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Rays of sunshine that penetrate the darkness

At the end of January more than 200 survivors gathered at the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, most of them Jews. The emphasis of the commemoration was on the survivors who had travelled from many parts of the world. They are now aged between 75 and 101 and this may be the last major commemoration for them.

Angela Orosz, 75, from Montreal was born in the camp. Her mother gave birth to her in secret on a top bunk in December 1944. She said, “I always claimed to my kids that I had suffered no trauma from having been here, until my daughter asked me why then, unlike other families, did I never throw potato peelings away? Because my mother had probably survived because of the peelings she had eaten and the goodness in them had enabled her to give birth to me and so I had survived. So, of course, the survival instinct I inherited from her made me always do the same.”

David Lenga, who became a successful tailor in Beverly Hills, said he refused to let the Holocaust define his life despite the fact that it claimed 98 members of his family. Only David and his father survived. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish and lost members of his family in the Holocaust, said the world should learn about humanity from the survivors whose stories of endurance and forgiveness are exemplary. “You are truly amazing. You are strong and incredibly courageous. So, you are an example that we should follow. The Holocaust is called the dark period in the history of humanity and you are the rays of sunshine that penetrate that darkness.”

The Holocaust is an example of the terrifying capacity for evil in the human heart. Political and military leaders planned the wicked extermination of millions of Jewish people and ordinary citizens carried it out. There are great mysteries in life, but there is no doubt that no one escapes God’s righteous judgement. God’s promises also offer survivors comfort in their devastating pain and loss. The prophet Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

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Remember your Creator

People are living longer. The Queen now sends more 100th birthday cards than ever before – over 10,000 cards each year to people who are 100 years old or more. However, living a long life often brings significant challenges. In the past few months three elderly friends have died. Two were over 80 years old and one was in his nineties. Each faced difficulty in the last years of their lives. One had cancer and needed surgery and chemotherapy which meant many weeks in hospital and a severely restricted quality of life. One suffered from dementia and moved into a care home where, sadly, he no longer recognised his children and grandchildren. One fell at home and was no longer able to live independently. He moved into a care home where, because of immobility, he spend many long days in his room with little variation in the routine.

Each of them was a Christian and found comfort and strength through their relationship with God. They put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour when they were young, healthy and active; old age seemed a long way off. But as they grew older the promises of the Bible gave them strength and hope. They knew the personal love and care of God and experienced the truth of Psalm 23 where David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

When they realised their life was drawing to a close they were able to face death with confidence and hope because they knew their Saviour was with them. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David’s son Solomon was a wise king. In the book of Ecclesiastes he considered the meaning of life and came to a clear conclusion, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’ Remember him – before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

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Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

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The peace that passes all understanding

On a recent Songs of Praise programme Simon Thomas spoke about the way in which God has given him strength since his wife Gemma died in November 2017. Simon became well-known to millions of people as a Blue Peter presenter before moving to Sky Sports news, becoming a lead presenter of Football League and Premier League programmes. In November 2017 his wife Gemma, who was also a Christian, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just 3 days later. Simon and his 8-year-old son, Ethan, were devasted. At that time Simon said, “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. If you pray – please pray for my boy Ethan, precious and in bits.”

On Songs of Praise Simon said he had never truly understood the “peace that passes all understanding.” He said, “I just thought it was a nice place to be, but actually it’s because you feel that sense of peace in almost impossible situations in which to find peace.” In the three days after Gemma was diagnosed, he said, “Everything’s coming at you – we’re wondering what on earth acute myeloid leukaemia is, and is she going to survive? Yet I experienced peace, amidst the noise and fear, that gives me the hope that one day I’m going to see her again.”

Simon continued, “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on, and yet at times that’s impossible to get your head around and to draw comfort from. At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith because it gives direction to everything else. It was the glue in our marriage, and it helps in terms of how we, and now I, bring up Ethan. You know, it’s the reference point for my life.

A hymn was sung at the Thanksgiving Service for Gemma which was also sung at Simon and Gemma’s wedding. The words of the hymn meant a lot to both Simon and Gemma and have given Simon strength since Gemma died. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand, till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

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My grace is sufficient for you

When my father was in hospital waiting for an operation to remove his bladder he was, understandably, anxious. Scans had revealed a cancerous tumour in his bladder and surgery was the best way to deal with it. After evening visiting on the day before the operation, when my father was on his own in his room, he opened the Gideons’ New Testament at the side of his bed. He found an index in the front of the New Testament that suggested Bible verses to read when experiencing different situations in life. He turned to the one suggested for those who are ill.

He read 2 Corinthians Chapter 12 where the Apostle Paul writes of an illness he had. We don’t know what it was, but Paul calls it “a thorn in the flesh” and makes it clear it was something that caused him to suffer. In verses 8 and 9 Paul says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Like Paul, my father had prayed that God would heal him but that evening he felt that God had spoken to him through those words and had promised to be with him and to give him the strength to face whatever lay ahead. The operation did not fully resolve the problem and, after further surgery, my father died in hospital a few weeks later. He was able to face death confident from the verses he read in the Bible that the Lord was with him.

Gideons distribute free copies of the Bible and New Testament in many countries in the world. Children starting secondary school are given a New Testament and copies of the Bible are also placed in hotel rooms, hospitals and care homes. In April 2015 the Gideons placed their two billionth copy of the Scriptures. Many people have found comfort and strength in times of crisis when they have picked up a Gideons’ Bible and read it. It has literally saved lives.

The Bible is a unique book in which the living God speaks to us. What the Bible says, God says. He makes wonderful promises in which we can put our trust like the promise of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

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We will remember them

At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.

This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.

In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “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 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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Words matter

Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.

One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”

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When mind and memory flee

More people than ever before are suffering from dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society says there are now 850,000 people in the UK with dementia, including 1 in 6 people over the age of 80. 40% of people with dementia are being cared for in care homes and 60% are being cared for by family members. More than 50% of people with dementia are in the mild stages with 12% being in the severe stage. Caring for a husband or wife, or father or mother with dementia is very demanding and exhausting.

I recently read a moving letter from a Christian lady, Ann, whose husband has dementia. They have been married for more than 40 years and served as missionaries in Asia and London. Ann’s husband studied at Oxford and was an able linguist. She cared for him for 11 years and experienced sadness, isolation and stress. Ann was sad when she saw his mind go blank and him being unable to follow conversations. He was aware of his increasing memory loss and was determined to keep his mind active. Every day he would read to Ann from his library of books and they went for long walks together. But as his condition deteriorated there were fewer visitors, which led to growing isolation for them both.

The increasing demands of care brought Ann to a state of physical and emotional collapse. Then, one evening her husband said to her, “Well it’s been lovely visiting you, but I really must go back to my parents. They will have prepared a meal.” Nothing Ann said could change his mind. For him his “present” was now the past. Wonderfully Ann found a place for her husband in a Christian care home where he is cared for with respect, dignity and love. After visiting her husband Ann is able to leave knowing that he is safe and surrounded by loving carers.

Providing loving support to people with dementia and their family is so important. Just being with them affirms their value as people created in the image of God and our love for them. It’s also a great comfort to have a future hope and to know that there is life beyond dementia in a better world. God does not forget us. A hymn sung in Communion services says, “According to thy gracious word, in meek humility, this will I do, my dying Lord, I will remember thee. And when these failing lips grow dumb and mind and memory flee, when thou shalt in thy kingdom come, Jesus, remember me.”

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The peace of God

A few years ago we were given a red mug with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On” on it. The design of the mug is based on a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The aim of the poster was to raise public morale in anticipation of the mass air attacks on major British cities. In 1940 and 1941 the Blitz killed more than 40,000 civilians and destroyed more than 1 million houses in major cities around Britain, but the 2.5 million copies of the poster were never used. However, the British people, especially those living in London, show amazing courage and resilience in the face of the terrible bombing they endured.

The motto on the poster was an appeal for stoicism – a “stiff upper lip” and calm resolve in the face of adversity. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy which encourages people to subdue their emotions through self-control and fortitude. Today, a stoic is seen as an unemotional person who seems to be indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and who accepts hardship without any display of feelings or complaint. In hard times a stoic does not look for, or expect, love and comfort, but simply accepts what life throws at them.

In his letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul presents another approach to the challenges of life. He wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When he was in Philippi Paul had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned. At midnight, when he and his companion Silas were in prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God. Their response to suffering was to rejoice in the Lord remembering his love for them in Jesus and thanking him for the many times he had blessed them in their lives. They knew that, even in prison, the Lord was with them. So they prayed to him and gave thanks to him and asked him to help them and give them his peace. When we experience adversity, as we all do, it is good to pray to God and rejoice in who he is. He hears our prayers and will give us his peace.

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Harry and Meghan’s Wedding

The joy of Harry and Meghan’s wedding was shared by 2 billion people around the world. The glorious sunshine and historic setting of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, made it a very special day for Harry and Meghan. At the heart of the day was the marriage service. Marriage is the most significant commitment any two people can make. It is a lifelong, exclusive relationship, based on promises made to each other in the presence of God and before those attending the wedding. The marriage relationship is unique as two people become one. This is why the breakdown of a marriage is so profoundly painful.

In the introduction to the service, the Dean of Windsor said, “Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.”

The vows Harry and Meghan made expressed their deep commitment to each other. Harry was asked, “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” Meghan made the same affirmation. Then they both promised to take one another “to have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law.”

One image the Bible uses to describe heaven is marriage. What an amazing privilege to be in heaven at the marriage feast of Jesus, the divine bridegroom, to his bride, the church he redeemed, comprising people from every nation. A hymn written by Anne Ross Cousin beautifully describes that heavenly marriage, “The bride eyes not her garments, but her dear Bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory but on my King of grace; not at the crown he giveth, but on his pierced hand; the Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.”