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.

The God of second chances

It is not easy to cope with failure, especially when it is very public. The England football team went to the World Cup in Brazil with high hopes. The team is a blend of youth and experience and carried the expectations of a nation. They were drawn against strong teams and had to play in hot and humid conditions to which none of the players is used. The performance of this England team is the worst ever at a World Cup and some of the players have publicly apologised to their fans. It remains to be seen whether the fans and the pundits will forgive them.

God is a God of second chances. He knows that we have all failed and have fallen short of his moral standards. We fall short even of our own standards. The Bible is a very straightforward book. It doesn’t hide the weaknesses and failings of even the great men and women of faith. We read of the serious failures of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David and many others. The wonderful thing is that God didn’t give up on them, but graciously restored them.

Peter was a Galilean fisherman whom Jesus called to be one of his disciples. He emerged as a leader amongst the twelve disciples and was close to Jesus. It was Peter who first recognised who Jesus was saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” He was with Jesus, together with James and John, on the mount of Transfiguration when the divine glory of Jesus was revealed to them. On the night before he died Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the morning cockerel crowed. Peter said he would never deny Jesus and was ready, if necessary, to die for him. But before the next morning dawned Peter had denied his Lord and was devastated.

One morning, after the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples met Jesus on the shores of Lake Galilee. After breakfast Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you really love me?” Each time Peter said he did. Jesus told him to take care of his sheep. In this way Peter was forgiven and restored to leadership and ministry in the church. This is a great example of the wonderful grace of God we can all experience. No matter how often and how seriously we have failed; the God of second chances is ready and willing to offer us a new beginning.

World Cup 2014

World Cup 2014 has begun. The people of Brazil are experiencing football fever. International footballers are amongst the highest paid sportsmen in the world. One of the England players is paid £300,000 per week. Brazil has spent £7 billion on the World Cup. After the Final on 13 July the people of Brazil will return to the challenges of their normal lives.

In the days before the World Cup began there were demonstrations in at least 10 Brazilian cities. Riot police fired percussion grenades and used tear gas to subdue the demonstrators. Some of the protests are against the high cost of building new stadiums and other facilities for the World Cup. Trade union leaders have also used the occasion of the World Cup to press claims for higher wages for their members.

Most people in Brazil are poor. Brazil has a thriving economy, one of the strongest in the world, but the rich are becoming richer and the poor are still poor. The richest 1% of Brazil’s population control 50% of its income. The poorest 50% of society live on just 10% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 10% receive less than 1%!

Many people live in favelas, which are shanty towns. They have sprung up as people from the rural areas have moved into big cities and built homes on spare ground. Often there is no water supply, sanitation or legal electricity. Millions of children in Brazil live on the streets because of problems in their families. They live in abandoned buildings, parks, cardboard boxes, or on the streets themselves. Drugs, crime and sexual exploitation are a way of life for these tragic children. When the 600,000 foreign fans attending the World Cup leave Brazil little will have changed for the better for ordinary Brazilians.

How very different Jesus is! He came into our world to transform our lives for the better at great cost to himself. Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus left all the privileges of heaven, which were rightly his, to share our life and to die on the Cross to pay the price of our sins. Because of his visit to this world, and all he did while he was here, we can experience the forgiveness of our sins and one day go to be with him in heaven.

I will fear no evil, for you are with me

The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was a very moving event. Almost 2000 veterans were there, as well as many world leaders. They gathered at Sword beach in Normandy on a beautiful sunny day, under blue skies, to remember a very dark day when many soldiers died in terrible circumstances. The dignity of the veterans was striking as they stood by the graves of their fallen friends, shed tears, and spoke of their experiences. For many this would be their last visit to Normandy.

The soldiers in the Allied forces were part of the D-Day landings because they had been called up to serve in the armed forces. They were doing their duty to their country alongside friends from their communities and those with whom they had trained. Whilst they could not really envisage what the landings would be like, they knew they were facing great danger. They, and their comrades, were facing death or serious injury. Many would never return. They had to be brave and courageous, and to overcome their understandable fears. It was clear that, 70 years later, the painful memories of that day are still deeply etched on their memories.

David, who wrote Psalm 23, was a shepherd. He was the youngest of seven brothers and looked after his father’s sheep. One of his jobs was to protect the sheep from wild animals, like lions and bears. When Israel was being dominated by a neighbouring nation, the Philistines, David was called into action to fight the giant Goliath. Because the Lord was with him, David killed Goliath and delivered his people.

In Psalm 23 David reflects on the wonderful love of the Lord. He knew that life is not always “green pastures” and “still waters”. There are also dark days. So he wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Fear is a powerful influence on us all, and our greatest fear is death. The veterans, who saw their young comrades die in Normandy, have lived another 70 years, but they, and we all, must still walk through that dark valley. As we face “the last enemy” we need someone to be with us and to take away our fears. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only One who is great enough and kind enough to accompany us on that last journey of life and to bring us safely to his Father’s house in heaven.

D-Day Remembered

This week the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings will be commemorated. On 6 June 1944 the Allied Forces began a major offensive which was to prove decisive to the outcome of World War II. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The invasion fleet was drawn from 8 different navies, comprising 6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing craft of various types, 736 ancillary craft, and 864 merchant vessels. There were 195,700 naval personnel involved. The landings were preceded by air attacks involving 1300 RAF planes and 1000 American bombers.

My father-in-law was there. He saw many of his friends die in the fierce fighting that followed the invasion. When the war was over he returned safely to his family, but he didn’t speak of what he had experienced and seen. It was only shortly before he died, when his grandson and great grandson were preparing to visit Normandy on the 60th anniversary, that he got a map out and told them where he had landed and fought. Of the 61,000 British troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago fewer than 500 are alive today.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who gave their lives in the D-Day landings and in all the battles of World War II. For our tomorrow they gave their today. Over the past 70 years we have lived in peace and security. We also owe a great debt of gratitude to God who was pleased to spare us as a country from being invaded and occupied. The night before the Normandy landings King George VI broadcast a message in which he said the Allies faced the “supreme test” and called on the nation to pray for the liberation of Europe.

I’m sure many in Britain responded to the King’s call to pray. Certainly many of the young men preparing for the landings, and the great danger they faced, also prayed. They prayed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and read from the New Testaments they had been given. God understood their situation and the fear that gripped their hearts. When he was a young man, Jesus had faced danger and death and had willingly laid down his life out of love for them. He also made a great promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Honour your father and mother

The number of older people in our society is increasing. 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. In 20 years time there will be more than 15 million, growing to 19 million by 2050. Within this total, the number of very old people is growing even faster. Now there are 3 million people aged over 80. This is projected to double by 2030 and reach 8 million by 2050. Today one-in-six of the UK population is over 65; by 2050 it will be one-in-four.

The average length of life is increasing significantly. A man born in 1981 might expect to live to 84 years, but for a boy born today it is 91. Women can expect to live, on average, 4 years longer than men. However, those who live to greater ages do not necessarily enjoy good health in their later years. This presents a massive challenge of caring for the elderly, both in terms of cost and quality of care. Recent cases have revealed serious mistreatment of elderly people in care homes and these problems are likely to increase.

God’s plan for our care throughout our lives is the family. The love between marriage partners is the foundation. In his Bible commentary Matthew Henry reflects on the account of the creation of men and women, and the institution of marriage, in Genesis Chapter 2. He writes, “The woman came out of a man’s ribs. Not from his feet to be walked on, not from his head to be superior, but from his side to be equal, under his arm to be protected, and next to his heart to be loved.” The mutual love of their parents provides a secure environment in which children can grow up and be cared for.

In later life the family can also provide care. The early Christian churches cared for widows, especially those who had no-one to care for them. But they also emphasised the importance of the family caring for their older members. Paul wrote, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God very much.” It is a privilege to be able to care for our parents, who have given us so much. It is an even greater privilege to be cared for in our latter years by our children and grandchildren and to be surrounded by their love.