When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”

The love that transforms

At the World Athletics’ Championships two great athletes completed outstanding careers. Usain Bolt is the first person to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records. He has won 8 Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. He is the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in three consecutive Olympics. Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, winning gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between 2011 and 2017 he won 10 successive global finals. It has been a delight to watch both men run.

At this World Championships, however, Usain won a bronze medal in the 100 metres and Mo won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres. Both were disappointed and the sports’ commentators spoke as if they were “failures” when they had won world championship medals; something most athletes only dream of doing. After completing a lap of honour, Usain said, “It’s really sad, I’m saying goodbye to everything.” From now on Mo wants to be known as Mohamed. He said, “I just feel like Mo is done. I need to forget about what I achieved and what I’ve done.”

The story of South African long jumper, Luvo Manyonga, is remarkable and encouraging. He won the gold medal at the World Championships. Just 3 years ago his life was very different. Luvo grew up in poverty in Mbekweni township. His mother, a domestic cleaner, raised him on her own. Luvo was an outstanding young athlete winning the world junior championship in 2010 and the All-Africa Games’ in 2011. However, the prize money disrupted his life. He started using tik, a recreational drug commonly used in the townships, and as a result gave a positive drug test in competition. He described his drug-taking as “hooking up with the devil.” He admitted taking the drug for non-performance-enhancing reasons and was suspended from competition for 18 months. The lower sentence was based on his “exceptional social circumstances.” Luvo underwent drug rehabilitation and was greatly helped by two new coaches.

After winning the World Championship gold medal, Luvo knelt by the side of the long jump pit and gave thanks to God. When he was interviewed by Gabby Logan, he told her he was a Christian and that Jesus had changed his life. What a wonderful encouragement this is. When we fail, as we all do, we can find new life and hope through experiencing the transforming love of Jesus.

Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

The Lord God omnipotent reigns!

Following their latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, there is growing concern around the world about North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, claims that the entire US is now within striking range of his missiles. The North Koreans are also working on a project to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to fit on their long-range missiles. The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the USA are not sure how to respond. China is a key player in influencing Kim Jong-un, but is reluctant to act.

Throughout history there have been leaders who have been ambitious to extend and display their power. The Bible tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon that was the world super-power of that day. One night Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that deeply disturbed him. He saw a large tree in the middle of the earth that reached high into the heavens for all the world to see. Then a messenger shouted, “Cut down the tree and lop off its branches! But leave the stump and the roots in the ground, bound with a band of iron and bronze. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the wild animals among the plants of the field. Let him have the mind of a wild animal instead of the mind of a man.”

King Nebuchadnezzar asked Daniel to interpret his dream. He told Nebuchadnezzar that the tree represented him. Nebuchadnezzar had grown strong and great; his rule reached up to heaven and to the ends of the earth. Through the dream, God was telling Nebuchadnezzar that he would be driven from human society and would live in the fields with the wild animals until he learned “that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.” Nebuchadnezzar would receive his kingdom back when he learned that heaven rules. Then Daniel gave the King some advice, “Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor.”

The dream God gave Nebuchadnezzar came to pass. After his sanity returned he praised and worshipped God and said, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honour the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble the proud.” Today the leaders of the nations, and those who aspire to great power, should humbly remember that heaven rules. All of us can also find great comfort in knowing that the Lord God omnipotent reigns!

God is wonderfully kind

Last week the BBC reluctantly revealed the salaries received by its presenters, actors, pundits and contributors who earn more than £150,000 a year. The general response was that the salaries were high, with many whose roles appear to be straightforward receiving higher salaries than the Prime Minister. People struggling to pay their mandatory licence fee out of the benefits they receive to support them and their families must have seen the salaries as very generous indeed.

The biggest debate, however, has been the obvious inequality between the salaries paid to men and women who fulfil the same kind of roles, in some cases, presenting the same programme. More than 40 high-profile women have written a letter to the BBC director-general urging him to act now to close the gender gap and to “do the right thing.” In their letter they acknowledge, “Compared to many women and men, we are very well compensated and fortunate.” It is not clear, however, whether they think the BBC should increase their, already generous, salaries or reduce the salaries paid to some men.

Jesus told a parable about a landowner who, early one morning, hired workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them the normal daily labourer’s wage. At 9 o’clock, noon, 3 o’clock, and even 5’oclock, he saw people who had no work to do and hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right. At the end of the day he paid all the people a full day’s wage. Those who had worked all day complained that he had been unfair. The landowner replied that he had paid them the full day’s wage he had promised and said, “Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” Then Jesus added, “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

Jesus was teaching that God is wonderfully generous and kind. He doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor people or give preference to those who have had the privilege of knowing Christian teaching all their lives. At whatever time in our lives we come to God, he receives us and promises us forgiveness and eternal life. In Jesus, there is true equality that transcends all the great divisions between people in this world. The apostle Paul told the early Christians, “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I am with you always

Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.

Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.

Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”

One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.

A mother’s love

Little Charlie Gard is unaware of the international media attention surrounding him and his parents. Connie and Chris are fighting to get permission to take Charlie to the USA to undergo experimental treatment that might possibly save his life. Charlie was born on 4 August 2016 and suffers from a rare genetic condition known as mitochondrial DNA depletion. The excellent medical team at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children have provided wonderful treatment and care for Charlie, but can do no more. They believe the time has come to withdraw treatment from Charlie and provide palliative care only. Connie and Chris have challenged this decision in the highest courts in Britain and Europe which, so far, have all supported the hospital’s view.

A parent’s love is a powerful thing. It nurtures, guides, protects, forgives. It is unconditional and can sometimes save your life. This love is seen in the passionate commitment of Connie and Chris to pursue any course of action that gives Charlie a chance to live. Connie has said, “He’s our son, he’s our flesh and blood. There is nothing to lose, he deserves a chance. If he is still fighting, we are still fighting. We’re not doing this for us. He’s our son. We want what’s best for him.”

In 2014, Ashya King’s parents provoked an international manhunt when they took their 5-year-old son from hospital in Southampton without the doctor’s consent. They wanted to take him to Prague to receive proton beam therapy which was unproven but, they believed, might save his life. Ashya was eventually treated in Prague and three years later he is well, happy and back in school. He has regular check-ups to monitor his health.

J. C Ryle, the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, wrote, “The nurse in the hospital may do her work properly and well, may give the sick patient his medicine at the right time, may feed him, care for him and attend to all his needs. But there is a difference between that nurse and a mother watching over a dying child. The one acts from a sense of duty; the other from affection and love. The one does her duty because she is paid for it; the other is what she is because of her heart.” The passionate love of a mother for her child reminds us of the even more amazing love of God who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

The Lord omnipotent is King!

There is a power vacuum in Britain today because the general election gave no political party an overall majority. There is a spirit of anarchy in the air. Anarchy is a state of disorder due to the absence or non-recognition of authority. When there is no effective government individuals claim absolute freedom to do what they want. The consequences for society are potentially very serious. In the Bible there was a time when Israel had no king and “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”

This raises important questions for the future of our society and the wellbeing of every individual in it. How do we know what is right? Are we free to do anything we want? To whom are we accountable? The Ten Commandments provide a clear and coherent basis for a stable society in which every individual can flourish. The commandments begin with God. He must be recognized as God and be given a unique place. So, the first commandment is, “You must not have any other god but me.” God is supreme. He is the One who created us and to whom we are accountable for the way in which we live. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.

The commandments also teach how we must relate to each other. Our neighbour’s life, wife, possessions and reputation are to be safeguarded and respected. We must not to be covetous about our neighbour’s possessions; a very relevant commandment in our materialistic society. In summary, we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. These commandments are not advice, but are given by God’s authority and are to be obeyed.

When we recognize the absolute authority of God and seek to live according to his commands we are faced with the fact that we all fail to obey his commands. We are all lawbreakers and sinners. We need to find forgiveness and experience God’s grace. The wonderful message of the Christian Gospel is that God, the Lawgiver, is also the One who sent his Son to save those who have broken his laws. Isaiah wrote, “He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.”

The secret of being content

We are living in unsettled times. Reports in the media portray a spirit of unease and unhappiness in the hearts of some. It seems that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in this fallen world, we must find someone to blame and to complain about. We see it as their responsibility to make us happy and ensure we have everything we want. Yet we live in country that, compared to most countries in the world, is wealthy and remarkably secure and stable. We enjoy a considerable degree of freedom to live our daily lives without interference from the authorities. In fact, millions of people from other countries would love to live in Britain and some make great efforts, at risk to their lives, to get here.

Some years ago, I met some friends from West Africa at Heathrow. As we were driving along the M4 they asked, “Where are the soldiers and the roadblocks?” I explained that things that were part of daily life in their country didn’t happen in Britain and that the overwhelming majority of our police were unarmed. They were amazed and, also, could not get over the fact that there were no potholes in our main roads! So, if our lives are so blessed and privileged compared to billions of people in the world, why are we unhappy?

We need to learn the secret of being content. When we are content we are happy, satisfied and fulfilled. It has very little to do with how much “stuff” we have. I was talking to a friend who works in a high-class resort to which many wealthy people come. He told me about a recent holiday in which he and his wife saw people who are much poorer than they are yet, he said, they were content. One man wrote, “Contentment doesn’t come from adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire; not in multiplying wealth, but in subtracting desires.” Socrates said, “The wealthiest person is the one who is contented with least.”

Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome. In a letter to the Christians in Philippi he wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

O Thou who changest not, abide with me!

The terrible fire at Grenfell Tower has traumatised a nation. The vivid pictures of the inferno that quickly engulfed the council tower block, in which more than 500 people lived, portrayed the horror of what was happening. There was an acute sense of helplessness as firemen tried to extinguish the fire that raged through the 24-storey tower in the middle of the night. The faces of people at the windows desperately crying out for help were heart-rending. For many there was no escape. The photographs of the inside of the flats, released by the Metropolitan Police, show the total devastation of the fire. Everything was destroyed.

The stories of some survivors are desperately sad. Brothers Omar and Mohammed Alhajali had fled the war in Syria and come to London. Omar was led to safety through the smoke by firefighters. He thought his brother, Mohammed, was with them only to realise that he was still in the flat. They spoke on the phone before Mohammed died. Mohammed sent a voice message to his mother in Syria saying, “Good-bye. I love you.” Omar, like many other survivors is traumatised and has a deep sense of guilt that he survived when his brother died.

Such tragedies are utterly devastating. The courage and skill of the emergency services and the practical love of the community have shone out in the darkness, but the deepest needs of those affected can only be met by the eternal God whose Son, Jesus, died and rose again to give us hope. There are things that happen in this life that cannot be put right or resolved. The finality of death takes us into a realm where only the living God can help us.

The words of a well-known hymn speak into our moments of deepest pain and grief. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see: O Thou who changest not, abide with me. I need Thy presence every passing hour; what but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”