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Sara’s Story

Sara grew up in a loving home and enjoyed a very happy childhood in a small rural village in North Wales. As a child she suffered from severe asthma which involved frequent visits to hospital. Her visits to hospital gave Sara the desire to be a doctor so she could help other people as the hospital staff had so often helped her. She was offered a place at Medical School in Liverpool. But things didn’t turn out as Sara expected.

During her second term in Medical School, she was taken ill with meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia. She became very ill very quickly and was soon in intensive care on a life support machine with multi-organ failure. The septicaemia had also caused the circulation to her feet to stop, so 10 days into her illness, as a last resort, the doctors took the very difficult decision to amputate both her legs below the knees. She was in a coma for 6 weeks then woke to the news that she had lost her legs and life would never be the same again.

Sara says, “Although it was a time of fear and uncertainty about the future, I knew deep within my heart that I had been kept alive for a reason. As I look back now, I can see how God was working through it all, because as a 14-year-old I had put my trust in Jesus to be my Saviour. I had been living far from God, but by dying on the cross Jesus took the punishment I deserved and gave me forgiveness and the promise that he would never leave me nor forsake me. In my darkest hours, he was there, when it seemed a totally hopeless situation, I knew I had to trust his plan and purpose for my life.”

God has helped Sara to face the challenges of each day. She completed her medical training, works as a doctor, and is married with two grown-up children. She says, “I have learnt to count my blessings; I make the most of what I can do and enjoy, rather than focusing on the negatives and what I have lost. I am not angry with God; how can I be? Being a Christian does not make us immune from these things but having God as our rock and refuge when the storms of life hit makes all the difference. I am an ordinary girl, who prayed a simple prayer at the age of 14 and found an extraordinary Saviour, who will continue to be my help and strength through this life and into the next.”

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Who is my neighbour?

Recently I was driving on a fast dual carriageway when I saw a man in the central reservation waving his hands. As I got nearer, I saw an elderly man who looked very confused standing near the other man. It seems the elderly man had dementia, had left his care home, and had wandered onto the dual carriageway. He didn’t realise the danger he was in, but someone, seeing he was in danger, had stopped to help him and take him to safety. Some years ago, an elderly friend of mine who suffered from dementia left his home without his wife, who was his main carer, knowing and was knocked over by a car and died.

I was so encouraged to see someone who was willing to take time to care for a vulnerable stranger who was in need. This is not common in our society today. When we set aside the first Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, the second Great Commandment: “Love our neighbour as you love yourself” also becomes a casualty.

A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus told a story about a Jewish man who was attacked when he was travelling on a lonely desert road. The thieves robbed him of all his possessions, beat him severely and left him half dead. Two religious leaders passed by but, when they saw the man, didn’t stop to help him. Then another man, a Samaritan, came by. He stopped, cleansed the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day he gave the inn keeper money to continue taking care of the man. Jesus said this man showed what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The story Jesus told was especially powerful because at that time most Jewish people had nothing to do with Samaritans because they were of mixed-race heritage. Jesus taught that true neighbour love goes beyond the love of family and friends and reaches out to strangers. Jesus himself exemplified such love in coming from heaven to this world to seek and save people who are lost. His death on the Cross paid the price of our sins so that through him we might experience God’s forgiveness and receive the gift of eternal life. Christians joyfully sing, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.”

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The only way out is through

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Christina Stanton and her husband, Brian, stood on their balcony in lower Manhattan watching with horror as the second plane flew right over them and exploded into the World Trade Centre just blocks away. The plane’s impact into the South Tower blew them back into their living room with such force that Christina momentarily lost consciousness. Brian shook her awake and, still wearing her pyjamas, Christina followed him down the 24 flights of stairs of the emergency exit to the street. Covered by dust and debris from the falling towers and struggling to breathe in a massive dust cloud, they boarded a boat that evacuated them off the island of Manhattan into the unknown. It would be months before they could return to their life in New York City.

Almost 20 years later, on March 27, 2021, another calamity forced them to leave the city again. COVID-19 had arrived, and New York City had become its epicentre. With cases soaring and the death count rising, Christina and Brian packed their bags and left New York attempting to flee this invisible enemy that was closing in on the city. Shortly after their plane to the Southeast landed, Christina began to develop symptoms of COVID-19. They had escaped the city, but not the virus. Christina was seriously ill and, as she left hospital, her doctor told her she had a 50/50 chance of survival. She spent over a month recovering, wondering if she would ever return home.

Christina said, “In 2001, I didn’t have Jesus. At the time, I identified as a Christian, but my faith was untested and shallow. I grew up in a Christian home, and as I got older church/Christianity was a box I checked off. I was in control of my life, and all I had to do was work hard to get the things I wanted and believed were crucial for me to be happy and satisfied.”

“After 9/11 I explored the Bible to know who this Jesus is. Fighting a deadly virus alone in a hospital far from home, wondering if I would live or die, I began to pray. I never wanted to stare death in the face again having no relationship with my Creator. This time I knew God was with me. I heard his voice and felt his love. Through these experiences, I discovered that while we can’t escape suffering, there is comfort and hope as we trust in our sovereign God. I’m not sure if we will return to New York City and rebuild our lives, but I know the only way out is through, with Jesus Christ as our guide, our hope, and our light.”

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I believe in God

Many people in Western Europe today have embraced secular humanism. They have rejected religion and believe in the freedom of each individual to set the terms of his or her own life. Nature is all there is, and science is the key to understanding our world, our universe and ourselves. They do not appeal to a supernatural being, such as a Creator, because they tell us, the universe came into being through a chance event, an accident. Our individual and collective future and happiness depends on the principle of the “survival of the fittest”. The consequences of this world view are being painfully worked out in our society today.

Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970 at the age of 97, was a very intelligent mathematician and philosopher who embraced a secular humanist world view and understood its melancholic implications. He wrote, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach and where none can tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Brief and powerless is man’s life, on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that enable his little day.”

The Christian faith stands in stark contrast to secular humanism. The Apostles’ Creed is a well-known summary of what Christians believe. It says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

Those who believe these truths can face everything life may bring to them knowing that, because their Lord and Saviour Jesus lives, they will live with him forever. We all need such a hope.

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Perfect love drives out fear

The desperate and tragic scenes at the Hamad Karzai International Airport in Kabul have vividly portrayed what terrorism is all about: producing terror in men, women, and children. The ordinary people in Afghanistan are in profound fear of the Taliban and thousands want to flee from their home country to avoid savage punishments or death for alleged offences against Sharia law. Taliban means “students”, who have been schooled in conservative Islamic teaching and are committed to militant Islam. The development of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been encouraged and financed from outside the country.

One of the accusations Jesus faced was from conservative Jewish leaders who alleged that he and his disciples didn’t keep the “traditions of the elders.” Over the centuries various Jewish religious leaders had added to God’s Law hundreds of their interpretations of that law so that keeping their “traditions” had become more important than the Law itself. Jesus said their “traditions’ contradicted God’s Law and made it null and void. The conservative religious leaders hated him for this. All religions are liable to such gross distortions and become especially dangerous when imposed on people by religious zealots.

Early one morning Jesus was teaching a crowd in the Temple at Jerusalem when a group of strict religious leaders appeared. It was one of the great annual pilgrimage feasts and they brought with them a woman they said they had caught in the act of adultery. They told Jesus that the law of Moses said that such women should be stoned and asked him, “What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into either contradicting the law of Moses or offending the Roman authorities who didn’t allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment.

Jesus knew these men were hypocrites. They had brought the woman, but had let the man go free, and were pointing their fingers at the woman to conceal their own sinfulness. So, he said, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” God’s love in sending his Son to pay the price of our sins creates in the hearts of all who experience it a profound gratitude and a deep love for God.

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My joy in the way God has made me

This week the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games begins. More than 4500 athletes from 163 countries will compete in 539 events in 22 sports. Sadly, the two athletes from Afghanistan have not been able to travel because of the political turmoil in the country. Zakia Khudadadi, who competes in taekwondo, would have been the first female athlete ever to represent the country at the Paralympic Games. The Paralympic Games is a very special event at which people with disabilities demonstrate amazing skills and the way they have overcome adversity.

Anna Tipton represented Great Britain in goalball at the London Paralympics in 2012, where she was the highest scorer for Team GB. Anna was born with a retina cell disorder which meant she had tunnel vision and found playing sport a nightmare. She couldn’t see either the ball or her teammates clearly and often felt she was the weakest link in the team. PE lessons in school were very stressful.

When she was in her early teens Anna and her visually impaired brother, Michael, were introduced to the sport of goalball. The game is played with three players on each side all wearing blind folds and attempting to throw the ball into a goal the width of the court. The ball has a bell in it so that players can use the sound of the bell to judge the position and movement of the ball. Able-bodied athletes are also blindfolded when playing goalball.

When Anna was in her mid-teens, she became a Christian. She understood how Jesus’ death on the cross gave her a personal relationship with God by taking away the barrier of her sin. This led to a wonderful closeness with her heavenly Father as Anna integrated her sport and her faith. Anna says, “Being a Christian is about the ins and outs of your life, including sport. God is there with you. Every time I play it’s like my worship to God. If I can do my best on a goalball court, then that’s my joy in the way that God has made me.” 

Anna is now a mother with a young son. She no longer competes in elite sport but continues to know God’s nearness and unchanging love. She prays that those who know her, including her former teammates, will also experience God’s love in Jesus. She says, “My teammates have seen the best and worst of me and all my emotions as we’ve competed together. I’ve always been open about my faith and the fact that God is at the heart of everything I do.”

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The secret of all true success

William Hartley was born in 1846 in Colne, Lancashire. His father, John, was a tinsmith and his mother, Margaret, ran a grocery. He was their only child to survive infancy. William left school at 14 and started work in his mother’s grocery. When he was 16, he was put in charge of the business and his entrepreneurial talent was immediately obvious. In 1871 William started making his own jam, packaged in his own design earthenware pots. He established a new factory in Bootle and in the early years faced many challenges. This year Hartley’s celebrates its 150th anniversary and has a worldwide reputation.

As a child William attended a Methodist Chapel in Colne with his parents, who were godly people. William’s purpose in life was to “serve the Lord every day to the best of my ability.” His business practice earned him a reputation for integrity, quality and outstanding care for his customers and employees. He said, “Our aim has always been to win the confidence of the public by making the best possible article and selling it at a fair price.”

In the way he treated his employees William always tried “to carry out the teaching of Jesus Christ.” He knew each of them by name and ensured that their working conditions were safe, whatever the cost. He introduced a profit-sharing scheme for his employees and said, “Profit-sharing is over and above a fair and just wage and is given, not because I think it pays commercially, but because it seems to me right and doing as I would be done by.”

William, and his wife Martha, also shared their immense wealth with others. On 1 January 1877 they made a vow to devote 10% of their income for religious and humanitarian work believing it to be the first duty of those who have money to remember generously those who have not. William said, “When we think of the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then nothing we can do is too much.”

During his lifetime William achieved phenomenal success as an entrepreneur and was also recognised as one of the country’s leading philanthropists, but he did not want to be defined by his achievements. Something else mattered far more to him: “I am much exercised as to whether I am such a disciple of Jesus Christ that my employees, business friends, neighbours and family can constantly see the Spirit of my Master in my actions. This is the secret of all true success: the consecration of ourselves to him who loved us and laid down his life for us.”

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I am safe, I am loved

On 18 March 2018 Kenyatta Barron made a desperate emergency call begging for her life and the life of Ronnie, her 7-year-old son. Ronnie’s father had just stabbed him and set him on fire in their home in Hillsborough County, Florida. That same night, Ronnie’s father murdered Ronnie’s mother and sister. Homicide detective Mike Blair responded to the emergency call: “By the time I arrived that night, we were told there was a child being medevacked to Tampa General, but he was not expected to live.”

Mike visited little Ronnie while he was recovering. He brought Ronnie gifts from his favourite American football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a bond began to form between them. Mike says, “The easiest way to surmise about this is it’s been a ‘God-thing’ for us.” One night, when Mike was leaving, Ronnie took his hand and asked him, “Could you watch a movie with me?” Mike and his wife, Danyel, were planning a date night that night. Mike said to her, “Hey, instead of doing our date night, do you mind if we watch a movie with this kid?” Danyel readily agreed. She and Mike have 5 children of their own and Danyel said, “I had already known that I would want to take Ronnie home with us, starting that night.”

A Guardian Ad Litem was supervising Ronnie’s care and Mike and Danyel happened to meet them in the hospital. Mike said, “If he ever needs anything, just give me a call.” Soon after, as Mike was driving past the church where he and Danyel are members, the guardian called asking, “Do you know of somebody who can help us out?” Danyel knew the time had come: “I had already started praying that God would soften Mike’s heart and say, ‘OK, yes, we have a place and Ronnie belongs home with us’.” Mike and their other children were already right on board. The children had said to Mike, “Dad, you just need to go with Mom on this; we need to start fostering.”

Now Ronnie has a new forever home. He says, “They are really nice people. They are the best moms and dads, and they really take care of me. There is no one else better than them. I am safe, I am loved, and I am part of this family.” The love Mike and Danyel have shown to Ronnie is like the love they themselves have experienced from God. In Jesus, God loved them with an amazing love and adopted them into his family. God is their heavenly Father, and they know they are safe forever.

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Remembering Andrew Devine

Andrew Devine has died, aged 55, the 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989. Andrew, then aged 22, suffered life-changing injuries because his chest was crushed and his brain was deprived of oxygen. His parents were told he would probably not live for more than 6 months. Andrew was a postal worker and was diagnosed as being in permanent vegetative state. Five years after this diagnosis, he began to emerge from PVS by looking at people. Then he began using an electric buzzer to communicate more and more with his parents, Stanley and Hilary, who have always looked after Andrew at home. Then, eight years later, he could count. Andrew has been confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.

The love and support of Andrew’s family has kept him going. They said, “Andrew has been a much-loved son, brother and uncle. He has been supported by his family and a team of dedicated professional carers, all of whom devoted themselves to him. As ever, our thoughts are with all of those affected by Hillsborough.” When possible, Andrew attended Liverpool matches and, when they won the Champions League in 2019, the bus parade around the city stopped at the family home so that James Milner could show Andrew the trophy.

In 2002 a friend of mine spoke with Andrew’s father who told him Andrew’s progress had slowed. Andrew seemed to be happy most of the time and, although he could not speak, they managed to communicate as they watched television together and as his father took him out in his wheelchair every day. At that time Mr Devine said, “The experts thought it would be only two, then three, then five years. But Andrew has proved them all wrong. Yes, it is a strain for us looking after him, but he is our son, he needs us, and so we just get on with it.” When Andrew died his family said, “Our collective devastation is overwhelming but so, too, is the realisation that we were blessed to have had Andrew with us for 32 years since the Hillsborough tragedy.”

The loving care of Andrew’s family is a deeply moving example of the preciousness of every human being. Their love for Andrew reflects the love and compassion 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.”

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When we fail

The XXXII Olympic Games are being held in Tokyo after a one-year delay. Many Japanese people are unhappy that the Games are being held and at most events there will be no spectators present because of Covid-19 restrictions. More than 10,000 athletes from 206 nations will compete in 33 different sports. The preparations for these Games have been especially difficult for athletes, but many have arrived in Tokyo hoping to win an Olympic medal.

It is important for athletes to know how to cope with both success and failure. Nicola McDermott, the first Australian female high-jumper to clear two metres, explains: “When your identity is based on what you do – a performance-based identity – it will never satisfy. I found that I could never jump high enough to be truly satisfied. But when your identity is based on the fact that you are loved by God…that allows me to perform out of joy and freedom.”

Felix Sanchez, who won Olympic gold medals in the 400 metres hurdles in 2004 and 2012, says: “You see a lot of athletes say how blessed they are when they win, but you don’t hear it so much when they lose. They don’t realise that God’s grace is the same whether you win or lose – God just sees you the same. He’s given us this platform to compete and whether we win or lose is not important. It is important that we demonstrate our faith, make him proud with the talent he has given us and give thanks to him.”

Swimmer, Kirsty Balfour, went to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a serious medal contender, but didn’t even make the semi-finals. Speaking of her disappointment, she says: “My first thought was of people I had let down, like sponsors, my family, who had flown out to China to watch me, and my coach and my teammates. All the money and the time that had been invested in working towards Beijing was gone.”

Yet as a Christian, in the midst of the turmoil, Kirsty had a great sense of God’s presence. The words of the song ‘How great is our God’ kept coming to her mind: “He is the name above all names and is worthy to be praised. My heart will sing, how great is our God”. She says: “It was amazing to have that and to know I was standing on the rock of Jesus. I was able to say: ‘Yes, Jesus you are in it. You are here. This was your will.’” She says: “Sometimes when it goes badly, God gets more glory in your reaction than when you win a medal.”