No change my heart shall fear

We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.

Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.

Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.

When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “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? 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.”

Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

To whom shall we go?

The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.

According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.

What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.

The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.

A love that changes us

When you read the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus you are struck by the number of individuals he met and helped. He responded to people of all kinds and always had time for them. No-one was unimportant to Jesus. An encounter with Jesus was a life-changing experience. Jesus visited the house of Zacchaeus, a covetous tax collector, and that day Zacchaeus became a changed man. A woman, who had lived a very sad life, talked to Jesus at a well and, for the first time, met someone who truly loved her.

The transforming love of Jesus is still being experienced by people today. We know a young lady who has had a very sad life. She grew up in a very unhappy home and in her teens moved into a hostel where she was, humanly speaking, alone. There was no-one to love and support her. Later, she had to leave the town in which she lived to find a place of safety for herself and her children. She has been a wonderful mother but, during a time of very great stress, all her children were taken into care. She, and they, were heartbroken.

On Christmas Day last year, she went to an evening service at the church she had been attending. She was feeling very low, but that night God showed her that the story of Jesus is true and she experienced God’s love in a way she had never known before. She knew a real peace in her heart and was transformed. She was a new person. She still had to face all the problems she had before, but the love of Jesus had transformed her and given her new life. Everyone who knows her can see the change knowing Jesus has brought to her life.

When she was baptised she told her story. She said, “Since I have known Jesus as my Saviour I have found peace in my life. I still experience hard times but have learned how to deal with them. I listen to hymns and sing along with them. I read my Bible and pray to God and he gives me the strength to cope and to come through the hard times. I find strength and great encouragement in God’s promises. I know that in the future there will be other hard times but I know that because my saviour Jesus Christ is with me I will be able to face them and deal with them. I can do everything through Jesus who gives me strength.”

He has made everything beautiful in its time

The Spring and early summer is a beautiful time as nature comes alive. This year I have been struck by the beautiful colours of the flowers and blossoms as they have come one after another: pure white snowdrops, purple crocuses, yellow daffodils, majestic magnolias, delicate almond blossom, pink cherry trees, bluebells, and, now, the May blossom. The sequence of flowers and colours has been stunning and, unmistakably, reveals the hand of the Creator.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon reflected on the meaning of life and wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” Solomon was famous for his wisdom and his wealth. When the Queen of Sheba visited him, and saw his palace and his court, she said, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard.” Yet, when Solomon surveyed God’s creation he saw a beauty far beyond anything the human mind could create and it moved him to worship the awesome God of who created this beauty.

Solomon also saw that the beauty of creation is transient; everything is beautiful “in its time.” The flowers fade and fall; their beauty is only for a brief time. It is the same in our experience of life. Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We bear the image of God and have the glorious capacity to know and love him. Yet, the various stages of our lives quickly pass: the beautiful baby, the boundless energy of childhood, the exciting potential of adolescence, the strength of early adult years, the immense possibilities of middle age, the beauty and dignity of retirement years, before our faculties decline. The inexorable movement of time defies our deep longing to find that which is lasting and totally fulfilling.

The transient nature of life’s beauty points us to the eternity that God has put in our hearts. We echo the words of the hymn, “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” There really is an eternal world, which is even more beautiful than this world. God is there, and the beauty of that world never fades.

The God of second chances

On 11 June Vincent Uzomah, a supply science teacher at a school in Bradford, was stabbed with a kitchen knife by a 14 year old pupil. Vincent was very seriously injured and was afraid he was going to die. The boy had racially abused Vincent and had told his school friends he was going to kill him. After the attack the boy put a post on Facebook saying what he had done and 69 people said they “liked” his post. The boy has been given an 11-year sentence and Vincent may never return to a classroom.

After the trial Vincent said, “As a Christian I have forgiven this boy who has inflicted this trauma and pain on me and my family. Our prayer for him is that he will make use of the opportunities and support that will be provided to him to become a changed person who will make a positive contribution to society.” People like Vincent shine light into our dark world.

Why could Vincent speak of forgiving a young man who so obviously hates him? Hatred and revenge are the normal human responses to those who mistreat us; forgiveness is rare. Vincent is able to forgive the boy because he himself has experienced God’s forgiveness. He became a Christian when he realised his own sinfulness before a holy God and acknowledged that God could justly condemn him for all the sins he has committed. He confessed his sin to God and asked for forgiveness. He also put his trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who died on the cross to pay the price of his sins. Vincent experienced the amazing love of God and found forgiveness and new life in Jesus. Every day Vincent continues to need forgiveness and prays, “Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Vincent’s experience of God’s love and grace in Jesus has also taught him that God is a God of second chances and new beginnings. No matter what we have done, God is able to change us from the inside and give us a new heart. That is why Vincent and his wife are praying for the boy during his time in custody. He, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and find new life in Jesus. This offers real hope to us all in our daily struggle with our sinful hearts and ways. God’s promise in Jesus is, “I will forgive their wickedness and I will never again remember their sins.”

The transforming power of God’s love

Sadly, the conflict in Syria continues despite the attempts of the UN and their special adviser, Kofi Annan, to establish a peace plan. The conflict began in January 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, when protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar-al-Assad and the overthrow of his government. In response the government has used the Syrian Army to quell the uprising and several cities have been besieged. It is estimated that 10,000 people have been killed, half of whom were civilians, including hundreds of children. Many more have been injured and imprisoned, and tens of thousands have become refugees in neighbouring countries. This month, for the first time, there have been suicide car bombs in Damascus.

Syria is a country with a proud history of power and influence in the Middle East. More than 2500 years ago Israel was dominated by Syria, which was the world super power at that time. In the Old Testament there is a remarkable story about how the supreme commander of the Syrian army, Naaman, came to know the true God. His soldiers raided villages in Israel and brought back slaves to Syria. One of them, a young girl, was taken to Naaman’s house and served his wife.

This young girl had a remarkable spirit of love and concern, even for her enemies. We might have expected her to be full of anger and hatred, but she was not. Although Naaman was a very powerful man, he had a big problem, he had leprosy. The young girl was genuinely concerned for Naaman and told his wife that she believed that her God could heal him of his leprosy. The young girl is an example of how we should respond to other people, even those who cause us pain. She knew and trusted God personally and understood that he loves people from all nations.

Naaman decided to go to Israel in search of healing. He was told by the prophet Elisha to dip himself seven times in the Jordan and he would be healed. Although, at first, he felt insulted and responded in anger to this command from God, eventually he did obey and was wonderfully healed. He experienced God’s amazing love for him and became a changed man. He said to Elisha, “I will never again offer sacrifices to any other god except the Lord.” Conflict and violence do not change hearts, but a personal experience of God’s gracious kindness always does.