules our all references to God and moral absolutes. Faith in God and recognising that we are all moral beings, created in God’s image, are the foundation stones of meaning in life and human flourishing. The American evangelist Billy Graham preached the Christian message to more people all around the world than anyone else in history. In his public speaking and in interviews he frequently said, “The Bible says.” In one of his sermons he challenged his hearers, “I know where I’ve come from! I know why I’m here! I know where I’m going! Do you?”

For all of us the key to finding meaning and purpose in life is in seeking answers to those key questions. The earth and the universe clearly reveal a wise and all-powerful Creator. We are not the product of time and chance. God “created our inmost being and knit us together in our mother’s womb.” He made us to live in fellowship with him and in the light of his commandments. He made us both body and soul and “put eternity in our hearts” with a longing in the very depths of our being to be with God in the blessed happiness of heaven forever.

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Murder on Christmas Eve

Late on Christmas Eve 2012 Alan Greaves kissed his wife, Maureen, as he left the house to go to his local church in High Green, Sheffield, to play the organ at the midnight service. It was a special Christmas for Alan and Maureen because their youngest daughter, a missionary working in Mozambique, was home for the first time in several years. It was a bitterly cold night.

Alan never got to the church because he was attacked by two young men with pickaxe handles who savagely beat him around the head leaving him unconscious. Maureen, who had gone to bed to wait for Alan’s return, heard an ambulance go past their house and quietly prayed that God would help whoever needed medical help

Two Police officers rang Maureen’s doorbell just after midnight to tell her Alan had had an accident. Not knowing how serious Alan’s injuries were, Maureen drove to the hospital expecting to be able to bring him home to share Christmas Day with the family. As soon as the consultant walked into the room Maureen knew it was bad news. She asked, “Is he dying?” and the consultant said, “I’m afraid so.”

On the way to the room where Alan was Maureen prayed, “Please Heavenly Father, be with me on this very unexpected journey and may this great heartache I am going through be for your glory.” When she got to the room, she couldn’t recognise her beloved husband because his injuries were so horrific. She knew he was dying. She sat with him for two and a half days until he went to heaven to be with Jesus. Maureen and their 4 children were truly heartbroken and felt the loss of Alan deeply.

When, a few days later, Maureen spoke to reporters they asked her why she still believed in God if he had allowed this to happen? She replied, “I can sincerely say that I have never felt angry with God. Ever since becoming a Christian I have believed, read and loved the Bible. It is God’s message to humanity and explains so much of what is going on in this world. Terrible things happen because people have turned their backs on God. Instead of asking ‘Why?’ I ask, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ As a Christian, I have Someone who is walking the journey with me. God is there, and he makes all the difference. Whoever I meet knows that I have suffered, but I can share with them that God’s peace and presence with me has been real throughout the years.”

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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.”