In a challenging spiritual environment, Christians can but press on
Some people display the most amazing resilience. My father was such a man. He was captured by the German army early in World War II but escaped and made his way through the desert alone until he finally reached safety about a week later. His reward? He became a founding member of the SAS and I have his war-battered compass to prove it.
The apostle Paul was a man of similar ilk. The New Testament is evidence of that. We see this particular characteristic of his life in the letter he wrote to his friends in Philippi some time in the 50s when he was imprisoned (most probably in Rome) and facing the very real possibility of death.
In some ways Philippians is a letter of thanks. The church had proved intensely loyal again in sending yet another monetary gift as well as a trusted member to help him (Epaphroditus). Sadly he had nearly died and had been overcome by a sense of homesickness and was returning home. Paul must have felt all alone and very besieged.
Trusted friends were very few and far between at that moment and if that were not bad enough a proportion of the local believers were doing all they could to intensify rather than minimise his pain. Added to this, the church at Philippi was beginning to experience the same kind of opposition, and its unity was being threatened by disunity and selfishness. Paul had lost just about everything and all he had gained was a prison cell.
Well that's how the ordinary Roman citizen would have viewed his predicament. But Paul thought otherwise. He knew he was forgiven and that death would prove nothing more than a door into a richer life. Better still, he knew that he could look forward to the day when he would welcome his heavenly king to earth clothed in a body as glorious as his.
And so he wrote: "I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14)
These are difficult times for those who want to follow Christ. Persecution is rife. John L Allen gave his new book the title "The Global war on Christians", in which he provides snapshots of the suffering of Christians around the world. Allen notes a study by the Pew Forum detailing how between 2006 and 2010, Christians were harassed in 139 nations, almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams was correct to suggest that we are not being persecuted in the UK, but it would be foolish to deny that we are living in an increasingly challenging environment. Two surveys conducted by YouGov reveal that out of 8,455 British adults polled, 38 per cent - 3,199 in total - said they have 'no religion', a result that prompted a professor at Lancaster University to observe that: "The steady and relentless growth of 'no religion' within our lifetime is a remarkable social shift."
Who knows what the future holds? But whatever the spiritual climate, indeed whatever our experience of church itself, I am sure that if the apostle Paul were alive he would urge us to enter the new year with the same dogged determination that he faced his uncertain future. We need to press on, seeking to see His will done on earth as it is in heaven trusting that there is a wonderful prize to be won.
I was delighted to hear that Helene Donnolly, the whistle-blowing nurse from Mid Staffordshire has been recognised in this year's Honours List. She deserved it. She was physically threatened by colleagues after raising concerns about standards in the accident and emergency department but she persisted because she knew that people's lives depended on it. We would do well to remember that too as we look for ways to hold out the word of life in the midst of a "crooked and depraved generation".