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Thought

Love your enemies

Sadly, there are many examples of hatred in our world today. Hatred between peoples leads to conflict, such as the present hostilities between Israel and Hamas. In Africa inter-tribal conflicts blight the lives of many people. The systematic persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China seeks to rob them of their human dignity. Many Rohingya people in Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh because of the brutal military regime in Myanmar. Some people use social media as a vehicle for hateful messages and threats of violence.

In Britain legislation has been enacted against “hate crimes”. The Metropolitan Police define a hate crime as, “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.” This can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property.

In the hostile worlds of both the 1st and 21st centuries the teaching of Jesus is radical and challenging. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus not only commanded us to love our enemies, but he also exemplified it. He came to bring reconciliation in the face of the deep-seated hostility between human beings and God. Even in the hearts of apparently respectable people there can be a deep hostility against God. Yet God, who could justly condemn us, sent his Son to be our Saviour. On the Cross God made Jesus, who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The Cross was a place of deep hatred as Jesus’ enemies tried to destroy him. Yet as he hung on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The life and teaching of Jesus shines a bright light of hope into the darkness of our world.

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King of kings

At the beginning of the last week of his life Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem. Great crowds of people, who had come to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival, acclaimed him as their king. Jesus was riding on a donkey as the crowds spread their garments on the road ahead of him while others cut branches from trees to spread on the road. Jesus was in the centre of the procession as the people cried out, “Praise God for the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD! Praise God in highest heaven!”

The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, written more than 500 years before, “Tell the people of Jerusalem, ‘Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey – riding on a donkey’s colt.’” God had told the people how they would recognise their true Messiah. He would not come as a conquering king riding on a horse at the head of a mighty army but in humility because his kingdom was not a worldly kingdom.

As he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, Jesus began to weep. “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.”

Human acclamation is fickle. A few days later the Roman Governor, Pilate, before whom Jesus was on trial, said to the same people, “Look, here is your king!” “Away with him,” they yelled. “Away with him! Crucify him!” “What? Crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the leading priests shouted back. So, Pilate turned Jesus over to them to be crucified.

Over the past 2000 years people from many nations have joyfully recognised Jesus as their King and gladly submitted to him. The words of a modern song express it well, “King of kings, majesty, God of Heaven living in me, gentle Saviour, closest friend, strong deliverer, beginning and end, all within me falls at your throne. Your majesty, I can but bow, I lay my all before you now. In royal robes I don’t deserve I live to serve your majesty.”

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They are mothers just like us

We live in a world of seemingly irreconcilable divisions and conflicts that take lives and spoil lives. So, it is very encouraging to hear of a Palestinian Christian mother, living in Bethlehem, who has taking steps to bridge one of the great divides in today’s world. She is building relationships with Israeli mothers through Musalaha, a faith-based organisation that facilitates reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

When she was a young mother with three children, she went on a desert trip to Jordan. She said, “It was wonderful. It was really amazing, enjoying the desert and the nature. But before I went, I thought: ‘How can I meet with my enemy, how can I speak to the Israelis?’ I was suffering a lot at this time because of the war, the second intifada. It was a terrible time in our lives with shooting, tanks, and curfews. It was really hard to wake up in the morning and find bullets outside your house and worry that the next night you might be hit.” One night her mother prayed for her and she said, “I saw God and he comforted me, and this pain went. It was the only thing that helped.”

On the desert trip she heard Israeli mothers sharing how they had only just moved to Israel from Europe or America. She said, “It was hard. For the first day I couldn’t look at them or speak to them or enjoy being with them. I just thought: ‘You have come here and taken our land and now you are having fun. We cannot go out of Bethlehem. We are suffering, and you moved here and are living a peaceful life.’” But on the second day she started to look at them as human beings and thought: “It’s not them; it’s their government. It’s not them; it’s what they believe and have been taught. So, I started to see them as people and things changed in my heart.”

Now she goes to monthly meetings with young mothers where they learn about each other. She hears Israeli mothers talking about their fears. Their lives are not perfect either. She says, “Now I see that the Israelis are good people. They are mothers just like us and they have Jesus in their heart. Meeting together gives us the opportunity to be together and get to know each other rather than building a wall between us. I hope that in the future we can all live peacefully together and eat with each other, that we won’t look at each other as either Palestinian or Israeli, just as followers of Jesus and as human beings.”

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Loved with everlasting love

The bright sunny days and glorious blue skies have lifted our spirits. People are out walking, jogging and cycling and there is a feeling of springtime in the air. The natural world is coming to life again with the beautiful snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils bringing colour to our gardens and hedgerows. The winter is passing and longer, warmer days are in prospect.

The world around us speaks eloquently to us about God. The beauty and splendour of his creation reveal his great wisdom and love. Amazing television programmes show us close-up the magnificent wonders of God’s creation. Can all these things really have happened by chance over millions of years or is there a Creator whom we can know and whose love we can experience?

The coronavirus lockdowns have denied us normal contact with the people we love. We have been starved of their love and affection. People seriously ill in hospital, and in some cases dying, are surrounded by machines and caring strangers in masks. The loneliness and fear they experience must be overwhelming. Elderly people in care homes can’t understand why they have not seen their loved ones for almost a year. Children and young people haven’t seen their teachers and friends.

How uplifting it is, therefore, to walk in God’s creation and to be conscious that he is there. We are not alone in the universe, desperately seeking some kind of life on neighbouring planets. In love God has come to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Knowing his love makes all the difference and fills our hearts with hope.

George Wade Robinson, who died at the age of 39, wrote a hymn about his faith in Jesus: “Loved with everlasting love, led by grace that love to know; Spirit breathing from above, thou hast taught me it is so. O this full and perfect peace, O this rapture all divine! In a love that cannot cease, I am his and he is mine. Heaven above is deeper blue, earth around is sweeter green, something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen. Birds with gladder songs overflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine, since I know, as now I know, I am his and he is mine. His forever, only his; who the Lord and me shall part? Ah, with what a rest of bliss Christ can fill the loving heart. Heaven and earth may fade and flee, firstborn light in gloom decline, but while God and I shall be I am his and he is mine.”

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The Greatest Gift

The last days leading up to Christmas are normally very busy. A few cards to write and post and presents to find and buy. Making sure we have everything for Christmas dinner and the days following as we look forward to getting together with our extended family and friends. But this year it’s very different. Christmas plans have had to be changed; only small family gatherings are permitted and only on Christmas Day. Most shops are closed; pubs and restaurants are closed; travel is restricted; and we must stay at home.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving. At Christmas we give special gifts to those we love. Perhaps you won’t be able to buy the presents you had planned to give, but the person who gives us the gift, and the love it expresses, are far more precious than the gift itself.

At the first Christmas God gave a very special gift to the people of his world. It is the greatest gift ever given. Then, as now, the world was a sad place with many troubles. The Roman Empire dominated many nations, and most people were poor. Jesus came, not to solve the problems of the day, but to solve the biggest problem we all face – our sinful hearts and lives. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord!” Our sins spoil our relationship with God and separate us from him. Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his perfect life and his death on the cross to pay the price of our sins. The name Jesus means “Saviour!” In love God, against whom we have all rebelled, took the initiative by giving his one and only Son to be our Saviour.

Opening a present from someone we love brings great joy. Parents enjoy watching their children opening their present and seeing their delight when they see what it is. The child’s instinctive response is to give their parents a hug and to tell them they love them. Have you ever responded to God’s gift of Jesus like that? Do you love him for giving you such an amazing gift? It brings great joy to God when anyone receives Jesus as their Saviour. This Christmas, like the shepherds, why not take time to receive Jesus, God’s gift to you, and to thank him for his love for you.

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Because he lives

This year we’ve lived in a very different world from the one we have known in the past and the one we hoped to one day see. The future remains uncertain, despite the vaccines that thankfully are now becoming available. Many hopes and dreams have faded. We need to find a foundation on which to build our lives even when things are really tough, and from that foundation to find a true and substantial hope for the future, both for ourselves and our children.

In 1971, when the horrors of the Vietnam war were impacting many people, John Lennon wrote a song which became very popular. It was called “Imagine”. These are the words, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

John Lennon was not the first to promote utopian optimism. In the early 20th century, there was a great optimism that mankind was coming of age. It was believed that people are essentially good and through education would progress morally and in love for one another. Tragically two world wars, the Holocaust and the invention of atomic weapons put an end to that optimism. A shallow optimism was no longer convincing.

At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus who brought hope to the world. One Christian song sums it up; “God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives. How sweet to hold a new-born baby and feel the pride and joy he gives, but greater still the calm assurance this child can face uncertain days, because he lives. And then one day, I’ll cross the river, I’ll fight life’s final war with pain, and then, as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know he reigns. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone, because I know he holds the future and life is worth the living, just because he lives.”

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When life changes

I have a friend who has experienced a number of life-changing events. Kristian grew up in Barry in South Wales. His father suffered from mental health issues and the family home was a place of fear and guilt. Kristian felt guilty because he couldn’t stop the violence against his mother. He also experienced bullying at school, but he was very good at football, and when he was on the pitch, he didn’t have any worries.

The first big change in Kristian’s life happened in his early teens. He started playing for Cardiff Academy then Swansea and played internationally for Wales. When he was 15, he was signed by Crystal Palace and moved to London. The football club looked after everything for him and even paid him while he was still in school. Kristian was being recognised as a technically gifted midfield/central defender. He had lots of money and was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Then he broke his ankle very badly. Despite the best possible treatment his ankle didn’t fully heal, and it soon became clear to him that, at the age of 20, his football career was over. He was devastated but threw himself into building a successful business career. He was determined to regain the money and lifestyle he had had in football. He returned to Barry, married his girlfriend and had a family. He bought a big house, had nice cars, expensive holidays and extravagant things he bought for himself and his family. He was successful and happy.

Kristian wasn’t expecting the next, and biggest change, in his life. His wife, Carla, started going to a mums and tots’ group at a local church and soon became a Christian. Kristian didn’t like her talking about her Saviour Jesus but could see that she had completely changed and was so caring towards him. Reluctantly Kristian went to some church services. As he listened to one sermon he said, “Suddenly I realised that God loved me. I realised that Jesus had come to this world to live the perfect life and that he died on the cross to take the punishment I deserved.”

Kristian and Carla now live in a village near Hereford with their 5 children where Kristian is the minister of a small church. He says, “I once had thought that contentment was to be found by having the best and the latest stuff, but I’ve realised that life is more than that. Life is about a relationship with God and knowing his love and forgiveness through Jesus. That is something that will last.”

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Finding contentment

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has led many people to reassess their situations. The length of the lockdown and continuing uncertainty about the future have had a significant impact on people’s jobs and young people’s plans for employment training and university courses. Many people are experiencing mental health problems. The “new normal” will be very different from the past. The impact of lockdown on many people’s lives has been negative.

During lockdown Billy Vunipola, who plays international rugby for England, has engaged in serious self-reflection. He has suffered injuries and experienced the disappointment of losing the Rugby World Cup 2019 final to South Africa. He says that during the Rugby World Cup “his head was in the clouds” and feels he has to grow up and set a better example to others. He feels that during the tournament he personally let England down and failed to support his brother Mako, who also plays for England. He has apologised to his team-mates and his brother and now wants to make up for lost time.

Billy, and his brother Mako, were born in Tonga. Their parents were Christians and from an early age they taught their children the priorities of life – God, school and rugby. Billy recognised that in recent years his priorities had changed and spoke to his parents. He said, “I always looked to blame someone else or something else and I finally realised, when I spoke to my parents, that I need to take ownership. Those guys never lie to me. It was hard to look at myself and I didn’t want to take ownership for things that I did. It’s hard to admit it sometimes and tell people around you that you are wrong.”

Billy has spoken about how he has rediscovered his faith in Jesus Christ. Despite being prevented from playing rugby, he has found contentment because of his faith in God. He said, “I went back to what I had been taught all my life about Jesus: whatever we do, whether we are playing rugby, or we’ve just woken up, we say thank you to God. Everything is a gift. Everything I have has been given to me; even my talent is a gift from God. I’m thankful for this gift. Knowing that Jesus is with me makes me a stronger person. I know that whatever I try to do, even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always have Jesus to lean back on. I know there is more to life than winning and losing rugby games. Everything I do must be backed up by the love of Christ.”

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The world’s most astonished atheist

Memorial events have been held in Hiroshima to mark the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945 a US bomber dropped a uranium bomb above the city killing 140,000 people. At least 70,000 people were killed immediately and in the following weeks and months tens of thousands died from radiation poisoning. On 9 August 1945 a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing at least 74,000 people. Two weeks later Japan surrendered, bringing an end to World War Two. These bombs are the only nuclear weapons ever to be deployed in war and showed their terrifying destructive power. Today Hiroshima is a City of Peace promoting nuclear disarmament in a world where an increasing number of nations have a nuclear capability.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Joy Davidman, who later married C.S. Lewis, was living in New York with her first husband Bill Gresham and was expecting her second son. Joy was from a Jewish family and grew up in the Bronx. From her childhood she had been an atheist and, in her early 20s, became a member of the Communist Party.

When Joy saw the devastation and deaths cause by the atomic bombs, she suddenly realised that civilisation could be obliterated. Her whole worldview was shaken. She was bringing her second child into a world where, she wrote in a poem, “ashes that were babies blew among the bamboo trees.” She had always believed that science would be society’s salvation but now she realised that it might be the world’s damnation.

Joy’s philosophy had always been “rigid and admitted no thought of God, of religion, of anything outside of dialectic materialism.” A self-assured woman who believed she had all the answers, she was now forced to admit helplessness. One night, alone in her room, everything changed. “All my defences – the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily. And God came in.” Joy later described that experience: “There was a Person with me in the room, a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute, but when it was over, I found myself on my knees, praying. I think I must have been the world’s most astonished atheist.” It was a moment of grace when God revealed himself to Joy leading her to a sure future hope for herself, her children and God’s world.

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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “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.’”