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Forgiveness

Recently I heard a very moving interview with a lady, Lawill Concy, who lives in the town of Gulu in Northern Uganda. Her husband is a Christian minister. Lawill spoke about atrocities which she suffered 10 years ago at the hands the “Lord’s Resistance Army”, a vicious rebel group.  She, together with 10 other women, was abducted by some LRA rebels. They were taken several miles into the jungle to a rebel camp.

The rebel commanders ordered a young boy, who was about 12 years old, to mutilate the women with a very sharp machete.  They were told, “Don’t cry or scream when the knife comes or you will be killed straight away.” The women were then left to struggle back to the town. The women will have to live for the rest of their lives with the serious facial disfigurement inflicted on them.

Lawill explained how she has coped with her traumatic experience. For several years she was afraid to leave her home. If she had come across the man who mutilated her she would have wanted to kill him for what he did to her. But she went on to say, “But now I’m ready to forgive him and the others. Now I have put myself in the hands of God. The Bible says we should forgive one another. So, I’m ready to forgive them all.

Lawill’s story is very moving and powerful.  In an age when hatred and revenge motivate many, a forgiving spirit is striking and beautiful. It reminds us of God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was rejected and condemned by the people, many of whom had experienced his love and kindness. The crowd shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  As he hung dying on the Cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!”  One man who was crucified with him experienced God’s forgiveness before he died.

Lawill has experienced the love and grace of Jesus. She knows that God has forgiven her sins because Jesus suffered and died in her place. Her experience of the love of Jesus has made her a truly beautiful person.  Through the strength Jesus gives her she is able to forgive men who did such wicked things to her. She knows, too, that the young boy who mutilated her, and carries it on his conscience still, can also find God’s forgiveness through Jesus.

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I will fear no evil for you are with me

Fear is a universal human experience. For many of us fears lie just beneath the surface.  A recent YouGov poll of more than 2000 people found that 31% feared dementia most as they grow older, compared with 27% who were most scared of cancer. Interestingly, however, 18% said they feared death more than anything else. This fear was not about the process of dying, which makes many of us apprehensive, but death itself.

In the Western world we are living longer than ever before, but we still have to face death. The Bible calls death an enemy, the last enemy. Despite the attempts of some to present death as a simple transition from one room to another one in five people are more afraid of death than anything else.

I remember visiting a man who was in hospital recovering from a heart attack. He was in the coronary care unit and I could see the machine which was monitoring his heart rate. It was 48 hours after the heart attack and he was making good progress. He seemed relaxed and comfortable. During the conversation I asked him if the doctors had told him when he would be able to go back to work and was alarmed to see his heart rate suddenly more than double! It was not a helpful question to ask. The heart attack had created understandable anxiety about the future which was just beneath the surface.

Psalm 23 has been a source of spiritual strength to many people. In the Psalm David rejoices in the Lord who is his Shepherd and who cares for him in every situation of life, in death and in heaven. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

A well-known hymn speaks of death as being like the river Jordan which the Israelites had to cross in order to get to Canaan, the Promised Land. It wonderfully expresses the hope that Jesus Christ gives when we are trusting in him. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside, death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side. Song of praises I will ever give to Thee.


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Building our Lives on Jesus’ Teaching

We are facing some big challenges. Global is changing the pattern of our weather. We are using up the world’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate. HIV/Aids continues to claim many lives around the world. Our large national debts will take many years of pain to reduce. We are still learning how to live alongside each other in our multi-cultural society.

All these problems, and many more, will not be easily or quickly solved. The actions of this generation are creating problems which our children and grandchildren will have to face and try to solve. Many parents and grandparents are apprehensive about the future of their children and grandchildren.

There is, however, a bigger problem for our children which we seldom seem to consider. There is a moral and spiritual vacuum. Do we ever consider the moral and spiritual values we are passing on to our children and grandchildren? As a nation we have swept aside the moral and spiritual principles on which our society has been built. The sanctity of life, the importance of personal moral purity, the sacredness of marriage and the absolute necessity of honesty and integrity have been undermined. The new “progressive” thinking is based on the autonomy of human beings to think and do whatever they like. In reality we are not moving into greater enlightenment but into moral and spiritual darkness. The consequences for future generations are disastrous.

Sadly, in this situation many churches and Christian leaders are failing the people. Their own personal doubts about the Christian faith, their lack, in some cases, of personal morality and integrity, and their desire to be politically correct and popular mean they are incapable of giving clear moral and spiritual teaching. Christian churches generally seem to lack credibility.

It would be good for us all to sit at the feet of Jesus and to learn from him in childlike trust and dependence. He spoke with authority, unlike the religious leaders of his day. His words continue to speak to the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world today. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapters 5 to 7) he said that those who hear his words and put them into practice are like a wise man who built his house on the rock. History has proved that lives built on the teaching of Jesus are able to withstand all the storms that life throws against them.

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The God of the nations

The civil unrest in Tunisia and Egypt has brought tens of thousands of people on to the streets. The demonstrators have been ready to confront the police and army and to put their lives at risk.  Some have died and many more have been injured. Most of the demonstrators are ordinary people protesting against the injustices of life imposed on them by oppressive regimes. The Presidents and government officials are very rich and corruption is rife. In a desperate attempt to bring change people have been ready to put their lives on the line.

But regime change is complex, whether through intervention by other countries or through popular uprising.  There is no guarantee that the new regime will be better than the old. The hopes of many people in the former Soviet states have not been fulfilled. The material prosperity they were seeking has not reached the ordinary people and, in some ways, life for many has become even harder. The people of Iran, who demonstrated for the overthrow of the Shah, have not found it easy living under the Ayatollahs and an authoritarian President.

The early Christians lived under the authority of the Roman emperor. They were persecuted because they would not worship the emperor and affirm “Caesar is Lord!” Some were put in prison, others were executed. The apostles Peter and Paul were executed by the Roman emperor.

How did the Christians respond to this? They were encouraged to be content and to pray. Although many of them were poor, and some were slaves, they were encouraged to be content with their situation. Paul wrote, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”  In the 21st century discontentment is common. The media and internet make us very aware of what other people have. But it is still so important for us to thank God for what we have and to seek to be truly contentment.

Paul also urged the Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives, in all godliness and holiness.” Those in authority over us need our prayers. One day God will call them to account for all they have done, whether good or evil.

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Nicholas Winton was a good man

Not many people know the name of Nicolas Winton, who is now 101 years old. He was a stockbroker who became aware of the plight of Jewish when he was on holiday in Prague at Christmas 1938. In the months leading up to the outbreak of  World War II he organised the rescue of 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia through an operation known as Kindertransport. He found homes for the children and arranged safe passage for them to Britain. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland. Many of the parents perished in Auschwitz.

Nicholas Winton kept the wonderful things he did, in saving so many Jewish children, secret for more than 40 years until his wife, Greta, found a detailed scrapbook in the attic in 1988. In 2002, at the age of 93, he received a Knighthood for this work.

Nicholas Winton illustrates the amazing contrasts there are in the actions of human beings. Seeing the growing power of the Nazis in Europe, which led to the death of millions of Jewish people, he took action to save lives. The death of millions of Jewish people in the Nazi concentration camps was one of the greatest acts of evil in the history of the world. It is a warning to us all of the frightening capacity for evil in the human heart. The courageous act of one man in saving so many lives shows us the amazing capacity of human beings for goodness and kindness.

The reticence of Nicholas Winton to tell people what he did is remarkable, especially in an age of shallow “celebrities”.  Jesus spoke of the great day when God will judge all people. No-one will escape his righteous judgement. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The righteous will say they can’t remember doing these things for him to which the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.

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A stranger in need is a friend indeed

The reports of the floods in Brisbane have shown the great power of natural forces. In moments flash floods swept away cars and destroyed property. The story of 13 year old Jordan Rice is deeply moving.  The car he and his family were travelling in was hit by a wall of water which began engulfing the car. Mike McErlean and Chris tried desperately to help the family in the swirling torrent.  As Mike and Chris got to the car Jordan, who could not swim, was nearest to them. He insisted that they take his 10 year old brother, Blake, first. Before the rescuers could get back to the car it was swept away taking Jordan and his mother, Donna, with it. They both died.

Out of the tragedy and deep sadness of natural disasters amazing stories of human courage and kindness often emerge. These 2 men risked their lives to save strangers. One man said that in Brisbane they have proved the truth that, “A stranger in need is a friend indeed.” Human beings have a great capacity for selfless and sacrificial action. Life is so precious that we may be ready to put our lives on the line in order to save people we don’t even know.

This is because we have been created by God and bear his image. We are not the result of time and chance, but have been made what we are by a gracious, wise and loving Creator. At our best we are like him, we are essentially relational. In the Bible the 2 greatest commandments are to love God with all we are and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  These are not arbitrary commands but express the heart of what God made us to be – people who love him and love each other.

Jesus came from heaven to earth to rescue us. He was ready to die on the Cross so that our sins might be forgiven and that we might be reconciled with God. Like little Jordan, Jesus did not put his own interests first.  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.”  When we realise the love of God for us in Jesus our lives are changed forever. For the first time we really love him from our hearts as we respond to his amazing love for us.

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God speaks through the Bible

This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, the Authorised Version. There have been a number of special events to mark the anniversary including lengthy readings from it on Radio 4. The text of the King James Bible is memorable and many have commented on the impact the translation in terms of its literary excellence.
The main significance of the King James translation, however, is that it was an authorised translation of the Bible into the language of the English people. This was the culmination of a long process in which Christian men had committed their lives to ensuring that ordinary people in England would be able to read God’s Word in their own language.  It was a costly struggle.  Just 75 years before the King James Version was published William Tyndale was burned at the stake, at the age 42. because he had translated the Bible into English. It is estimated that 75% of the King James Old Testament and 84% of the New Testament is Tyndale’s translation.

Why have Christians committed their lives, and even died, to translate the Bible into the ordinary language of people around the world? The answer is because the Bible is no ordinary book, it is God’s Word. Christians believe that what the Bible says, God says. It is the authority for everything they believe and do. It is a guide through life and a comfort in all the circumstances of life. It reveals God and his great love in his Son, Jesus Christ. The Bible is true and is full of God’s wonderful promises. Countless people have experienced this personally.

The King James translation of Psalm 23 has brought comfort and strength to countless people.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

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I know who holds the future

As another year begins it is pleasant to greet family and friends with the words “Happy New Year!” The greeting is sincere and comes from the heart. A new year brings new hopes and expectations. It is a new beginning, full of possibilities. This year, however, I have been very conscious that the coming year will not be easy for many people in the world and for a number of my family and friends. We are passing through difficult times and the future for many is uncertain.

A few weeks before Christmas one of our neighbours lost his wife, who died suddenly while in hospital. He faces this year living alone in the home they had shared for so many years. Some of our good friends are receiving treatment for cancer. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are very unpleasant and underneath the surface there are many fear and anxieties. The 9 year old daughter of some friends faces a major operation this week to remove a brain tumour. If all goes well there will be a long period of recovery and adjustment. Some are experiencing long-term unemployment and wonder if they will find a job this year, others are anxious about possibly losing their job.  They are uncertain how they will cope with the loss of income and, possibly, the loss of their home. So I have not greeted them with the words “Happy New Year!” but, “May the Lord go with you into the coming year!”

Some years ago a young man whom we knew died following a road accident between Christmas and New Year. He was driving to work early one morning when his car skidded on ice and hit a tree leaving him seriously injured. For some days he was unconscious in hospital before he died. His young wife was devastated by the loss of her husband. They had only been married for a short time. She chose a hymn for his funeral service which expressed her faith in God as she faced a very difficult and uncertain future.  “I know who holds the future, and I know He holds my 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.”  God did indeed go before Brenda and provided for all her needs.  As you enter this New Year “may the Lord go with you!

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Welcoming strangers

The birth of Jesus brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but it also involved significant trauma. The news that Mary was pregnant seriously threatened her reputation for purity and integrity in her home village of Nazareth. The circumstances of the birth were extremely difficult as Mary gave birth to her first child in a stable, in a strange town, without the support of family and friends. Then, soon after the birth, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So they left Bethlehem at night and went to Egypt to live in exile while Herod sent soldiers to kill all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. It was several years before Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to their home village of Nazareth.

In our world today there are many people who have left their home countries in fear of their lives. Some have been threatened by the political powers in their country, others fear religious persecution. They have experienced significant trauma in leaving their home country, family and friends and settling in a strange place.

The Bible teaches Jews and Christians to welcome strangers and to be kind to them. The reason we should do this is that the Jews experienced slavery in Egypt until the God brought them out into freedom. Many of the early Christians also experienced persecution and had to flee to places of safety. The kindness we show to people from other countries living amongst us is a response to the kindness we have experienced from God.

A few years ago a young couple from the Middle East arrived in Britain as refugees. They were facing persecution in their own country. When they arrived in Britain they were detained in separate holding centres. It was their first experience of Britain and they were afraid, especially as the wife was expecting her first child. In the centre she was given a Bible and read these words from Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Through these words God spoke to her and gave her his peace.

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The Child who changed the world

Last weekend there was travel chaos at Heathrow airport. The airport was closed because of the heavy snow and icy conditions. Thousands of people arrived at the airport to find their flights cancelled. Many decided to wait hoping the situation would improve. The terminals were crowded with people and their cases as some slept the night on the floor. Old people and parents with children struggled to cope. The airlines were overwhelmed and help lines were jammed. The hotels were full and taxis were hard to find. The Christmas plans of many people have been cancelled.

It was like that in Bethlehem when Mary and Joseph arrived. Thousands of people were travelling back to their home towns for the Roman census. Bethlehem was packed with people and the inns were all fully booked. Joseph desperately looked for a suitable place for his young wife to give birth to their first child. No one offered to help them. So in a dirty stable Mary gave birth to her first born son and laid him in the animals’ feeding trough. Hardly anyone seemed to notice, or care. Joseph and Mary gave their son the name Jesus because he would “save his people from their sins.” This child would change the course of history and bring great joy to millions of people.

Christmas is a busy time, even when there is no travel chaos. There are so many things to do. It is only too easy to overlook totally the One who is at the centre of it all. It is a pity that some people will not enjoy the holidays they have planned and that some families will not enjoy precious time together. Hopefully this can be done at a later date.

But will anything in your life change for the better this Christmas? Why not spend time thinking about what God did in sending his Son into the world? You could read one of the Gospels which tell the whole story. As you read, pray that God will help you to know him better. In John’s Gospel we are told “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to his own and his own did not receive him, but to those who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”