Everybody’s got a past

The Internet has changed our lives both positively and negatively. One negative factor is the ease with which pornography can be accessed by both adults and children. Many men and women regularly view pornography online and some are addicted. Pornography corrupts our minds and can wreck marriages and relationships. There is a growing concern about its influence on children and young people and the long-term effects on their lives.

The story of Crystal Bassette shows how God can change our lives and set us free from the things of which we are ashamed. Crystal is married to David and is a mother of 3 children. She lives in upstate New York where she and David lead New Beginnings Christian Life Church. Until 2014 Crystal’s life was very different. She suffered abuse as a child and had her first child when she was 16. In order to earn money, she started working in the sex industry and starred in many pornographic films. She earned a lot of money, owned a luxury house in Malibu in California and drove a Ferrari; but she wasn’t happy.

From the very beginning she had been uneasy with what she was doing. “The first shoot was horrible,” she said. “I was scared and afterwards, I sat in a shower, and I was bawling my eyes out crying for, like, two hours. I just felt so gross and just dirty, but I went back for money.” Then in 2014, Crystal was driving home drunk and had a serious car accident. Her car was a write-off and she had a broken nose and cuts to her face. This was a wake-up call for her.

Crystal began going to church with her sister and decided to leave the porn industry for good. As she read the Bible she realized that through Jesus Christ she could find forgiveness and a new life. As she put her trust in Jesus as her Saviour, she knew that God had forgiven all her sins. She and David are now committed to reaching out to people who are broken and lost, and telling them the good news about Jesus. Crystal says, “There’s a big heroin addiction in our city, we want to get people out of porn or dancing, I believe money is the root of all evil. With us there is no judgment on people; people feel free. It doesn’t matter if you came through the doors with full body piercings and tattoos and stuff. We don’t judge you. Everybody’s got a past.”

The ministry of angels

Last summer Stephen Parker and his two sons, 17-year-old Mason and 8-year-old J.T., were working on a Toyota Prius at their home in Sugar City, Idaho. Mason had cut his hand and had gone into the house when the car collapsed on Stephen. He called out to J.T. to jack the car up quickly. Stephen was totally trapped and soon passed out. He thought he was going to die because it seemed impossible for J.T., who weighs just 50lbs, to jack the car up. It had taken both Stephen and Mason to jack the car up the first time.

But J.T. first adjusted the jack and then began jumping up and down on the jack’s handle. Slowly the car began to rise, freeing his father and enabling him to breathe. Then J.T. ran to get Mason, who called 911. Stephen, who was in a critical condition, was flown to hospital by helicopter. He had 13 broken ribs, but no internal damage. The American Red Cross of Greater Idaho has awarded J.T. one of its “Real Heroes” awards for 2017. When he returned home from hospital, Stephen asked J.T. to try to jack up the car again, but he didn’t have the strength to do it. When he asked J.T. how he had done it before, he replied, “Angels!” J.T.’s mother, Jodi, says, “This whole thing is a miracle.”

The Bible clearly teaches that angels exist; they are personal, supernatural heavenly beings. When Jesus was born, a heavenly angelic choir appeared to the shepherds. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prepared to die on the cross, “an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him.” After the resurrection of Jesus, an angel rolled the stone way to reveal the empty tomb. When the apostle Peter was imprisoned for preaching the good news about Jesus, an angel of the Lord led him out of the prison.

Angels are one of the ways in which God cares for his people and gives strength to face the big problems and challenges of life. The Bible says, “Angels are only servants – spirits sent to care for people who will inherit salvation.” Jesus taught that we all need to learn from the childlike faith of young children and their straightforward trust in God. When we are facing things that are just too hard for us, like J.T., we can ask God to help us. J.T. knows that his father, whom he loves dearly, is alive today because God sent his angels to take care of him.

The best news ever!

Like many people around the world I like to follow the news. Every morning I listen to the radio to hear what’s been happening. Most news stories are bad news. Reports cover economic uncertainty, corruption, child abuse, refugees, unaccompanied children, violence, conflict, crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, disease, earthquakes, drought and famine. For many of us the stories are about what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, but for millions of people the stories are about them and the troubles and sorrows they face in their daily lives.

The message of the New Testament is called the “Gospel”, which means “Good News.” It is a message about what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. This message speaks into the real experiences of our broken world and of our daily lives. It is a message about reconciliation, peace and hope for the future. It lifts us out of despair. It is a true message. When people want to emphasise that they are telling the truth they sometimes say that they are speaking the gospel truth. Today we hear about fake news, but this message about Jesus is absolutely genuine.

Strangely, perhaps, one of the great themes of the Good News is sin. This is an unpopular word to many, yet the daily news stories are full of the sinful actions of people. It is the greatest problem the world faces. We all sin every day in our thoughts, words and actions. However hard we try, we cannot stop sinning. We sin when we break God’s moral commands. We misuse God’s name, dishonour our parents, hate and kill, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie, and covet what other people have. Our sinful behaviour brings great sadness to us and to others. It spoils everything.

The solution to the problems we face is not religion, but reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God. In a letter to Christians living in Corinth the apostle Paul explained the heart of the Good News in this way, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” This is the best news ever!

When bad things happen

What do we do when bad things happen? A dear friend of ours recently had surgery for cancer. This is not the first time she has had to undergo surgery and now the disease has returned. Since she was first diagnosed and treated she has had regular check-ups and the latest tests revealed the need for further surgery. She and her husband and young daughter know it is a serious situation. How have they responded to this difficult situation? The words of a simple Christian chorus help us to understand how they have responded to this “bad thing” that is happening to them and how we, too, can face similar situations.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Most of us are caught up in the busyness of life. There’s no time to stop and think. When we know we have a serious illness, it is a time to be still. The world rushes on, but we withdraw to quietly reflect on our situation. From her childhood, growing up in Eastern Europe, our friend has known God. She knows that it was God who knit her together in her mother’s womb and that he ordained all the days of her life before one of them came to be. She is in the gracious and loving hands of her heavenly Father just as much now as she was before the disease returned.

“I am the Lord who healeth thee.” Our friend is very thankful for the skill and dedication of the medical teams and for all they have done and are doing. Like them, she knows that there are mysteries in the treatment of serious diseases. Even though patients are given the same treatment, the outcomes may be different. She knows that it is the Lord who heals all our diseases. She has experienced his gracious healing in the past and knows he can do it again.

“In thee, O Lord, I put my trust.” Most of us like to be in control of our lives and feel disorientated when things happen that are too big for us to handle. Our friend has quietly and confidently put her trust in Jesus, her Lord and Saviour. She does not know what the future holds, but she knows that there is nothing in all creation that is able to separate her from God’s love for her in Jesus. So, she is consciously trusting in her Lord to give her sufficient courage so that now, as always, he will be exalted in her life.

God is Light

The days are getting longer. It’s good to go to work and school in the light and to return before dark. Light is essential for life and lifts our spirits. The Bible tells us, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” God’s first creative command was “Let there be light!”

Throughout history people have tried to discover what God is like. The gods of ancient Greece were very much like human beings. They were capricious; for no apparent reason their mood and behaviour would change. They were envious and spiteful and people tried to keep on the right side of them. Animists in many parts of the world today believe in spirits which live in trees, rocks and rivers and govern their lives. The spirits need constantly to be appeased if your crops are to flourish and you are to enjoy good health. Animistic people live in constant fear of the spirits.

The God of the Bible is so very different from the gods of people’s imagination. He isn’t like us. He is light. He is holy, righteous, pure and good. He is unchanging; in him there is no darkness at all. Human history reveals the very dark side of our human nature. Powerful people have imprisoned, tortured and killed those they hate. Today there are people hidden away in dark prisons of oppressive regimes who are treated terribly. Even apparently benign regimes have had very dark chapters in their history. But God isn’t like that; in him there is no darkness at all.

Jesus came into the world to reveal God to us and to bring the light of God’s presence into our lives. He said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” When we know Jesus we discover the light of the truth and experience the amazing kindness of God. In his well-known hymn Thomas Binney reflects on the fact that God is light and our need to know him. “Eternal Light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be, when, placed within thy searching sight, it shrinks not, but with calm delight can live, and look on Thee. There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode; an offering and a sacrifice, a Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God. These, these prepare us for the sight of holiness above; the sons of ignorance and night may dwell in the eternal light, through the eternal love.”

Remembering Joost van der Westhuizen

Last week Joost van der Westhuizen died at the age of 45. Joost played scrum half for South Africa and was one of the greatest players ever to wear a Springbok jersey. He won 89 caps and scored a record 38 tries. He was a member of the Springbok team that won the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995. Many people remember Joost’s try-saving tackle in the final on the giant All Black wing Jonah Lomu that ensured South Africa won the cup. He captained his country in the 1999 Rugby World Cup and retired in 2003 as South Africa’s most-capped player.

After he retired from rugby, Joost faced very serious problems in his life. In 2009 he was unfaithful to his wife, which led to the breakup of his marriage, and was also suspected of taking drugs. As a result, he lost his job as a television presenter. Then in 2011 he was diagnosed with moto neurone disease and was given 2 years to live. MND is a progressive muscular disease and Joost faced the greatest challenge of his life. Eventually he was confined to a wheelchair and could barely speak. Throughout the time he was ill he worked hard to raise awareness of the disease and formed the J9 charitable foundation.

How can anyone face such a desperately difficult situation? In recent years Joost spoke openly about the mistakes he had made and about his faith in God. “What I did went against all my principles – my life was controlled by my mind and I had to make my mistakes to realise what life is all about, I led my life at a hundred miles an hour. I’ve learned that there are too many things that we take for granted in life and it’s only when you lose them that you realise what it is all about. But I know that God is alive in my life and with experience you do learn. I can now talk openly about the mistakes I made because I know my faith won’t give up and it won’t diminish. It’s only when you go through what I am going through that you understand that life is generous.”

Joost found in Jesus someone who is greater than the greatest problems we may ever face. Even as he experienced the increasingly debilitating effects of MND Joost knew God’s loving presence with him. Psalm 23 really is true, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Adriaan Vlok is a changed man

On Friday 2 February 1990 President F.W. de Klerk announced the end of apartheid, that for 41 years had inflicted brutality and injustice on millions of South African citizens, simply because of the colour of their skin. White and black people were forced to live entirely separately, the whites in the rich lands and the blacks in the desperately poor homelands. On Sunday 11 February 1990 Nelson Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster prison, after spending 27 years in detention, and declared himself to be a humble servant of the people.

From 1986 to 1991, Adriaan Vlok was Minister of Law and Order and was responsible for enforcing the apartheid laws. When, in 1999, he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he admitted the crimes he had committed, including ordering the bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches. In 2006 he publicly apologised for other acts committed while he was Minister of Law and Order. In a dramatic gesture, he washed the feet of Frank Chikane who, as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, he had targeted for assassination. Later he washed the feet of the 10 widows and mothers of the “Malmelodi 10”, a group of anti-apartheid activists who had been lured to their death by a police informant.

Today, at the age of 78, Adriaan lives in a modest house in the suburbs of Pretoria that he shares with a black man, a former convict and a homeless white family. In 2015 he set up the “Feed a Child” charity that provides food to poor black families. Without any escort or protection, he drives a few miles to the township of Olievenhoutbosch with his car loaded with donated food that he distributes to hungry families, a children’s day care centre and a disabled charity.

Adriaan has become a Christian and is a changed man. In 1994, shortly after he retired from government, his wife committed suicide. Dealing with the loss of his wife, and his own sense of guilt for atrocities committed by his police, Adriaan began reading the Bible. Some words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount spoke powerfully to him “If you are presenting a gift at the altar, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your offering there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your gift to God.” “I realized,” Adriaan says, “that, because I had been graciously forgiven by God, I had to start making peace with my brothers whom I had so deeply hurt.”

The King of kings and Lord of lords

We are living in a time of change and political leaders are in the news. In the USA, President Trump is making the headlines every day. In Britain, Teresa May is preparing for Brexit negotiations. In Russia, President Putin has become active in Ukraine and Syria and is raising new challenges for NATO. France is preparing to elect a new leader to succeed the unpopular President Hollande. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel faces significant opposition when she stands for re-election in September. In Turkey, President Erdogan is seeking to make his position inviolable. In The Gambia, President Jammeh has eventually given way to newly-elected President Barrow. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye is facing impeachment. In North Korea, President Kim Jong-un reigns supreme as he develops his nuclear capability.

There has also been a rise in populism in some democratic countries. Populism mobilizes large alienated sections of the population against governments that are perceived to be controlled by an out-of-touch elite that acts in its own interests. Sometimes populism creates a situation that encourages extremism of both left and right elements in the population. Populism does not always lead to good things. There were great hopes in some countries for the “Arab Spring”, but the outcome has by no means been a happy one.

The example of the early Christians to their rulers has much to teach us in our uncertain world. They lived in the Roman Empire and suffered under Roman rule. Jesus was crucified at the order of Pilate, the Roman governor. The apostle Paul was arrested and beaten at the command of Roman magistrates, even though he was a Roman citizen. Later he was executed at the command of the Roman emperor. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, Nero instigated a violent persecution of Christians and many died in unspeakably cruel ways.

Despite the persecution they experienced, the early Christians firmly believed that God is supreme. Because they believed the authorities that existed had been established by God they did not rebel against them but, as a matter of conscience, submitted to their rule. They prayed for kings and those in authority so that they might live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. They honoured their rulers and paid their taxes. They knew that one day all earthly rulers will be called to account for the way they have exercised their power and will stand before the judgement throne of the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

The greatest ever rescue

Last Wednesday afternoon a huge avalanche hit Hotel Rigopiano, in central Italy, at an estimated speed of 60mph. Following several earthquakes, guests had gathered on the ground floor of the four-star spa hotel to await evacuation. The avalanche caused the roof to collapse and moved the building 11 yards off its foundations. More than 30 people were known to be in the hotel, including some children. The first rescuers arrived, by helicopter and ski, 12 hours later and faced the complex and urgent task of trying to find survivors.

In the early stages of the rescue there were no signs of life and it was feared that everyone had died. Giampiero Parete was staying at the hotel with his wife and 2 children. They were on a special holiday. Moments before the avalanche struck Giampero left the hotel to get some headache tablets for his wife from their car. He immediately raised the alarm and then waited for help to come fearing that his wife and children had died. On the second day of the rescue Giampero’s wife, Adriana, his 7-year-old son, Gianfilipo, and 6-year-old daughter, Ludovica, were pulled out of the rubble alive. In all 9 people have been rescued, 23 are still missing and 6 have died.

It is always inspiring to watch dedicated rescue teams using all their skills, and the resources at their disposal, to save the lives of those caught up in disasters. Often they are willing to put their lives in danger to save others. We share their joy when people are found alive and are rescued and, also, their sadness when they find the bodies of those who have died.

The message of the Bible is about the greatest ever rescue. Religions usually teach the things we must do in order to find acceptance with God. The good news of the Gospel is about what God has done in Jesus to rescue us. We are all in great need of being rescued. We live in a world of suffering and death and also struggle personally to do what we know is right. The obituaries of the rich and famous often reveal deep sadness as they have struggled with addictions and broken relationships. Out of his great love for us, Jesus came into the world to rescue us and give us a future and a hope. A well-known hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”

Remembering Jill Saward

Jill Saward’s funeral takes place this week at Lichfield Cathedral. Her ashes will be taken to Nefyn in North Wales, where for many years she was a member of the annual beach mission team. While she was at home with her husband, Gavin, she suffered an aneurysm, a burst blood vessel in the brain. She died two days later; she was just 51 years old. Gavin and their three adult boys have been devastated by the suddenness of her death.

In 1986, Jill was the victim of a savage rape when three men in balaclavas burst into the Ealing vicarage. They were high on drugs and drink and armed with knives. Jill’s father and boyfriend were beaten unconscious, their skulls fractured. Jill, then aged 21 with no sexual experience, was repeatedly and brutally raped by two of the men. In the months that followed Jill seemed to be coping with her ordeal wonderfully well. When the men came to trial at the Old Bailey the judge, seeing Jill’s air of calm and resilience, gave them lighter sentences because her trauma “had not been so great.” It was a great injustice.

Beneath her calm outward demeanour, however, Jill was suffering deeply. For more than three years she experienced flashbacks and nightmares and came close to suicide on three occasions. She separated from her boyfriend and was afraid no-one would ever be interested in marrying her because she was “on the shelf, soiled goods.” In 1994 she set up HURT (Help Untwist Rape Trauma), a charity to provide support for victims of sexual violence and their families, and became a counsellor.

Jill’s faith in her Saviour, Jesus Christ, was a great source of strength to her. In 1998 she came face to face with the leader of the gang, who had not been involved in the rape, and forgave him. She said, “Of course, sometimes I thought it might be quite nice to be full of hatred and revenge, but you’re the one who gets damaged in the end. So, although it makes you vulnerable, forgiving is actually a release. It’s not whether you can or can’t forgive; it’s whether you will or won’t. I don’t think I’d be here today without my Christian faith. That’s what got me through.”

Jill is now in heaven where she sees her Saviour, Jesus, face to face. There is no more crying or pain and God has wiped away every tear from her eyes. May her family, in their sadness and loss, be comforted by this at the funeral service this week.