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Facing our fears

Fear is in the air. During the pandemic many people have been afraid of catching the virus, of being seriously ill and even dying. Every day we are told on national television how many people are infected and how many have died. Some scientists are forecasting a very difficult winter ahead with more people dying from the virus and from seasonal flu. At the COP26 Climate Change Conference some scientists have projected the devastating consequences of global warming. Unless world leaders act now it will be too late.

Young people are being especially impacted by fear. They look to people like Greta Thunberg who has become a global voice on climate change. She is disdainful of the broken promises of world leaders to effect change while saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” Greta says, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Fear can be a good response. Good parents teach their children to be careful crossing roads because they may be knocked down by a car. They teach their children that fire burns and that electricity can give them a nasty shock. Such fear protects us from danger. It only does us good. But fear can also paralyse us, especially when there is little we can do to avoid the danger, and our safety depends totally on the actions of others. This fear is increased when people constantly tell us there is no God. We are on our own in this vast universe and there’s no one there to help.

The Bible tells us that knowing the living God enables us to face our fears. David, who was a courageous man, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” In a time of national crisis, God spoke to the people through the prophet Isaiah, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” In Psalm 23 David says that when the Lord is our shepherd, we can even face death without fear: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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Be near me when I’m dying

The House of Lords has been debating the Assisted Dying Bill that proposes making a new law to enable adults who are of sound mind and have six months or less to live to be provided with life-ending medication. The person wanting to end their life would have to sign a declaration approved by two doctors, which would be signed off by the High Court. The bill is being proposed by Baroness Meacher who said that it would help a “small but significant number of dying people avoid unwanted suffering at the end of life”. The proposed law would mean that helping a person to plan for an assisted death would no longer be a criminal offence.

Anyone who has cared for a loved one who is terminally ill will understand the pain and heartache this involves. I am visiting two very good friends who are very seriously ill. They are being lovingly cared for by their families and are being supported by excellent palliative care teams. Everything possible is being done to help them and their loved ones to cope with a very difficult situation. It is a privilege to be able to come alongside them and their families at this time knowing that one day I too will have to face death. We talk together, read the Bible, and pray to God, our heavenly Father, who helps us in a way no other can as we face death.

David’s words in Psalm 23 have been a great comfort to countless people, “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.” As we face death we can feel very alone. We leave those we love so much and must pass through that dark valley on our own. The Lord, who is the good Shepherd, knows our fears and promises that he will be with us to keep us safe and bring us into the presence of our heavenly Father.

The death and resurrection of Jesus were decisive and give us a sure hope. The apostle Paul told the early Christians that Jesus, our Saviour, “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” A well-known hymn about Jesus dying on the cross says, “Be near me when I’m dying: O show thy cross to me; thy death, my hope supplying, from death shall set me free. These eyes, new faith receiving from Jesus shall not move; for those who die believing die safely through Thy love.”

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Give us this day our daily bread

The fine weather in September helped farmers to clear the fields of the final crops and finish harvest. The warm, late summer sunshine meant that the crops were in good condition for storage. We all benefit from the hard work of farmers throughout the year that ensures we have the food we need. There have been complaints that some supermarket shelves have been empty, but the reality is that they have been less full than usual. We enjoy an abundance of good food at reasonable prices.

Some countries have serious problems because of a shortage of water. In Ethiopia, rising temperatures are making it harder and harder to grow food. If the rains don’t come, farmers have no option but to watch their crops wither and die. In Uganda, the poorest families face a daily struggle without clean water and decent sanitation and food supplies are uncertain. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that 14 million people, including 2 million children, about one in three of the population, are food insecure and food prices are rising.

Many churches and schools hold Harvest Thanksgiving services at this time of year. The familiar harvest hymns remind us of the goodness of God: “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes, and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain. The winds and waves obey him, by him the birds are fed; much more to us, his children, he gives our daily bread. We thank Thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seedtime, and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. No gifts have we to offer for all Thy love imparts, but that which Thou desirest, our humble, thankful hearts. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

As we give thanks for God’s bountiful provision for us for another year, let’s remember those in our own country and in other countries who are in need. Planet earth is unique. It produces an abundance of food, enough to feed everyone on the planet and up to 10 billion people. As we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” let’s remember the millions of people in our world, men, women, and children, who, because of poverty and human greed, don’t know where their next meal is coming from and let’s do what we can to help them.

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Thought

As white as snow

We have had the first snowfalls of winter. There is a stillness as the dark days are illuminated by the pure brightness of the snow. Each of the trillions of snowflakes is unique, carrying the Creator’s signature. In 1885, scientist Wilson Bentley devised a way of attaching his camera to a microscope so he could take photographs of snowflakes in greater detail than ever before. Getting this close made it even clearer that no two flakes are the same. Every snowflake has its own unique pattern.

The snow reminds us of one of God’s great promises, “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.” God made this promise to people who had rebelled against him. They worshipped other gods, lived immoral lives and were dishonest. They looked for happiness in material things. They knew God’s law, but they wilfully and deliberately went their own way. As a nation they had turned away from the living God. So, God called them to account. In his mercy, he did not immediately bring on them the judgement their sins deserved but held out the promise of forgiveness and cleansing.

There are real parallels between those people and the way we are living today. Encouraged by politicians and unchallenged by weak church leaders our nation has turned from God. His moral law has been rejected and together we are fulfilling the desires of our own hearts. Inevitably we are reaping the painful consequences both personally and nationally. Even the terrible pandemic we are experiencing has not humbled us and made us seek God.

There are times, however, when we need to face the reality of how we are living. Like a person who wakes after a night on the town and looks in the mirror, we won’t like what we see, we won’t like what we have become. In the light of who God is we will see the tawdry life we are living and the deep stains our sins have left on our God-given conscience. We may long that we could go back and change the things we have done, but we can’t.

God’s wonderful promise is deep and real forgiveness. His Son, Jesus, died on the Cross to pay the price of our sin and rebellion. When we humbly confess our sins, and receive him as our Saviour, the scarlet stains of our sins are cleansed, and we become as white and pure in God’s sight as the driven snow.

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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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Overcoming fear

The coronavirus pandemic has created widespread fear. The daily UK government briefing reports the number of new cases and deaths. The pandemic is the main news in newspapers and the media generally. Lockdown continues with no sign of being significantly eased soon. Many have financial fears about their jobs and increasing debt. People are taking greater care to keep well away from each other, and more people are wearing face masks or scarves. Medical staff and carers are afraid they may catch the virus. Fewer people are going to A&E departments for fear of contracting the virus so many hospital beds are unoccupied. We are told to have confidence in the scientists who are advising the government, but still many are afraid.

What does the Bible say? God promises his protection. In times of plague people have turned to the God for safety and reassurance. In Psalm 91 the psalmist says, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely, he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly plague.”

God promises his presence. People who have contracted the virus have been put in isolation. Their families and friends are not able to visit them in hospitals and care homes even when they are dying. They have experienced acute aloneness. In Psalm 23 David says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.”

God promises a future hope. When we face the finality of death ourselves, or see loved ones dying, we need to find hope. In Psalm 23 David says, “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” On the last night before he died Jesus comforted his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

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The Lord is risen!

The glorious message of Easter is “The Lord is risen!’ In the present crisis, it is a message of hope we all need to hear. Jesus died and rose again and promised, “Because I live you also will live.” In the past few weeks, more than 10,000 people in Britain have died of the coronavirus and more than 100,000 around the world. Wonderful medical teams are working long hours, with great skill and dedication, to try to save lives, but every day they and their patients are facing the reality of death.

Last week a Covid-19 patient was interviewed on the BBC’s World at One programme and described what is was like to be in intensive care on a pressurised oxygen mask: “It would push oxygen down into my throat and down into my chest. I was completely alone. All these wires around me and sometimes I kept coming to terms with my own death and that was really frightening.”

In an interview in The Sunday Times Dr David Nott, a world-renowned trauma surgeon who has worked in some of the most dangerous war zones on earth, spoke about working in an ICU at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. He said the experience of working there has left him in awe of colleagues, particularly the nurses. “I’m a tiny, tiny cog in this most amazing machine. The real heroes are the nurses who are with patients so seriously sick for 13 hours a day, wearing masks on their face which cause so much discomfort. I have never seen people work so hard, so desperate for each individual patient to get through their sickness. But sometimes the disease wins. It’s the hardest, most dangerous enemy I have ever faced.”

On Good Friday, Hylton Murray-Philipson was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Mr Murray-Philipson, who is 61, had just been clapped out of the ward in Leicester Royal Infirmary having recovered, after six days in intensive care, from Covid-19. His mother and sister had also been ill with the virus and, because he was himself on the verge of death, he had not been able to attend his own father’s funeral. When he was asked about his time in intensive care, Mr Murray-Philipson said: “One of the powerful images I had was the image of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee and that just came to me. I like to think that it was Jesus Christ coming to me and helping me in my time of need.”

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Good news of great joy

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His parents, Mary and Joseph, lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. Everyone had to return to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. Because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. It was a long and gruelling journey of 90 miles. On foot it took from 4 to 7 days to complete and the time for Mary’s baby to be born was very near.

When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was crowded and there were no relatives who could offer them hospitality. So, when Mary’s baby was born the only place she could lay him was in a manger, an animal feeding trough. It must have been a traumatic time for Mary and Joseph, amongst strangers, far from home, and learning for the first time how to care for a new-born baby. They gave him the name Jesus, as the angel of the Lord had told Joseph. The name Jesus means Saviour.

The same night that Jesus was born an angel of the Lord announced his birth to some shepherds guarding their flocks just outside Bethlehem. When the angel appeared the radiance of God’s glory surrounded them, and the shepherds were terrified. The angel reassured them saying, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

When the angels had left them the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields, they glorified and praised God for all the things they had heard and seen. In one sense their lives went on just as they had before, they still worked as shepherds, but in a deeper sense everything was new because they had seen the Saviour. Christmas can be a busy time of special things after which life returns to normal. Nothing changes. But the good news that still brings great joy to all people is that knowing Jesus, the Saviour, transforms our lives.

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Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed sunny weather this summer and the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well, and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks.

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, thank you for every fresh new day, thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, thank you for everyone I know, thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, thank you for every heartfelt joy, thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, thank you for grace to hold it fast, thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well, we can gladly thank him and when hard times come, we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”

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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.”