Canon Ian Ellis, who edits the Church of Ireland Gazette, believes that whilst many of the challenges we will face in 2015 are the same as they have been in other years, the first and most important of these is that of faithfulness.
“Christians are people of faith but they are also disciples, followers, of Jesus Christ. Faithfulness to Christ is the first challenge,” he says.
“Discerning the mind of Christ is a constant challenge and to do so requires prayer and reflection on Scripture. The Christian life is a life of faith and love of God and neighbour. That’s always a challenge. My parish is Newcastle, Co. Down, and in the Diocese of Down and Dromore we have all embarked on a special Year of Mission. Bishop Harold Miller has led this initiative with characteristic energy and enthusiasm.
“In preparation for the Year of Mission 2015, every parish has been challenged to draw up a special plan of witness and outreach for the year and to set verifiable goals – goals that we can measure one way or another at the end of the year. How well have we done this? Have we achieved that?
“It strikes me that there’s a real lesson here for every Christian person – and that lesson is that we all must take time to look at ourselves as objectively as we can to see how we are measuring up in terms of faithfulness.
“The challenge to faithfulness is always there and it is certainly a challenge for 2015. However, there are other challenges for Christians that are perhaps more challenges of the day, as it were.
“Here in Northern Ireland Christians are challenged to work for a more harmonious community life. There is no doubt that Northern Ireland still faces many tensions and Christians are challenged to show how people of different points of view and allegiances can not only respect one another, but actually love one another.
“I do think this is something we all have been learning in Northern Ireland over the past while, even though there is still more work to be done – that’s another challenge.
“This will also be an election year and Christians have a role to play both locally and on the wider stage in terms of showing thoughtfulness about the many issues that will be to the fore.
“For the Church as a whole there is the challenge to draw more and more people into its fellowship.
“I remember several years ago there was an instance of a group of Christian people coming together in a shopping centre in Canada in the run up to Christmas. “Suddenly they started singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, which includes the words: ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords, And He shall reign forever and ever.’
“The shoppers were astounded, but gradually they began to join in – until there was a great crowd singing.
“That, to me, is what the Church needs to be like: joyful and confident in the Christian faith and thereby drawing others into the song.”
Reverend Ian Brown is the Minister at Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast.
He says: “One of our most famous Christmas Carols – ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ – contains the reassuring lines:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in Thee tonight.
“Phillips Brooks, the author of this hymn, continually turns our attention to the Lord Jesus Christ – the only One through Whom our best hopes are realised and our worst fears are calmed. I am persuaded that Christ Jesus is the answer to our hopes and fears for any and every year.
“As I survey the mixture of possibilities and perplexities, hopes and fears, that will be dotted through the months of 2015, my heart is challenged and comforted when I remember that there is no promise too hard for my Lord to fulfil.
“More than 300 specific promises were made in Old Testament times about the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though the odds against fulfilment were absolutely incredible, these promises were fulfilled with stunning exactness.
“Some have computed the promises in the Bible to the level of thousands. These are promises which we can personally claim. One of the most precious must be our Saviour’s words in Matthew 11:28-29: Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest...ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
“I encourage you to read the Bible this year and, as you read, mark and claim those promises the Lord has made to you. There is no promise too hard for the Lord to fulfil.
“Again, as I survey this new year, I am convinced there is no problem too difficult for my Lord to solve.
“It has been said, ‘When God is going to do something wonderful, He starts with a difficulty. When God is going to do something very wonderful, He starts with an impossibility.’
“As Mary Magdalene and a few friends made their way through the haziness of the dawn to the tomb of Jesus, their minds were occupied by a huge problem: ‘Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?’ As it turned out, they need not have bothered wasting their mental energies on rehearsing this problem: their Lord had already taken care of it. Christ had risen – and rolled that stone away!
“He can roll away the stones, even move the mountainous issues, that annoy us in this life – or provide the grace and strength we need to bear our heavy burdens. His counsel in 1 Peter 5:7 is not empty, but emphatic: Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you.
“Another encouragement fuels my faith as I approach this year: There is no place too remote for my Lord to reach.
“100 years ago, it was considered impossible that the good news of the Gospel of Christ could penetrate many areas of our earth. Since then, walls have fallen, ‘curtains’ have been breached, and multitudes of people have been reached for Christ – a clear fulfilment of our Lord’s words in Matthew 24:14: And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations. Perhaps, in your current circumstances, or on account of your past, you reckon yourself to be someone who is too remote for my Lord to reach. However, the truth is, as Romans 10:13 expresses it: Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
It is no secret what God can do,
What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you:
With arms wide open He’ll pardon you,
It is no secret what God can do.
“May this year see your fears cut down and your hope blossom through Christ.”
Reverend Donald Kerr is secretary of the Methodist Church in Ireland. He says that this year, he will be hoping and seeking to live for the same thing he has always hoped for - that the people of this Province would “know for themselves God’s love, that they should embrace a living, fulfilling, honest, generous and life-changing Christian faith, and grow in that faith.”
He continues: “Of course, this could be dismissed as a typical ‘religious’ answer that doesn’t affect everyday life. It might even sound divisive. But mature and lively faith is quite the opposite. It shows itself in genuine love and goodwill towards those whose approach to faith and life are different. It also makes a difference to the way we speak, or think, or drive the car, or earn and spend our money.
“Tied in with this hope is a longing that we, in Northern Ireland, seek to live on a bigger map. The President of the Methodist Church, Reverend Peter Murray, is just returning from a visit to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. A team of Methodist people from Ireland is still there. Together they are sharing in the lives of people who lost everything in a devastating earthquake five years ago. The people of Haiti represent just a few of the vulnerable people of the world. In 2014 the number of refugees throughout the world exceeded 50 million. As we listen to election debates and prepare to cast our vote for our political representatives in May can we hold in our thoughts the needy of the world, and not just our own self interest?
“Another longing is that we work harder to get to know, and listen to, the people in this community who are different from us. One of the initiatives I’m proud of is the Irish Churches Peace Project, where people in various parts of the Province have been encouraged to meet their neighbours from the other side of our religious / political divide, to the point where they feel safe enough to have some conversations with them that might be about difficult things.
“We have a long way to go but it’s an essential journey if we are to be a healthy community.
“Churches of all denominations have a vital role in helping us to be the healthy community that God wants us to be.
“But they can’t fulfil that calling if they focus only on their own activities to the exclusion of all else. And so I long that the Presidential theme of Rev Peter Murray, Moving Out Together, will increasingly influence all our church life. How well do we know the people who live in the streets around our churches?
“How often do we offer to pray for them, or work with them for the benefit of all?
“Here in Northern Ireland we still have challenges to face. Government funding is cutbacks, and so, for example, within health, education and environment we will have to work out together what is most important, as well as discovering how to live peaceably side by side. I hope that all conversation in 2015, public and private, will be marked by Christian grace.”
The Very Reverend Dr Stafford Carson is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, and currently the Principal and Professor of Ministry at Union Theological College in Belfast.
He says that one of the biggest issues facing us in 2015 is whether this will be the year that society becomes “more a culture of death rather than a culture of life.”
He continues: “The proposals to change our local law on abortion, as well as Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill at Westminster, will force us to think again about the ‘edges’ of human life, and how such life can be protected. While some notable writers and clerics have claimed recently that an ‘overwhelming majority’ of the public now supports a change in the law on assisted dying, many Christians have serious reservations about a bill that would license doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to people who choose to end their lives. The traditional Christian view is that we contribute to a just and compassionate society when we devote ourselves to care, not killing, and to building a community where the weakest and most vulnerable people are protected, whether they are innocent babies or vulnerable people who are frail, sick or elderly.
“Up until now, the absolute principle has been the safeguarding of human life both at the beginning and end of life. A change in the law with regard to assisted suicide will significantly affect the moral landscape of our society. A new law will be open to abuse or, as those who have experience of nursing elderly relatives will recognize, to the fear of abuse.
“These legal challenges come as we look back on years of conflict and violence when so many precious lives were lost. Yet the tragic loss of human life continues to dominate our local headlines. Just as the infant Christ was born into a world where innocent babies were slaughtered by an evil tyrant, we recognize that our world remains a place where there is too much darkness and death. Whether it is violent men massacring defenceless schoolchildren in Pakistan, or the beheading of innocent aid workers in Iraq or the attempt to kill a committed Christian medical missionary in Congo, the culture of death continues to threaten.
“Against that background, the Christian gospel announces that in Christ there is life and that life is the light of men.
“The continuing witness of Christians here and across the world means that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5).
“The best efforts of the Prince of Darkness did not, and will not, extinguish the true Light.