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Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known; another’s tears, another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

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Precious in God’s sight

The activities of A-list celebrities are always in the news. To be on the A-list you have to be at the top of your field and be able to demand very high salaries. Film stars and directors, recording artists, international sports stars, social media personalities, moguls and international TV broadcasters are on the A-list and are admired for their social status and lifestyles. They invite each other to extravagant parties and celebrations and fly in private jets. Most of us will never be on the A-list, but does it matter?

God has created every one of us as unique and precious human beings. We are not the product of blind chance or the pinnacle of an impersonal evolutionary process. Each of us has been created by God in his image with a capacity to know and love him and to experience his love. In Psalm 139 David reflects on this, “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

We find our deepest happiness and fulfilment in knowing God. During his earthly ministry Jesus encountered many people and valued each one of them. He never met anyone whom he thought was unimportant. He had time for everyone. He transformed the life of a Samaritan woman who had experienced five broken marriages, he raised to life the only son of a widow, he touched lepers and healed them, he restored the sight of blind beggars and promised a dying criminal that he was forgiven and would soon be with Jesus in heaven.

Some years ago, I visited a simple, wooden home in a very poor community in Brazil. A new-born baby had died, and his little body was lying on a table. He had been born prematurely in the back of a car because his mother couldn’t afford to go to the hospital for the birth or for him to receive the urgent medical treatment he needed. His birth had never been registered. Officially he didn’t exist, but he was precious in God’s sight. Jesus once put a child on his knee and said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

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A time for giving and receiving

The days leading up to Christmas are very busy. There are cards to write and send and presents to find and buy. It is an exciting time, especially for children. This year times are hard for many people and they have less money to spend. There are already many special offers in the shops. Many families are apprehensive about how they will afford the cost of Christmas, but are still looking forward to precious time together.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving. At Christmas we want to give special gifts to those we love. This need not involve great expense. We want to express our love in a gift which has been carefully planned and which we know they will really like. Christmas morning is eagerly awaited, and not only by the children!

At the first Christmas God gave a very special gift to the people of his world. It is the greatest gift ever given. Then, as now, the world was a sad place with many troubles. The Roman Empire dominated many nations, including Israel, and most people were poor. Jesus came, not to solve the problems of the day, but to solve the biggest problem we all face – our sinful hearts and lives. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord!” Our sins spoil our relationship with God and separate us from him. Jesus came to reconcile us to God by living a sinless life and dying on the cross for our sins. The name Jesus means “Saviour!” God, against whom we have all rebelled, took the initiative by giving his only Son to be our Saviour.

Opening a present from someone we love brings great joy. Parents enjoy watching their children opening their present and seeing their delight when they see what it is. The child’s instinctive response is to give their parents a hug and to tell them they love them. Have you ever responded to God’s gift of Jesus like that? Do you love God for giving you such an amazing gift? It brings great joy to God when anyone receives Jesus as their Saviour. This Christmas, like the shepherds, why not take time to receive Jesus, God’s gift to you, and to thank him for his love to you.

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Mary’s Son

Preparations for Christmas are well under way. It’s a very expensive time. Last month an estimated £7billion was spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the run up to Christmas 2017 people in Britain spent £50billion and then spent another £12billion between Christmas and New Year. Why, in the middle of winter, do many of us spend money we can’t afford on food and drink and expensive presents our family and friends may not really need? Why do poorer families feel left out because they don’t have either money or access to credit?

We don’t need to spend money and incur crippling debt to focus on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Familiar carols recount the wonder of it all. “Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child. He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall; with the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

Mary and Joseph were a newly married young couple. They weren’t rich or famous. Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth and Mary was expecting their first child. When it was nearly time for the baby to be born, they had to travel on foot to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor was taking a census. Everyone had to go to their family town for the census. Because Joseph was descended from King David, he and Mary had to go to Bethlehem which was David’s town. When they arrived in Bethlehem there were no guest rooms available in which they could stay so Mary gave birth to her firstborn son in a stable.

Mary’s son was God’s Son. He came into the world to give hope to all who receive him, rich and poor, both in this life and the next. The carol lifts our eyes and thoughts above this often sad world to the glory of heaven. “And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone. Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”

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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.

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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.”