The God of new beginnings

Alice Marie Johnson was enjoying a full and happy life. She was married to her childhood sweetheart and was the mother of 5 beautiful children. She was a manager at FedEx involved in training other managers. Then in 1989, after nearly 20 years together, Alice and her husband divorced, and her life began to spiral out of control. She developed a gambling addiction and lost her job. Then her youngest son was tragically killed in a motor cycle accident. In 1991 she filed for bankruptcy and lost her house. In 1996 she was convicted of being involved in cocaine trafficking and money laundering and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Alice knows that what she did was wrong. She says, “No mother should have to bury her child. This weight was unbelievable and was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation. I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Being in prison for life, and knowing you will never be released, is very hard. Alice wrote, “Some refer to prison as a place where hope dies. Some days I’ve found that to be almost right. But at the beginning of my time here I made a pact that I wouldn’t give up hope. Each time that I’ve come close, God has restored my faith.” While in prison Alice became an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are in prison.

A few weeks ago, Kim Kardashian, an American reality television star, met President Trump in the Oval Office and asked him to grant clemency to Alice and to give her a second chance. On 6 June the President issued an order that Alice should be released. The White House statement said, “Ms Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behaviour and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades.”

Like Alice each of us also needs to be granted clemency and to be given a new beginning. We are serial offenders in breaking God’s moral laws. Yet, amazingly God sent his Son, Jesus, to redeem us by dying for the sins we have committed. Jesus personally intervened on our behalf and pleaded our case. When we confess we have done wrong God forgives us and sets us free forever.

I am with you always

Many people in the UK today live on their own. In 2016, there were 7.7 million one person households; 54% of whom were women and 46 % were men. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of one person households increased by 15% for those aged over 65 and by 51% for those aged 45-64. In contrast, during that period the number of one person households fell by 12% amongst those aged 25-44. Some younger people are living with their parents longer than in previous generations and others are sharing accommodation with friends. In wealthy societies increasing numbers of people are choosing to live alone. In Scandinavia, for example, nearly 50% of the adult population live alone.

Not everyone who lives on their own is lonely, but many are. Those who have experienced the pain of marriage breakdown and those who have been bereaved feel it acutely. For them, living alone, eating alone and returning to an empty house at the end of each day is something they never really get used to. Communicating with “friends” through social media may help, but is not the same as human companionship and sharing the ups and downs of daily life with someone we love. It is good to have to consider someone else’s needs as well as our own. An elderly widow who lived next door to us told us that living on her own meant she could be tempted to be very selfish.

Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he died on the cross. On the night before he died he told his disciples, who had been his close companions over the past 3 years, “The time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” Yet, the next day, as he suffered on the cross, he experienced total aloneness as he paid the price of our sins. Out of the darkness he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Later, as he prepared to die, he knew the Father’s presence again. His last words were, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands.”

One of the great promises Jesus made to his disciples, as he sent them out into a hostile world to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, was “I am with you always.” Knowing Jesus as Saviour and Lord means we are never alone because, through the Holy Spirit, he really is with us.

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.”

God is with us in our loneliness

In 1963 the Post Office ran an advertising campaign using the slogan, “Someone, somewhere, wants a letter from you – just a few lines make all the difference!” The television advert showed a person who lived on their own hearing the postman passing and going to their hallway to see if a letter had arrived for them, but no letter had come. They returned to their chair looking sad.

Loneliness is a significant problem for many people today even though social media is widely used. Loneliness is sadness because we have no friends and company. Many older people are lonely. 51% of people aged 75 or over live alone. 5 million older people say television is their main company. 11% of older people have contact with their family less than once a month.

God understands our loneliness and is concerned about it. At the beginning of history he realised that it was not good for man to be alone. He created the first woman who was in every way the equal of man. God established marriage for human companionship and mutual help. Jesus experienced profound loneliness when he was dying on the cross. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” One of the great promises he made to his disciples as he sent them out into the world was “I will be with you always.”

In 1858 John Paton and his young wife set out from Scotland to be missionaries in the remote New Hebrides in the South Seas. The people of the small island they settled on were fierce cannibals. Early in 1859 John’s wife and their 5 week old son died of a fever. Suffering from the same fever John buried them.

He wrote, “I built the grave round and round with coral blocks, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small as gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine, during all the following months and years when I laboured on for the salvation of those savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers and deaths. When Tanna turns to the Lord and is won for Christ, men in after days will find the memory of that spot still green, where with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed that land for God in which I had ‘buried my dead’ with faith and hope. But for Jesus, and the fellowship he gave me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.”

“It is well with my soul – the story of Horatio Spafford”

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to declare our faith and to rest in God and his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and send them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “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!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal; O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

We will remember them

Remembrance Day is a deeply significant day as people around the world stand in silence to remember the millions of people who died in the great wars of the 20th century. The First World War ended at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1918. It was hoped that this would be “the war to end all wars”, but sadly this was not fulfilled. Because it was felt that the dead should be honoured, King George V initiated a two minute silence at exactly 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month to commemorate those who had died for their country.

In recent years we have also remembered the service men and women who are still dying in conflicts around the world. A short time after Remembrance Day services had been held in Afghanistan another British soldier was killed. 438 British soldiers have died in that campaign. 2012 also marks the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, when 255 armed forces and Merchant Navy personnel died, as well as 649 Argentinians and 3 islanders. Because many who die in war are young people, at Remembrance services someone says, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

In a world in which war and conflict, death and bereavement are daily realities, many people seek for comfort, strength and hope. In a wonderful way Jesus Christ is able to meet us at our point of deepest need. He was a young man who was committed to winning a great victory, whatever the personal cost to himself. He told his disciples, “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus knew that he could only win life and peace for people from all nations by dying on the Cross. He offered his life willingly. He said, “No-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” On the third day after he died, he rose from the dead.

Remembering can be very painful and even traumatic, especially for those who have survived. We need someone who is great enough and good enough to help us. We must never forget that Jesus is a living Lord. He comes alongside us in our sadness and, through his resurrection triumph, offers us comfort, strength and hope.