Special births

Alfie, Connor and Dylan Bateman, who are just 2 years old, are in the Guinness Book of Records. They were born on 31 August and 1 September 2014 and are the smallest and most premature surviving triplets ever. They were born at 23 weeks and their combined weight was less that 3lbs. Early in 2014 their mother, Emma, was told she was carrying triplets. The likelihood of conceiving triplets naturally is one in a million. Thanks to the skills and dedication of the medical team, the boys survived and all arrived home 6 months after they were born, but less than 2 months after their due date. Today they are typical lively toddlers who keep their Mum and Dad very busy. Emma says, “I’m very thankful that, although the boys have some minor issues still to overcome, they don’t have any major health problems – they’re happy, content and cheeky.”

At Christmas, we remember the birth of a very special child. He was conceived in the womb of his young mother, Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the time for him to be born was near, Mary and her husband Joseph had to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. While they were in Bethlehem the time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. This child, born in such humble and ordinary circumstances, has changed the history of the world and the lives of millions of people.

The birth of Jesus was accompanied by some remarkable events. An angel of the Lord announced his birth to shepherds living out in the fields near Bethlehem. As the glory of the Lord shone around them the shepherds 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.”

When the angel had left them, the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So, too, why not take time this Christmas to consider the wonderful things God has done in Jesus? He can transform our lives today just as he transformed the lives of those shepherds in Bethlehem.

The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

Thoughts on being a parent

On a recent visit to Vietnam the Duke of Cambridge was interviewed on a popular English-language talk show. He was asked about being a father to Prince George and Princess Charlotte. He said, “There’s been wonderful highs and wonderful lows. But I’ve struggled at times. The alteration from being a single, independent man to going into marriage, and then having children, is life-changing. George is a right little rascal sometimes. He keeps me on my toes, but he’s a sweet boy. And Charlotte, bearing in mind I haven’t had a sister … so having a daughter is a very different dynamic!”

Since he has had children William has worried more about the future and hopes his children will inherit a better world. He said, “When you have something or someone in your life to give the future to, I think it focuses the mind more about what you are giving them. Are you happy that you have done all you can to leave the world in a good state? People are living with an enormous amount of stuff that they don’t necessarily need. I would like George and Charlotte to grow up being a little bit more simple in their aspirations and outlook and just looking after those around them and treating others as they would like to be treated themselves.”

The Duke’s concerns are shared by many parents. What kind of world will we hand on to our children and grandchildren? How can we prepare them for the future? When he first came to the throne, King Solomon asked God for wisdom and discernment so that he would be able to rule his people well. Some of the wisdom God gave him related to family life. Solomon knew the importance of teaching his children God’s truths and being an example to them.

The things Solomon taught his children provide a sure guide for the Duke of Cambridge and all parents. Solomon wrote, “My child, never forget the things I have taught you. Store my commands in your heart. If you do this, you will live many years, and your life will be satisfying. Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. Then you will find favour with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation. Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”

Put your trust in God

One hundred years ago this week the Battle of the Somme ended. The Battle started on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. The British soldiers fighting in the Battle belonged to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s volunteer “New Armies”. This included “Pals” battalions made up of men who were friends, relatives and workmates recruited from the same communities. The Battle of the Somme was the first time this volunteer army had taken the leading role in a major battle on the Western Front.

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle, there were 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 who were killed. These were the heaviest losses ever sustained in one day by the British Army. By the time the Battle of the Somme came to an end, 5 months later, the British had gained a strip of territory 6 miles deep and 20 miles long. There were more than a million casualties from both sides, including more than 300,000 who died.

Many of the soldiers who fought at the Somme were young men who volunteered to serve their country. Villages and towns lost a generation of men and many mothers, wives, sisters, children and girlfriends lost the man they loved. The sheer scale of the losses was overwhelming and some communities never fully recovered.

But how did the men themselves cope with being taken from their communities and daily employment to fight an attritional war in a strange place far from home? In World War I British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament.” Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, wrote an inscription in the Testaments that said, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.”

On the evening before battle many soldiers in the trenches, knowing that the next day they may well die, probably read their Daily Portion Testaments. They read wonderful promises from God including the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Whether we are soldiers facing great danger or people facing the uncertainties of life, we can all find strength for today and bright hope for the future in the promises of God’s Word.

Look at the birds

The nights are dark and we have had the first frosts of winter. We may envy the birds that have begun to migrate to sunnier and warmer places. Bird migration is an amazing phenomenon. Scientists have recently studied the Alpine swift, a swallow-like bird found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Some of the swifts breed in Switzerland and then fly across the Sahara to West Africa. A team of scientists caught six Alpine swifts in Switzerland and tagged them with data loggers which enabled them to track the birds’ migration.

When the swifts returned to Switzerland three were caught and the data was analysed. It revealed that the swifts can fly for 200 days consecutively, eating and sleeping on the wing. They eat insects in mid-air and seem to be able to control their flying even when sleeping. The scientists concluded that it is possible that some swifts stay on the wing for their whole lifetime, except for breeding.

Jesus taught that we can learn an important lesson from the birds. He said, “I tell you not to worry about everyday life – whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?”

We all worry about everyday things and how we will find the money we need to buy the necessities of life. Poor people worry about finding the food they need for each day. Unemployed people worry about how they will be able to live on the lower allowances they are receiving. Students and young people worry about how they will repay their loans and save up a deposit to buy their own home. People nearing retirement worry about whether they will be able to live on their pension. Pensioners worry about how they will pay big bills and have enough money to pay for the care they may need in later years.

When we worry it’s so important to remember God, our heavenly Father, and to tell him about our anxieties. He feeds the Alpine swifts on the wing. He feeds the birds in our gardens through the food we put out for them. We are much more valuable to him than the birds. So valuable that, out of love for us, he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins, that we might receive eternal life through him.

The transient beauty of autumn

This year the autumn colours are especially glorious and have lasted longer than usual. In the autumn sun, the brown, red and gold colours of the leaves beautifully adorn the countryside The absence of frosts, high winds or heavy rain has meant that the leaves have been slower to fall this year, but soon they will fall. Trees that shed their leaves are preparing to survive harsh weather conditions; it is a preparation for the cold of winter. The trees seal the spots where the leaves are attached so that fluids cannot flow in and out of the leaves. This causes the leaves to change colour and fall off, which helps the trees to survive the cold, dry air of winter. When the warmer, lighter days of spring come the leaves will return.

There are also seasons in our lives as human beings. Each season has a beauty of its own: a new born baby, an active toddler, a growing child, a maturing adolescent, a strong and healthy adult, a serenity in the newly-retired and the gentle dignity of later years. But the seasons of our lives inevitably move on; we cannot pause and remain in any one of them. So, it is wise for us, like the trees, to prepare for the future.

We are living at a time when deep pessimism is widespread. People who have never heard of the philosophy of nihilism, which means “nothing”, are influenced by it. This philosophy began in Russia in the early 20th century and rejects all religious and moral principles because life is ultimately meaningless. A true nihilist believes in nothing, has no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

The silent witness of God’s creation and the teaching of the Bible declare a very different message. The death of the leaves is a preparation for new life. More importantly, God has created every one of us with an eternal soul. Life is not meaningless and death is not the end. Future hope is found in Jesus Christ who died and rose again on the third day. By his death he “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” Trusting in him we embrace God’s eternal purpose for us. Then, with the hymn writer, we can say, “If Thou art my shield and my sun, the night is no darkness to me; and fast as my moments roll on, they bring me but closer to Thee.”

The God who is there

The hard crash-landing of the Europe Space Agency’s experimental Mars probe, Schiaparelli, was a deep disappointment for the team managing the project. Although the lander was destroyed the probe’s mother ship is in orbit around Mars and will soon begin analysing the Martian atmosphere in its search for evidence of life. The Schiaparelli project, which has cost in excess of €1 billion, was designed to test technology for a more ambitious European Mars landing in 2020.

Our explorations into space make us aware of the immensity and wonder of the universe. The planet Mars is a near neighbour in our solar system, just 33.9 million miles away. It takes between 6 and 8 months to get there. Neptune is 2.7 billion miles from earth. Voyager 2 travelled for 12 years at an average velocity of 42,000 miles per hour to get there. The photographs of Earth taken from space make it very clear how different our little planet is compared to all the other planets we know. It seems that planet Earth is unique with its abundance of water and life.

The Bible speaks about the origins of life. The book of Genesis describes God’s almighty creating power. It begins with the majestic affirmation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It also describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image, and were given authority over all creation. Our God-given dignity and intelligence enables us explore the universe he has created.

The Bible also tells us that God has revealed himself to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. God did not leave us to seek for him, but, in Jesus, he visited our little planet. In his Gospel, the apostle John, says that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was active in creating the universe. He also became a man and “lived for a time among us.”

When we realise the awesome greatness and majesty of God we cannot but be moved to worship him and give thanks to him. In Psalm 8 the psalmist writes, “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!”

Remembering Aberfan

On 21 October 1966 I was at work in Cardiff when we heard there had been a disaster in a small valley community near Merthyr Tydfil. We assumed it must have happened underground and that miners had probably been injured or killed. Such tragic events had happened before in the South Wales valleys. Later that day, however, as we watched the evening news on our black and white televisions, we realised that a disaster like no other had struck the small mining village of Aberfan.

By 9 o’clock that Friday morning 240 children and 9 teachers had arrived at Pantglas Junior School for the last day of school before the half-term holiday. It was a damp and misty morning after a week of heavy rain. At 9.15 the school was engulfed by an avalanche of 100,000 tons of black slurry. The school building was demolished, as were some houses. Many of the men of the community were at work in the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. When they heard about the disaster they rushed to the school to try to help. The women went to the school and felt utterly helpless as they saw the devastating scene. Their children were in that school. Were they alive or dead?

The Aberfan disaster claimed 128 lives – 116 children, 4 teachers, the headmistress and 23 local people. The following Thursday there was a mass funeral when the bodies of many who had died were buried side by side in one long grave over which a beautiful memorial was later built. The Aberfan Disaster touched the hearts of people around the world and £1,750,000 was donated to the Disaster Fund.

Aberfan was a man-made disaster and, eventually, the National Coal Board accepted their responsibility. The tip had been sited on a spring and had been poorly managed. Warnings about what could happen had been ignored. Eventually the Board paid families £500 compensation for each child who had died and the Disaster Fund gave them £5000.

To whom can we turn when tragedy strikes? At the heart of the Christian Gospel is a young man called Jesus, the only Son of his heavenly Father, who died a cruel death on a Roman Cross. He died in our place and for our sins. On the third day he rose again. He is uniquely able to help us in the darkest experiences of life because he understands our deepest grief, comforts us when our hearts are broken and gives us a sure hope of eternal life.

The testimony of J B Holmes

J B Holmes was a member of the winning USA Team in the recent Ryder Cup, but 5 years ago he wondered if his golf career was over. In August 2011, when he was playing in the USA PGA Championship, he experienced extreme dizziness and had to withdraw after the first round. He was diagnosed with Chiari malformation in which the lower part of his brain was pushing down into his spinal canal.

His doctors told him that he could choose either to suffer from ongoing vertigo, and give up his career, or to undergo an operation involving serious risks. J B decided to go ahead with the operation during which a titanium plate was inserted at the base of his skull. Following the operation, it was discovered that he was allergic to adhesive plasters and he had to be airlifted from his home to hospital for more surgery. Four months later he started trying to rebuild his career, and this year he qualified for the Ryder Cup Team.

When J B’s problems made headlines around the world, people with the same condition made contact with him. He said, “There were lots of people who contacted me saying they had the same problem, and that I really inspired them. I’m happy that I’ve made people aware of it, especially young kids who can still see that their lives can be fulfilled.”

J B also found strength through his faith in God. He said, “God gives you trials and tests and you just have to learn from experiences. Maybe all the stuff I went through wasn’t necessarily for me; maybe it was so I could inspire someone else. If it helps one person out of a hole, then maybe that’s what it was for. I feel it made me into a better person, so I got something from it. I don’t feel like I have done anything special. I just did the best I could. That’s all I could do.”

When we experience unexpected trials and tests in this life, we, too, can find strength and hope in God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus have been an inspiration to many people. Although he was the Son of God, he experienced great suffering, especially when he died on the Cross to take away the sin of the world. During his earthly life Jesus was made in every way like us and, because he has personally experienced suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

The wonderful offer of forgiveness

Today well-known public figures are subject to scrutiny as never before. Those who stand for major offices of State, for example to be President of the USA, can expect details of their private life to be made public and to be critically assessed. The reason for this is to see if their public persona and private life match. What they have said or done in the past is seen as a reliable indicator of the kind of people they really are.

It is not only public personalities who experience inconsistencies in their private lives. All of us are familiar with the struggle to live a private life that is consistent with our public image. When we are away from the public gaze it is only too easy to drop our guard and to do and say things we would not do if people were watching us. The fact that we don’t want people to know the wrong things we have done in private is a sign that we are ashamed of them.

In God’s sight there is no distinction between our public and private lives. Our whole life is seen and known by him. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.” Jesus said, “For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light.”

Religion can sometimes be a cloak for hypocrisy. Some people who take a strong public stand for righteousness do not live according to the standards they lay down for others. Cult leaders, with many followers, have sometimes been exposed as men who have used their power to satisfy their sexual desires and greed for money. Jesus spoke against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day who performed good deeds “to be admired by others.”

None of us can stand in the face of God’s scrutiny but, in Jesus, there is the promise of his grace and forgiveness. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says to God, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you.” It is a wonderful thing when we experience God’s undeserved love and grace and know that there is no longer any need to pretend because we have confessed everything to him and he will never count our sins against us.