Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “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. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

The “lullaby mothers” of the DR Congo

The outbreak of Ebola in the DR Congo is very serious. Over the past year more than 2,000 people have died out of more than 3,000 cases. Nearly 600 of those who have died are children. New treatments are available, but many people are afraid to seek treatment because this involves being isolated away from their family and being cared for by strangers.

Yet in the midst of the suffering and sadness there are beautiful examples of love. More than 3,500 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents by the outbreak. A group of grieving women who are at the epicentre of the outbreak, known as the “lullaby mothers”, are caring for babies who are orphans or who are at risk. They are providing these little ones with a priceless tonic: the human touch.

In April Joniste Kahambu lost her three-year-old son to Ebola, but she herself survived. As a result, she has antibodies in her system that protect her against re-infection. She has returned to the clinic where she was treated and is helping to care for babies who are being kept in isolation. As a stand-in mother she feeds the infants, holds and soothes them; a labour of love that she says eases her own pain. “If I had to stay at home, I’d think too much about my son. Many babies have lost their mothers and need our love. Caring for them is my way of helping the people who looked after me.”

In March, another of the lullaby singers, Gentile Kahunia, watched two of her four children die in a week, even as she herself was responding positively to treatment at the clinic. The love she once showed them is now given to the children of other women. She says, “I feel relieved and can forget a little about the death of my children when I take care of the ones here. I treat them like they are my own.” One aid worker said, “The touch of these women provides the orphans with essential human interaction and a glimmer of hope, their selflessness, kindness and bravery are immeasurable.”

There are many Christians in the DR Congo and the love of these mothers reminds us of the transforming love of Jesus. One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

Wes Hall – Pace like Fire

The England cricket team has a new fast bowler. Jofra Archer stands in a line of formidable fast bowlers who have all come from the West Indian island of Barbados. He bowls at more than 90mph and has been causing real difficulties for the best batsmen in the world. Jofra’s father is British and in March he qualified to play for England. In just 3 months he has been the leading wicket-taker in the England team that won the World Cup and has played an important role in the Ashes series against Australia.

In the 1960s, Wes Hall was a fiery West Indian fast bowler. He had one of the longest run ups in the history of cricket and bowled at more than 90mph. The batsmen who faced him needed great skill and courage. He wanted to get his opponents out but never intended to injure them. A former captain of England, who faced Wes many times, said, “There was never a hint of malice in him or his bowling.” During his playing days, and since, Wes has been known as a lovely human being and in 2012 he received a knighthood.

Wes’s mother was a remarkable woman of faith who worked hard to create a home full of love for her children. Wes really looked up to her and her influence and discipline shaped his character. Looking back on his upbringing he said, “When I was young, I was religious, but it wasn’t until much later when I understood that I could accept Christ as my Saviour and experience a significant spiritual relationship with God.”

It was in 1990, when Wes was in Florida, that he heard a Christian preacher and made the greatest decision of his life. He wrote, “I turned to Christ as Lord, asking him to forgive my sins and be my personal Saviour. That’s when my new life began.” Wes went to Bible College and became a minister in the Pentecostal Church.

Reflecting on his life, Wes wrote, “I wasted some of the best years of my life not following Jesus. It has been wonderful in the years since to grow as a follower of Christ, to serve many cricketers and the West Indies team. One of the most special times was when Malcolm Marshall, another of our West Indies famous fast bowlers, in the last month of his life, entered into a conversation with me about his eternal life, and I had the joy of introducing Malcolm to his life-changing personal faith. It is a joy to know the Lord personally and to serve others.”

The face of God

Facial recognition is in the news. This new technology can uniquely identify a person by analysing patterns based on their facial textures and shape. Facial recognition is now a security feature on expensive mobile phones and many people have biometric passports. Photo apps scan our photo libraries and identify people who appear in the different photos. But concern is being expressed because for some time private companies have been secretly scanning people’s faces and are refusing to say what they are using the information for. There is uncertainty about whether mass surveillance using facial recognition is legal or if it is an invasion of civil liberty.

One major premier league football club is considering using facial recognition instead of tickets at its matches. The technology would recognise the faces of fans and would be quicker than checking a ticket, although fans would still need to be searched before entering the stadium. To opt in, fans would register a selfie they have taken on their mobile phone, but the technology also makes it possible for fans to be identified from the growing databases of facial images.

Moses was a man who was given great privileges by God. On Mount Sinai he received the Ten Commandments from God who spoke to him “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” However, when Moses asked to see God’s glory God replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

When Jesus, God’s eternal Son, came to this earth he revealed his Father in a wonderful way. His life, teaching and love for people revealed the heart of God through a human life. To know Jesus is to know God and to experience his grace and love. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Because of what Jesus did it is now possible for people to see the face of God and live, in fact, it is the glorious hope offered to all in Jesus. The Apostle John wrote, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

That Great Day

This is the time of year when students receive their A level and GCSE exam results. It is an anxious time! Some are elated as they achieve the grades they need to move on to university or sixth form. Others are very disappointed when they fail to achieve the necessary grades.

It is a crucial time in the life of each student. Success opens the way for the future; failure seems to cast a shadow, although this is by no means always the case. In the past many who have not achieved the grades they needed to go to university have gone on to do very well in their chosen careers.

In preparing students for exams teachers always encourage them to work hard in order to achieve the best possible grades. Not all students take the advice and some hope that by a combination of natural talent and good luck they will get through. Often, however, the exams reveal their lack of preparation and poor results follow.

In many aspects of our lives we face assessment. Many employees have some form of appraisal which indicates their performance and effectiveness in their job. It is good to be appreciated and praised, but not easy to take constructive criticism which identifies areas of weakness and poor performance.

The Bible teaches that at the end of our lives we must all appear before God to be judged. This judgment will be totally fair and will be based on how we have kept God’s laws. There is no escape from God’s justice. Tyrants and evil people may seem to get away with their evil deeds, but God will call every one of them to account and they will be justly punished. History provides many examples of unspeakable wickedness. It is a great comfort to know that those who have done these things are called to account by God, who knows all things.

But the certainty of God’s judgment is a solemn thing for us all. None of us has kept God’s laws. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of what God requires. On that great day we will all need someone to stand with us to be our Advocate and Saviour. When he was dying, David Dickson, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, said, “I have taken all my good deeds and all my bad deeds, and cast them in a heap before the Lord, and fled from both, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in him I have sweet peace!”

Precious in God’s sight

The activities of A-list celebrities are always in the news. To be on the A-list you have to be at the top of your field and be able to demand very high salaries. Film stars and directors, recording artists, international sports stars, social media personalities, moguls and international TV broadcasters are on the A-list and are admired for their social status and lifestyles. They invite each other to extravagant parties and celebrations and fly in private jets. Most of us will never be on the A-list, but does it matter?

God has created every one of us as unique and precious human beings. We are not the product of blind chance or the pinnacle of an impersonal evolutionary process. Each of us has been created by God in his image with a capacity to know and love him and to experience his love. In Psalm 139 David reflects on this, “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. 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 eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

We find our deepest happiness and fulfilment in knowing God. During his earthly ministry Jesus encountered many people and valued each one of them. He never met anyone whom he thought was unimportant. He had time for everyone. He transformed the life of a Samaritan woman who had experienced five broken marriages, he raised to life the only son of a widow, he touched lepers and healed them, he restored the sight of blind beggars and promised a dying criminal that he was forgiven and would soon be with Jesus in heaven.

Some years ago, I visited a simple, wooden home in a very poor community in Brazil. A new-born baby had died, and his little body was lying on a table. He had been born prematurely in the back of a car because his mother couldn’t afford to go to the hospital for the birth or for him to receive the urgent medical treatment he needed. His birth had never been registered. Officially he didn’t exist, but he was precious in God’s sight. Jesus once put a child on his knee and said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

The peace that passes all understanding

On a recent Songs of Praise programme Simon Thomas spoke about the way in which God has given him strength since his wife Gemma died in November 2017. Simon became well-known to millions of people as a Blue Peter presenter before moving to Sky Sports news, becoming a lead presenter of Football League and Premier League programmes. In November 2017 his wife Gemma, who was also a Christian, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just 3 days later. Simon and his 8-year-old son, Ethan, were devasted. At that time Simon said, “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. If you pray – please pray for my boy Ethan, precious and in bits.”

On Songs of Praise Simon said he had never truly understood the “peace that passes all understanding.” He said, “I just thought it was a nice place to be, but actually it’s because you feel that sense of peace in almost impossible situations in which to find peace.” In the three days after Gemma was diagnosed, he said, “Everything’s coming at you – we’re wondering what on earth acute myeloid leukaemia is, and is she going to survive? Yet I experienced peace, amidst the noise and fear, that gives me the hope that one day I’m going to see her again.”

Simon continued, “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on, and yet at times that’s impossible to get your head around and to draw comfort from. At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith because it gives direction to everything else. It was the glue in our marriage, and it helps in terms of how we, and now I, bring up Ethan. You know, it’s the reference point for my life.

A hymn was sung at the Thanksgiving Service for Gemma which was also sung at Simon and Gemma’s wedding. The words of the hymn meant a lot to both Simon and Gemma and have given Simon strength since Gemma died. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand, till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

The Good Samaritan

A recent international study based in Lancaster University found that in nine-out-of-ten public fights bystanders intervened to help the victims of aggression and violence. The research was based on CCTV footage of 219 arguments and assaults in inner city Amsterdam, Lancaster and Cape Town. The greater the number of bystanders the more likely it was that someone would intervene to help. In 90% of situations bystanders intervened by physically gesturing for an aggressor to calm down, or by physically blocking the aggressor and pulling them away, and by consoling the victim.

One of the lead researchers said, “The results contradict the idea that we live in a ‘walk-on-by’ society in which people don’t like to get involved in the troubles and difficulties of others. They suggest that people naturally feel responsible for the needs of others – that if they see that somebody needs help, they provide it.” The researchers think that the international nature of the study suggests that human beings are programmed to help.

One of the greatest commandments God has given is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” God created human beings in his own image with a natural desire to love and care for one another. Often our sinful nature distorts that natural love and instead we focus on our own needs rather than the needs of others.

Jesus told a parable about a man who was attacked on a lonely desert road. His attackers robbed him and savagely beat him, leaving him half dead. Two priests happened to come down the road, but when they saw the man they passed by on the other side. They didn’t want to get involved or to put their own lives at risk. Being religious doesn’t automatically make us kind.

Then a Samaritan came by. There had been a long-standing dispute between Jews and Samaritans, but this good Samaritan took pity on the man. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he gave the innkeeper enough money for the injured man to stay for several weeks and said, “Look after him and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” The good Samaritan loved and cared for a needy stranger in the same way he would have liked someone to care for him if he had been attacked. Jesus then challenged the people by saying, “Now go and do the same.”

The first moon landing

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong’s first step on to the lunar surface was broadcast on live TV around the world. He said, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Throughout the rest of his life Neil Armstrong avoided public interviews and died in 2012, aged 82.

Astronauts who went to the moon spoke of the sense of awe they experienced as they saw the Earth from the moon. Buzz Aldrin took with him a small plastic container of wine and some bread which he had been given by his church, where he was an elder. While he was on the moon, during a time of radio silence, he quietly ate the bread and drank the wine and remembered his Saviour, Jesus, who loved him and died for him. He said it was his way of thanking God for the success of the mission.

On 24 December 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 were being televised as they orbited the moon. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman read in turn from Genesis, Chapter 1. Bill Anders said, “We are now approaching the lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light:’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Charles Duke who was part of the Apollo 16 mission and walked on the moon in 1972. He became a Christian in 1978. He said that before he became a Christian his temper, ego, single-minded devotion to work and greed had ruined his relationship with his wife and children but becoming a Christian had changed him and transformed his relationship with his family. He also wrote, “I used to say I could live ten thousand years and never have an experience as thrilling as walking on the moon. But the excitement and satisfaction of that walk doesn’t begin to compare with my walk with Jesus, a walk that lasts forever.”