To have and to hold

My wife and I have just celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. 50 years is a long time and yet the years have passed so quickly. It has been good to look back and to remember the many things that have happened and the many people who have been important to us in our marriage. We invited family and friends to join us for a celebration and many people came. Some had known us from childhood, others were friends and neighbours.

Marriage is the most significant life commitment we ever make and we were young when we made our vows. We promised “to live together according to God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honour and cherish until God separates us by death.” On the day of our wedding we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and how much we would need the help and encouragement of family and friends, and the love and grace of God, if we were to keep our vows.

The traditional marriage vows are very realistic and true to life. There are good times and bad times. Sometimes we have had very little and at others more than we need. There have been some times of sickness and, as we get older, we know there will be more such times. The challenge to continue loving, honouring and cherishing each other, as we struggle with our own self-centredness, is very real. And we know that one day our marriage will end when “God separates us by death.” We cannot know which of us will be the first to go to heaven and which of us will be left, for a time, here on earth.

As I look back on the years we have shared together I am conscious most of all of the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. The marriage relationship is very close. The Bible says that we become “one flesh.” In part this is a reference to the physical intimacy of marriage, but it is more than that. Our lives and our joy and sorrows are intertwined. This is why marital breakdown is so painful. There are many times when I have said things and done things which have caused sadness and pain. At such times I have needed to be forgiven just as we have both experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus.

For the love of Jesus

The conflict in Iraq and Syria is having very serious consequences for Christians. The Christian message came to both countries in the 1st century and there has been a significant population of Christians ever since then. Now Christians are suffering along with other minorities. Many have been driven from their homes and communities and some have been killed. In recent weeks I have received news directly from those I know in Northern Iraq.

A Canadian Christian man sent news of what is happening in the town where he lives. IS has taken over the town and has gone to every Christian home demanding that the children denounce Jesus or be killed. None of the children has denounced their Saviour and so have been killed. The children’s courage and love for Jesus is deeply moving. They and their parents believe the promise Jesus made to persecuted Christians in the first century, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Canadian man has remained in the town, at great risk to his life, to be with and comfort the Christian families.

A friend visiting Kurdistan has sent news from a town where there are more than 100,000 refugees from the conflict. The total number of refugees in Kurdistan, from both Syria and Iraq, is estimated at 1 million. They are in desperate need of housing and food. The unsanitary conditions mean that an epidemic is highly likely. My friend wrote, “I rejoice to see Christian people distributing food in small vehicles, but it’s a drop in the ocean. Muslim Kurds are helping as well and the government gave each family $800, but what of the future? Seeing the little portions there are to go around here made me think: can we not as Christians, whose Saviour gave up everything for us, simplify our menus a little and send the spare cash to the Yezidis?”

Jesus spoke about a day when all nations will be gathered before God’s throne. The King will separate the people into two groups and say to those on his right, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Richard Kiel – the “Gentle Giant.”

Richard Kiel died last week at the age of 74. Very few people recognise him from his own name, but remember him very well as “Jaws” in the James Bond films. Richard was 7 feet 2 inches tall and played the part of the metal-mouthed assassin in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker”. “Jaws” was a giant man with steel teeth who was employed by the bad men with whom James Bond was in conflict. He seemed to be invincible. Roger Moore’s punches had no effect. A construction site fell on him, and he survived. He drove a boat off a waterfall, and survived. He stopped a bullet with his metal teeth and bit through locks and wires.

The real Richard Kiel was very different from the role he is remembered for. Those who knew him well describe him as a sweet man and a gentle and generous giant. He was born in Detroit in 1939 and grew tall as a result of acromegaly, a hormonal condition that causes giantism. Richard said that by the time he was 12 years old his father became slightly concerned “because I started to wear all his clothes.” At the age of 14 he was 6 feet 7 inches tall.

For Richard, however, the most important part of his life was that he was a born-again Christian. He had been an alcoholic and came to personal faith in Jesus Christ. The phrase “born again” is often used to describe Christians who have found new life in Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, we read of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a Jewish religious leader. Nicodemus was a very religious man. He knew the Old Testament Scriptures well and lived a very strict life according to the teaching of the Pharisees. He prayed 18 times every day and fasted 2 days every week. The first thing Jesus said to him was, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

This is a wonderfully encouraging truth because it means that any of us can find new life in Jesus. This is what happened to Richard. He came to a point when he knew he needed to know God and to find forgiveness for his sins. As he trusted in Jesus as his Saviour he became a new man and was “born again”. Now the gentle giant is in heaven with the gracious Saviour who “loved him and gave himself for him.”

A very special visit

Last Thursday we had a very special visit to our local primary school. The two day NATO summit at the Celtic Manor in Newport was the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain. On the first day of the summit President Barak Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron visited Mount Pleasant Primary School.

The US Presidential Cavalcade of more than 20 vehicles swept at speed into our community, flanked by police motor cycle outriders. Many police men and women were on duty, some of them armed. Some of the children met the most powerful man in the world, who sat on a small chair and talked with them for a few minutes, and saw the pictures they had drawn. Then after 20 minutes the President and his cavalcade swept out and life in our community returned to normal. It was a day the children and their parents and teachers will never forget.

This special visit made me think of another very special visit a long time ago. In his account of the life of Jesus John writes, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes. The one-of-a kind glory; like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” The Bible tells us that Jesus, who had always been in heaven with his Father, came into our world and became a real man. He was the best man who ever lived. For most of his short life he lived in Nazareth with his parents and brothers and sisters and shared in the life of the community. Then, at the age of 33, he was falsely accused and condemned to die on a cross. On the third day he rose from the dead.

The visit of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, to our world decisively changed things. They will never be the same again. His death in our place, and for our sins, has brought life transforming grace to millions of people from every nation in the world. He came from heaven to give us eternal life. He came that we might experience his love now and then, when we die; go to be with him forever in heaven. In one of his hymns William Walsham How wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”

The vulnerability of children

The report of the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has highlighted the vulnerability of children and teenagers in our society. The inquiry found that as many as 1400 children had been sexually exploited in the town between 1997 and 2013. The abuses included abduction, rape and sex trafficking of children. In other parts of the world children are also suffering greatly. We have seen pictures of children in hospitals who have been seriously injured by the conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. Children have also been killed and many have lost their parents and families.

Children and young people in Britain today are more vulnerable to exploitation than any previous generation. The media generally and social media in particular are exposing children to ideas and influences which are detrimental to their wellbeing and development. There is a right concern that we look after the earth and the environment for the benefit of our children and their children, but we seem to show very little concern for the moral pollution which is so damaging to them.

Jesus loved children and spoke very strongly about the need to protect them. One day his disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to stand among them and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Childlikeness is something to be cherished and protected. Children are naturally trusting and long to be loved. This makes them vulnerable to evil people, whose only concerned is to exploit them and satisfy their own evil lusts. Our failure to protect children from harmful influences is causing serious damage to many of them. Their childlikeness needs to be fostered and encouraged. In doing this we may also realise our own need to become like little children in our relationship with God. He is the only One who can satisfy our deep inner longing to be loved. He is, in Jesus, a heavenly Father who always gives good gifts to his children.

Maria Lyle wins gold

At a time when the news is dominated by bad news stories the International Paralympics Committee Athletics European Championships in Swansea have been a wonderful example of people achieving great things. The story of Maria Lyle, from Dunbar in Scotland, is so encouraging. Maria has Cerebral Palsy which causes muscle weakness and stiffness, and balance and coordination problems. Maria, who is just 14 years old, won the T35 100 metres gold medal, a category for those with Cerebral Palsy. She also broke the world record. Two days later she won the T35 200 metres gold medal.

When she was a child Maria needed splints to help her to walk. She found sport hard because of her tight muscles caused by Cerebral Palsy. When she was 10 years old she went to the local running club and found she could keep up with and beat many of her friends. She began competing in able-bodied competitions and later in disability athletics. Just 4 years later she has won two European gold medals! She enjoys setting goals and challenges for herself to see if she can achieve them. She said, “It’s a good feeling to know you have a purpose and feel rewarded for the hard work and effort you put in.” Her sporting hero is Usain Bolt, not only because of his speed, but because he so obviously enjoys what he does.

In Psalm 139 David reflects on the fact that God knows him personally and intimately. It was God who had made him the person he was. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God has created each of us with the potential to overcome adversity and to accomplish really good things. What matters most is the kind of people we are in our hearts, our inner self. We all need a goal and a sense of purpose in our lives. Our ultimate goal is heaven, where God dwells. Jesus is the way to that wonderful place where there will be no disabilities, but unending joy and fulfilment in the presence of God.

Love your enemies

The life and teaching of Jesus Christ was radically different. He was not chiefly concerned about his own interests, but about the interests of others. He lived in a nation which was dominated by the Romans, who were cruel and oppressive to the nations they conquered. The people amongst whom Jesus lived hated the Romans. This was understandable because the Romans had occupied their land, robbed them of their freedom, and made them pay taxes.

Yet Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Today we hear many reports of violence and wicked acts done in the name of religion. Those who are not of the same religion are treated as enemies to be attacked and even killed. This is done in the name of righteousness and with the expectation that those who do it will receive an eternal reward. In the past wars were fought in the name of Christianity and empires were established by “Christian” nations. What happened was a contradiction of the teaching of Jesus.

The love Jesus taught is more than a kindly disposition, it is practical. He told a story about a Jewish man who was travelling on a lonely and dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beaten, robbed and left half dead. A priest came down the road and passed by without helping him. Then a Levite priest did the same. But a Samaritan man, whom the Jewish people would have despised, took pity on the man. He bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him and paid the bill. Jesus said the Samaritan had obeyed God’s command that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Then he said, “Go and do likewise.”

I remember studying this parable with some Iranian Christians. When they understood what Jesus was teaching they said, “This means we must love the Iraqis!” They were right. Jesus’ teaching is radically different. We, too, need to ask, “Who are my enemies?” and “How can I show love to them?”

The name of the Lord is a strong tower

This week I am staying in Aberystwyth. In January and February the promenade was very seriously damaged by heavy storms. Massive tidal surges dumped rocks and debris on the seafront and streets. Hotels were flooded and student halls of residence were evacuated. The people and authorities were helpless to stop the devastation as each high tide brought more damage. Now, 6 months later, the promenade has been rebuilt and you can watch the beauty of the sunset over a calm sea. The storms have passed and tranquillity has returned.

We live in a turbulent and troubled world. There seems to be no end to the conflicts and crises in Gaza, Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq. Many people, including women and children, are caught up in events over which they have no control. Every day people die or are seriously injured. People are fleeing their homes and communities, or are watching as they are destroyed by missiles and bombs. The ability of the most powerful nations in the world to help is very limited. There seems to be no end to the trouble.

Where can the people who are suffering so much find help? To whom can we turn when the storms of life come to us? Is there anyone who is great enough and good enough to bring us safely through every storm and trial? The background of the Bible is a turbulent one. The cruelty and barbarity of successive world empires – Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome – are the background to the Old Testament. The unjust suffering and condemnation of Jesus and the relentless persecution of Christians is the background to the New Testament. Yet through all these real and terrible storms of life there is a calm confidence and trust in the living God.

In Psalm 46 we read, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” The book of Proverbs says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” A well known hymn written by Charles Wesley, and often sung to the tune Abersytwyth, says, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, o my Saviour, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.”

Christian love in dangerous places

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is very serious and is causing real concern in other parts of the world. Ebola kills up to 90% of those infected. Most of those who survive receive early treatment. Already more than 700 people have died in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and there have also been a few cases in other countries. Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organisation, has warned that the Ebola outbreak is spreading faster than efforts to control it.

A state of emergency has been declared in Sierra Leone. About 30 athletes from Sierra Leone who have been competing at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow have expressed concern about returning to their home country and have requested a visa extension. A number of relief agencies have evacuated their volunteer workers from Liberia as a precaution. A doctor working in Liberia with the Christian relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse, has contracted Ebola and has returned to the United States for treatment. He is one of the first people ever to be treated for Ebola in the States.

I have a friend who works in a Christian hospital near Kampala in Uganda. A few years ago there was an Ebola outbreak in Uganda which affected the area near the hospital. I asked her what she would do if the latest Ebola outbreak spread to Uganda and what the mission agency with which she works would advise her to do. She is a young, single person and she said that she felt it would be right for her to remain at the hospital and to try to help those who had the disease and those in danger of being infected. She said she would feel very uncomfortable if she thought only of her own safety and evacuated the country. She realises that families with children may, for good reasons, make a different decision.

Her selfless love and commitment to the people she cares for was very challenging in a world where many of us think only of ourselves. Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to set us free from sin and death. He could only do this by putting himself in great danger and dying in our place. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” One hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He, to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.“

From heaven he came

The Duke of Westminster is one of the wealthiest people in Britain. He has had a lifelong commitment to the military and recently retired from the Army Reserve. As a two star General he visited British military personnel in many war zones including field hospitals where wounded soldiers were being treated. He is now leading a project which he believes will be his life’s achievement.

The Defence National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, near Birmingham will provide care for wounded service men and women. The new centre will be built in the grounds of a stately home surrounded by a 360-acre estate, including its own lake. The centre will treat soldiers suffering from trauma, neurological injury and mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Duke’s vision is for wounded soldiers, many of whom have grown up in urban areas, to be treated in a beautiful place. When they arrive at the Centre they will think, “Wow, someone is really going to look after me here.”

In a recent interview the Duke spoke of the sense of alienation returning service personnel feel. After one visit to Iraq he called to see two of his soldiers who had been injured before going on to what he called “an immensely fancy house party.” He said, “I walked into the dining room and everybody was there with candles, women in dresses, black ties, and I had to walk out. Walking in through these big double dining room doors and seeing people laughing as if nothing was going on. I just could not cope with that and I had dinner by myself. One of the blokes I had been to see was an 18-year-old in the Parachute Regiment who had lost two arms and a leg; another had lost both legs. I could not cope with the two worlds in such a short space of time.”

This reminds me of Jesus. He left the riches of heaven he had always known and came to this sad world. He lived among us and then, when he was just 33, was executed on a Roman Cross. He loved needy people like you and me so much that he gave his life for us so that through his sacrifice we might one day go to heaven. Heaven is an exquisitely beautiful place. Everyone who enters heaven will be amazed at its beauty and will realise how much God has loved them that he has prepared such a wonderful home for them to enjoy, with him, for all eternity.