Newsletter 10th Jan 2021

BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON

At our Zoom Bible study on 5th January we looked at Jeremiah 29:1-14.  The people in exile in Babylon wanted to know whether they should settle down there or prepare for returning home.  They felt far from God (“How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?” – Psalm 137:4).

Jeremiah writes to them from Jerusalem: they will be there for some time, and should settle down and seek peace and prosperity for the city (Babylon): “If the city prospers, you too will prosper.”

We wondered if there was a parallel here with our strange world at the moment: do we just hang on, doing nothing, until the Covid world has passed, or are there things to be done while we are here?

Here is a possible rendering of Jeremiah 29:4-7 to fit today.  What do you think?

“This is what God says to all those trapped in a Covid world with churches closed:  Serve your neighbourhood, make new friends, make phone calls, support those who are suffering or afraid.  Seek the good of area you live in, and your neighbours, because if your neighbourhood is filled with love, you too will know love.”

Then we might know the truth of verse 11: “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

So don’t just sit this time out, use it!             Martin

A “NEW” TRAIL        

LESLEY’S ‘HAPPY BOOK’ AGAIN

Look up with wonder.

Look back with gratitude.

Look around with love.

Look within with honesty.

Look ahead with anticipation.   (Source unknown)

An Irishman named Joseph Scriven

In 1842 an Irishman named Joseph Scriven graduated from Trinity College, Dublin and promptly fell head over heels in love with a girl from his hometown. They got engaged and, with great excitement, planned their wedding and began dreaming about their future together as husband and wife.

The eve of their wedding arrived at last, and Joseph’s fiancée saddled a horse to go and see him. Tragically, it was one of the last things she would ever do. A little later, Joseph saw his bride-to-be riding towards him and he grinned. But suddenly, just as she was crossing the bridge over the river, her horse bucked and threw her like a rag doll down into the river below. In blind panic Joseph ran into the river, calling out her name. He plunged into the icy waters, but it was too late. His bride was already dead.

Heartbroken, Joseph immigrated to Canada, where eventually he fell in love again. In 1854, Joseph was due to marry Eliza Roche, but she fell ill and grew progressively worse. The wedding was repeatedly postponed until, three years later, Eliza died. Joseph Scriven would never again give his heart to another.

Back home in Ireland, Joseph’s mother was deeply concerned for her heartbroken son, and he in turn was concerned for her. One night, Joseph penned  a poem to comfort her, little knowing that it would become one of the best-loved songs of all time. Several years later, a friend found it in a drawer at Joseph’s house and was deeply moved. ‘The Lord and I wrote it together,’ Joseph explained. That poem, forged out of so much disappointment and pain, continues to call millions of people to their own Gethsemanes to admit their grief, their trials and temptations, their sorrows, and their every weakness to Jesus in the privilege of prayer:

What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer

Oh, what peace we often forfeit
Oh, what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged
Take it to the Lord in prayer

Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness
Take it to the Lord in prayer                 (From ‘ God on Mute’ by Pete Greig)

Opinion

Why doesn’t God stop Coronavirus and mend the world?       It’s the most natural question in the world: If God is good and all powerful, then why doesn’t he just stop bad things happening? It’s something that individuals often ask at times of personal tragedy. As the Coronavirus sweeps across the world Justin Brierley offers an answer to the questions being asked by people all over the globe.

The question of God and suffering is one of the oldest questions ever asked and there are no easy answers. Most often the response needed for those who are walking through suffering is our love and care, not our clever theology and philosophy.
However, when the time comes for intellectual answers, I believe there are some helpful way to make sense of suffering.
There are many reasons why I believe it may make sense for God to allow us to go through a certain amount of suffering. After all, it’s not God’s job to keep us safe, secure and pain-free. God is concerned with bringing us into a relationship with him as fully human people, often shaped by both the joys and challenges of life. Likewise, I don’t believe God causes suffering (on the contrary it’s our own free will that brings about much of the evil in the world) but I do believe that God is wise, powerful and loving enough to use the pain of our circumstances for his greater purposes. 

The Groaning of Creation
But when it comes to Coronavirus we may be tempted to ask: Why has God allowed death, disease and natural disaster to exist at all? We may be able to understand the existence of evil caused by our own free will, but what about the ‘natural evil’ that exists in the world? This question can only be answered by a Christian from within his or her own worldview, and means we must expand our perspective to a cosmic scale.
The apostle Paul states that “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). The Christian story is that the whole created order is in some sense ‘out of kilter’ at a cosmic level. Some theologians trace this to human rebellion – an outworking of ‘the fall’ which acts both forwards and backwards in time. Others point to the existence of an earlier rebellion in the angelic realm that sparked a ‘cosmic fall’ (hinted at in Revelation 12:9)
Whatever the origin, the result is a world that is not as it should be. Yet Paul includes the promise that one day “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
Everybody has experienced living in the tension of this broken world. The groaning of creation brings both good and bad across our path. The natural laws that operate are both a blessing and a curse. Tectonic plate activity renews the surface of the earth with minerals, yet wreaks havoc when humans build cities on the fault lines. Cell replication allows our bodies to grow and develop, yet can result in cancer when natural processes misfire. Death is a necessary part of the cycle of life, yet still remains our “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

A cosmic battle
The Coronavirus is just one more example of the broken world we live in. Life is a God-given miracle of extraordinary engineering and complexity. Yet the physical process of life itself are subject to viruses, parasites, and disease. The “bondage to decay” that St Paul speaks of reverberates through the cosmos. 
By creating a world of free creatures – both physical and spiritual – God has granted a level of freedom to the whole of the created order. That means that God won’t simply step in and wave a magic wand to take away the suffering in the world. We are part of the problem of evil, and God has chosen us to be part of the solution too.
Throughout the New Testament we are presented with a worldview of spiritual warfare in which God has chosen his people to be fellow combatants waging a war, not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual “principalities [and] powers” (Ephesians 6:12) through our prayer, love and action. 

God hates Coronavirus
I have increasingly seen that this ‘warfare’ view of reality may help those who have experienced great suffering to understand that God is not the author of their pain. One such person is Jessica Kelley, whom I interviewed about the loss of her four-year-old son Henry to brain cancer as related in her book Lord Willing?. Radio hosts are supposed to ‘keep it together’ on air, but I failed to hold back my own tears as she told me the story of her little boy’s painful struggle and death, despite the prayers of their church community and the best efforts of doctors. Yet Jessica says that her crisis wasn’t compounded by a crisis of faith. 
Jessica had come to reject what she terms the ‘blueprint’ view of a God who creates pain and suffering as part of his sovereign plan. Instead she embraced the warfare view, that we live in a world where natural disasters, disease and evil are tied up not only with the choices of human beings but with the freedom exercised by spiritual forces in rebellion against God. Although the war was decisively turned towards victory through the death and resurrection of Jesus, there still remains a world of running spiritual battles. We pray ‘Thy will be done on earth as in heaven’ precisely because God does not always get his will on earth. Jessica found it helpful to know that the death of her four-year-old to brain cancer was not God’s will. Henry was a casualty in the ongoing battle to redeem a fallen and broken world: 

“It was incredibly freeing to know when we saw beautiful things happen, when people were coming to the house with casseroles and gifts – we could say, ‘This is from God. God is doing everything possible to maximise good.’ And when we saw our son suffer and the pain and death, I could say ‘this is not from God’. That meant I could maintain a passionate faith in the midst of such terrible loss.”
Jessica’s perspective can equally be turned to this present Coronavirus pandemic. God did not will this crisis. Let’s not lay the blame at his door. But he is working through the actions and prayers of those who are seeking to see his Kingdom come on earth.                Justin Brierley

Justin is Theology and Apologetics Editor at Premier and presents the Saturday radio show and podcast ‘Unbelievable?’ and the fortnightly Ask NT Wright Anything podcast

 This article continues next week with alternative views being discussed 

OPINION         A  Merciful Church

At the local foodbank that’s part of my church, I met a woman who had lost her entire business overnight. She had enjoyed a lucrative media career for more than 20 years and had seen all her contracts cancelled one-by-one as lockdown began. She looked shell-shocked. “I donate a few tins every time I go to a supermarket,” she told me. “But I never imagined I would need to come here for help.”God spoke to me quickly and clearly. He opened my eyes to see that the corona virus was mostly just an inconvenience for me, but for others it was a complete catastrophe. I realised that if ever there was a time to literally love my neighbour as myself, it was now. When my natural tendency might be to retreat and take care of my own needs, God was challenging me to reach out to others in ways that felt more stretching than ever.Jesus invites us, as his followers to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6: 36). This should be one of the distinctions of the Church. We are to be mercy-bringers in our neighbourhoods, those who show the kindness and compassion of Christ to those around us who are trapped in poverty, regardless of how they got there.In a post-Covid world, we need to move beyond social action projects -as vital as they are – to every worshipper of Jesus cultivating his heart of mercy for those facing hardship. For too long many have seen compassion for those in poverty as an optional extra, but it needs to become firmly entrenched in the DNA of our churches.Natalie Williams heads up communication and policy at Jubilee (a national charity) and oversees social action at King’s church, Hastings. She is the co-author of three books on poverty in the UK, including the recently published  ‘A Call to Act’                  (This is part of an article from Premier Christianity Magazine)

LAUNCH OF ‘OPEN DOORS’ WORLD WATCH LIST 2021 

On Wednesday 13th of January at 4pm the World Watch List parliamentary launch is a unique opportunity to ensure those in power hear about the human rights abuses facing your persecuted family. At the launch, MP’s will hear directly from Amina (from Nigeria) and Father Daniel (from Iraq) – and you can watch live (Go to the Open Doors web site to find the Youtube link),  all MPs are invited to attend – usually there are about 70 or 80.

The World Watch list gives details of the 50 countries where persecution was the greatest, showing where it was most difficult to be a Christian during 2020

Please send any contributions that might be published by next Tuesday morning to:   andy