New beginnings

A new year has begun and offers the possibility of a new beginning. Looking back on life we have regrets because things haven’t turned out as we hoped they would. We may have experienced problems in our marriages and families which are deeply painful. Broken relationships with friends leave their scars. Disappointments in our work and career are not easily overcome. Our own behaviour can cause guilt and sadness; the things we wish we’d never done or said, but cannot change. So the opportunity to make a new start is attractive.

A woman was once brought before Jesus when he was teaching the people in the Temple. It was the time of one of the great pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem and thousands of people were in the city. The religious leaders were self-righteous and hated Jesus. They wanted to have a reason to accuse him so they had gone out before dawn and found this woman committing adultery. They brought her to Jesus as a test case. The Old Testament law said that people guilty of adultery should be stoned to death, although this had not been done for centuries. The religious leaders were proud and despised Jesus because he dealt gently and kindly with people who had fallen into sin. Would he say that someone like this woman, who had been caught in the very act of adultery, should not be punished?

Jesus challenged them saying, “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, the men who had accused the woman began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Then he declared, “Then neither do I condemn you go now and leave your life of sin.”

Like this woman we, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and a new beginning. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn us, but that through him we might find forgiveness and new life. Oswald Allen’s hymn reminds us of God’s gracious promises: “Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been. Today your gate is open, and all who enter in shall find a Father’s welcome and pardon for their sin. The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, a future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven.”

The right work-life balance

This week MPs will vote on a Bill to end Sunday trading laws. If the Bill is passed then, by the autumn, large supermarkets and stores will be able to open for as long as they wish, instead of the present 6 hours’ limit. Shopping will become a 24/7 activity for some. Shop workers, who object on religious or family grounds, will be able to give one month’s notice that they no longer wish to work on Sundays. In practice those who exercise this option may be discriminated against when they apply for jobs. There is significant opposition to the Bill, but does it really matter?

Rest really does matter. It is vital for our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. God intends us all to have a right work-life balance which protects us from being exploited and also from being taken over by excessive greed. The Bible opens with a majestic description of God the Creator. In 6 days he created the heavens and the earth and then on the seventh day he rested from all his work. He blessed the seventh day and made it holy. God’s example of six days labour, followed by one day of rest, established the work-life pattern for all people.

The Ten Commandments establish the moral and spiritual foundations for us all. The fourth commandment is, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigners living among you.” So, not only must we rest ourselves, but we must also ensure that others don’t have to work for our benefit or convenience.

God’s laws are not an arbitrary imposition on us, but are for our well-being and blessing. Creating the “freedom” to work 24/7 is really a new form of slavery which exalts consumerism and threatens to destroy people’s health and wellbeing and their family life. We used to buy apples from a self-pick fruit farm in Herefordshire which closed on Sundays. The owners were Christians and kept Sunday as a special day. Many people came to pick fruit at their farm on a Monday knowing there would be a better crop because the fields had rested for a day. Both we and the world we live in really do benefit from a weekly day of rest.

The Garden of Eden

A research study undertaken by the universities of Westminster and Essex has concluded that tending an allotment is good for our mental health. Just 30 minutes a week spent digging and weeding can improve our mood and sense of self-esteem by reducing tension, depression, anger and confusion. People who work on an allotment also tend to be more physically fit.

One reason why tending an allotment may be a blessing to people is that it takes us back to our origins. The book of Genesis tells us that the first man, Adam, lived in the Garden of Eden. The garden was fertile with many beautiful plants and trees. God gave Adam the task of working in the garden and keeping it. His work was a delight and he and his wife were able to eat the fruit of the trees. Eating the fruit of his work gave Adam great pleasure and satisfaction. Our roots are not in the modern urban sprawl but in the rich abundance of God’s creation.

Tragically the delightful relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was lost when they disobeyed his command and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were sent from the Garden of Eden and from the presence of God. Because of their disobedience they would die and so would every other human being born into this world. Adam’s work became wearying toil. God told him, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

However, it was in another garden that hope dawned when Jesus rose from the dead. After Jesus died on the Cross two of his disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, tenderly laid his body in Joseph’s garden tomb. Early in the morning of the third day Mary Magdalene came to the garden and discovered that the tomb was empty! Jesus had risen from the dead! The tragedy of Eden had been reversed by the victory Jesus won over sin and death. His resurrection offers hope to all in our sad world. In him we find eternal life that will never end. He gives us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

All work and no play

The summer holidays have arrived and many families have already gone away for their annual break. Children are looking forward to 6 weeks when they don’t have to go to school and there is no homework. Hopefully the weather will be good and they will be able to relax, play with their friends and do things they enjoy doing. They, and their teachers, will return to school in September refreshed and ready to start a new academic year.

We all need a balance between work and rest. So it is very sad that there are plans to allow larger shops to open longer hours on Sundays. Local councils will be allowed to extend opening hours if this might “boost economic activity”. The chancellor thinks there is a “growing appetite” for shopping on a Sunday and feels that some people consider shopping to be one of their leisure activities. There are understandable concerns that if larger shops open longer hours this will put pressure on their employees to work extra hours and some smaller shops may close.

The Ten Commandments, which establish the moral basis for our lives, include a commandment about a weekly day of rest. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

All of us, whether we are religious or not, need and benefit from regular times of rest. The proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is true. When we don’t have times of rest and recreation we do become bored and boring people. For Christians Sundays also have a special significance because they remind us about heaven and the wonderful blessings God has prepared for all who love him. At many funeral services these words from the Book of Revelation are read, “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.’”

Coping in a 24/7 World

When Mrs Thatcher was our Prime Minister I remember hearing, for the first time, that Cabinet meetings were being held on a Sunday. The emphasis was that we all had to work hard and follow the example of the successful Japanese economy. Later the Labour Party began to prescribe how many hours homework secondary school children should do each night. It was said that A level students should do 3 to 4 hours per night, after a full day at school. Between 9 and 10 on a Saturday evening Tesco apologises to its customers that, “because of current government legislation”, the store will close at 10 o’clock.

It seems we have lost sight of the importance and benefit of rest. The book of Genesis describes how God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh day. It says, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done.” In this way God established the pattern for our lives. It is also enshrined in the 10 Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God, on it you shall not do any work.”

God’s laws are not arbitrary rules, but are all for our good. We all need times of rest and recreation. Working long hours every day, without a break, is not good for our health or our effectiveness. A young teacher I knew was considering becoming a Christian. She was worried that, if she did, she would need to keep Sunday as a special day. She was caring for her elderly father and used Sundays to catch up on house work and prepare for the coming school week. She felt she wouldn’t cope if she rested on Sundays. After she became a Christian she found, to her surprise, that when she began keeping Sundays special, she was able to complete all her work in the other 6 days. She also felt far more relaxed and less stressed.

Many of us need to break out of our 24/7 world, which creates so much pointless stress. A weekly day of rest gives us the opportunity to change the pace of life, to have time to think and focus on God and the ultimate spiritual realities of life.

Two shall become One

Genesis is the first book in the Bible. It describes the majestic creation of the heavens and the earth by the power and wisdom of God. Then it describes the creation of the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve. They were created by God “in his image.” They had bodies and also eternal souls and enjoyed wonderful fellowship with their Creator.

Adam was created “from the dust of the earth” and worked in the beautiful Garden of Eden. His working pattern followed God’s activity in creation. Adam worked for six days and rested on the seventh day. He enjoyed the fruit which grew on the trees of the garden. This pattern of life was the model God intended us all to enjoy with a good work-life balance.

Then God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So God caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of his ribs. From the rib he made Eve and brought her to Adam who said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ because she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and is united in marriage to his wife and they become one flesh.

Matthew Henry, the Bible commentator, says, “The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be loved by him.” This is a beautiful description of marriage which has been the foundation of human life and society from the beginning of time. Through the sexual union of a husband and wife children are born and grow up in the security of the family.

Marriage brings a man and a woman into the closest relationship we can ever know. In marriage a man and a woman make solemn promises to each other to live together in an exclusive relationship of lifetime faithfulness and, so, two people become one. This is why problems in marriage are so deeply painful and lifelong love in marriage is so deeply fulfilling.