All good gifts around us

Farmers have safely gathered in the harvest for another year. The early season was very dry and during the harvesting period there has been a lot of rain. One farmer said that out of a harvest period of 70 days only 10 were good days for using the combine harvester because the ground was so wet. Some crops have been harvested when they were damp and will need to be dried out. A new strain of blight has also caused problems so that crops in the barns will need to be carefully monitored over winter.

Most of us are almost totally unaware of the challenges farmers are facing. Supermarkets source produce from many parts of the world so we are less aware of the seasonal nature of our food. In the Western World we are protected from the vagaries of uncertain harvests. We expect to be able to buy many things all the year round.

But it’s not like that for millions of people in the world. In East Africa this year there has been a severe and prolonged drought, made worse by ongoing conflicts, that has caused a major food crisis. As crops have failed and animals have died people, including many children, are seriously malnourished and some have died. The shortage of safe water has also led to deaths from cholera-like diseases. It is estimated that in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, 20 million people are in urgent need of food supplies.

In many places around the country, in churches and in schools, Harvest Thanksgiving services are being held. Many will remember our dependence on God for our daily bread and give thanks to him as they sing, “We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

We must also remember those who are in great need and are starving. The Apostle John wrote, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”

God will wipe every tear from their eyes

Many people in our world experience deep sadness and weep. A mother from an Italian mountain village weeps as she carries the body of her 8-year-old daughter who died in the earthquake. In the same village, a woman weeps as she looks at the ruins of her house; in a moment she has lost everything she possessed. A father weeps beside the body of his 10-year-old son in a hospital in war-torn Aleppo. A young mother, who has always loved and cared for her 3-year-old-daughter and 2-year-old-son, weeps as she sees them for the last time before they are adopted by order of a Family Court. A mother weeps as she and her family live in a refugee camp in Greece. A wife weeps as she cares for her husband who has dementia and realizes he no longer recognizes her or knows her name.

The Bible speaks comfort to people everywhere who are experiencing deep and devastating sadness. The God who speaks to us in the Bible is not the “unmoved Mover” of the Deists, who is untouched by the pain and sadness of those he has created. The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” When the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of Jesus he said, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with grief.”

In his Son, Jesus, God came alongside a suffering world and showed love and compassion to people experiencing grief and sorrow. When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he wept. When he saw the city of Jerusalem, and understood the devastation that would come upon it at the hands of the Romans, he “burst into tears.” He personally experienced betrayal and false accusations when he was condemned to be crucified. The depth of pain he endured as he died, in our place and for our sins, is impossible for us fully to understand. Because he has personally experienced profound suffering, he is able to empathise with us when we suffer.

So today, in Jesus, God comes alongside us as we weep. He understands what it feels like when our hearts are breaking. He also gives us “strength for today and bright hope for the future.” In the book of Revelation there is a beautiful picture of heaven. Those who are there have suffered in this world, but in heaven God himself will lead them to springs of living water and “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Lord is gracious and compassionate

Compassion fatigue is a feature of our modern world. It involves “fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others or from constant appeals from charities.” Through the media we are given vivid insights into the suffering of our fellow human beings. The news reports are immediate and show us suffering and death from around the world, sometimes as it is actually happening. Some news items are prefaced with a warning “some viewers may find this report distressing.”

In recent weeks we have heard of 400 migrants who died in an attempt to reach Italy from Libya when their boat, which was carrying 550 people, capsized. Men, women and children perished in Mediterranean Sea. In Ecuador a devastating earthquake destroyed schools and hospitals leaving 413 people dead and at least 3000 injured. Amazingly, a 72 year-old man was rescued 13 days after the earthquake. Air strikes destroyed a Doctors Without Borders’ hospital in Aleppo in Syria and killed at least 60 people, including sick children and doctors. Dr Muhammad Waseem Maaz, the only paediatrician in the hospital, died in the attack.

It is right for us to be moved with compassion for those who suffer. They are human beings, created in the image of God, who have all the same hopes and aspirations we have. They are helpless as their communities and their loved ones are destroyed. This world is a place of suffering and much of it is caused by man’s inhumanity to man. We feel overwhelmed by the scale of the need and the inability of either world leaders, or ordinary people, to bring an end to the suffering.

How precious it is that in times of overwhelming suffering we can turn to the living God for comfort and strength. He is not “the unmoved Mover” who remains impassive and untouched by the suffering of those he has created. Psalm 103 says, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Jesus, who uniquely revealed the heart of God, had compassion on the crowds because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We can pray to God for all those who suffer, and for ourselves, that they, and we, will find in Jesus the One who gives “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

Blessed are the merciful

Early one morning in October 2014 Brian Herrick dropped his partner and three sisters at East Midlands Airport for an early-morning flight to Malaga. On his way home he was waiting at a red light, just a few miles from the airport, when a lorry crashed into his car. Brian died as a result of the accident. His partner and sisters heard the news of Brian’s death as soon as they arrived at Malaga and flew straight back to East Midlands.

At a recent hearing at Nottingham Crown Court the driver of the lorry, Luke Bates, pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He said his attention had been distracted and he had not seen the red light until it was too late. At the court Brian’s family asked the judge not to send Luke to prison because they did not want his 2 young children to be left without a father. They also realised that Luke would have to live for the rest of his life with the memory of the devastation he had caused. The judge said he wished to respect the humbling request from the family and sentenced Luke to a two-year driving ban and a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years. He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work.

Brian’s sister, Kathleen, told the judge, “We were brought up as Christians and were taught to be compassionate and humble. We felt so sorry for Luke’s wife when we saw her bring their young baby to the court. We weren’t going to benefit from sending him to prison. I’m sure my brother, who was a kind and gentle man, would have done the same in our position.” Outside the court, Brian’s relatives hugged a distraught Luke.

Mercy is a rare, but beautiful, quality. Our society loves to blame people and condemn them. Some people try to justify their wicked acts because they are retaliating against what other people have done to them. Jesus taught that true strength and dignity is seen not in revenge and “getting our own back”, but in mercy. He said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” When we show mercy to someone who has wronged us, and forgive them, we release the potential for healing and restoration both for them and for us. It is also good to remember that one day each of us must appear before the Judge of all the earth whom we hope will show us mercy.

From heaven he came

The Duke of Westminster is one of the wealthiest people in Britain. He has had a lifelong commitment to the military and recently retired from the Army Reserve. As a two star General he visited British military personnel in many war zones including field hospitals where wounded soldiers were being treated. He is now leading a project which he believes will be his life’s achievement.

The Defence National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, near Birmingham will provide care for wounded service men and women. The new centre will be built in the grounds of a stately home surrounded by a 360-acre estate, including its own lake. The centre will treat soldiers suffering from trauma, neurological injury and mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Duke’s vision is for wounded soldiers, many of whom have grown up in urban areas, to be treated in a beautiful place. When they arrive at the Centre they will think, “Wow, someone is really going to look after me here.”

In a recent interview the Duke spoke of the sense of alienation returning service personnel feel. After one visit to Iraq he called to see two of his soldiers who had been injured before going on to what he called “an immensely fancy house party.” He said, “I walked into the dining room and everybody was there with candles, women in dresses, black ties, and I had to walk out. Walking in through these big double dining room doors and seeing people laughing as if nothing was going on. I just could not cope with that and I had dinner by myself. One of the blokes I had been to see was an 18-year-old in the Parachute Regiment who had lost two arms and a leg; another had lost both legs. I could not cope with the two worlds in such a short space of time.”

This reminds me of Jesus. He left the riches of heaven he had always known and came to this sad world. He lived among us and then, when he was just 33, was executed on a Roman Cross. He loved needy people like you and me so much that he gave his life for us so that through his sacrifice we might one day go to heaven. Heaven is an exquisitely beautiful place. Everyone who enters heaven will be amazed at its beauty and will realise how much God has loved them that he has prepared such a wonderful home for them to enjoy, with him, for all eternity.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away

This week there will be a debate in the House of Lords on a Bill to legalise “assisted dying” which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally-ill patients. If passed, the law would apply only to those who it is judged have less than 6 months to live and would have to be signed off by two doctors. The patient would administer the substance themselves, although they would be able to receive help if they could not lift or swallow it. So the Bill would legalise assisted suicide.

Compassion is at the centre of the debate. What is the compassionate thing to do for someone who is terminally ill and, possibly, in great pain? Over my years in the ministry I have pastorally cared for many people in such situations and their families. I have witnessed the amazing courage of terminally-ill people and seen the loving care of their families which has surrounded them. The skill and commitment of the medical team and the palliative carers has been wonderful to see. Even though everyone involved knows that death is drawing near, they have committed themselves to showing compassion and love to the dying person.

The proposed Bill presents a very different picture of compassion. When a terminally ill person feels they cannot go on those who are with them, both family and medical team, will agree that the compassionate thing to do is to allow them to end their life, even though they may have as much as six months to live. Lethal drugs will be prescribed and, then, the person, either on their own, or with assistance from those nearest to them will take the drugs and, within a short time, die. A husband or wife or son or daughter will have to live with the realisation that they played an active role in the death of someone they loved very deeply.

As I have visited terminally ill people it has been amazing to see how God has wonderfully sustained them. He has given them grace to face each day as they have experienced the deep love of their family and friends. When, finally, they have died the family had no sense of guilt but have been able to trust God to comfort them in their deep sense of loss. They could say with Job, when he suffered great personal loss in the death of all his children, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Give me neither poverty nor riches

A project in Staffordshire which gave foodbank vouchers to some shoplifters has been suspended after the police and crime commissioner intervened. The commissioner ordered a review and said it was “absolutely not acceptable” for it to appear criminals were being rewarded for stealing. During the 5 months the project has been running just 7 vouchers have been given to people who had been caught shoplifting. The vouchers entitled the people to receive an emergency supply food from a local foodbank. A recent report said that one in five British households is now borrowing money to buy their weekly food.

The first food bank was established in a garden shed and garage in Salisbury in 2000. There are now more than 300 foodbanks nationwide run by churches and communities. In 2011/12 they gave emergency food to over 128,000 people. The Trussell Trust, which coordinates the foodbank project, is concerned that people in crisis should not go hungry. They prioritise families with children under the age of 16 and people over 65.

The film Les Misérables tells the moving story of Jean Valijean who was sent to prison in 19th century France for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. When he was released on parole his life was changed when a Bishop offered him food and shelter and graciously intervened to stop him being sent back to prison again. Because of the Bishop’s kindness Jean was a transformed man. He tried to find freedom and a new life, but spent the rest of his days in constant fear of being discovered, all because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his wife and children.

In the book of Proverbs Agur prays, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.” Agur was a wise man who knew that poverty may bring great pressure on us so that we do things we know to be wrong. But he knew also that riches are a greater danger. Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Kindness and compassion can transform lives in a way that self-righteous condemnation never does.

Compassion for those facing disaster in Pakistan

The floods in Pakistan have been devastating. They began more than two weeks ago in the mountainous north-west of Pakistan and have swept south across a quarter of the country including its agricultural heartland. The monsoon rains continue to fall and have affected 20 million people in an area the size of England.

At least 1500 people have died and diseases like cholera threaten the lives of many more, especially children. People have lost their homes and possessions, their animals and crops and face a very uncertain future. They need food, emergency shelters, medicines and clean water. The long term economic consequences for Pakistan are very serious. This disaster is the latest in a string of disasters this year that have affected millions of people in many parts of the world.

We live on a very beautiful planet which provides a rich abundance of natural resources, enough to provide for everyone. Yet in several ways we are reminded that all is not well. Disasters reveal the massive power of natural forces against which we feel helpless. Human sin and corruption spoil and mar the lives of many and often contribute to the effects of natural disasters.

Disasters are not a sign that the people who experience them are especially sinful. Many who suffer are young children. In the Bible we are told of the experience of Job, a very rich man who lived a righteous life. Yet he suffered great personal tragedy as he lost his crops, animals, home and all his children. In the face of this tragic loss he put his trust in God saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

We often strive to understand why such things happen and want to find answers to our questions. The answers are at best tentative and partial. Job experienced something better. God didn’t answer all his questions, but he drew near to Job in his anguish and suffering. God showed him his compassion and mercy so that Job could say, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Let us pray that those who are suffering so much today will not only receive the humanitarian aid they so desperately need but will also know the compassion and mercy of God.