Saturday, February 28, 2009

Let's dare to hope

Life is cheap on Britain's streets. There aren't enough prisons to hold all the prisoners. The land is awash with drugs. The Government is mired in sleaze. The rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies is out of control. There is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases. Each year the number of abortions beats the previous year's record.

Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, appealed in the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago for England to wake up and remember how Christianity has been at the heart of the history of this nation.

Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, said in the Sunday Telegraph: "It is time for a movement of Christians that will put the Christian case vigorously in public debate, that will remind the nation of its Christian heritage, that will make a difference where there is human need and, yes, that will commit itself to prayer in schools, hospitals, prisons, workplaces, Parliament and the streets so that people may experience again the blessing of God on this country."

Eighty Christian leaders met recently in the House of Lords to consider the moral and spiritual implications of the financial crisis. They felt strongly that the financial situation is primarily the result of the pursuit of moral choices and values that do not accord with the word of God; that God is calling all churches in Britain to a season of prayer and fasting for the nation; and that the Christian church should reach out to those who are already suffering as a result of the financial crisis.

Today, this very day, Christian leaders are meeting in Westminster to seek God for the way forward. It was hoped to have a thousand Christian leaders present.

A series of seven prayer nights have just been held across London to pray for the capital and the nation.

Can it be that something is beginning to happen? Turn off the television for a minute. Switch off the news bulletins on the radio. Listen carefully. Can you hear a rustling in the undergrowth?

Can it be that God is not finished with the homeland of John Wesley, George Whitefield, William Carey, David Livingstone, Florence Nightingale, Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce?

Millions of Christians are not yet marching in Britain's streets. But then, it might not take millions. The Bible is full of stories of a valiant few who, under God, "subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens."

Can it be that the tide is beginning to turn?

Pray with me and dare to hope.

A tale of Bury Bob

Stacksteads, near Bacup in Lancashire, England, is not, if it will forgive me for saying so, the most imposing of places. But it once had a revival.

Sam Chadwick, born in 1860, was later principal of Cliff College and president of the Methodist Conference. He was brought up in a tiny, two-roomed house in Back Hammerton Street, Burnley. He was converted to Christ when he was 10 years old. He had little education - he started work when he was eight years old - but felt a call to preach, and studied all the hours he could find.

His biography tells how his first appointment was as lay evangelist at Stacksteads Methodist Church, where he upset all the local brewers with his temperance preaching.[1]

Living in Stacksteads was a man named Robert Hamer, known to everyone in the town as Bury Bob. He was a notorious drunkard. It was said he had committed every crime in the book except murder, and it was only by God's grace he hadn't committed that. He had fought a bulldog with his hands tied behind his back, worried rats with his teeth, eaten glass, swallowed knives, smashed furniture, wrecked public houses, mauled policemen and fought all comers.

One day he walked into a meeting and signed the pledge (a pledge, that is, to abstain from alcohol). The next Sunday he was converted to Christ. The following morning he arrived early at the quarry where he worked and told the men one by one as they arrived what had happened to him.

The men laughed and jeered all week (something they wouldn't have dared to do before), until Friday. On Friday, a huge piece of rock trapped his finger. Before he knew it, he let out a great oath. The men laughed. "Ah," they said, "where's your religion now?" To their surprise, he fell to his knees and with the blood dripping off his elbow, cried out loud to God for forgiveness until peace came. When he got up, every man was standing with his cap in his hand.

The following Sunday the town turned out to see Bury Bob go to church. In the following weeks and months, hundreds were converted to Christ.

[1] Norman G. Dunning. Samuel Chadwick. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1933.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

One boy's dream

Brenden Foster had leukaemia. He had had all the chemotherapy and all the transfusions he could have, and he still had leukaemia. Now all the doctors could do was to try to make him comfortable. He was weak, and he could no longer walk. He understood from the doctors that he had only a short time left.

He and his mother, who looked after him, had worked out a routine together. Every night they would think of three positive things that had happened during the day, and they would have a laugh together. "A chuckle will do," said Brenden, "but a fake laugh will never do."

According to his mother, Brenden never complained about his condition. Ever. "He's always thought about others," she said.

One day, on his way home from a hospital appointment, Brenden saw a camp of homeless people, and decided he wanted to help. "They're probably starving," he said.

There wasn't much he could do from his bed, but others decided they wanted to help him. People started to gather together to make sandwiches for the homeless folk. After his story appeared in the media, a woman and some friends collected more than 20,000 cans of food in his name. Schoolchildren collected food. A war veteran who lost a leg wanted to give his bravery award to help.

Brenden was thrilled. He began to urge others to follow their dreams. "Follow your dream," he said. "Don't let anything stop you. Mine already came true."

Brenden died in his mother's arms. He was just 11 years old.

Did you have a tear or two in your eye as you read about Brenden? I confess I had a tear or two in mine as I read about him.

The point of Brenden's story, it seems to me, is this. You might be only 11 years old. You might be sick. You might be weak. You might not have much time left to live. But you can still make your life count.

Two (dis)similar stories

Daniel James, described as a "larger than life" character, was a former pupil at Worcester Royal Grammar School and an undergraduate at Loughborough University. He had played rugby for England under-16s and England Students.

He was in a training session at Nuneaton Rugby Club when a scrum collapsed on him. He suffered a collapsed spine and was paralysed from the chest down. Numerous operations brought little improvement.

Eighteen months after the accident, accompanied by his parents, he went to a suicide clinic in Switzerland and took his own life.

A British doctor, asked his opinion, thought it a tragedy and suggested Daniel might still have been suffering from depression after the accident. But Daniel's mother was adamant.

"He couldn't walk, had no hand function, but constant pain in all of his fingers. He was incontinent, suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body and needed 24-hour care.

"What right does any human being have to tell any other that they have to live such a life, filled with terror, discomfort and indignity?" she said. "This was his right as a human being. Nobody, but nobody, should judge him."

Shortly after Daniel's story appeared in the media, the Daily Mail published the story of Matt Hampson. Matt Hampson started playing rugby at five, became a star player at Syston Rugby Club in Leicestershire, joined Leicester Tigers Academy, and played for England under-18s and England under-21s.

He had his neck dislocated and his spinal cord trapped in a training scrum. He has no feeling from the neck down, lives in a wheelchair and needs a ventilator to breathe. Teams of carers look after him round the clock.

"I'm a much nicer person since the accident," he says. "More compassionate."

He writes a newspaper column, coaches youngsters, has his own website, and watches rugby home games. In recognition of his charity work, he was invited to London to meet the Queen.

"I forgot my nerves because she seemed quite awkward," he said. "A lot of people don't know what to say to me when they meet me because of my situation, and I think the Queen was the same. It was almost as if I had to put her at her ease."

Two similar stories with different endings.

Some people would say people's lives are their own, and they have a right to do what they like with them, including ending them at a time of their choosing. Others would say that our lives are not ours by right, only on loan, and one day we'll have to give account for them.

Things happen. Sometimes you wish they didn't. But personally, I think life is for living.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Christianity and the politically correct

News of perhaps the craziest example of politically correct tomfoolery comes from Brighton, on England's south coast.

Pilgrim Homes, a 200-year-old Christian charity, runs a care home there for elderly Christians. The home's residents, 39 single Christians aged over 80, include former missionaries and a retired minister.

Brighton and Hove Council, who provided £13,000 of funding for the home, wanted the home to use images of homosexuals in its promotional literature, show a presentation about homosexual rights to staff, ask the residents if they were (a) lesbian, (b) homosexual, (c) bisexual, (d) heterosexual, or (e) unsure, and repeat the questions to residents every three months.

Residents at the home felt the questions were inappropriate and intrusive. Managers at the home said to comply with the demands would unduly distress the residents and undermine the home's Christian ethos. Council officials withdrew the council funding and accused the home of "institutionalised homophobia."

After months of attempts to resolve the matter, Pilgrim Homes told the council it intended to take action against the council for religious discrimination. The Christian Institute was consulted. Lawyers were advised. I waited with interest to see the result.

The matter has now been settled out of court. The council funding is to be restored and the allegation of "institutionalised homophobia" is to be withdrawn, together with the requirement that residents should be asked about their sexual orientation four times a year.

Pilgrim Homes' chief executive said they were willing to ask potential residents about their sexual orientation when they applied for a place at the home, "on the understanding that they have a right to refuse, and that we will not be required to act in a way which goes against our doctrinal beliefs."

Tom Ellis, a solicitor representing Pilgrim Homes, said the council had shown "a total disregard and lack of respect for orthodox Christian beliefs and values" when it decided to cut the funding. "Pilgrim Homes has a right to provide its services within the context of its doctrinal belief without interference from the council."

The battle against bureaucracy is not all lost, it seems, so long as Christians are prepared to stand up for what they believe.

When does life begin?

When does life begin? If you had asked me that question some years ago, I would have said at birth, never having really thought about it. If I had been a woman with a baby kicking in my womb, I would have known that life begins before that.

In fact, life begins at the moment of fertilisation. Neither the male sperm nor the female ovum have life in themselves. But when the two come together, you have a single fertilised cell. Every cell in the human body contains 46 chromosomes. The male sperm has 23 chromosomes and the female ovum has 23 chromosomes, so when the two come together, you have a single fertilised cell with 46 chromosomes, 23 from the father and 23 from the mother.

Shortly after fertilisation, that cell begins to divide and multiply. One cell becomes two, two cells become four, four become eight. Nothing is added to that single cell except food and water until it becomes a mature adult.

Three weeks after fertilisation, the baby's heart begins to beat. Six weeks after fertilisation, electrical impulses from the brain can be recorded. By this time, the baby has eyes, ears and internal organs.

During the second month, the child begins to move and responds to touch. Facial features are forming. At two months, the baby can swim vigorously in the fluid which surrounds it. He, or she, has fingers and toes.

During the third month, the child has fingerprints. He can turn his head, curl his toes, open and close his mouth and make a tight fist. Fingernails and toenails appear. He drinks, digests and urinates. Sexual differences can be distinguished.

It is obvious the baby is alive. As someone pointed out, if he weren't, there wouldn't be need for abortion. That's why abortion is such a terrible thing: it deliberately ends a human life.

Those words in Psalm 139 are so profound:

For you have formed my inward parts;
You have covered me in my mother's womb.
I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvellous are your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
When I was made in secret,
And skilfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in your book they were all written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

Thank God that there is forgiveness available in Christ.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Caroline Petrie: A misunderstanding?

Caroline Petrie is a 45-year-old mother of two children. She is a nurse, employed by North Somerset Primary Care Trust to visit patients in their homes. She is also a committed Christian.

In December she visited a 79-year-old woman patient and spent 20 or 25 minutes attending to her needs. Before she left, she asked the woman if she would like her to pray for her. The woman declined, so Mrs Petrie said "OK," and left.

She was later suspended without pay, accused of "failing to show a commitment to equality and diversity," and required to attend a disciplinary hearing. "I knew I hadn't done anything wrong," said Mrs Petrie. "I only offered to pray for her because I was concerned about her welfare and wanted her to get better."

Mrs Petrie was reprimanded in October after she gave a small home-made prayer card to an elderly male patient. He happily accepted it, but someone who was present raised concerns. She has not given out prayer cards since. Her superior told her then "You must demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity" and "you must not use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health."

Andrea Williams, of the Christian Legal Centre, said it was extraordinary that equality and diversity policies which purported to ensure tolerance were ushering in censorship and intolerance.

This week Mrs Petrie was waiting to be told the decision of the disciplinary hearing.

After a national outcry, the NHS asked her to return to work. Mrs Petrie said she wasn't sure if she would. "I should not have to choose between being a Christian or being a nurse," she said.

Last month the Department of Health published a document titled Religion or belief: A practical guide for the NHS, which says: " Members of some religions. . . are expected to preach and to try to convert other people. . . To avoid misunderstandings and complaints on this issue, it should be made clear to everyone from the first day of training and/or employment, and regularly restated, that such behaviour, notwithstanding religious beliefs, could be construed as harassment under the disciplinary and grievance procedures."

The document does not make clear the limits of acceptable discussion about religion - which means that action could be taken against anyone who talks about their beliefs to patients or fellow workers.

Said Dr Peter Saunders, secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship: "We're seeing a culture of thought police emerging where it seems no longer acceptable to express what are really just orthodox Christian beliefs or the exercise of Christian conscience."

In countries once unashamedly Christian, there is now a serious move to shut Christians' mouths.

Getting answers to prayer (4)

There is a third condition to answered prayer. It is obedience.

The Bible says in Psa 66:18: "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear."

On the other hand, it says in 1 John 3:21, 22: "Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence towards God. And whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight."

This doesn't mean to say that we have to be perfect. If it did, there wouldn't be many people seeing answers to prayer. What it does mean is that if we are looking for answers to prayer, we shouldn't have any contentions with the Lord. If we have any known sin, it should be repented of. Ask God to forgive you on the basis of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. When it's under Christ's blood, it's washed away, forgiven, forgotten.

(The Bible says some interesting things about prayer. Take for instance 1 Pet 3:7. "Husbands, dwell with them with understanding, giving honour to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered." Did you know that the way you treat your wife can hinder the answers to your prayers?)

Psa 37:3, 4 says "Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on his faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart." God is faithful. He will fulfil His promise there. But if we want God to fulfil the last bit, we need to fulfil the first bit. A continued walk of obedience is the key to continued blessings - and it's a key to answered prayer.

Jesus put it like this: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you." To abide in Him is to live in Him, to dwell in Him, to remain in Him, to stay within the boundaries His love has set for you. But notice the result. "You will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you."

Some years ago, I was living in two rooms in a small house in a foreign land with no telephone, no television and plenty of time to pray. I used to pray in general terms: "Lord, bless him," "Lord, bless her." We do that because we are afraid that if we prayed in specific terms, God wouldn't answer.

One day I said "Lord, I'm tired of praying in general terms. I want to pray specific prayers and get specific answers. If I don't know how to do that, I want you to show me. And if I'm not in the right place for that, I want you to bring me to that place." There were no sudden flashes of lightning or voices from heaven, but I reckon you can't pray prayers like that and have them go unnoticed.

A couple of weeks later I was reading Isaiah 58. "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer," it said. "You shall cry, and he will say, Here I am." That's it, I said. That's what I want. I looked at the conditions listed in those verses. "Share your bread with the hungry. . . bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him." I can do that, I said. But I still didn't have it.

Then one morning, as I was thinking about it, it suddenly hit me. The things that God was speaking about there were the things that He wanted those people to do at that time. What God was wanting me to do might be something different. What God was talking about here was obedience.

God had begun to teach me the conditions for answered prayer.