Remembering Jane Stuart Smith

I recently read the obituary of Jane Stuart Smith, who died on 14 January at the age of 90. She was an American opera singer who made a career on the Italian stage, including appearing with Maria Callas. Her last official performance was in 1959, as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre. In 1960, when she was at the height of her powers, she became a Christian and left the world of opera. When, later, Jane was asked why she gave up her operatic career she replied, “I gave it up for the Lord. The world of opera is a wicked place. You have no idea about the temptations I faced. My problem was that I loved those temptations.”

Jane knew privilege and success. She was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1925. Her father, Robert, was president of the Norfolk and Western Railway. As a teenager she served as a page at the White House when Franklin D Roosevelt’s was President. Her father hired the Carnegie Hall for her New York debut. After singing the title role of Puccini’s Turandot at the Detroit Grand Opera Festival in 1951 she was described as “a woman of commanding beauty, both of person and voice”. In Italy she appeared in Milan, Palermo and Cesena, where the stage was carpeted in flowers after her performance; in Venice she arrived for a performance of Tosca on a gondola.

In 1956, while visiting Switzerland, Jane met Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who founded the L’Abri Fellowship in their alpine home near Geneva. Francis and Edith’s home was a place where people could find honest answers to their honest questions and experience practical Christian love. They called it L’Abri, the French word for “shelter,” because they wanted to provide a shelter from the pressures of a relentlessly secular world. Through meeting the Schaeffers, Jane came to know Jesus Christ as her personal Saviour and she joined the L’Abri Fellowship.

Jane’s life was distinctive because she made a definite decision to avoid temptations to sin and so turned her back on fame and fortune. She had found something much more precious; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a life that was real. Jesus told a parable about a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, when he found one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. Sixty years ago, Jane made a similar, decisive choice, and now she is in heaven with Jesus, her beloved Lord and Saviour.

In times of emergency

As I was driving home one evening on the motorway I was passed by a paramedic vehicle travelling at high speed with its emergency lights flashing. I wondered to what kind of emergency they were responding and prayed that they would arrive in time and that the person’s life would be saved. I also thanked God that I was safe and well.

It is a great blessing to live in a country where, in a medical emergency, we can dial 999 and know that a paramedic team and ambulance will immediately be dispatched to help us. We will be given immediate treatment. Early treatment by paramedics saves many lives. Then we will be taken by ambulance, or sometimes even by helicopter, to the A&E department at the nearest hospital to be treated by a highly skilled medical team with the best available equipment. For all this skilled care we will pay nothing! What an amazing privilege!

In some years the number of life-threatening calls reaches more than 3 million. The aim is to reach 75% of those calls within 8 minutes and for a vehicle that will take the patient to hospital to arrive in 19 minutes. In most cases this is achieved. What a massive relief it is when we speak to the emergency operator and they tell us a paramedic team and ambulance are on their way to help us!

There are many other kinds of emergencies we experience in life. All of us experience fears and anxieties. We have problems in our relationships; with our marriage partners or with our children. We may lose our job or get into debt. We may lose our homes. Someone we love may die; a parent, a partner, a child, or a close friend. We may feel very alone. At such times to whom can we turn for help?

David wrote Psalm 34 at a very difficult time in his life and remembered the way God had helped him. He said, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” What an encouragement David’s experience of God’s help is for us to pray to him when we, too, are in great need!

Forgive us our debts

Christmas is a distant memory, but the arrival of credit card bills this month reminds us of how much we spent and how much we owe. At the end of November 2015, people in Britain owed £1.458 trillion. This is £708 more for each adult than in November 2014. By the end of 2016 the average household will owe almost £10,000 in personal loans, credit cards and overdrafts.

Debt can become overwhelming and destructive. I remember visiting Bob. He had gone through the pain of divorce and had also lost his job. He was in serious debt. He hated the sound of the postman putting letters through his door because many of them were final warnings. If he didn’t pay what he owed his electricity, gas, and telephone would be cut off. He had no money to pay and had reached his overdraft limit at the bank.

One Friday he had gone to his bank hoping to draw our £20 to get some food. The cashier told him he couldn’t give him the money. Bob’s desperation must have been obvious to the cashier because, later that day, after the bank had closed, the bank manager brought some money to his house! I talked with Bob and discovered the full extent of his debts. Then I went with him to talk to the bank manager and, together, we agreed a way for his debts to be paid and for him to move to a smaller property which he could afford. The crushing burden of debt had been lifted from Bob and, now, he had hope for the future.

The Bible speaks about another debt we all owe. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God “to forgive us our debts.” Every day we all break God’s commands and our debt to him accumulates. Sometimes our sense of guilt becomes overwhelming as we realise how our sinful patterns of behaviour are destroying our lives, and the lives of those we love. At such times we feel utterly helpless, as Bob did when faced with his debts. The good news is that Jesus came into the world to provide a way of escape and to give us hope. By his death on the cross he paid the debt of our sins and we can experience forgiveness through him. One hymn says, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

Love overcomes evil!

The terrorists who attacked the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, killed 28 people from 18 countries. During the 15-hour siege, special forces from Burkina Faso and France killed the 4 terrorists and freed 156 hostages. The hotel was specifically targeted because it is a place where foreigners are known to meet.

One of the people killed in the attack was an American missionary, Mike Riddering, who served with the domestic violence organisation Sheltering Wings. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. Mike, and his wife, Amy, have 4 children and have been involved in running orphanages and schools in Burkina Faso. There are more than 500,000 orphans in the country and 1 in 5 children die before they are 5 years old. They also ran programmes providing food and clean water.

After hearing of Mike’s death, Amy wrote a tribute to him, “Heaven has gained a warrior! I know God has a purpose in all things, but sometimes it is a complete mystery to me. My best friend, partner in crime and love of my life. The best husband ever. An amazing father to his children and a papa to everyone. My heart is so heavy and I am having trouble believing he is gone. Mike was an example in the way he lived and loved. God be glorified!

On the same day as the terrorist attack, an Australian missionary doctor, Dr Ken Elliot, and his wife, Jocelyn, were kidnapped by terrorists in northern Burkina Faso and taken to Mali. Ken, who is 80, and Jocelyn have lived in Burkina Faso since 1972 and opened a hospital in Djibo. Ken helped to build the hospital with his own hands. It is the only hospital serving that region and Ken is the only surgeon, performing 150 operations each month. Ken and Jocelyn have dedicated their lives to serving the people of Burkina Faso and have saved many lives and brought hope to many people.

Jesus is the inspiration for everything that Mike and Amy and Ken and Jocelyn have done. Because they have experienced his love for them they have gladly dedicated their lives to loving and serving the people of Burkina Faso. They know for certain that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and whoever believes in him will live, even though they die. Their greatest desire is that the people amongst whom they have lived, and even their enemies, might also experience the amazing love of Jesus.

How could I not embrace him?

Tragedy often strikes suddenly and without warning. Late on a Saturday evening in June 2013 Stephen Donnelly, who was 26, and his girlfriend Mandy Gold, who was 21, were driving home to South Yorkshire on the A14 after a family wedding in Kettering when they were involved in a head on collision. They both died instantly. The driver of the other car, William Wilson, was driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway. William, who was 33, was twice over the legal limit for alcohol. He pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving and was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Both Stephen and Mandy’s parents were devastated at the tragic loss of their children, who were very much in love and planned to marry. Stephen and Mandy were Christians and had met at a church in Sheffield which they both attended. Stephen was a talented musician and had worked for the church for 5 years. Since the loss of Stephen, his parents, Mark and Sue, have said and done some remarkable things.

At the court case, William’s barrister said that William was genuinely remorseful and was struggling with the consequences of his actions. He said, “It’s the first thing he thinks of in the morning and the last thing he thinks of at night. He unequivocally accepts responsibility.” William wrote to both bereaved families. After the court case Mark and Sue said, “We hold no ill-will towards Mr Wilson for killing our son, indeed we are able to forgive him because of the forgiveness we receive through Jesus Christ.”

Recently Mark and Sue met William in Doncaster Prison, for two hours, as part of a restorative justice programme. In a radio interview, Mark said, “There is a son who needs embracing and who sits in jail thinking all day about what he’s done. There is more to life than earning money and bearing ill-will to somebody. How could I not embrace him?” Sue said, “Two young people, Stephen and Mandy, have been lost, but there is someone who doesn’t have to end his life in prison. It’s quite right and proper that there’s a punishment and the punishment must match the crime, but then the punishment’s done and that’s a closed book.” The meeting was a very emotional time as they talked with William about what Stephen meant to them and the impact losing him had had on them and their family. Mark said, “It seemed the right thing to do and I would do it again.”

The God of hope

A New Year has dawned. The holiday is over and life is returning to its normal daily routine. The days are dark and wet, and the credit card bills will soon arrive. The new year is a time to look forward, but the future looks very uncertain. Following the floods, climate change is on many people’s minds. Stock exchanges are fragile and the economic future is not good. The moral foundations which undergirded our society are being eroded. It’s clear that our leaders are facing problems that are too big for them.

In the middle of the first century the apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome. The moral corruption, that would eventually lead to the the fall of the Roman Empire, was already taking hold and these Christians were facing persecution. Paul himself would soon be imprisoned for his faith in Jesus and would be martyred, along with many other Christians, at the command of Nero. The personal future of Paul and the Christians was very uncertain.

Near the end of the letter Paul wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” These words speak to us today. Hope for the future comes not from ourselves, or from those who have power and influence, but from God. He is the God of hope! As we entrust ourselves and our future to him he fills us with joy and peace. Ultimately the world and our lives are not at the mercy of evil people, but are in the hands of a gracious God who gives us a hope that is real.

A few weeks before Christmas, in the little village of Capriana in Moldova, something happened which is a sign of the hope God gives to ordinary people. God has given some Moldovan Christian ladies a deep love and concern for the forgotten people living in the terrible closed institutions in Moldova in which people are locked away, often for very trivial reasons. Life in the institutions is very harsh and, normally, there is no hope of release. A new house, Casa Ana, has been built in Capriana, which is now the home of 6 ladies from one of these closed institutions, and it was officially opened before Christmas. One of the Christian ladies involved in establishing the home said, “We wanted to give these people a future and a hope!” That’s exactly what “the God of hope” does for us as we entrust ourselves, and our future, to him.

You can watch a short video of the opening of Casa Ana at https://vimeo.com/148361564

The Light shines in the darkness

In her Christmas Message the Queen quoted John, Chapter 1, verse 5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” She described it as a verse of great hope. John was speaking of Jesus, God’s Son, who came into the world. John also says of Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In a world where there are an increasing number of what the Queen called “moments of darkness” we need One who brings light into our lives, and who is invincible. Jesus is that Person.

Jesus was born into a violent world. Soon after he was born King Herod tried to kill him. Herod had been appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate more than 30 years before Jesus was born. He was a ruthless tyrant; he murdered his wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others he suspected of treachery. When the Wise Men told him they were seeking the one who had been born King of the Jews, Herod was determined to kill him and ordered his soldiers to kill all the male children under 2 years old in the town and region of Bethlehem.

But Herod’s evil plan failed because God had already warned Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Within a short time Herod was dead and it was safe for Joseph and his family to return to their own town of Nazareth. It was the first example of Jesus, the Light, triumphing over the darkness. Throughout his ministry Jesus faced increasing hostility which culminated in his death on the Cross, yet on the third day he rose from the dead. Once again darkness had been defeated and Jesus had triumphed.

Today Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq are experiencing fierce persecution. Men, women and children are being killed. Many have fled their homes in search of safety. We remember them and pray for them. We are also confident that Jesus is still the Light which shines in the darkness and that he will triumph. Like the mighty Roman Empire, the evil movements of today, which seem so powerful, will all fall and pass away and the evil tyrants who lead them will stand before their Judge. None of them ultimately triumphs because Jesus, the Light of this dark world, will execute perfect justice for those who are poor and powerless.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

This week many people around the world will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three of the people in the world professes to be a Christian and many others will join them in singing carols and hearing Bible readings about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. The message about Jesus is a message for our world today.

The message of Jesus is for all people. The infant Jesus was visited by Wise Men who came from the east. They had travelled hundreds of miles from Mesopotamia, which included modern Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Iran. They had seen a special star which indicated the birth of a great King and were guided to the place where Jesus had been born. When they saw the child they bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The message of Jesus speaks to the peoples of those troubled lands today and to people all over the world.

The message of Jesus is a message of of peace. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.” The shepherds heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” Jesus came to bring peace between God and the people of this world. His death for our sins reconciles us to God so that we have peace with God and know his favour resting on us. When we are reconciled to God, we are also at peace with ourselves and with all other people. The message of Jesus speaks peace to our conflict-torn modern world. Jesus changes hearts and reconciles people from all nations to one another.

The message of Jesus is a message of joy. When the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem they were overjoyed to have found the new born King. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Recently some Christians in eastern Ukraine were giving out food at a bus station to people who had fled their homes because of the conflict. There were also a few Bibles on the table. A lady came up to them and asked, “Is that your book of hope?” The Christians said it was and the lady said, “Please could I have one, because there isn’t much hope in Ukraine today!” The coming of King Jesus brings joy and hope to our sad and needy world. His birth really is something to celebrate!

A Saviour has been born

Christmas is a busy time. The season has a momentum of its own as we are swept along with the pressure of getting everything ready for the big day. It is easy in the busyness of it all to lose sight of the things that matter most and, when it is over, to feel a sense of emptiness and anticlimax.

Joseph and Mary were under pressure when they set off from the little village of Nazareth to go to Bethlehem to be registered in the Roman census. They had to walk 80 miles when Mary was in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The journey could have taken nearly a week. When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was overflowing with people and there was nowhere for them to stay. So Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Hardly anyone in Bethlehem noticed Joseph and Mary and the baby boy who was born; yet this child would change the course of history and transform the lives of millions of people.

When Jesus is at the centre of our lives, not only on Christmas Day, but every day of our lives, everything changes. An angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. They were ordinary men doing a tough job who saw the glory of the Lord. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Then an angelic choir appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had gone, the shepherds went to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields and their sheep they were “glorifying and praising God for all things they had heard and seen.” They returned to the same daily routine, but now it was different because they were different. The had seen the One who came into this world that we might have life and have it to the full. He is the One we all need to find this Christmas. He transforms us through his love and promises to be with us when life returns to its normal routine.

When God breaks into our daily lives

Are the news headlines always the most important events in the world? Are the “top” stories really the top stories? Are the things that Presidents, Prime Ministers say and do the things that matter most? Some of the most important things that have happened in history have taken place away from the glare of publicity and have involved ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

More than 2000 years ago a young man named Joseph was living in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee. He had trained as a carpenter and worked in the village making furniture and helping people with practical jobs on their homes. He had fallen in love with a young girl in the village named Mary and his family had arranged with her family that they should become engaged. Joseph couldn’t wait until Mary became his wife.

One day Mary told him some very disturbing news; she was expecting a baby. She told Joseph that an angel had appeared to her and told her that, even though she was a virgin, she would conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph’s immediate reaction was that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He was heartbroken and decided the only thing he could do was to quietly end the relationship. He loved Mary deeply and didn’t want to bring disgrace on her.

Then one night Joseph had a dream in which the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Joseph did what the angel had commanded him and married Mary, but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

Joseph is an example of a young man who lived a gracious, godly life in a small community. He worked hard and loved his wife and son. He was open to God and responsive to him. He did something that was hard to do, and was probably misunderstood by many people in the village. Joseph knew that the son Mary bore was very special. Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, would change the history of the world. God still draws near to us today in the ordinary events of our daily lives with his transforming love and grace.