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In heavenly love abiding

This has been a very strange year. Covid-19 has changed the world and the lives of us all. Every news programme begins by telling us how many new infections there have been and how many people have died. As we move towards winter, scientists and politicians tell us that the second wave of infections will continue well into next year and that we can expect regular “lockdowns” in an attempt to restrict the spread of the virus. Life will not return to “normal” any time soon and, sadly, many people’s livelihoods are in jeopardy. Some are already experiencing unemployment and financial hardship. The future prospects for young people are very uncertain. The hope of having an effective vaccine seems some way off.

The pandemic is having a serious effect on people’s mental health and sense of wellbeing. Elderly people living in residential homes are not being allowed to see their close family in order to protect them from the virus and possible death. But some have said they don’t feel their lives are worth living if they can’t see, kiss and hug their loved ones. For many people there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.

In these difficult times we need to find strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. We are not allowed to sing hymns in church services at the moment, but we can find great comfort in their words. In 1850, when she was a young, single woman of 27, Anna Waring wrote a hymn expressing her confidence in God and his love for her. “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me; my heart may low be laid; but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed?”

Anna’s hymn encourages us to look beyond our immediate situation to the unchanging, eternal God and to rest and abide in him. “Wherever he may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh; his sight is never dim; he knows the way he taketh, and I will walk with him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure; my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and he will walk with me.”

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When you pray, I will listen

Yesterday morning my wife and I attended the first service in our local church building since 15 March. It was good to see our friends again, but it was very different. Normally there would be more than 100 people of all ages present, but yesterday we were only 25 because of government restrictions on church services. We queued to enter the building, used hand sanitiser on the way in and out of the service, sat at 2 metres distance and wore face masks. We were not allowed to sing the hymns, but simply followed the words. After the service we spoke briefly to others in the congregation through our masks and at a distance and then went home.

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister his most senior advisers prevented him from discussing his faith in public. During one interview, at the time of the second Iraq war, a journalist asked Mr Blair about his religious faith. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s director of strategy and communications, an atheist, intervened, “Is he on God? I’m sorry we don’t do God.” When he was preparing to speak to the nation on the eve of hostilities in Iraq, Mr Blair was also told he must not end his speech with “God bless you.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic our political leaders have made no reference to faith in God and the need to pray for his gracious intervention. We are “following the science” even though it has become increasingly clear that the scientists don’t agree with each other and are fallible. Yet during the past 6 months nearly 400,000 people have caught the virus and more than 40,000 have died. Many are anxious and afraid.

Our need to know God is greater than ever and many people, especially the young, sense it. In the summer Tearfund, a Christian aid agency, commissioned a survey in which 25% of adults in the UK said they had watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown began and many had started praying. A third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service, as had one in five adults over 55. One in five of those who tuned into services said they had never gone to church. In a time of national crisis many years ago God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah and gave them a wonderful promise which is still true today, “When you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you.”

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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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Being loved and accepted

A Cardiff University study has revealed an increase in the number of children and young people who are self-harming. Tragically some young people have even taken their own lives. The increase in self-harm is greatest among young girls. Some social media sites show examples of self-harming which encourage other young self-harmers to injure themselves even more seriously. One teenage girl told researchers that looking at the websites left her feeling that one small cut was “not nearly good enough.”

The desire to self-harm arises from a feeling of sadness and rejection. Many years ago, before social media, we knew a young girl who would sometimes injure herself causing her great pain. We couldn’t understand why she was doing it. A consultant psychiatrist told us that she was doing it to punish herself when people didn’t like her. Other girls in school were being very unkind to her, and were excluding her, so she didn’t like herself. She felt it was her fault that she was being treated in this way and so she inflicted pain on herself.

We all have a deep need to be loved and accepted but, in our increasingly aggressive society, we may experience rejection and even active hostility. In his ministry Jesus revealed a tender love and warm acceptance of those who had been rejected by the society of his day. He was accused of being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In response he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

One day Jesus was invited to the house of a Pharisee called Simon. While he was there an immoral woman came into the house and knelt at Jesus’ feet weeping. As her tears fell on his feet, she wiped them with her hair and anointed his feet with expensive perfume. Simon was appalled that Jesus would allow such a woman to touch him. Jesus said to him, “Look at this woman kneeling here. I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown.”

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All the lonely people

Many people are lonely, especially in the developed world. People are living longer than ever before and see their close friends and family die. Broken relationships, between husbands and wives and parents and children, mean that many people live on their own. At our work place or college we may be surrounded by people but at the end of the day we return to our homes and are alone. Almost 50% of people in America say they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. It is not only the elderly who feel lonely, many young people are lonely. Even those who have many “friends” on social media miss meaningful human friendship and companionship.

A new pet robot called Lovot, has been designed in Japan to be a comforting presence for lonely elderly people. It uses Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition and will be on sale in the USA next year for more than $5000. It has cartoon eyes and furry arms and doesn’t speak or respond to commands. It has been designed to respond to those who talk to it and hug it and it gravitates to those who show it most love. Its designer says, “We try to train people with the power of love to be ready for loving something else.” He claims Lovot will make people “truly happy.” However, after 50 minutes activity Lovot needs to be recharged!

Human relationships are important because God is a personal God. The Bible teaches us there is only one God and that within the godhead there are three “persons”, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are bound together in a relationship of eternal love. God has created us as relational beings with an innate capacity to love God and one another. The greatest commands God has given us are profoundly relational. We are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength and also to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. When we love God and each other we experience the joy and fulfilment God created us to know.

When we pray we are talking to the living God who hears us, loves us and knows all our needs. He is always with us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we also forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”

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Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

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The challenge of digital dependency

For the first time in many years sales of dumb phones have increased. Dumb phones only enable people to make phone calls and send texts. Some people want to escape round the clock access to social media. One lady said, “I just hated the fact I was always on it. My friend told me I checked my smartphone 150 times a day and told me I was always on Facebook pages and Instagram. The more you do it the more you feel you need to do it. Switching to a dumb phone is not full cold turkey because I do have an iPad, but it’s more about choice. If I go out with just a dumb phone then I can make a choice and have a day without all the noise of the notifications and apps.”

A recent report by Ofcom entitled “A Decade of Digital Dependency” says that 78% of people in Britain now have a smartphone and most of them say they couldn’t live without it. People spend less time making phone calls and more time messaging and accessing the internet. Many check their phones every 12 minutes and spend more than a day a week online. 40% of adults check their phone within 5 minutes of waking up and just before they switch out the light at night. On average young people aged 15-24 spend 4 hours a day on their phones and check them every 8 minutes. For the first time women are spending more time online than men.

While the Ofcom report highlights benefits such as keeping in touch with family, it also says that smartphone use increases stress and disrupts personal and family life. More than 50% of people admitted that using their smartphone interrupts conversations with friends and family. Using a smartphone at mealtimes was deemed inappropriate by 72% of 18-34s and 90% of those aged over 55.

Smartphones must be used wisely. Time is valuable, and our lives fly by so quickly. Personal face-to-face relationships are really important. Our family and real friends are very precious. Real friends do not demand our constant attention but love and give. There are many things we don’t need to know but some things are so important we dare not miss them. Time to listen to God and to speak to him is vital. He hears our prayers and he cares. When we begin and end each day speaking to him in prayer he gives us his peace and the strength to face whatever may come.

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Let the children come to me

Hospitals in Britain are treating almost twice as many girls for self-harm as they did 20 years ago. Hospital admissions have increased from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017. The number treated for attempting an overdose has increased tenfold from 249 to 2,736. The number of boys admitted to hospital for self-harm has stayed the same but the number of boys attempting an overdose increased from 152 in 1997 to 839 in 2017. A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: “Sadly, these heart-breaking figures are unsurprising. Many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life. Young people are crying out for help.”

Jon Goldin, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children – academic pressures, social media, the fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online.” He added that girls may be more ‘sensitive’ to the pressures than boys. One girl aged 14 said: “Recently I’ve lost some people who were really close to me. When I started to self-harm, it seemed to mask the emotional pain I was feeling. When I get the urge to cut, I can’t seem to stop it until it’s done, otherwise I get really upset and angry.”

Children and young people are more vulnerable today than they were 20 years ago. Social media and smartphones mean that they can never hide or escape. The Photoshopped images of celebrities present a false body-image of perfection. Teenagers, and others, are pressurised into thinking that your image, clothes and possessions are what really matter. However, what matters most is not our outward appearance or possessions but the people we really are. Peer pressure can also be very cruel. If others don’t like me then I don’t like myself and so I punish myself through self-harming.

Jesus taught that children are precious in God’s sight. When parents brought their children to Jesus he said: “Let the children come to me. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” He also gave a very solemn warning to those who mistreat or exploit children: “If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.”

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My friend David

David was born nearly 60 years ago. Soon after his birth his mother and father were told that he had Down’s syndrome. They didn’t know anything about the condition but began to find out about it. They knew that David, just like any baby, needed a secure and loving family in which to thrive. They, and David’s two older sisters, watched him grow and develop. David’s father took him out to enjoy a wide range of experiences and, every year, the family went on holidays together. David has always known that he belongs to a family who love him.

When David was a teenager, he and the family became involved in a local church. David was warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the church family. One of the highlights of his week was going to church on Sundays. He loved greeting his friends in the church and was often one of the first people to welcome newcomers to the church. He would say, “I’m David, what’s your name?” David loved reading the Bible and learning about Jesus. He received a certificate from a church in Scotland he used to visit, “In recognition of extensive study of the Holy Bible and by giving encouragement to others, by his example.”

When you talked to David he would often hold up a finger and say, “One thing…” Over the years the one thing that came to mean most to David was knowing Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. When he was 30 years old he was baptised and became a member of the church. It was a special day for David and his family and for the church. As he came out of the baptistry David gave a joyful double thumbs up!

Just by being the person he is, David has enriched the lives of many people. For nearly 40 years one of his sisters has led a special ministry of the church to people in the community with learning disabilities. Christians in the church have come alongside families and a weekly meeting is held for people with learning disabilities and their carers. They enjoy being together and praying for one another. Several young people from the church are working with people with special needs.

David now has dementia and is living in a nursing home. His family and friends from the church often visit him. One day David will go to be with his Saviour who loved him and gave himself for him; he will see Jesus face to face and will be with him for ever.