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Amazing love

More than 2000 years ago a young man died on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem. It seemed even to his disciples, who loved him deeply, that his death was the end of all their hopes. For 3 years he had travelled throughout Israel preaching and teaching the people and healing many sick people. Just 5 days before he was executed large crowds had acclaimed him as their king, but then had turned against him and demanded that he be killed.

As he was nailed to the cross he didn’t look like a king. The Romans knew how to humiliate and eliminate those who offended against their laws and their Emperor. A mock crown, made of thorns, had been pressed on his head and blood ran down his face and neck. His back was a mass of bleeding flesh from the scourging he had endured. As the nails were driven through his hands and his feet the Romans were making sure that this would be the end of him. Jesus of Nazareth would not be causing them any more trouble. But how wrong they were!

This Easter millions of Christians around the world are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. They see his cross, which was a place of curse and shame, as a glorious demonstration of God’s love. Through Jesus’ death in their place, and for their sins, they have found forgiveness for all their sins and have been reconciled to God. Like the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross, and saw him die, they say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Like the criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus they have heard his promise, “I tell you the truth, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Roman Empire disappeared long ago, but the kingdom of King Jesus has spread around the world. This Easter many Christians will be singing with solemn joy the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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The Grave of the Unknown Warrior

Services and acts of Remembrance have been severely restricted this year, but last week Queen Elizabeth went to Westminster Abbey for a deeply personal service at the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The Queen laid a floral tribute based on her wedding bouquet on the grave. After their weddings both she and her mother had laid their wedding bouquets on the grave.

The Grave of the Unknown Warrior was inspired by the Rev. David Railton, who, while serving as a chaplain on the Western Front during the First World War, saw a grave marked by a rough cross and a pencil-written note saying: ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’ After the war he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, proposing that a memorial to the fallen with no known grave should lie among the kings and national heroes in the Abbey. King George V and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported the proposal. The body was chosen from unknown British servicemen who had been exhumed from four battle areas, the Somme, the Aisne, Arras and Ypres. On 11 November 1920 the coffin, draped with a Union Flag, was taken to Westminster Abbey where, as it was buried, King George V dropped a handful of earth from France on it.

The grave was topped with a tombstone in black Belgian marble. The inscription on the tombstone reads, “Beneath this stone rests the body of a British Warrior unknown by name or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land and buried here on Armistice Day 1920. Thus, are commemorated the many multitudes who during the Great War of 1914-1918 gave the most that man can give, life itself, for God, for King and country, for loved ones, home and empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world. They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house.”

Around the main inscription are four verses from the New Testament. “The Lord knoweth them that are his.” “Greater love hath no man than this.” “Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live.” “In Christ shall all be made alive.” These verses remind us that no-one is unknown to God. Tragically, some great and celebrated people seem to give little thought to God. But apparently insignificant of people, from all nations, who call on him will one day hear the King of kings say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

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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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Remembering D-Day

The Normandy Landings began on 6 June 1944, known as D-Day. They were the largest seaborne invasion in history. On D-Day a flotilla of ships took 130,000 Allied soldiers over the English Channel to Normandy, they were joined by 24,000 airborne troops. Within a week more than 325,000 Allied soldiers had landed in Normandy and by the end of the month the number had risen to 850,000. They sustained very heavy casualties; 10,000 on D-Day itself and over 200,000 in the whole Battle of Normandy. The German army also sustained heavy losses.

Many brave young men perished on the beaches of Normandy. Some were killed within minutes of landing. My father-in-law, who was 27 years old, was one of the Allied soldiers who landed on D-Day. He survived but he saw many of his friends and fellow-soldiers die. When he returned home after the war, he didn’t talk about it for 60 years until his grandson and great-grandson visited Normandy and told him where they had gone. Many of the soldiers who returned from the Battle of Normandy were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but this wasn’t recognised, and they received no help.

D-Day was a decisive moment in the progress of the Allied campaign. The success of D-Day ensured that within a year the war in Europe would be over. On VE Day, 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. There was a very heavy cost in winning the victory. It is important that we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice when they gave their lives to secure the freedoms we still enjoy.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He is the supreme example of someone who laid down his life that others might live. When he died on the cross, he won the decisive victory over sin, death and hell. By his sufferings he took to himself the punishment we deserve so that we might be forgiven and be free from fear and condemnation. When he rose from the dead, he gave us a living hope. His ultimate victory lies in the future when he will return in glory and power and the kingdoms of this world will become his kingdom and he will reign forever. He taught his disciples to always keep his ultimate victory in mind and to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.”

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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!”

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The burden of debt

Debt is a growing problem for many families in Britain. In 2017 the average annual overspend for families in Britain was £900. It is estimated that £19bn is owed for utility bills, missed council tax payments and repayment of overpaid benefits. There has also been a rapid increase in borrowing on credit cards and poorer families are increasingly looking to payday loan companies for loans to cover daily living costs. The interest charged by these companies is astronomical.

It is only too easy to be enticed into taking credit when companies offer interest-free or low interest credit for new cars, furniture, the latest technological gadgets, new bathrooms and kitchens. The cost of getting everything needed for their children to go to school at the beginning of a new academic year has recently put real pressure on many families. Children experience peer pressure to wear high-cost clothes with designer labels and to have the latest smartphone and tablet.

Debt can be crushing. I remember visiting a man who was seriously in debt. He had been injured in a car crash and could no longer work. His marriage had broken down and he had run out of money. He was afraid of the post arriving because there would be more red letters demanding payments he couldn’t make. His bank refused to lend him any more money and he was afraid that one day the bailiffs would arrive. He was imprisoned in his house and deeply depressed. He needed someone to come alongside him. Together we were able to work through his situation and find a way to address his debts. Today Christians Against Poverty is one organisation which helps people to manage their debts and to face the future with hope.

The Bible also speaks about another debt we owe because we break God’s laws. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray “Forgive us our debts.” All of us have this debt problem, whether we are rich or poor. Every day we do and say things we know are wrong and so our debt to God increases. As many people try to ignore financial debts so we may push this debt to the back of our minds. But Jesus encourages us to face up to our moral and spiritual debt and to ask God to forgive us. Jesus died on the Cross to pay the price of our sins and so through him we can experience the joy of forgiveness and the cancelling of the debt we owe to God.

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O thank the Lord for all his love

We have passed the autumn equinox as the sun has crossed the equator. Traditionally, the full Harvest Moon reminded farmers of the need to complete the harvest. Because of the very hot and dry summer harvesting began early this year and generally the yields have been good. In many churches harvest thanksgiving services are being held and are attended by larger than normal congregations, especially in rural areas. Farmers, more than most people, know how dependent we are on the annual crops their land produces. Those crops will provide us with food for the coming year.

It is good to give thanks to God for all the good things he gives us. Many people, young and old, in churches and in schools, will this year again sing well-known harvest hymns. One harvest hymn gives thanks to God for the way he provides us with our daily food and also gives us so many other blessings as well. “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand: he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

True thankfulness, however, is more than words sung once a year. It involves an ongoing response of love for and delight in God who blesses us in so many ways. The last verse of that harvest hymn says, “We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. Accept the gifts we offer for all thy love imparts, and what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.”

The greatest gift God has given to the people of this world is his Son, Jesus. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Out of love for us, Jesus came from heaven to live among us and then to die on a cross to pay the price for all the sins we have committed. Those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and believe in him receive God’s gift of eternal life; a life that begins now and lasts for ever. Their response is always, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

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The Lord is risen!

Easter is a joyful time for Christians around the world. On Easter Day they greet one another with the words “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” The bodily resurrection of Jesus on the third day after he died is at the heart of Christian faith. After seeing Jesus die on the cross his disciples were devastated. Jesus had told them many times that he would be killed and then after three days would rise, but on the resurrection morning there was no expectation this would happen.

While it was still dark, some women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried to anoint his body with spices and found the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. They didn’t immediately think that Jesus had triumphed over death but thought his enemies had stolen his body. On the evening of that day Jesus appeared to his disciples. When they saw him they were overjoyed, but one of their number, Thomas, was not with them. When they told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later Jesus again appeared to his disciples and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus said to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

When we first met Gladys she was a very sad person. She had been brought up in a Welsh chapel but had stopped attending because of problems she had experienced. She was dying of cancer and was very bitter against God. A Christian lady began visiting her. She read the Bible to Gladys and prayed with her and, after a little while, Gladys began coming to church. One Sunday evening God spoke to Gladys through Psalm 34 and she put her trust in Jesus as her saviour. I visited Gladys on the last night of her life. She was very ill. I asked her, “How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, you know what I mean!” She was looking forward to going to be with her risen Lord in heaven because “those who die believing, die safely through his love.”

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A costly sacrifice and a living hope

The courage and self-sacrifice of the French gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was remarkable. When an armed man took hostages at a supermarket in Trébes, near Carcassonne, Arnaud offered to take the place of a woman hostage whom the gunman was using as a human shield. Within minutes of taking the woman’s place Arnaud had been fatally wounded by the gunman and later died in hospital. The woman whose place he took survived the ordeal. A short time before he died, Arnaud was married in the hospital in a religious ceremony to his beloved Marielle. They had already been married in a civil ceremony but were planning to be married in church in June.

Arnaud grew up in a non-religious family but experienced a genuine conversion in 2008, when he was 33 years old. From that time on he was keen to learn more about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. What he learned about Jesus prepared him for the moment when he offered to take the place of the woman in the supermarket. Arnaud knew that since he had been converted his life belonged to Jesus who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This weekend Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he died on the Cross Jesus paid the price of our sins. He took our place and suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we may be forgiven. The joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour is expressed in a well-known hymn, “My sin, O 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 may soul.”

On the third day after he died Jesus was raised from the dead. The women, who went early in the morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, were met by two angels who asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian hope. Arnaud’s death was tragic, but he knew Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Jesus made a wonderful promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

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She has saved me

Sergeant Alexander Blackman has been released from prison and has been reunited with his wife, Claire, who tirelessly campaigned for him to be freed. On being reunited with his wife, Sgt Blackman said, “She has saved me. Her determination to keep on fighting for me has been incredible. You just can’t imagine anyone cares for you that much.” Sgt Blackman was a Royal Marine and served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He and his troops manned an outpost deep in hostile territory that has been described as “the most dangerous square mile on earth.” They served in stifling temperatures of 50C, under intense psychological pressure, knowing every step might trigger a land mine.

One day Sgt Blackman shot a severely wounded Taliban fighter whom they had captured. What he said and did was recorded on video. In December 2013, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the first time a British soldier had been convicted of murder on the battlefield. Last month, after a sustained campaign spearheaded by his wife, Sgt Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The appeal judges recognised he had combat stress and reduced his sentence to 7 years, paving the way for his release.

It will take some time to adjust to his new life. He has been dismissed from his beloved Royal Marines and has been offered a civilian job. He said, “Being out of prison is an immense feeling, but I am very conscious that my sentence is not complete. I have been released on licence, and there are certain conditions which I must – and I will – respect.”

All of us have done things that we deeply regret, but cannot change. We feel guilty and long to find forgiveness. The Christian Gospel tells how Jesus, God’s Son, came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins. He lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died on the cross bearing the punishment we deserve. How amazing that anyone could love us so much as to die in our place! When we know Jesus as our Saviour, we are set free from guilt and experience the joy of being forgiven. God’s forgiveness is complete and final; there are no conditions. When we experience God’s love in Jesus we, for the first time, truly love God from our hearts and cannot stop thanking him for what he has done for us; in Jesus, he has saved us!