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.

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

I know who holds the future

Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve clocks in countries using Greenwich Mean Time were adjusted as one second was added to 2016. This was done to compensate for a slight slowdown in the Earth’s rotation caused by a small wobble in the Earth’s rotation. The National Physical Laboratory, which is responsible for the UK’s national time scale, uses an atomic clock to provide a stable and continuous timescale. This is the 27th time a leap second has been added.

We live in an amazing universe that is wonderfully stable and predictable. It’s hard to believe it all came into existence by chance. The book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, begins with a majestic account of God creating the heavens and the earth in six days, or rotations of the earth on its axis. On the fourth day God said, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the day from the night. Let them be signs to mark the seasons, days, and years. Let these lights in the sky shine down on the earth.”

Recognising there is a Creator provides stability and hope for our lives as a New Year begins. Many years ago a young man we knew died in road accident. Just after Christmas he was on his way to work when his car hit ice and he lost control. The car hit a tree and David was very seriously injured. After some days in intensive care he died. His wife, Brenda, was a Christian. In her deep sadness she found strength in God and hope as she faced the future. This hope was expressed in the words of one of the hymns we sang at David’s funeral. They speak to us all as we enter this New Year.

“I do not know what lies ahead, the way I cannot see, but One stands near to be my guide, He’ll show the way to me. I do not know how many days of life are mine to spend, but One who knows and cares for me will keep me to the end. I do not know the course ahead, what joys and griefs are there, but One stands near who fully knows, I’ll trust his loving care. I know who holds the future and He’ll guide me with his hand, with God things don’t just happen, everything by Him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to Him my all.”

Let’s go to Bethlehem

Christmas is a special time of the year. The preparations begin weeks before. There is a long list of things to be done; cards and presents to be bought, decorations and Christmas trees to be put up, school concerts and carol services, food to be bought and cooked, time with the family and, for parents with young children, an early start on Christmas Day! It’s no wonder we can feel very tired. But after its over what remains? When the food has been eaten, the family have gone home and the decorations have been taken down, what stays with us as life returns to normal?

Christmas is about Jesus. The person who is at the very centre of Christmas is the One who remains with us through all the experiences of life. He’s the One who can make a real difference to our lives. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel announced his birth to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.

Like the shepherds why not “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” The birth of Jesus is indeed good news and brings great joy to all who receive him as Saviour. He is the Prince of Peace. Through him we are reconciled to God, and to each other, and know a deep and lasting peace in our hearts.

The Greatest Story ever told

The story of Jesus has been called “The Greatest Story ever told.” It is more than a story it is history; it really happened. For many centuries, the Jewish people had been waiting for God’s promised Messiah to come. Jesus was that Messiah, or Christ. His mother Mary lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. She was in her teens and was engaged to Joseph, the village carpenter. They were looking forward to the day when they would be married and had no idea of God’s amazing plan for them.

One day an angel appeared to Mary and told her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.” Mary’s response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he, understandably, assumed she had been unfaithful to him. Because he loved Mary deeply, and didn’t want to disgrace her publicly, he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he was considering this he had a dream in which an angel told him that Mary had conceived the child by the power of the Holy Spirit. What had happened to her had been foretold 600 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah, who had said that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son. So Joseph obeyed the angel and joyfully took Mary as his wife.

Joseph was told the name he was to give to the child, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus, God’s eternal Son, came into the world to save us from our sins. As we look at our own lives, and the tragic state of the world around us, there is no doubt we all need a Saviour. Jesus died bearing the punishment our sins deserve. When we put our trust in him our sins are forgiven. Jesus was also called “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” When we know him as our Saviour, we know his gracious presence and help always and can face every situation in life.

A love that forgives and forgets

Last week someone broke into a small valley church in Abersychan in South Wales. They stole £60 in cash that had been collected by the Mother and Toddlers’ group to provide toys, books, biscuits, drinks and snacks for the children. There were also plans to hold a Christmas party. When people in the community heard what had happened there was a wonderful response. A local councillor set up a crowdfund page inviting people to raise £200 to replace the money that had been stolen and to repair the damage to the church building. He wrote, “Ove the past few years, Noddfa, under the direction of Pastor John, has worked hard within the community to help the youth and residents. Please help to replace their loss to show what a caring community we are.” So far nearly £800 has been donated!

On his Facebook, Pastor John thanked the people for their generous support of the church. He said, “As a church we love everyone in our valley just as Christ loved us. We long for opportunities to show this love by sacrificially giving and supporting the community we have been called by God to serve.” He expressed grief that someone was so desperate at Christmas time to risk so much for such a small amount adding, “If they had simply come to see us, we would have rallied around them and supported as best we could. If they are reading this, we have a number of events going on over Christmas and they are most welcome to come and join us to find out more about a love that they will not receive anywhere else, a love that can forgive and forget.”

This story wonderfully illustrates the great themes of the Christmas message. Christmas is about forgiveness. Whether we attend a church or not, we all break God’s commands and need to experience God’s forgiveness. Before Jesus was born Joseph was told that Mary would give birth to a son and that he was to give him the name Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins.” Each of us needs a Saviour and through Jesus all our sins can be forgiven.

Christmas is also about giving. At Christmas we remember the amazing gift God gave to the people of the world – his beloved Son. In John’s Gospel we read, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”