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.