Amazing grace

One Sunday morning I was driving along the M4. The weather was fine and most cars were driving at, or below, the speed limit. Some cars and vans passed me doing 80mph and then, on a quiet part of the motorway, a car passed me doing about 100mph. It disappeared from sight very quickly. Presumably the driver felt able to drive at that speed because there was little possibility of him being caught by a speed camera.

A little further on we came to a short stretch of the motorway where there is average speed camera surveillance. Every vehicle, without exception, drove at 50 mph! Why did everyone keep to the speed limit on that of part of the motorway? Because, if they drove too fast, the cameras were certain to detect it and they would be fined and have points on their licence. The evidence of the cameras would make conviction certain.

Our fallen human nature means that we are all most likely to break laws when we think we will “get away with it” and, in many cases, we do. Yet our leaders seem to think that making more laws will change people’s behaviour. In 2010 a record 3506 new laws were introduced in Britain, 10 for each day. The task of enforcing those laws, and all the other laws, is becoming impossible. In the absence of certain detection, laws have a very limited effect on how people behave.

The most important laws are God’s moral laws, summarised in the Ten Commandments. Few of us seem to have a sense of our ultimate accountability to Almighty God for the way we live. However, the Bible, and our consciences, tell us that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” When we realise that divine judgement is certain for us all, our sense of guilt and helplessness can be overwhelming. At such times, we know we need a Saviour.

In one of his hymns Horatius Bonar summed up his faith, and the faith of all Christians. “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die, another’s life; another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known, another’s tears; another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see.”

Inspiration from the Summer Paralympics

The 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro has been a great event as disabled people from all over the world have displayed remarkable abilities. Some of the athletes have been born with disabilities and others have become disabled through an accident or illness. Some are former soldiers who have been injured in battle. The stories of many of the athletes are an inspiration to us all.

Sinna Kaastrup, from Denmark, was born without legs. At Rio Sinna, riding her horse Smarties, won a bronze medal in the International Championship test grade 1b. Sinna uses a soft, treeless saddle with two handles, and carries a dressage whip on each side, but has nothing else to help keep her in the saddle. She generates so much power using just her seat that 15-year-old Smarties responds amazingly to her commands.

Ibrahim Hamadtou, from Egypt, competed in the Men’s Singles Table Tennis competition. Ibrahim, who is now 41, lost both his arms in a train accident when he was 10 years old. He serves by flicking the ball up with his foot and hitting it with a bat held in his mouth. He didn’t win either of his matches at Rio but won a silver medal in the 2013 Egyptian Championships. For Ibrahim playing in the Paralympics was a dream come true.

When tragic events happen to us it may seem as if a fulfilling life is impossible. When Sinna was born her parents were probably devastated that she had no legs, but she has developed riding skills that are equal to, if not greater than, many able-bodied riders. Ibrahim’s parents may have felt as if their world had come to an end when he lost his arms in the train accident but, today, he is a wonderful example to us all of someone who has overcome adversity. Sinna and Ibrahim have become the people they are today through their tragic experiences.

In this life our bodies are fragile and will, one day, wear out. The Bible promises us that, because of the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus, everyone in heaven will have a new body free from all weakness and disability. In his letter to the Christians at Philippi the apostle Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

The story of the little girl in the picture

Many people, who do not recognise the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc, remember the photograph of her taken in 1972 when, as a 9-year-old little girl, she ran from her village in Vietnam after a napalm attack. Kim Phuc is now 52 years old and lives in Toronto. She is a wife and mother of 2 boys and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Phuc has established a charity that helps children suffering from war. She says that the terrified little girl in the picture is “not running any more, she’s flying!”

In 1972 Phuc was living in the village of Trang Bang, north of Saigon. She and family were sheltering in a temple when they heard planes overhead. They ran outside to find safety, just as bombs detonated containing napalm, a flammable liquid that clings to skin, causing horrific burns. Phuc remembers the intense heat and excruciating pain. She pulled burning clothes from her body. Then she ran and, as she ran, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old photographer, took a photograph that became a symbol of the horrors of that war.

Phuc spent more than a year in hospital. Her family were afraid she wouldn’t survive. After many skin grafts, and other operations, she recovered from her physical injuries. Yet she could not find peace. She wanted to disappear, and even to die. She thought if she died she wouldn’t have to suffer mentally, physically and emotionally. She began seeking answers and, when she was 19 years old, she a trusted Jesus Christ as her Saviour and found new life and peace. She says, “When I became Christian, I had a wonderful connection – the relationship between me, and Jesus, and God.” Phuc asked God for help to move on and says, “From that point I learned to forgive.”

Today Phuc radiates an unmistakeable poise and peace when she tells her story. She sees that famous picture as just one of many blessings. She says, “I really want to thank God that he spared my life when I was a little girl. Whatever happened to me, I have another opportunity to be alive, to be healthy, to be a blessing and to help honour other people. I still have the pain, I still have the scars, and I still have the memories, but my heart is healed. My message to people when they see that picture today is try not to see her as crying out in pain and fear, try not to see her as a symbol of war, but try to see her as a symbol of peace.”

Remembering the Great Fire of London

At midnight on 2 September 1666 a fire began that razed the medieval heart of London to the ground. Over the next four days, assisted by official blunders, a minor accident turned into a major conflagration in which many people lost their homes, their livelihoods and, in some cases, their lives. The previous year Bubonic Plague, the Black Death, had killed tens of thousands of people in London.

The Great Fire of London started in the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. The summer had been very hot and the wooden houses in the narrow streets were very dry. The Lord Mayor underestimated the seriousness of the fire and failed to give the order to pull houses down to prevent the fire from spreading. By the time King Charles II gave the order to pull houses down it was too late to stop the fire spreading. By 4 September half of London was in flames. St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed.

By the time the fire was brought under control only one fifth of London was left standing. Most civic buildings were destroyed and 13,000 homes, but amazingly the official figure was that only 6 people had died. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless; 89 parish churches, the Guildhall, jails and markets had become burnt-out shells. The loss of property was estimated at between £5 and £7 million. However, although the Great Fire was a catastrophe, overcrowded and disease ridden streets were destroyed and a new London emerged. Sir Christopher Wren was given the task of re-building the city and the new St. Paul’s Cathedral was completed in 1711.

It is not easy to understand why some things in this life happen. When we pass through dark times, however, it is good to bring our sadness to God and to trust him to give us strength in the present and hope for the future. The Bible tells the story of a man called Job. He was a man of complete integrity who feared God and stayed away from evil. Yet, in a mysterious way, through a series of disasters, he suffered the loss of everything he had, including his 10 children. When he heard his children had died, Job was heart-broken. He fell to the ground in worship and said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!”

God will wipe every tear from their eyes

Many people in our world experience deep sadness and weep. A mother from an Italian mountain village weeps as she carries the body of her 8-year-old daughter who died in the earthquake. In the same village, a woman weeps as she looks at the ruins of her house; in a moment she has lost everything she possessed. A father weeps beside the body of his 10-year-old son in a hospital in war-torn Aleppo. A young mother, who has always loved and cared for her 3-year-old-daughter and 2-year-old-son, weeps as she sees them for the last time before they are adopted by order of a Family Court. A mother weeps as she and her family live in a refugee camp in Greece. A wife weeps as she cares for her husband who has dementia and realizes he no longer recognizes her or knows her name.

The Bible speaks comfort to people everywhere who are experiencing deep and devastating sadness. The God who speaks to us in the Bible is not the “unmoved Mover” of the Deists, who is untouched by the pain and sadness of those he has created. The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” When the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of Jesus he said, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with grief.”

In his Son, Jesus, God came alongside a suffering world and showed love and compassion to people experiencing grief and sorrow. When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he wept. When he saw the city of Jerusalem, and understood the devastation that would come upon it at the hands of the Romans, he “burst into tears.” He personally experienced betrayal and false accusations when he was condemned to be crucified. The depth of pain he endured as he died, in our place and for our sins, is impossible for us fully to understand. Because he has personally experienced profound suffering, he is able to empathise with us when we suffer.

So today, in Jesus, God comes alongside us as we weep. He understands what it feels like when our hearts are breaking. He also gives us “strength for today and bright hope for the future.” In the book of Revelation there is a beautiful picture of heaven. Those who are there have suffered in this world, but in heaven God himself will lead them to springs of living water and “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Growing together in God and in love

On 22 May this year Jaquie Farmer married Andy Goncher in a church service in Marietta, Georgia. It was a very special day for Jaquie and her family and friends as she walked down the aisle. In July 2008, when Jaquie was 17 years old, she dived into her friend’s swimming pool and broke her neck. She said, “I remember floating face down, unable to move and thinking I was going to drown. I could hear the girls laughing, thinking I was just joking or something. When I was finally pulled out of the pool and knew my mom was being called to come and get me, my body blacked out.”

In the hospital, Jaquie could feel all her limbs, but couldn’t move them. She asked her mother, “Am I going to be in a wheelchair forever?” Holding back tears, her mother said, “If God wants you to walk, you’ll walk.” Jaquie says that at that moment her faith kicked in and she was determined to be “normal” again. Her first glimmer of progress came when, to her doctor’s surprise, she was able to move her big toe. Jaquie spent hundreds of hours in physiotherapy, and on her own in the gym, working to regain the ability to stand. Her dream was to walk down the aisle on her wedding day.

Looking at the photos of her wedding day brings tears to Jaquie’s eyes. She said, “It’s so easy to forget how miraculous it is that I can walk now, since it’s a journey I’ve been going through for 8 years. When people react with such emotion and awe, it reminds me just how blessed I am. Andy and I have now been married for 3 months. I’m so thankful for his servant’s heart and willingness to put in the work that a good marriage takes. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 3 years and I can’t wait to continue to grow together in God and in love.”

We are all liable to life-changing accidents and illnesses. When tragic events happen to us, or to those we love, it is so important to turn to God. God has sustained Jaquie through dark and difficult days. She has experienced his love in Jesus in a new way. She knows that Jesus is always with her and that there is nothing that can ever separate her from his love. As they share the joys and sorrows of married life, Jaquie and Andy are looking forward to knowing God’s love for them more and more.

Running so as to win the prize

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has been a great event as more than 11,000 athletes, from 206 countries, have competed in 28 sports. Men and women from all over the world have been training for years for the opportunity to win an Olympic medal. The focus of their whole lives has been on Rio 2016. Their personal event is one tiny moment after thousands of hours in practice, dedication and sacrifice in the hope of achieving glory.

21-year-old Adam Peaty from Staffordshire won the gold medal in the 100 metres men’s breaststroke, breaking his own world record. Adam joined the City of Derby swimming club when he was 14 years old. His mother got up at 4am to drive him 40 minutes to Derby, where she would sit and wait for 2 hours while he was training. Then she would drive home before going to work as a nursery manager. In the evening she would do it again. She said, “It was really hard going, I’d have given up many a time. Adam never complained about getting up. If I wanted to stay in bed another hour, he’d say, ‘Come on Mum, champions aren’t made in bed!’” When Adam won the Olympic gold medal both he and his Mum felt that all the sacrifices had been worthwhile.

We all need a purpose in our lives; something to aim for. The first question in the Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” The Bible teaches us that we are all created in the image of God in order to enjoy eternal life in heaven with him. We are not an accident of history, a chance event. Death is not the end because every man and woman in this world was created with an eternal soul. So our lives are to be lived with our ultimate goal in mind.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.”

Two courageous doctors

Dr David Nott is a remarkable doctor. He is a consultant surgeon at Royal Marsden, St Mary’s and Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. For more than 20 years he has spent several months each year working as a volunteer war surgeon with Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Syria and Yemen. This year he was presented with the Robert Burns’ Humanitarian Award that recognizes those who help to change people’s lives for the better.

As well as treating victims of conflict and catastrophe, Dr Nott teaches advanced surgical skills to local medics and surgeons. One of the doctors he helps and encourages is Dr Hamza al-Khatib, who lives and works in war-torn Aleppo in Syria. Dr Khatib moved back to his home in rebel-held eastern Aleppo four years ago. He made the journey on foot with his wife and 6-month-old daughter. The journey was very dangerous and he was afraid for their safety.

Aleppo used to have 9 hospitals. All have been bombed by government and Russian forces. The situation in Aleppo is a daily nightmare for medics and the people because of barrel bombs and Russian fighter jets’ missiles. Recently a 9-year-old boy brought his 7-year-old brother to the hospital. The younger boy died and they had to give his body to his brother to take away. Every day Dr Khatib survives is a victory, yet he never regrets returning to Aleppo. He said, “The presence of every single one of us is important. We help each other. If I went back in time I would do the same again.”

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spoke of a Samaritan man who helped a Jewish man who had been robbed and beaten by thieves who left him half dead. Two priests saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side. The Samaritan, at risk to his own life, stopped, treated the man’s wounds and took him to a place of safety. After telling the parable Jesus said to the people, “Go and do likewise.” We can pray for people like David Nott and Hamza al-Khatib as they seek to save the lives of people terribly injured in today’s conflicts. We can also ask ourselves what we can do to truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Precious in God’s sight

Last week a very poor couple living in Uttar Pradesh, in Northern India, bought three packets of biscuits for their three children from their village grocer. They did not have the money to pay him but promised to pay as soon as they could. A few days later, when they were on their way to work, the grocer stopped them and demanded that they pay the 16 pence they owed him. The couple said they would pay him when they received their daily wages later that evening. The grocer became angry and attacked the couple with an axe. The man was beheaded and the wife died from injuries sustained in trying to protect her husband.

The couple who died, Bharat and Manta, were Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, the lowest rung of India’s caste system. The grocer was from an upper caste. There are more than 160 million Dalits in India. A person becomes a Dalit by birth. They are regarded as being impure and are denied normal human rights. Dalits are employed in poorly paid jobs that are regarded as ritually impure. It is not possible for a person who is born a Dalit to change their caste.

A few years ago a friend of mine was visiting India. One day he was being driven along a crowded street when there was a loud bang. A young disabled boy had run out in front of the vehicle and been knocked over. As people began to gather the driver, who was a Christian, gently picked up the boy who was very seriously injured. He carried him to a medical post but, sadly, the boy died. When the boy’s family arrived the driver was afraid he might be attacked but the father, seeing the blood on the driver’s shirt, asked him if he had carried his son to the medial post. Then he said to the driver, “We are Dalits and no-one has ever touched my son. You must have loved him very much to do that.”

One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus. He knelt before Jesus and begged him to heal him, “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean.” Jesus was moved with compassion and reached out and touched him saying, “I am willing, be healed!” Immediately the leprosy disappeared. Every human being born into this world is precious in God’s sight. When we come to him, with all our varied needs, we can be sure he will never turn us away.

Be still and know that I am God

Some friends of mine were in Istanbul the night of the attempted military coup. The following day one of them wrote, “Today was a lot quieter. We were advised to stay indoors. But last night was terrible. The suddenness of the attempted coup shocked everyone. The subduing of the coup carried on through the night, so sleep was impossible. All around were gunshots, emergency vehicle sirens, low-flying jets sometimes letting off sonic booms, and the constant helicopters. I have cried a lot today because of the terrible loss of life last night. The death toll is over 160, and over 1000 wounded. Most people are in complete shock and disbelief. There is a sense of fear and hopelessness.”

In recent months many people around the world have found themselves suddenly caught up in acts of violence. In Lahore, on Easter Sunday a bomb attack in a park killed 74 Christian and Muslim people and injured more than 350 people, many of them children. In Nice, 84 people died when a man drove a heavy lorry through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade Des Anglais. In Munich, a teenage gunman shot and killed 9 people, many of them teenagers, at a fast-food restaurant. These events, and many more, have created a spirit of fear and uncertainty in the minds of many. Where can we turn, at such times, to find comfort and hope?

Psalm 46 has been a source of strength to many over the centuries. It says, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! The nations are in chaos, and their kingdoms crumble! The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honoured by every nation. I will be honoured throughout the world.’ The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

The Psalm also speaks about heaven, “A river brings joy to the city of our God, the sacred home of the Most High. God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed.” In a very uncertain world, God’s Word gives us sure hope for the future. Whatever happens, Jesus really is the Resurrection and the Life and the Way to an eternal home.