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.”

The Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

Call on me in the day of trouble

When Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) erupted on Sunday 3 June it shot a plume of ash and gas nearly 6 miles into the sky and spread ash and debris across towns and farms more than 10 miles away. The pyroclastic flow of lava, rocks and ash poured down the mountain burying homes and people. The deadly black flow moved at speeds in excess of 50mph and reached a temperature of between 400 and 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. Its power demolished, shattered, buried and carried away nearly everything in its path. It was inescapable. More than 100 people are known to have died and at least 200 others are missing.

The reports from Guatemala have been deeply moving. Our hearts go out to those who have survived but have lost everything – family, homes and possessions. One man spoke of how all his family perished in a few moments and he himself feared he would die. He said, “I cried out to Almighty God to save me!” Sensing the imminent danger he was in, and feeling utterly helpless to do anything about it, this man cried out to God. Many others probably did the same.

The Bible offers great encouragement to those who call on God for help. In Psalm 50 God says, “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.” In Psalm 145 we read, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” In Psalm 34 David writes about a time when his life was in danger. He testifies to the way God heard him and helped him, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.”

Jesus was crucified on the same day as two other men. Both had been convicted of serious crimes and had been condemned to die. One man was full of anger and bitterness and cursed those who were supervising his execution. But the second man became very aware of Jesus and said to the other man, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

When we are in debt

Christmas has passed, the decorations have been taken down and life is returning to normal. Yet for many people living in Britain January is a worrying month because the bills for Christmas will soon arrive. Millions of people are entering 2018 with a debt hanging over them because they overspent during the festive period. One advice line estimates that 7.9 million people are likely to fall behind with their finances in January because of credit card debt incurred over Christmas.

Being in debt is oppressive. I remember visiting a man who was in debt. He had been injured in a car accident and had lost his job. The debts had begun to accumulate and he was unable to pay them. The bank had refused to increase his overdraft and the red letters, with their demands and threats, were arriving regularly. He no longer opened letters from the companies to which he owed money. Debt had paralysed him and filled him with fear for the future. He felt very alone and had seriously considered ending his life.

When we are in debt we need to seek help. I was able to come alongside the man and to work out with him ways to begin to address his debts. In time, all his debts were cleared and he was able to move to a new flat. A great burden had been lifted from him and he was able to enjoy life again. Organisations like Christians Against Poverty offer practical help to people overwhelmed by debt enabling them to manage their repayments and, in time, to be debt-free.

When I visited the man I was also able to pray with him and to ask God to help him. God is just and is particularly concerned for the poor and for widows and orphans. He sees the oppression of the poor and vulnerable through immorally high interest rates and he will call such lenders to account. God also provides for us in our need. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition is not only for our food but for all our daily needs. God is the One who gives us all good gifts. If you are overwhelmed by debt, ask God to help you. In Psalm 34 the Psalmist says, “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles.”

The best news ever!

Like many people around the world I like to follow the news. Every morning I listen to the radio to hear what’s been happening. Most news stories are bad news. Reports cover economic uncertainty, corruption, child abuse, refugees, unaccompanied children, violence, conflict, crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, disease, earthquakes, drought and famine. For many of us the stories are about what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, but for millions of people the stories are about them and the troubles and sorrows they face in their daily lives.

The message of the New Testament is called the “Gospel”, which means “Good News.” It is a message about what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. This message speaks into the real experiences of our broken world and of our daily lives. It is a message about reconciliation, peace and hope for the future. It lifts us out of despair. It is a true message. When people want to emphasise that they are telling the truth they sometimes say that they are speaking the gospel truth. Today we hear about fake news, but this message about Jesus is absolutely genuine.

Strangely, perhaps, one of the great themes of the Good News is sin. This is an unpopular word to many, yet the daily news stories are full of the sinful actions of people. It is the greatest problem the world faces. We all sin every day in our thoughts, words and actions. However hard we try, we cannot stop sinning. We sin when we break God’s moral commands. We misuse God’s name, dishonour our parents, hate and kill, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie, and covet what other people have. Our sinful behaviour brings great sadness to us and to others. It spoils everything.

The solution to the problems we face is not religion, but reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God. In a letter to Christians living in Corinth the apostle Paul explained the heart of the Good News in this way, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” This is the best news ever!

Be still and know that I am God

Some friends of mine were in Istanbul the night of the attempted military coup. The following day one of them wrote, “Today was a lot quieter. We were advised to stay indoors. But last night was terrible. The suddenness of the attempted coup shocked everyone. The subduing of the coup carried on through the night, so sleep was impossible. All around were gunshots, emergency vehicle sirens, low-flying jets sometimes letting off sonic booms, and the constant helicopters. I have cried a lot today because of the terrible loss of life last night. The death toll is over 160, and over 1000 wounded. Most people are in complete shock and disbelief. There is a sense of fear and hopelessness.”

In recent months many people around the world have found themselves suddenly caught up in acts of violence. In Lahore, on Easter Sunday a bomb attack in a park killed 74 Christian and Muslim people and injured more than 350 people, many of them children. In Nice, 84 people died when a man drove a heavy lorry through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade Des Anglais. In Munich, a teenage gunman shot and killed 9 people, many of them teenagers, at a fast-food restaurant. These events, and many more, have created a spirit of fear and uncertainty in the minds of many. Where can we turn, at such times, to find comfort and hope?

Psalm 46 has been a source of strength to many over the centuries. It says, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! The nations are in chaos, and their kingdoms crumble! The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honoured by every nation. I will be honoured throughout the world.’ The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

The Psalm also speaks about heaven, “A river brings joy to the city of our God, the sacred home of the Most High. God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed.” In a very uncertain world, God’s Word gives us sure hope for the future. Whatever happens, Jesus really is the Resurrection and the Life and the Way to an eternal home.

Don’t be afraid

The result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union came as a surprise to many people. The full implications of the decision to leave the European Union are not yet clear, but the result has already created leadership crises in both major political parties. The decision has also revealed significant fault lines between those who live in Britain: young and old, north and south, rich and poor, England and Scotland. During the campaign, and since, two words have often been used – fear and uncertainty.

Fear is not always a negative emotion. In our daily lives fear can protect us from danger. We warn a child not to touch hot things, in case they get burned. We teach them to be careful crossing the road, in case they are knocked over. The Bible teaches us that the fear of God is the basis of morality. The book of Proverbs says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Being conscious of God and showing reverence and respect for him provide a context in which we can seek to live a righteous life. Secular thinking encourages us to eradicate any sense of our ultimate accountability to God, but the wise person listens to their God-given conscience.

Fear can also be destructive. We may be afraid about the future and the bad things that might happen. We may be afraid of death and the way in which we will die. The Bible helps us to cope with our fears. Jesus often reassured people when he said, “Don’t be afraid.” His presence and power and his love for them calmed their fears. When a religious leader begged him to heal his little daughter who was dying, and they were delayed on their way to the house, Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid, just trust me.” In Psalm 56 David wrote, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”

Trusting God is so important as we face the uncertainties of life. He is a refuge and strength for all who put their trust in him. In Jesus God offers us peace in all the troubles of life and a sure hope for the future. Edward Bickersteth’s hymn says, “Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown? Jesus we know, and he is on the throne. Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours? Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers. It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease, and Jesus call us to heaven’s perfect peace.”

In times of emergency

As I was driving home one evening on the motorway I was passed by a paramedic vehicle travelling at high speed with its emergency lights flashing. I wondered to what kind of emergency they were responding and prayed that they would arrive in time and that the person’s life would be saved. I also thanked God that I was safe and well.

It is a great blessing to live in a country where, in a medical emergency, we can dial 999 and know that a paramedic team and ambulance will immediately be dispatched to help us. We will be given immediate treatment. Early treatment by paramedics saves many lives. Then we will be taken by ambulance, or sometimes even by helicopter, to the A&E department at the nearest hospital to be treated by a highly skilled medical team with the best available equipment. For all this skilled care we will pay nothing! What an amazing privilege!

In some years the number of life-threatening calls reaches more than 3 million. The aim is to reach 75% of those calls within 8 minutes and for a vehicle that will take the patient to hospital to arrive in 19 minutes. In most cases this is achieved. What a massive relief it is when we speak to the emergency operator and they tell us a paramedic team and ambulance are on their way to help us!

There are many other kinds of emergencies we experience in life. All of us experience fears and anxieties. We have problems in our relationships; with our marriage partners or with our children. We may lose our job or get into debt. We may lose our homes. Someone we love may die; a parent, a partner, a child, or a close friend. We may feel very alone. At such times to whom can we turn for help?

David wrote Psalm 34 at a very difficult time in his life and remembered the way God had helped him. He said, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” What an encouragement David’s experience of God’s help is for us to pray to him when we, too, are in great need!

The God of Hope

We live in troubled times. Natural disasters devastate both poor and affluent nations. Many people are dying in wars and conflicts. Long term economic problems continue. Unemployment, especially amongst the young, and tensions between different ethnic groups are creating serious social instability. There is not much talk of hope for the future in our secular society, in which many have turned their backs on God.

The New Testament, however, provides both realistic insights into the course of world history and solid grounds for hope. Jesus spoke about the signs of the end of the age. He told his disciples, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” He also told them they would suffer personally, “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”

The apostle Paul wrote, “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Such things have been seen many times in history, but are also very evident today.

So if things are so bad, where is real hope to be found? Real hope is found only in God. Paul wrote a letter to Christians living in Rome. They were already being persecuted and things would soon get much worse. Some were crucified, some were set on fire, and others, including women and children, faced wild animals in the Roman arenas. Paul, who was himself soon to be martyred, wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The living God is “the God of hope.” He created the world and is also the Lord of history. Jesus is “the First and the Last.” Whatever may happen in the world, or in our personal lives, we can put our trust in him. When we do, he fills us with “all joy and peace” and makes us “overflow with hope.” Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love in Jesus.

God hears our prayers

I am staying for a few days with friends in São Paulo, a teeming megacity in Brazil. While I have been here I have heard of people facing real difficulties. Peter, who is in his early sixties, was visiting Christians in a remote town in Amazonas when he fell and broke his leg. In great pain he was taken on the back of a truck and then in a small motorised canoe to a small hospital in a nearby town. They were unable to perform the operation he urgently needed so he was flown 500 miles to Manaus, the capital of Amazonas. After a number of delays he had the operation and special arrangements are being made for him to return to the UK.

At church on Sunday morning we were told about the minister’s 10 year old granddaughter who is seriously ill in the United States with an inoperable brain tumour. Soon after she was born she had surgery to remove a large brain tumour and made a remarkable recovery. Now, 10 years later, the tumour has returned. Emmeline is very unwell and has talked with her mother about the fact that this time she may not recover. They have talked together about Emmeline trusting Jesus and going to heaven.

Our response in both situations has been to pray. We prayed for Peter’s operation, for a good recovery and then the difficult journey home to be reunited with his family. We are praying for Emmeline and her family and asking God once again to graciously heal or, if not, to be with her as her short life draws to an end and she goes to be with Jesus.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to bring all our needs, and the needs of others, to our heavenly Father. We all face situations which are too big for us, but they are never too big for him. Even in a city like São Paulo, with its 18 million people, it is amazing to think that God knows each one from the children on the streets to the millionaires in their mansions. Whoever we are we can cry out to God and he will hear and help us. He will give us strength to face each situation and promises that we can trust him when we walk through the darkest valley. Even in that valley there is no reason to be afraid because he has promised to be with us.