Saturday, December 31, 2011

Facts and figures

Christians are by far the largest religious group on the planet, with nearly 2.2 billion followers, making up about a third of the world's population.

So says a study of global Christianity, based on data from 232 countries and territories, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (The study does not mention practice or belief; it simply counts as Christian anyone who says they are.)

The percentage of the world's population claiming to be Christian is about the same as a century ago.

While approximately two-thirds of Christians lived in Europe a hundred years ago, Europe has only 26 per cent of the world's Christians today. More than a third of all Christians today are in the Americas.

The United States has the world's largest Christian population, with more than 247 million, followed by Brazil and Mexico. China is among the top 10, with an estimated 67 million.

Sub-Saharan Africa has seen the biggest growth in Christian population, from about nine million in 1910 to about 516 million today. That's nearly a quarter of the world's Christians. Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia are among the top 10.

According to the study, half the world's Christians are Catholic, 37 per cent Protestant and 12 per cent Orthodox.

Islam is the world's second largest religion, with about 1.6 billion followers - just under a quarter of an estimated world population of 6.9 billion.

The number of people in England and Wales calling themselves Christian dropped from 77 per cent to 70 per cent between 2005 and 2010, according to the Government's latest Citizenship Survey. It showed Christians were less than half as likely to attend a place of worship as followers of other religions.

The number of people saying they have no religion went up from 15 per cent to 21 per cent between 2005 and 2010.

The Citizenship Survey was introduced by the Labour Government in 2001. This one will be the last. The current Government considered the £4 million cost of each survey could not be justified.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hugs, kisses and tears

Not everyone had a good Christmas. There were shells and bullets in Syria, bombs in Nigeria and bombs in Iraq.

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother of several children I wrote about a few weeks ago, spent her third Christmas behind bars. More than two years ago, Asia, who is a Christian, went out to work in the fields with some other women, who were Muslims. There was a discussion about the relative merits of Christianity and Islam.

The Muslim women claim Asia made a disparaging remark about the prophet Mohammed. Asia was hauled before a Muslim court charged with blasphemy, and sentenced to death by hanging. Sentence has not yet been carried out.

Earlier this month she had a visit by her husband and children, organised by the Christian couple who run the school attended by Asia's daughters. Asia is able to see her children only twice a year. Physical contact is not permitted, but the school director pleaded with the prison authorities until the family were allowed to meet in another room.

There were lots of hugs and kisses until it was time for the family to leave, when the kisses turned to tears.

Asia's husband Ashiq Masih is in hiding and unable to work: relatives of people accused of blasphemy are often targeted by Islamic extremists. Her daughters Sidra (18), Esha (13) and Eisham (12), who is disabled, have not yet given up hope that the family will be united.

The family is receiving support from the Christian community, but is still in great need.

Barnabas Fund
is helping with provisions.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Look, there's your Dad

I was bemused by people spending vast amounts of money on Christmas illuminations without any real appreciation of what it was they were celebrating.

I was bemused by people saying you musn't call Christmas Christmas in case it offended someone. Whatever in the world could they be thinking about?

I was blessed by the words of the angel to Mary (in Luke 1:31 - 33):

Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

I was blessed by the Christmas carol O Holy Night (beautifully sung here on You Tube):

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth. . .
Christ is the Lord!. . . .

I was blessed by the Christmas song This Little Child. Fellow blogger Denny Hartford points out that you can not only hear it here but also download it free of charge.

I was blessed by the story of airman Matthew Lancaster, who travelled from Kenya, where he was training for service in Afghanistan, and arrived to see his son's school nativity performance with just a minute to spare, with his wife and women in the audience in tears.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's OK to rejoice. It's Christmas

Some people say Christians shouldn't observe Christmas because December 25 probably wasn't the date of Christ's birth and the festival on that date has pagan origins.

I disagree. There's nothing wrong with having a couple of days' holiday. There's nothing wrong with giving presents to people we love. There's nothing wrong with remembering the birth of the most wonderful person ever to visit the planet. And people have an openness to spiritual matters at this season. What a glorious opportunity to share the story of God's love.

As someone put it, "When God wanted to save the world, He didn't send a committee. He didn't write a book. He didn't send a substitute. He sent the best He had - His only Son.

"The Infinite became finite. The Immortal became mortal. The Creator became the created. The Almighty became a helpless baby. The Deity was wrapped in rags. The King of the Universe was born in a stable."

For unto us a child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon his shoulder.
And his name will be called
Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace
(Isa 9:6).

God created a beautiful world. We messed it up. God sent His Son. We stuck Him in a dirty stable. He did wonderful things. We crucified Him. And to cap it all, He rose from the dead. Only God could do that.

It's a personal thing. He didn't just come for the world. He came for me. He died for me, to pay the price for my sins. He rose for me, to prove that it was done.

We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour, that he, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone (Heb 2:9).

This Christmas there will be people in church who normally don't go to church. Many of them who go to cheer on their children as they act out the story of the Nativity. There's nothing wrong with singing a few carols and remembering the birth of a baby in Bethlehem a long time ago.

But will they know He grew up to be Saviour and Lord? Do they know He's King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Do they know that one day He will rule the nations? Will they realise that one day everyone will meet Him face to face?

My most memorable Christmas, without a doubt, was the Christmas before I was converted to Christ. God was already speaking to my heart. I had always gone to Christmas parties and sung a few carols; I thought it was the thing to do at Christmas. But I had begun to realise that God was interested in me. There was something about this that was real.

I didn't enter into the benefits until some weeks later. Christ is God's gift to the world. Like any other gift He has to be received.

As many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God (John 1: 12).

There were two things I needed to do.

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.

For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes on him will not be put to shame"
(Rom 10:9 -11).

I believed. I confessed. Christmas (and the rest of the year) has never been the same since.

May you have a wonderful, real, God-blessed, old-fashioned Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Marriage is best

Peter Saunders highlights a recent report by a group of 18 family scholars summarising new findings from the social sciences on the state of marriage and family life.

The report, Why marriage matters, published by the Institute of American Values, lists 30 conclusions about the positive benefits associated with marriage.

In the latter half of the 20th century, divorce was the greatest threat to child wellbeing and the institution of marriage in the US. Children, it says, are now more likely to be exposed to a cohabiting union than a parental divorce. But the intact, biological, married family remains the gold standard for family life. Children are most likely to thrive economically, socially and psychologically in this sort of family.

Peter Saunders says there were similar findings in the Centre for Social Justice report Breakdown Britain in 2006, which found the breakdown of marriage and the family was the key driver of Britain's collapse. (The percentage of children born outside marriage rose from eight per cent in 1970 to 46 per cent in 2009.)

"Many of the mental and physical problems that daily fill our GP surgeries, hospital wards and outpatient departments are symptoms of this. The main drivers, the five 'pathways to poverty,' are all correlated with the collapse of marriage: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness and addiction. . .

"Children from a broken home are twice as likely to have behavioural problems, perform worse at school, become sexually active at a younger age, suffer depression, and turn to drugs, smoking and heavy drinking. A parent who has a serious drug problem or is addicted to alcohol can exhibit destructive behaviour patterns which can destroy the quality of life for the other parent and for children, leading in turn to family breakdown. . .

"The church has at this time an amazing opportunity to model marriage and family to a society where alternative models have failed.

"Marriage is a virtually universal human institution because it was originally God's idea. . .

"Let's celebrate, demonstrate, promote and protect marriage as the vehicle of blessing that it is for husbands, wives, children, parents, extended family, community and ultimately the world."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When doctors disagree

The medical profession seems to have shot itself in the foot. Part of it, at least.

There has long been argument about damage caused to women by abortion. The abortion industry refused to accept there was such a thing as post-abortion syndrome. A few women might get a little upset at first after abortion; most were relieved to be free from an unwanted pregnancy. If there were mental health problems after abortion, they would be problems that were there beforehand.

That was not the experience of counsellors who worked sometimes for months with women with lives torn apart by problems after abortion, usually caused by feelings of anger, guilt and remorse.

Research into abortion and mental health problems by academic Priscilla Coleman was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in September. It was based on an analysis of 22 separate projects which analysed the experience of 877,000 women, 163,831 of whom had had an abortion.

It showed that women who had had an abortion had an 81 per cent increased risk of mental health problems, a 34 per cent increased risk of anxiety disorders, 37 per cent higher risk of depression, 110 per cent higher risk of alcohol abuse, 220 per cent higher risk of cannabis use and a 155 per cent increased risk of trying to commit suicide.

Nearly 10 per cent of mental health problems could be directly attributed to abortion.

Which brings us up to recent events.

Now research undertaken by the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, commissioned by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and funded by the Department of Health, says that an unwanted pregnancy does involve up to three times higher risk of mental health problems, but that the risk is no different whether the woman with the unwanted pregnancy has an abortion or gives birth.

According to the law, abortion is still illegal, but a person will not be guilty of an offence under the law if abortion is carried out on certain grounds. One of the grounds is that two doctors are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that the pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week and that continuing the pregnancy would involve greater risk of injury to physical or mental health than if the pregnancy were terminated. Ninety-eight per cent of abortions are carried out on this ground.

Dr Peter Saunders, chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, points out that if there is no greater risk to health caused by continuing the pregnancy than by aborting the child, then 98 per cent of abortions carried out in Britain are illegal and doctors signing forms permitting them are likely to be committing an offence.

So will 98 per cent of abortions in Britain be no longer allowed to take place? I think not.

Doctors signing forms will still be allowed to claim, despite all the evidence, that there will be greater risk of damage to health by allowing the pregnancy to continue than by abortion, and doctors supporting the research will still be able to claim there is no greater danger to health caused by continuing pregnancy, and both will probably convince their respective audiences.

So long as they don't try to bring the two arguments together.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The amazing life of Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer was one of five children born to a Jewish family in Prague.

She started playing piano at something like five years old. By the time she was in her teens, she was recognised as an immensely talented pianist.

In 1931, she met her husband, also a musician. They married two weeks later. In her 30s, she was known as a concert pianist throughout Europe.

In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and life for Jews became a nightmare. In 1943 she, her husband and son were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, a "show camp" where artists, writers and musicians among the inmates were forced to perform for Red Cross inspections.

They lived on a little black coffee and a little watery soup. Mrs Herz-Sommer gave more than a hundred concerts for ill and starving inmates. "Music kept us alive," she says. "This was their food."

Her husband was sent to Auschwitz, then Dachau, where he died of typhus. Mrs Herz-Sommer and her son survived the war. Of 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt, her son was one of only 130 who lived.

In 1949 she went to Israel and taught music. "It was a beautiful life in Israel," she says. "Inspiring. Musicians, scientists, writers - they all came and lectured. I was very happy."

Some 25 years ago, she and her son moved to London. "English people are so polite," she says. "They are cheerful and helpful and I admire their humour. Admirable people. I love them." Her son died in 2001, aged 65.

She attributes her long life to her optimism. "That is the reason I am still alive. I look at the good. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive." And despite her suffering, she has never hated. "Never."

"Life is beautiful, extremely beautiful," she says. "When you are old, you appreciate it more. When you are older, you think, you remember. You care and you appreciate, you are thankful for everything. For everything."

Mrs Herz-Sommer still practises piano for several hours each day.

She recently celebrated her 108th birthday. She is the oldest known Holocaust survivor. We wish her well.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Dangerous days

It's been an open secret that Iran has been working to obtain nuclear weapons for long enough - but the International Atomic Energy Authority's report last month about its "serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme" had added to the pressure.

The problem is that Iran's leadership is driven not just by political ambition but by Shia Islamic "end times" theology. Iran's Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are followers of the Mahdi, or Twelfth Imam. Khamenei claims to have had a personal meeting with the Mahdi and to be his personal representative on earth.

Muhammed ibn Hasan ibn Ali, the Twelfth Imam, disappeared while a young boy hundreds of years ago. Shia Muslims like Khamenei and Ahmadinejad believe he will
reappear in the last days, and all the world will then become Muslims. A way to hasten his return will be to destroy Israel and the United States.

Iran was expected to have nuclear weapons before now. Complex viruses planted on their computers, the assassination of nuclear scientists and sabotage at nuclear installations in Iran have delayed, but not ended their efforts. A recent forecast is that Iran could have five nuclear bombs by April, 2012 - four months away.

Respected commentator Joel C. Rosenberg points out that Iran calls Israel "the Little Satan" and the United States "the Great Satan." As long ago as 2005 Ahmadinejad forecast that there would soon be a world without the United States and Zionism.

Israel takes the threat to its security seriously. In recent days the Israelis have been moving weaponry around Israel - presumably in preparation for either a pre-emptive strike against Iran or for defence against a strike by Iran or its proxies. Israeli newspapers have been full of headlines about the threat of war.

The United States is taking the threat to its security not so seriously.

Scientists say the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear device exploded 100 miles above the United States could disable the US infrastructure, leaving the whole of the US without power, transport, computers, heating, water supply or sanitation. A nuclear missile fired from a ship up to 200 miles off its coastline could affect 70 per cent of the US population.

The Christian will rejoice because he believes he knows who holds the world in His hand. We live, nevertheless, in dangerous days.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Euthanasia by the back door?

A few years ago the UK's Department of Health approved the Liverpool Care Pathway - so called because it was developed at the Royal Liverpool Hospital - for use in NHS hospitals.

Patients can be placed on the pathway "in the last hours or days of life," enabling food and water and drugs treating their condition to be withdrawn "to avoid unnecessary and burdensome intervention," and if necessary the patient sedated.

Doctors say the pathway has prevented suffering for dying patients. Predicting the time of death is difficult, however, and some patients taken off the pathway have recovered and lived for a considerable period.

Critics say patients are sometimes placed on the pathway too early, and sedation can mask their subsequent condition. The pathway, they say, can be reduced to a "tick box" ritual, and there could be a refusal to take the patient off the pathway once placed on it. With food and fluids removed and the patient sedated, death would then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Department of Health says doctors must always discuss with relatives whether to place patients on the pathway.

A report of an audit this year by the Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute, in collaboration with the Royal College of Physicians, just published - it says care of the dying overall was of high quality, but concerns remain regarding education and training - shows two things: the number of patients with terminal illnesses on the Liverpool Care Pathway has almost doubled in the past two years, and in one NHS trust where patients have been placed on the Liverpool Care Pathway, fewer than half their families have been informed.

Overall, where data has been supplied by hospitals, doctors discussed plans with relatives in 94 per cent of cases, but this still leaves thousands of families who were not advised what doctors were doing.

Why are families not told? Because it's easier not to? Because families might object? Because doctors think they know best? Or is this euthanasia by the back door?

We should be told.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Remembering to say thank you

I remember a good many years ago the church I attended at that time often used to sing an old hymn with a chorus that went like this:

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

After we had sung the chorus for the last time, the senior pastor would add a second chorus of his own:

Count your blessings, name them two by two,
Count your blessings, see what God can do;
Count your blessings, name them four by four,
And it will surprise you there are millions more.

In my mind's eye, I can see him still.

Broadly, there are two classes of people: those who see the negative in every situation, and complain; and those who see the positive in every situation, and are thankful. I know which group of people is the happier.

Gratitude needs to be expressed. "In everything give thanks," says Paul (1 Thess 5:18). Somebody said the saddest thing for an atheist is when he feels thankful and he has nobody to thank. I don't know about that, but I do know the rest of us aren't in that situation.

"Enter into his gates with thanksgiving," says the Bible, "and into his courts with praise" (Psa 100:4). So don't dash straight into God's presence with a shopping list. Thanks first.

The other day I was looking at the number of instructions there are in the Bible to give thanks. If you were to count up the number of exhortations to thanksgiving in the book of Psalms, I'm sure you'd soon lose count.

I have decided I want to recognise the things I have to be thankful for more readily and to express my gratitude more often.

How about the following?

There is no greater difference between men than between grateful and ungrateful people. - R. H. Blyth.

When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs? - G. K. Chesterton.

And this:

If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul. - Rabbi Harold Kushner.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Gog and Magog War (2)

We were talking about the Gog and Magog War, a battle described in Ezekiel 38 and 39 which will take place, the Bible says, "in the latter days" (38:16).

A great army from a confederacy of nations will invade Israel "to take great plunder" (38:9 - 13). Plainly Israel will have something at that time other nations want. Chemicals? Oil? Natural gas?

The invasion will take place when Israel is dwelling in apparent safety (38:11), a condition which does not apply just now.

Hebrew words translated horses and bows and arrows could be used to describe tanks and present-day missiles. There will be such slaughter on the mountains of Israel that it will take Israel seven months to bury the dead. Does Ezek 38:20 refer to a natural disaster or a nuclear disaster? Ezek 39:12 - 16 possibly hints at nuclear warfare.

The result of the war will be that "the house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God from that day forward," and "the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel" (38:16, 23; 39:6, 7, 21, 22, 28).

American Bible teacher Chuck Missler makes an interesting point. The nations mentioned in Ezekiel 38 will travel considerable distances to invade Israel: there is no mention of Israel's near neighbours. What will have happened to them?

In Psalm 83 the Bible prophesies another battle involving Israel in which Israel's close neighbours are mentioned. Many Bible commentators believe this battle will take place before the Gog and Magog War. Can it be that Israel's immediate neighbours will have been dealt with in that earlier war? It's impossible to say with certainty, but it's an interesting suggestion.

One thing is certain. When everything is finished and done, Israel will still be there. The truth of God's word demands it.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Gog and Magog War (1)

The Bible is a book of history. It is also a book of prophecy. It tells what happened, how it happened and why. It also tells of things that are yet to happen. The Bible is more up to date than today's newspaper. It is more up to date than tomorrow's newspaper, if you can imagine that.

Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 tell in graphic detail of a battle that is yet to happen; a battle that has come to be known by Bible students as the Gog and Magog War (38:2).

Magog, Persia, Cush, Put, Libya, Gomer, Togarmah, Meshech and Tubal, it says, together will invade Israel. The names of peoples and places change over time. These names describe what is now Russia, Iran, Ethiopia, Libya, Germany and Turkey.

The invaders will be a great army; so many that they will cover the land of Israel like a cloud (38:9, 16). There will be a great earthquake (38:19). God Himself will fight against the invaders with great rain, great hailstones, fire and brimstone (38:22).

The slaughter will be such that it will take seven months to bury the dead (39:12).

When will this war take place? What will be the cause of the war? Will nuclear weapons be involved?