Remembering Jill Saward

Jill Saward’s funeral takes place this week at Lichfield Cathedral. Her ashes will be taken to Nefyn in North Wales, where for many years she was a member of the annual beach mission team. While she was at home with her husband, Gavin, she suffered an aneurysm, a burst blood vessel in the brain. She died two days later; she was just 51 years old. Gavin and their three adult boys have been devastated by the suddenness of her death.

In 1986, Jill was the victim of a savage rape when three men in balaclavas burst into the Ealing vicarage. They were high on drugs and drink and armed with knives. Jill’s father and boyfriend were beaten unconscious, their skulls fractured. Jill, then aged 21 with no sexual experience, was repeatedly and brutally raped by two of the men. In the months that followed Jill seemed to be coping with her ordeal wonderfully well. When the men came to trial at the Old Bailey the judge, seeing Jill’s air of calm and resilience, gave them lighter sentences because her trauma “had not been so great.” It was a great injustice.

Beneath her calm outward demeanour, however, Jill was suffering deeply. For more than three years she experienced flashbacks and nightmares and came close to suicide on three occasions. She separated from her boyfriend and was afraid no-one would ever be interested in marrying her because she was “on the shelf, soiled goods.” In 1994 she set up HURT (Help Untwist Rape Trauma), a charity to provide support for victims of sexual violence and their families, and became a counsellor.

Jill’s faith in her Saviour, Jesus Christ, was a great source of strength to her. In 1998 she came face to face with the leader of the gang, who had not been involved in the rape, and forgave him. She said, “Of course, sometimes I thought it might be quite nice to be full of hatred and revenge, but you’re the one who gets damaged in the end. So, although it makes you vulnerable, forgiving is actually a release. It’s not whether you can or can’t forgive; it’s whether you will or won’t. I don’t think I’d be here today without my Christian faith. That’s what got me through.”

Jill is now in heaven where she sees her Saviour, Jesus, face to face. There is no more crying or pain and God has wiped away every tear from her eyes. May her family, in their sadness and loss, be comforted by this at the funeral service this week.

Our God is the end of the journey

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

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

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

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

I know who holds the future

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

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

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

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

Let’s go to Bethlehem

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Story ever told

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

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

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

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

A love that forgives and forgets

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

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

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

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

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.