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.

In the midst of life

The destruction of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over Ukraine has caused outrage around the world. The plane was flying at 33000 feet over Eastern Ukraine when, it seems, it was struck by a surface to air missile. The 298 passengers and crew were all killed. The flight had taken off from Schiphol Amsterdam airport en route to Kuala Lumpur carrying families who were looking forward to a very special holiday. A meal had been served and the passengers were settling into the long flight. Some were watching a film, others were reading or resting. Suddenly, without warning, the plane exploded and everyone on board passed into eternity. When they received the news their families were deeply shocked and devastated.

Our lives in this world are very uncertain. None of us knows what a day may bring. There was no connection between the people on the plane and those involved in the conflict in Ukraine. The plane was flying more than 6 miles above the ground and, in a matter of minutes, would have left Ukrainian airspace. Then someone launched a missile which destroyed the plane and all on board. Death is always an unwelcome intrusion into life, an enemy, and especially so in tragedies like this. The burial service in The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that, “In the midst of life we are in death.”

In the face of death we always feel helpless. Whether we are sitting at the bedside of a loved one who is dying or are told the totally unexpected news that precious family members and friends have died because of the evil act of total strangers, there is nothing we can do to change things. So what can we do and to whom can we turn? The burial service also says, “of whom may we seek succour, but of you, O Lord?”

The Lord God is eternal. In times of grief and tragedy we can turn to him for help. He understands our vulnerability and meets us in the depth of our grief. He gives us comfort and strength. One hymn says, “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail, in Thee do we trust, nor find Thee fail; Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end, Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.” Jesus once came to the home of close friends whose brother, Lazarus, had died. He wept with them and then gave them hope when he declared, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away

This week there will be a debate in the House of Lords on a Bill to legalise “assisted dying” which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally-ill patients. If passed, the law would apply only to those who it is judged have less than 6 months to live and would have to be signed off by two doctors. The patient would administer the substance themselves, although they would be able to receive help if they could not lift or swallow it. So the Bill would legalise assisted suicide.

Compassion is at the centre of the debate. What is the compassionate thing to do for someone who is terminally ill and, possibly, in great pain? Over my years in the ministry I have pastorally cared for many people in such situations and their families. I have witnessed the amazing courage of terminally-ill people and seen the loving care of their families which has surrounded them. The skill and commitment of the medical team and the palliative carers has been wonderful to see. Even though everyone involved knows that death is drawing near, they have committed themselves to showing compassion and love to the dying person.

The proposed Bill presents a very different picture of compassion. When a terminally ill person feels they cannot go on those who are with them, both family and medical team, will agree that the compassionate thing to do is to allow them to end their life, even though they may have as much as six months to live. Lethal drugs will be prescribed and, then, the person, either on their own, or with assistance from those nearest to them will take the drugs and, within a short time, die. A husband or wife or son or daughter will have to live with the realisation that they played an active role in the death of someone they loved very deeply.

As I have visited terminally ill people it has been amazing to see how God has wonderfully sustained them. He has given them grace to face each day as they have experienced the deep love of their family and friends. When, finally, they have died the family had no sense of guilt but have been able to trust God to comfort them in their deep sense of loss. They could say with Job, when he suffered great personal loss in the death of all his children, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Amazing Grace!

The trials of high profile people found guilty of child abuse have revealed a dark, hidden side to their character. They have been called to account for crimes committed many years ago. Their previous good reputation has been destroyed. The book of Proverbs tells us, “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.”

These cases remind us that the wrong things we do really matter, even when they happened a long time ago. Those who have been found guilty of abuse have done many good things and have helped people who are in need. They have been kind to their families and friends, but all this is now of little consequence because of the sins they have committed. No amount of good actions can compensate for the wrong things they have done. They will not be remembered for the good things they did, but for the evil deeds they perpetrated.

There is a deep sense in each of us that those who do wrong should be punished. We identify with the victims who have suffered greatly for many years because of the abuse done to them. We want the truth to come out and justice to be done through long prison sentences.

This raises important questions for us all because throughout our lives we have done wrong things. Will we one day have to give an account to the God who made us for how we have lived? Will it be enough for us to say that many of the wrong things we did happened a long time ago and that the good things we have done outweigh the bad things we have done?

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came into the world to be the Saviour of sinful people like you and me. He came not for self righteous people, but for those who know they have sinned and want to find forgiveness. Isaac Watts wrote, “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Saviour die? Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I? Was it for crimes that I had done he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree! Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears, dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt my eyes to tears. But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe; here, Lord, I give myself away, ‘tis all that I can do.”

Finding God in the Depths

During his life Jonathan Aitken has risen to great heights and also plumbed the depths. He was a Cabinet member and member of the Privy Council, but was found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice and was given a prison sentence. Because of the pressure of the case his first wife later left him and he was also declared bankrupt. Through these events Jonathan began to seek God and became a Christian. He preached a sermon in July 2008 entitled “Finding God in the Depths.” In July 2003 he married his second wife, Elizabeth.

On 1 July 2013 Elizabeth suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, which often proves fatal. Those who survive may suffer brain impairment and lifelong disability. The medical team at Charing Cross Hospital told Jonathan that urgent major surgery would be needed to save Elizabeth’s life. As Jonathan listened to the doctors his eyes began filling with tears. One young doctor said, “Our professor tells us we haven’t done our job properly if our briefings don’t make the patient’s family cry.” Before taking Elizabeth to the operating theatre the consultant told Jonathan, “It is a simple procedure, but it carries high risk. The brain does not give second chances.”

As the family waited they were conscious of the prayers of many people. The congregation at St Matthew’s Church, Westminster, where Jonathan and Elizabeth had married, were praying. The chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs, where Jonathan had preached the previous Sunday, sent a message to say the chapel-going prisoners were praying for Elizabeth. They also sent a giant-sized card to the hospital signed by 60 prisoners saying, “We are praying for you.” God wonderfully answered these prayers and brought Elizabeth safely through a successful operation and then the long period of convalescence.

Reflecting on the past year Jonathan recognises how various factors all came together. One was the skill and dedication of the medical team at Charing Cross, who work at the cutting edge of neurosurgery. The loving support of the family was also important as they were alongside Elizabeth through the time of crisis, and after, encouraging her in her will to live. Then there were the prayers of thousands of people from all over the world, which God graciously answered. Jonathan wrote, “As a husband I love Elizabeth all the more after walking with her through the valley of the shadow of death.” It is clear that in that darkest valley the Lord was with them, as he promised he would be.