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When life changes

I have a friend who has experienced a number of life-changing events. Kristian grew up in Barry in South Wales. His father suffered from mental health issues and the family home was a place of fear and guilt. Kristian felt guilty because he couldn’t stop the violence against his mother. He also experienced bullying at school, but he was very good at football, and when he was on the pitch, he didn’t have any worries.

The first big change in Kristian’s life happened in his early teens. He started playing for Cardiff Academy then Swansea and played internationally for Wales. When he was 15, he was signed by Crystal Palace and moved to London. The football club looked after everything for him and even paid him while he was still in school. Kristian was being recognised as a technically gifted midfield/central defender. He had lots of money and was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Then he broke his ankle very badly. Despite the best possible treatment his ankle didn’t fully heal, and it soon became clear to him that, at the age of 20, his football career was over. He was devastated but threw himself into building a successful business career. He was determined to regain the money and lifestyle he had had in football. He returned to Barry, married his girlfriend and had a family. He bought a big house, had nice cars, expensive holidays and extravagant things he bought for himself and his family. He was successful and happy.

Kristian wasn’t expecting the next, and biggest change, in his life. His wife, Carla, started going to a mums and tots’ group at a local church and soon became a Christian. Kristian didn’t like her talking about her Saviour Jesus but could see that she had completely changed and was so caring towards him. Reluctantly Kristian went to some church services. As he listened to one sermon he said, “Suddenly I realised that God loved me. I realised that Jesus had come to this world to live the perfect life and that he died on the cross to take the punishment I deserved.”

Kristian and Carla now live in a village near Hereford with their 5 children where Kristian is the minister of a small church. He says, “I once had thought that contentment was to be found by having the best and the latest stuff, but I’ve realised that life is more than that. Life is about a relationship with God and knowing his love and forgiveness through Jesus. That is something that will last.”

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In heavenly love abiding

This has been a very strange year. Covid-19 has changed the world and the lives of us all. Every news programme begins by telling us how many new infections there have been and how many people have died. As we move towards winter, scientists and politicians tell us that the second wave of infections will continue well into next year and that we can expect regular “lockdowns” in an attempt to restrict the spread of the virus. Life will not return to “normal” any time soon and, sadly, many people’s livelihoods are in jeopardy. Some are already experiencing unemployment and financial hardship. The future prospects for young people are very uncertain. The hope of having an effective vaccine seems some way off.

The pandemic is having a serious effect on people’s mental health and sense of wellbeing. Elderly people living in residential homes are not being allowed to see their close family in order to protect them from the virus and possible death. But some have said they don’t feel their lives are worth living if they can’t see, kiss and hug their loved ones. For many people there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.

In these difficult times we need to find strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. We are not allowed to sing hymns in church services at the moment, but we can find great comfort in their words. In 1850, when she was a young, single woman of 27, Anna Waring wrote a hymn expressing her confidence in God and his love for her. “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me; my heart may low be laid; but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed?”

Anna’s hymn encourages us to look beyond our immediate situation to the unchanging, eternal God and to rest and abide in him. “Wherever he may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh; his sight is never dim; he knows the way he taketh, and I will walk with him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure; my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and he will walk with me.”

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God is merciful

The case of Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, in northern Kano state in Nigeria has attracted international attention. In August Omar was convicted in a Sharia court of making uncomplimentary remarks about Allah during an argument with a friend and was sentenced to 10 years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy. Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, said the sentence “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice.”

In a remarkable intervention, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland, has asked President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to pardon the teenager. In an open letter Piotr wrote, “He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities and stigmatised physically, emotionally and educationally for the rest of his life.” Omar’s case has struck a painful chord for Piotr because countless children were imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz by the German Nazi regime.

In his letter Piotr also said that if Omar cannot be pardoned then he would be willing to serve part of his sentence along with other volunteers from around the world. He wrote, “However, if the words of this child absolutely require 120 months of imprisonment, and even you are not able to change that, I suggest that in place of the child, 120 adult volunteers from all over the world, gathered by us – myself personally among them – should serve a month in a Nigerian prison.” More than 120 people from around the world have already offered to serve part of Omar’s sentence. If Omar is pardoned, Piotr also offered to personally fund his education resulting in “an aware and educated young citizen” rather than a “destroyed young man.”

Piotr’s intervention reminds us of the words of the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the Bible the principle of substitution was the foundation of the sacrificial system. When anyone sinned, they were commanded to offer an animal in their place and were told that because the animal died their sins would be forgiven. The supreme substitute is the Lord Jesus. Philip Bliss’ hymn says, “’Man of Sorrows’, what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood; Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was he; full redemption—can it be? Hallelujah! what a Saviour!”

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Remembering the Penlee Lifeboat Crew

Lifeboats are a familiar sight when we are on holiday in Britain. In 2019 lifeboats were launched 8941 times and 372 lives were saved. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, more than 143,000 lives have been saved. More than 600 lifeboat crew lives have also been lost. Most of the people who crew the lifeboats are volunteers who are willing to put their own lives in danger in order to save the lives of others. Many have reason to thank lifeboat crews for their dedication, courage and skill.

On Saturday 19 December 1981, the Penlee lifeboat “Solomon Browne” was launched in hurricane conditions to go to the aid of 8 people on board the coaster MV Union Star that had engine failure and being swept towards the southern coast of Cornwall. Wind gusts reached 100mph and the waves were 60 feet high. A Royal Navy Sea King helicopter was unable to get a line to the crew, so the Penlee lifeboat, with 8 crew members, was launched in the darkness at 8.21pm. The lifeboat’s coxswain, Trevelyan Richards, repeatedly took the lifeboat alongside the coaster and managed to get 4 people off. As he made a further attempt to come alongside the stricken coaster the lifeboat was completely wrecked with the loss of all lives on board. The coaster was also lost. There were no survivors.

The selfless courage of the crew of the “Solomon Browne” is deeply moving. The Sea King pilot, Lt Cdr Smith, who witnessed the rescue attempt, said, “The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee crew when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen.”

The faith of Christians looks to Jesus who gave his life that we might live. The focus is not on what we do but on what Jesus did when he sacrificed his life for our sins. Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The Apostle Paul, who once fiercely opposed everything to do with Jesus, came to rejoice in him as the one who “loved me and gave himself for me.” One hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God. He, to rescue me from danger interposed His precious blood.”

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When you pray, I will listen

Yesterday morning my wife and I attended the first service in our local church building since 15 March. It was good to see our friends again, but it was very different. Normally there would be more than 100 people of all ages present, but yesterday we were only 25 because of government restrictions on church services. We queued to enter the building, used hand sanitiser on the way in and out of the service, sat at 2 metres distance and wore face masks. We were not allowed to sing the hymns, but simply followed the words. After the service we spoke briefly to others in the congregation through our masks and at a distance and then went home.

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister his most senior advisers prevented him from discussing his faith in public. During one interview, at the time of the second Iraq war, a journalist asked Mr Blair about his religious faith. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s director of strategy and communications, an atheist, intervened, “Is he on God? I’m sorry we don’t do God.” When he was preparing to speak to the nation on the eve of hostilities in Iraq, Mr Blair was also told he must not end his speech with “God bless you.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic our political leaders have made no reference to faith in God and the need to pray for his gracious intervention. We are “following the science” even though it has become increasingly clear that the scientists don’t agree with each other and are fallible. Yet during the past 6 months nearly 400,000 people have caught the virus and more than 40,000 have died. Many are anxious and afraid.

Our need to know God is greater than ever and many people, especially the young, sense it. In the summer Tearfund, a Christian aid agency, commissioned a survey in which 25% of adults in the UK said they had watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown began and many had started praying. A third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service, as had one in five adults over 55. One in five of those who tuned into services said they had never gone to church. In a time of national crisis many years ago God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah and gave them a wonderful promise which is still true today, “When you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you.”

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Remembering the Pilgrim Fathers

On 6 September 1620 the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to America, the New World, carrying 102 passengers and 25 crew. Most of the passengers were Christians who have come to be known as the “Pilgrim Fathers.” It was not an easy trip with cramped living quarters for a journey taking 2 months. The first half of the voyage was smooth and pleasant but then the weather changed to continuous North-easterly storms. One passenger died, a baby was born, and for several days they could not use their sails and simply drifted until the storm subsided. On 11 November 1620 they set anchor at Cape Cod and thanked the God of heaven who “had brought them safely over the vast and furious ocean.” During the bitter winter, the passengers remained on board Mayflower, suffering scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis, which killed half the passengers and crew.

Why did the Pilgrim Fathers leave England for the New World? The “Pilgrims” were Christians who based their faith and life on the Bible and wished to be free to organise religious congregations separate from the English State Church. At the time this was illegal. They were known as “Separatists” because they believed they should be free to establish true churches which were voluntary, democratic communities, separate from the State. They experienced fierce persecution and some of their leaders were imprisoned and executed on charges of sedition. Some had fled to Holland before travelling to America.

The “Pilgrims” had a significant influence on the history of America. In July 1776 The Declaration of Independence stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today the Pledge of Allegiance states that the republic of the United States of America is “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “Pilgrims” knew that true liberty is found in knowing God and being guided by the truths he has revealed in the Bible. In submitting to God’s authority, we find real freedom. When we cast off all restraints in an attempt to be “free” it leads only to being enslaved. Jesus came “to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” He said, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”

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Hope in a world of injustice

Many people in the world today are experiencing injustice. In Hong Kong tens of thousands protested against the postponement of the planned election and Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong. They face long prison sentences. In Minsk, Belarus, thousands demonstrated against the alleged vote-rigging in the recent re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. They face heavy fines and imprisonment. In Russia the opposition politician Alexi Navalny has been poisoned. In Xinjiang, China, more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in ‘re-education’ camps in an attempt to force them into being more obedient to the Communist party.

Throughout history power has been used to oppress people and to deny them justice. Three thousand years ago, as King Solomon surveyed the world of his time, he wrote about the injustices he saw, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

God is just. The Bible makes it very clear that there will be a Final Judgment at which all people who have ever been born will appear. The oppressors and tyrants will not escape divine justice because we are all “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” When the Apostle Paul was speaking in the sophisticated ancient city of Athens, which prided itself on its wisdom and its broad-minded worship of many gods, he told them that God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed and has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

God is also gracious and compassionate. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of sinful people. By his death he paid the price of our sins and satisfied the demands of divine justice. The hymnwriter, William Rees, wrote, “On the Mount of Crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide. Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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Baby Asher

The birth of a first child is an occasion for great joy. In June Pete and Grace, who work at Hebron School in India, rejoiced in the birth of their son Asher and their families and friends rejoiced with them. When he was five weeks old Asher was taken ill with vomiting and admitted to hospital with septic shock. Doctors discovered a twisted bowel which, sadly, could not be saved except for just 6 centimetres. Where he was in India basic treatment like replacement nutrition was not feasible.

When we were first sent news about Asher, in early August, we were asked to pray for him and Pete and Grace, because the medical team at the hospital had, reluctantly, decided to turn off his life support the following morning. However, when morning came the medical team reviewed Asher’s situation and saw that, apart from the very serious problem with his bowel, he was otherwise healthy, bright and alert. So, it was decided to continue to care for him and to seek possible places where he could be treated.

Pete, who is from the UK, discovered that there are hospitals in England that could treat Asher either by lengthening his bowel or by a small intestine transplant and that these hospitals would be willing to treat Asher. But there was one big problem – finance. There would be no charge for Asher’s treatment in England but transferring him on a special medical plane from India to England would cost £102,000, and there would also be other costs. It was decided to pray that God would provide the finance and to set up a crowdfunding page. Wonderfully, gifts have been received from thousands of people around the world to cover the costs of bringing Asher to England and he is now at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

When we experience trials in our own life, or in the lives of those we love, we, too, can pray to God for his gracious help and he will hear our prayers. Even when the way ahead is full of uncertainties, we can commit our way to him and trust him. The kindness and practical care of other people, who may be strangers to us, is a great encouragement. Every human life is precious to God, however small and vulnerable. And, amazingly, the God to whom we pray is the One who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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Finding contentment

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has led many people to reassess their situations. The length of the lockdown and continuing uncertainty about the future have had a significant impact on people’s jobs and young people’s plans for employment training and university courses. Many people are experiencing mental health problems. The “new normal” will be very different from the past. The impact of lockdown on many people’s lives has been negative.

During lockdown Billy Vunipola, who plays international rugby for England, has engaged in serious self-reflection. He has suffered injuries and experienced the disappointment of losing the Rugby World Cup 2019 final to South Africa. He says that during the Rugby World Cup “his head was in the clouds” and feels he has to grow up and set a better example to others. He feels that during the tournament he personally let England down and failed to support his brother Mako, who also plays for England. He has apologised to his team-mates and his brother and now wants to make up for lost time.

Billy, and his brother Mako, were born in Tonga. Their parents were Christians and from an early age they taught their children the priorities of life – God, school and rugby. Billy recognised that in recent years his priorities had changed and spoke to his parents. He said, “I always looked to blame someone else or something else and I finally realised, when I spoke to my parents, that I need to take ownership. Those guys never lie to me. It was hard to look at myself and I didn’t want to take ownership for things that I did. It’s hard to admit it sometimes and tell people around you that you are wrong.”

Billy has spoken about how he has rediscovered his faith in Jesus Christ. Despite being prevented from playing rugby, he has found contentment because of his faith in God. He said, “I went back to what I had been taught all my life about Jesus: whatever we do, whether we are playing rugby, or we’ve just woken up, we say thank you to God. Everything is a gift. Everything I have has been given to me; even my talent is a gift from God. I’m thankful for this gift. Knowing that Jesus is with me makes me a stronger person. I know that whatever I try to do, even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always have Jesus to lean back on. I know there is more to life than winning and losing rugby games. Everything I do must be backed up by the love of Christ.”