The God who is there

The hard crash-landing of the Europe Space Agency’s experimental Mars probe, Schiaparelli, was a deep disappointment for the team managing the project. Although the lander was destroyed the probe’s mother ship is in orbit around Mars and will soon begin analysing the Martian atmosphere in its search for evidence of life. The Schiaparelli project, which has cost in excess of €1 billion, was designed to test technology for a more ambitious European Mars landing in 2020.

Our explorations into space make us aware of the immensity and wonder of the universe. The planet Mars is a near neighbour in our solar system, just 33.9 million miles away. It takes between 6 and 8 months to get there. Neptune is 2.7 billion miles from earth. Voyager 2 travelled for 12 years at an average velocity of 42,000 miles per hour to get there. The photographs of Earth taken from space make it very clear how different our little planet is compared to all the other planets we know. It seems that planet Earth is unique with its abundance of water and life.

The Bible speaks about the origins of life. The book of Genesis describes God’s almighty creating power. It begins with the majestic affirmation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It also describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image, and were given authority over all creation. Our God-given dignity and intelligence enables us explore the universe he has created.

The Bible also tells us that God has revealed himself to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. God did not leave us to seek for him, but, in Jesus, he visited our little planet. In his Gospel, the apostle John, says that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was active in creating the universe. He also became a man and “lived for a time among us.”

When we realise the awesome greatness and majesty of God we cannot but be moved to worship him and give thanks to him. In Psalm 8 the psalmist writes, “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!”

Remembering Aberfan

On 21 October 1966 I was at work in Cardiff when we heard there had been a disaster in a small valley community near Merthyr Tydfil. We assumed it must have happened underground and that miners had probably been injured or killed. Such tragic events had happened before in the South Wales valleys. Later that day, however, as we watched the evening news on our black and white televisions, we realised that a disaster like no other had struck the small mining village of Aberfan.

By 9 o’clock that Friday morning 240 children and 9 teachers had arrived at Pantglas Junior School for the last day of school before the half-term holiday. It was a damp and misty morning after a week of heavy rain. At 9.15 the school was engulfed by an avalanche of 100,000 tons of black slurry. The school building was demolished, as were some houses. Many of the men of the community were at work in the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. When they heard about the disaster they rushed to the school to try to help. The women went to the school and felt utterly helpless as they saw the devastating scene. Their children were in that school. Were they alive or dead?

The Aberfan disaster claimed 128 lives – 116 children, 4 teachers, the headmistress and 23 local people. The following Thursday there was a mass funeral when the bodies of many who had died were buried side by side in one long grave over which a beautiful memorial was later built. The Aberfan Disaster touched the hearts of people around the world and £1,750,000 was donated to the Disaster Fund.

Aberfan was a man-made disaster and, eventually, the National Coal Board accepted their responsibility. The tip had been sited on a spring and had been poorly managed. Warnings about what could happen had been ignored. Eventually the Board paid families £500 compensation for each child who had died and the Disaster Fund gave them £5000.

To whom can we turn when tragedy strikes? At the heart of the Christian Gospel is a young man called Jesus, the only Son of his heavenly Father, who died a cruel death on a Roman Cross. He died in our place and for our sins. On the third day he rose again. He is uniquely able to help us in the darkest experiences of life because he understands our deepest grief, comforts us when our hearts are broken and gives us a sure hope of eternal life.

The testimony of J B Holmes

J B Holmes was a member of the winning USA Team in the recent Ryder Cup, but 5 years ago he wondered if his golf career was over. In August 2011, when he was playing in the USA PGA Championship, he experienced extreme dizziness and had to withdraw after the first round. He was diagnosed with Chiari malformation in which the lower part of his brain was pushing down into his spinal canal.

His doctors told him that he could choose either to suffer from ongoing vertigo, and give up his career, or to undergo an operation involving serious risks. J B decided to go ahead with the operation during which a titanium plate was inserted at the base of his skull. Following the operation, it was discovered that he was allergic to adhesive plasters and he had to be airlifted from his home to hospital for more surgery. Four months later he started trying to rebuild his career, and this year he qualified for the Ryder Cup Team.

When J B’s problems made headlines around the world, people with the same condition made contact with him. He said, “There were lots of people who contacted me saying they had the same problem, and that I really inspired them. I’m happy that I’ve made people aware of it, especially young kids who can still see that their lives can be fulfilled.”

J B also found strength through his faith in God. He said, “God gives you trials and tests and you just have to learn from experiences. Maybe all the stuff I went through wasn’t necessarily for me; maybe it was so I could inspire someone else. If it helps one person out of a hole, then maybe that’s what it was for. I feel it made me into a better person, so I got something from it. I don’t feel like I have done anything special. I just did the best I could. That’s all I could do.”

When we experience unexpected trials and tests in this life, we, too, can find strength and hope in God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus have been an inspiration to many people. Although he was the Son of God, he experienced great suffering, especially when he died on the Cross to take away the sin of the world. During his earthly life Jesus was made in every way like us and, because he has personally experienced suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

The wonderful offer of forgiveness

Today well-known public figures are subject to scrutiny as never before. Those who stand for major offices of State, for example to be President of the USA, can expect details of their private life to be made public and to be critically assessed. The reason for this is to see if their public persona and private life match. What they have said or done in the past is seen as a reliable indicator of the kind of people they really are.

It is not only public personalities who experience inconsistencies in their private lives. All of us are familiar with the struggle to live a private life that is consistent with our public image. When we are away from the public gaze it is only too easy to drop our guard and to do and say things we would not do if people were watching us. The fact that we don’t want people to know the wrong things we have done in private is a sign that we are ashamed of them.

In God’s sight there is no distinction between our public and private lives. Our whole life is seen and known by him. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.” Jesus said, “For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light.”

Religion can sometimes be a cloak for hypocrisy. Some people who take a strong public stand for righteousness do not live according to the standards they lay down for others. Cult leaders, with many followers, have sometimes been exposed as men who have used their power to satisfy their sexual desires and greed for money. Jesus spoke against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day who performed good deeds “to be admired by others.”

None of us can stand in the face of God’s scrutiny but, in Jesus, there is the promise of his grace and forgiveness. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says to God, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.” It is a wonderful thing when we experience God’s undeserved love and grace and know that there is no longer any need to pretend because we have confessed everything to him and he will never count our sins against us.

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.