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.”

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.”

The “lullaby mothers” of the DR Congo

The outbreak of Ebola in the DR Congo is very serious. Over the past year more than 2,000 people have died out of more than 3,000 cases. Nearly 600 of those who have died are children. New treatments are available, but many people are afraid to seek treatment because this involves being isolated away from their family and being cared for by strangers.

Yet in the midst of the suffering and sadness there are beautiful examples of love. More than 3,500 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents by the outbreak. A group of grieving women who are at the epicentre of the outbreak, known as the “lullaby mothers”, are caring for babies who are orphans or who are at risk. They are providing these little ones with a priceless tonic: the human touch.

In April Joniste Kahambu lost her three-year-old son to Ebola, but she herself survived. As a result, she has antibodies in her system that protect her against re-infection. She has returned to the clinic where she was treated and is helping to care for babies who are being kept in isolation. As a stand-in mother she feeds the infants, holds and soothes them; a labour of love that she says eases her own pain. “If I had to stay at home, I’d think too much about my son. Many babies have lost their mothers and need our love. Caring for them is my way of helping the people who looked after me.”

In March, another of the lullaby singers, Gentile Kahunia, watched two of her four children die in a week, even as she herself was responding positively to treatment at the clinic. The love she once showed them is now given to the children of other women. She says, “I feel relieved and can forget a little about the death of my children when I take care of the ones here. I treat them like they are my own.” One aid worker said, “The touch of these women provides the orphans with essential human interaction and a glimmer of hope, their selflessness, kindness and bravery are immeasurable.”

There are many Christians in the DR Congo and the love of these mothers reminds us of the transforming love of Jesus. One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

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.”

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.”

My son belongs to Jesus forever

The news media agenda moves on rapidly. Significant events are reported and then quickly forgotten as the next story breaks. On Easter Sunday suicide bombers killed at least 253 people and injured 500 at churches and high-class hotels across Sri Lanka. Most victims were Sri Lankan citizens, including many children. How have those who were affected by the bombing coped?

One of the churches that was bombed was Zion Church in Batticaloa which lost 29 of its members, including 14 children. The Sunday School children and their teachers were on their way back to the main service for breakfast when the bomb was detonated. Among those who lost their lives were 13-year-old Jackson and his Sunday School teacher and aunt, Verlini. Jackson’s father, Verl, lost his son and sister, who died on the spot, and his brother-in-law who died a week later in hospital.

Verl said, “Losing someone hurts. They are special people. They were not killed, they were sown, like seeds. Jesus died on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday he was resurrected. My son, sister and brother-in-law died, but were resurrected with Jesus on that day. My foundation is Jesus Christ. I’m zero. Jesus is everything. My son was mine for 13 years, but he belongs to Jesus forever.”

When we experience deep pain and loss it is important not to turn away from God but to turn to him. He is the only one who can heal our deepest wounds. In the Bible Job was a man who suffered greatly. He was a righteous man, but he lost his seven sons and three daughters and all his flocks and herds in a series of tragic events. When he heard news of what had happened Job fell to the ground in worship and said, “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.”

We can only make sense of the things that happen to us in this life in the light of eternity. The Sri Lankan bombers passed immediately into the presence of God and were judged in righteousness. The Christians they killed in Zion church passed immediately into the arms of their Saviour and will be with him forever. The book of Revelation has beautiful descriptions of heaven where Jesus is the shepherd of his people who “leads them to springs of living water,” and God “wipes away every tear from their eyes.”

The call for justice

The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong have brought back memories of the Tiananmen Square protests in May 1989. On 9 June more than one million people in Hong Kong marched against a controversial extradition bill which, if approved, would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Three days later, Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at a crowd of hundreds of thousands surrounding a government complex. On 15 June Hong Kong’s leader decided to suspend the bill rather than scrapping it. The next day two million people took to the streets in protest calling for her resignation.

In 1989 in Tiananmen Square, in central Beijing, hundreds if not thousands of unarmed peaceful pro-democracy protesters were massacred and tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across China were arrested. The Chinese authorities have never disclosed the total number of people detained, tried or executed throughout China since the 1989 crackdown. Even today the authorities forbid all mention of the protest. One image that symbolised the Tiananmen Square protest is of a lone man in a white shirt carrying shopping bags standing in front of a tank sent to disperse protesters. It was a David and Goliath moment!

People protests against longstanding political leaders are happening in many countries including France, Algeria, Venezuela, Haiti, Sudan, Georgia and the Czech Republic. Ordinary people are standing together to protest against corruption and the abuse of power and to call for justice.

God is passionately concerned about justice. His people were once slaves in Egypt and were ruthlessly oppressed with forced labour. The Egyptian midwives were told to kill all Hebrew boy babies. In their suffering the people cried out to God and he heard them. He raised up Moses who confronted Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler of the day, demanding that he let God’s people go. God rescued his people and set them free. Today God holds all people responsible for their actions and he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice.

God is also merciful. None of us is able to stand before God’s judgement and be declared righteous. So, God, against whom we have all rebelled, in love sent his Son, Jesus, to deal with our sins by dying in our place. His death satisfied the demands of God’s justice and offers mercy and forgiveness to us all. Through the cross on which his Son died God shows us that he is fair and just and also makes sinful people right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

When God graciously intervened

The ceremonies marking the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings were very significant occasions. It was moving to see the humility of the veterans as they spoke, with tears, of their experiences and of their friends and colleagues who died who were, they said, the true heroes. It was right that tribute was paid by world leaders to the courage of those who took part in the landings.

Theresa May said, “Many were terribly wounded, and many made the ultimate sacrifice that day, and in the fierce battle that followed, as together our Allied nations sought to release Europe from the grip of fascism. These young men belonged to a very special generation, the greatest generation, a generation whose incomparable spirit shaped our post-war world. They didn’t boast. They didn’t fuss. They served.”

However, there was something missing that highlighted the difference between our present leaders and those who led our nation during World War II. No reference was made by the political leaders to the gracious intervention of God in delivering Britain and Europe from a cruel tyranny. The generation who fought in World War II were very conscious of their dependence on God.

Soldiers who fought in World War II were given a copy of John’s Gospel, inscribed with these words: “We commend the Gospel of Christ our Saviour for it alone can effectively mould character, control conduct and solve the problems of men and nations, and thus make life what it should be.” The statement was signed by the Commanders in Chief of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force.

Seven times during World War II the King and Parliament called the whole nation to prayer. On each occasion God answered by a remarkable act of deliverance. The first National Day of Prayer was on 26 May 1940 when the entire British Army, of 350,000 soldiers, was about to be wiped out in Dunkirk. God answered prayer, the Channel became a millpond and more than 330,000 soldiers got home safely.

Another National Day of Prayer was called for 8 September 1940 when Britain’s air force was vastly outnumbered by the Nazi bombers and fighter planes. Against all the odds the British air force won the air battle. Air Chief Marshall Dowding said: “I will say with absolute conviction that I can trace the intervention of God … humanly speaking victory was impossible!” Today we face different kinds of threat and our leaders are obviously struggling. It’s a time for us all to humbly acknowledge our desperate need for God to graciously intervene.

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.”

I lift up my eyes to the mountains

The photographs of long queues of climbers waiting to reach the summit of Mount Everest have been seen around the world. Climbers want to take advantage of a short window of favourable conditions to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world. Their ambition is to stand for a short time “at the top of the world.” But climbing Everest presents real dangers from altitude sickness, wind and weather and avalanches. Over the years about 300 people have died on Everest, many of whose bodies remain on the mountain.

This spring, during the short periods of fine weather, 381 people have ascended Everest and 10 climbers have died. One man from Britain died minutes after reaching the summit and a man from Ireland died in his tent. A man from India died from exhaustion after being “stuck in traffic for more than 12 hours.” George Mallory, who took part in the first British expeditions to Everest, died on the mountain in 1924. His body was not discovered until 1999 and it is not known whether he and his companion, Sandy Irvine, reached the summit. When Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest he replied, “Because it’s there!”

The majesty of great mountain ranges like the Himalayas creates a sense of awe in the human heart. They tower above us and make us feel how small and vulnerable we are. Those who reach the summit of Everest are tiny specks in a vast universe. It is often impossible to recover the bodies of those who perish in the attempt because of our human limitations. Mount Everest stands unmoved as human beings die on its heights.

So, we must look beyond the mountains to the almighty God who created them and in whom we can find help in life and in death. In Psalm 121 the psalmist wrote, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”