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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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The God of hope

As a new year and a new decade begin our world is a troubled place. Perhaps you have thought carefully before wishing family and friends a happy new year because you sense the coming year may be not be altogether happy. Increased tensions in the Middle East suggest there are turbulent times ahead. The bush fires in Australia continue to rage and make us all aware of the consequences of climate change. The increasing global influence of China and Russia brings new challenges. In many places in Africa there is conflict, drought, disease and poverty. Personally, family life may not be easy. We, or other family members and friends, may be facing serious illness or the challenges of living longer.

So where is hope to be found? When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome he said, “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.” Paul himself, and the Christians in Rome, knew what it was to suffer. The Roman Empire was cruel and severely punished those it disapproved of, especially Christians. Soon after Paul wrote this letter, he became a prisoner and was later beheaded by the Roman authorities. In 64 AD Emperor Nero blamed Christians for a great fire in Rome. Innocent Christians were nailed to crosses, torn apart by dogs the arena, and set on fire to provide evening lights.

However, Paul and the Christians knew that whatever happened to them in this life they had a sure future hope because they trusted in the living God who is “the God of hope.” They and their loved ones were powerless to stand against the unjust persecution they faced, but they were safe in the hands of God. Knowing God gave them a true peace and joy even in the face of the most terrible adversities and their hope even overflowed. They knew that whatever happened to them in this world they were safe in the care of Jesus and would one day go to be with him in heaven for ever.

One Sunday evening a Christian minister went to visit one of his members who was very seriously ill in hospital. Another Christian in the same ward overheard their conversation. The sick man said to his minister, “They’ve told me there’s no hope.” The minister replied, “Dear brother, from now on it’s all hope!” That’s what it means when we trust “the God of hope.”

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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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Light and life to all he brings

More than 2 billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three people in the world are followers of Jesus. This is an amazing statistic. Jesus came from a small village in Galilee. His parents were ordinary people. He learned his father’s trade and was a carpenter. He never travelled more than 100 miles from his home. His remarkable ministry lasted just 3 years. When he was 33 years old he was executed by the Romans. Yet today millions of people from every nation on earth know him as their Saviour and follow him as his disciples. How can this be explained?

Jesus was the Son of God. One of our carols says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all.” When the wise men from Persia, who followed the star, found the baby they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They recognised him as a divine King and offered him their gifts. Because Jesus was the Son of God he rose again from the dead. It was not possible for death to keep its hold on him. One of his disciples, Thomas, who at first doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saw him personally and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promise. From the beginning of time God had promised that a child would be born who would bring blessing to the peoples of the world. Through this child God’s great purpose for his world was going to be fulfilled. God is still carrying forward his gracious purpose for the nations. Today the good news of Jesus is being proclaimed around the world and many are receiving him as Saviour and Lord. One day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

Jesus came to give us hope. The world into which he was born knew great sadness and pain. Our world today is very much the same. Jesus is the One who gives us a sure and certain hope both in this life and when we die. Many carol services close with these words, “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!”

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The uncertainties of riches

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has just become the richest person in the world again with a net worth of $110 billion ($110,000,000,000). He has overtaken the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who, because of a fall in Amazon’s profits, now has a net worth of $108 billion. The number of billionaires in the world is increasing and has reached a total of more than 2500. There are 700 billionaires in North America with a total wealth of more than $3 trillion. The combined total wealth of the billionaires in the next 8 countries on the billionaire list is $2.9 trillion. In total, the world’s richest 1% owns about half of the world’s wealth.

Many people think that being rich will make them happy and that the more money they have the happier they will be. Every week people buy lottery tickets in the hope of winning large sums of money. The EuroMillions jackpot last week was £98 million. When people win the lottery there are pictures of them celebrating and looking very happy but, sadly, their new-found wealth often leads to great sadness in broken marriages, addictions and loneliness through losing their friends.

A man once asked Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over an inheritance. His brother was refusing to give him his share. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He then told a parable about a rich farmer who had a bumper harvest and wondered how he could store all his crops. The farmer said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

On the face of it the farmer was being prudent, but he had not considered the uncertainties of life and the ultimate importance of eternity. Jesus went on to say, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Jesus is the supreme example of selflessness because although he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.

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All things bright and beautiful

Amidst the many dark and wet days, we have also enjoyed some beautiful autumn days. The beauty of autumn is striking as the leaves change to reds, yellows and browns and the low sun brings out the depth of their colours. The early morning mists clothe the world in a gentle mantle of beauty. Autumn is one stage in the annual cycle of this beautiful planet on which we live. Earth is a tiny speck in a massive universe, but it is uniquely beautiful.

Many of us live in urban areas in which the beauty of creation is not so easy to see. We are surrounded by buildings and roads, traffic and noise. Life is busy and frantic. One of the blessings of some big cities, like London, is the parks to which office workers can escape for a few minutes at lunch time and mothers can take their children to play. The parks are oases of peace and beauty in the concrete jungles men have created. Parks and fields and hills and streams remind us of God. Wherever we live it is important to find time to be still and to look up and around and to marvel at the handiwork of the Creator.

The hymns many of us learned as children in school or Sunday School have a profound simplicity and speak into our adult world. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” God’s creative power embraces all things. He is the source of all that is bright and beautiful in a world in which, sadly, many things are dark and ugly. He made the great things and the small things. None of us is so small that we are insignificant to him. This amazingly complex world reveals the perfect wisdom of God’s heart and mind.

When we catch glimpses of God’s glory revealed in his creation we spontaneously respond with awe and worship. We are responding to the One who gave us life. “He gave us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell, how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well!” He is the same God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, his Son. During his ministry Jesus showed his love for people as he healed and restored all who came to him. We, too, can come to him in the sadness and struggles of our lives and experience his wonderful love for us.

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The promise of the rainbow

In Britain the autumn has been very wet. Most days there has been some rain and often it has been very heavy. Some places have experienced flooding and the water table is higher than usual. One of the blessings of sunshine and showers is the beautiful rainbows we have seen. Recently I was driving through Mid Wales and saw some stunning rainbows over the mountains on which the trees are already displaying their autumn colours. God’s creation reminds us so eloquently of his greatness and glory. He truly has made everything beautiful in its time.

The rainbow is a particularly encouraging sign, especially at this time when we are seriously concerned about climate change. The book of Genesis describes a great Flood in the time of Noah which affected the whole world. The historic traditions of many peoples and nations around the world also bear witness to this event. The Flood was God’s righteous judgement on great human wickedness. Violence and depravity could be seen everywhere, and the thoughts of people’s hearts were consistently and totally evil. The Flood was devastating and destroyed all people and animals except those who were in the ark that Noah built.

Today there is great wickedness in our world. People in our world are doing things that deserve God’s righteous judgement. Yet the stability of the natural world is being maintained by God who, after the Flood, made a wonderful promise to Noah. God said, “I solemnly promise never to send another flood to kill all living creatures and destroy the earth. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life.”

An even greater sign of God’s love is that he sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to save us. One of the Bible’s great promises is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Just as Noah and his family entered the ark and were safe so everyone who puts their trust in Jesus receives the gift of eternal life.

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My talent is a gift from him

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the women’s 100 metres gold medal at the 2019 World Athletic Championships in Doha. Her time was one of the fastest she has ever recorded. This is the fourth time she has won the 100 metres gold medal at the World Championships and the first she has won since becoming a mother. She won gold medals in 2009, 2013, 2015 but missed the 2017 Championships because of the birth of her son Zyon. Shelly-Ann has also won two Olympic 100 metres gold medals. Her nickname is the “Pocket Rocket” because she is just 5 feet tall and explodes out of the blocks. Some experts say she is possibly the greatest female sprinter in history.

Shelly-Ann was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in a deprived community. Her mother, Maxine, was a single parent who worked as a street vendor to feed and care for her family. Recently Shelly-Ann spoke about her childhood, “I suffered from self-esteem issues because I didn’t have nice clothes and a nice house and had to take the bus. I wanted to fit in and would make up stories just to be accepted, so I can relate to issues of poverty.”

Shelly-Ann grew up in church. When she was 12 years old, she made a decision at a church camp that changed her life. “That week was so refreshing because we were separated from the world and I was able to make the decision that Christ is what I wanted. When I came home, I got baptized.” But as a young Christian Shelly-Ann had serious struggles. “I had just started high school. In the second or third form I went off track because I wanted to be with my friends and be a part of the crowd – it didn’t fit in with being a Christian.”

In 2008 Shelly-Ann went to the Olympics and won but was still struggling. “Everything I had asked God for and prayed about I got. I had the money, I had everything I really wanted, but I wasn’t happy. Then in 2009 I won again and still wasn’t happy. I knew something was missing and I decided it was time to go back to church and start living for Christ. Now Christ is in everything I do, and I talk to him every day. People ask why I’m always smiling at the line – it’s because it’s a privilege and an honour to run and God is with me no matter what. Whether I win or lose, it doesn’t matter to me because my talent is a gift from him.”

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The first moon landing

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong’s first step on to the lunar surface was broadcast on live TV around the world. He said, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Throughout the rest of his life Neil Armstrong avoided public interviews and died in 2012, aged 82.

Astronauts who went to the moon spoke of the sense of awe they experienced as they saw the Earth from the moon. Buzz Aldrin took with him a small plastic container of wine and some bread which he had been given by his church, where he was an elder. While he was on the moon, during a time of radio silence, he quietly ate the bread and drank the wine and remembered his Saviour, Jesus, who loved him and died for him. He said it was his way of thanking God for the success of the mission.

On 24 December 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 were being televised as they orbited the moon. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman read in turn from Genesis, Chapter 1. Bill Anders said, “We are now approaching the lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light:’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Charles Duke who was part of the Apollo 16 mission and walked on the moon in 1972. He became a Christian in 1978. He said that before he became a Christian his temper, ego, single-minded devotion to work and greed had ruined his relationship with his wife and children but becoming a Christian had changed him and transformed his relationship with his family. He also wrote, “I used to say I could live ten thousand years and never have an experience as thrilling as walking on the moon. But the excitement and satisfaction of that walk doesn’t begin to compare with my walk with Jesus, a walk that lasts forever.”

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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.”