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A Great Rescue

Early on Saturday afternoon Matt, a good friend of mine, who is a member of his local cave rescue team, received an emergency call. A caver was seriously injured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system in South Wales and needed urgently to be rescued. Matt responded immediately and joined the 300 volunteers from across the country who also responded to the call. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu is one of the deepest cave systems in the UK, with its lowest passageways 901ft below the surface. It is suitable only for experienced cavers who see everything from huge chambers, beautiful formations, to yawning chasms and thundering river passages. The rescue operation was very complex and Matt and the other team members would not get home until Monday evening.

The injured caver, George, and his partner were a mile into the 43-mile cave network when George fell suffering injuries to his tibia, fibula, jaw, and chest. He couldn’t move. When the rescuers found George, they immobilised him on a stretcher and began the long journey to the surface. There were many natural obstacles to negotiate including narrow passages, boulders, potholes, and waterfalls. It was exhausting work, so the rescuers worked in shifts.
It was necessary to undertake a long journey underground to get George to an exit big enough to get the stretcher through, but the rescuers were determined to rescue him however long it took. On Monday evening George and the rescue team emerged from the caves and he was taken to hospital. One person said, “Volunteers from everywhere were ready to put their own lives on the line to rescue a fellow caver.”

The greatest ever rescue operation was undertaken by Jesus Christ. We were all in great danger, so Jesus came from heaven to rescue us. The apostle John tells us, “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.”

Jesus laid down his life on the cross to rescue us by suffering the punishment our sins deserve. One hymn says, “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame. Yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – blessed be his name! Then dawned at last that day of dread, when desolate, yet undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head, he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame, he saved me – blessed be his name!”

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Facing our fears

Fear is in the air. During the pandemic many people have been afraid of catching the virus, of being seriously ill and even dying. Every day we are told on national television how many people are infected and how many have died. Some scientists are forecasting a very difficult winter ahead with more people dying from the virus and from seasonal flu. At the COP26 Climate Change Conference some scientists have projected the devastating consequences of global warming. Unless world leaders act now it will be too late.

Young people are being especially impacted by fear. They look to people like Greta Thunberg who has become a global voice on climate change. She is disdainful of the broken promises of world leaders to effect change while saying, “We owe it to young people to give them hope.” Greta says, “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Fear can be a good response. Good parents teach their children to be careful crossing roads because they may be knocked down by a car. They teach their children that fire burns and that electricity can give them a nasty shock. Such fear protects us from danger. It only does us good. But fear can also paralyse us, especially when there is little we can do to avoid the danger, and our safety depends totally on the actions of others. This fear is increased when people constantly tell us there is no God. We are on our own in this vast universe and there’s no one there to help.

The Bible tells us that knowing the living God enables us to face our fears. David, who was a courageous man, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” In a time of national crisis, God spoke to the people through the prophet Isaiah, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock.” In Psalm 23 David says that when the Lord is our shepherd, we can even face death without fear: “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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Be near me when I’m dying

The House of Lords has been debating the Assisted Dying Bill that proposes making a new law to enable adults who are of sound mind and have six months or less to live to be provided with life-ending medication. The person wanting to end their life would have to sign a declaration approved by two doctors, which would be signed off by the High Court. The bill is being proposed by Baroness Meacher who said that it would help a “small but significant number of dying people avoid unwanted suffering at the end of life”. The proposed law would mean that helping a person to plan for an assisted death would no longer be a criminal offence.

Anyone who has cared for a loved one who is terminally ill will understand the pain and heartache this involves. I am visiting two very good friends who are very seriously ill. They are being lovingly cared for by their families and are being supported by excellent palliative care teams. Everything possible is being done to help them and their loved ones to cope with a very difficult situation. It is a privilege to be able to come alongside them and their families at this time knowing that one day I too will have to face death. We talk together, read the Bible, and pray to God, our heavenly Father, who helps us in a way no other can as we face death.

David’s words in Psalm 23 have been a great comfort to countless people, “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.” As we face death we can feel very alone. We leave those we love so much and must pass through that dark valley on our own. The Lord, who is the good Shepherd, knows our fears and promises that he will be with us to keep us safe and bring us into the presence of our heavenly Father.

The death and resurrection of Jesus were decisive and give us a sure hope. The apostle Paul told the early Christians that Jesus, our Saviour, “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” A well-known hymn about Jesus dying on the cross says, “Be near me when I’m dying: O show thy cross to me; thy death, my hope supplying, from death shall set me free. These eyes, new faith receiving from Jesus shall not move; for those who die believing die safely through Thy love.”

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The Wonder of Reconciliation

In May 2019, 15-year-old Leah met up with a group of friends in a car park in her hometown of Northallerton. Connor, who was 17 years old, gave Leah MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, a Class A drug. Connor was involved with county lines gangs which target vulnerable teenagers and use them to supply drugs. After taking the drug Leah collapsed and died. Connor was charged with supplying drugs and was sent to prison.

After the trial Leah’s mother, Kerry, and Connor’s mother, Tammy, were introduced to each other through restorative justice which brings those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm into contact with each other with a view to repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. Kerry didn’t want to meet Connor but agreed to meet Tammy.

As Kerry and Tammy talked, they were able to understand each other’s situation. Kerry realised that they had both lost something. Tammy knew her son was involved with the gangs and had tried, without success, to get help for him, including reporting him to the police. She felt a deep guilt and shame over Leah’s death. Kerry told Tammy that Leah was her “best friend”, and that she felt “a lot of hatred” about how she had died.

Following their meeting Kerry and Tammy decided to launch a campaign “Do You Know MDMA?” to get the message out that drugs kill. Kerry says, “People will look at us and think it’s an unlikely friendship. They will see us as two separate people, but we are both grieving. They are both our children. I feel if we can tell our story we can try to educate people. Leah died and I can’t let that be for no reason.” Many people have been deeply moved by Kerry and Tammy’s story and pray that because of their campaign other young people will not die from taking drugs.

Reconciliation is a powerful thing and is at the heart of the Bible’s message. All of us have sinned and rebelled against God but through his Son, Jesus Christ, God has at great cost provided the way of reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’ For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

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Who is my neighbour?

Recently I was driving on a fast dual carriageway when I saw a man in the central reservation waving his hands. As I got nearer, I saw an elderly man who looked very confused standing near the other man. It seems the elderly man had dementia, had left his care home, and had wandered onto the dual carriageway. He didn’t realise the danger he was in, but someone, seeing he was in danger, had stopped to help him and take him to safety. Some years ago, an elderly friend of mine who suffered from dementia left his home without his wife, who was his main carer, knowing and was knocked over by a car and died.

I was so encouraged to see someone who was willing to take time to care for a vulnerable stranger who was in need. This is not common in our society today. When we set aside the first Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, the second Great Commandment: “Love our neighbour as you love yourself” also becomes a casualty.

A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus told a story about a Jewish man who was attacked when he was travelling on a lonely desert road. The thieves robbed him of all his possessions, beat him severely and left him half dead. Two religious leaders passed by but, when they saw the man, didn’t stop to help him. Then another man, a Samaritan, came by. He stopped, cleansed the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day he gave the inn keeper money to continue taking care of the man. Jesus said this man showed what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The story Jesus told was especially powerful because at that time most Jewish people had nothing to do with Samaritans because they were of mixed-race heritage. Jesus taught that true neighbour love goes beyond the love of family and friends and reaches out to strangers. Jesus himself exemplified such love in coming from heaven to this world to seek and save people who are lost. His death on the Cross paid the price of our sins so that through him we might experience God’s forgiveness and receive the gift of eternal life. Christians joyfully sing, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.”

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I believe in God

Many people in Western Europe today have embraced secular humanism. They have rejected religion and believe in the freedom of each individual to set the terms of his or her own life. Nature is all there is, and science is the key to understanding our world, our universe and ourselves. They do not appeal to a supernatural being, such as a Creator, because they tell us, the universe came into being through a chance event, an accident. Our individual and collective future and happiness depends on the principle of the “survival of the fittest”. The consequences of this world view are being painfully worked out in our society today.

Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970 at the age of 97, was a very intelligent mathematician and philosopher who embraced a secular humanist world view and understood its melancholic implications. He wrote, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach and where none can tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Brief and powerless is man’s life, on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that enable his little day.”

The Christian faith stands in stark contrast to secular humanism. The Apostles’ Creed is a well-known summary of what Christians believe. It says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

Those who believe these truths can face everything life may bring to them knowing that, because their Lord and Saviour Jesus lives, they will live with him forever. We all need such a hope.

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Perfect love drives out fear

The desperate and tragic scenes at the Hamad Karzai International Airport in Kabul have vividly portrayed what terrorism is all about: producing terror in men, women, and children. The ordinary people in Afghanistan are in profound fear of the Taliban and thousands want to flee from their home country to avoid savage punishments or death for alleged offences against Sharia law. Taliban means “students”, who have been schooled in conservative Islamic teaching and are committed to militant Islam. The development of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been encouraged and financed from outside the country.

One of the accusations Jesus faced was from conservative Jewish leaders who alleged that he and his disciples didn’t keep the “traditions of the elders.” Over the centuries various Jewish religious leaders had added to God’s Law hundreds of their interpretations of that law so that keeping their “traditions” had become more important than the Law itself. Jesus said their “traditions’ contradicted God’s Law and made it null and void. The conservative religious leaders hated him for this. All religions are liable to such gross distortions and become especially dangerous when imposed on people by religious zealots.

Early one morning Jesus was teaching a crowd in the Temple at Jerusalem when a group of strict religious leaders appeared. It was one of the great annual pilgrimage feasts and they brought with them a woman they said they had caught in the act of adultery. They told Jesus that the law of Moses said that such women should be stoned and asked him, “What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into either contradicting the law of Moses or offending the Roman authorities who didn’t allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment.

Jesus knew these men were hypocrites. They had brought the woman, but had let the man go free, and were pointing their fingers at the woman to conceal their own sinfulness. So, he said, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” God’s love in sending his Son to pay the price of our sins creates in the hearts of all who experience it a profound gratitude and a deep love for God.

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I shall behold his face

On 11 July Richard Branson travelled as a passenger on Virgin Galactic SS Unity 22, a supersonic rocket-propelled spacecraft, to the edge of space. This test flight lasted one hour and reached an altitude of 53.4 miles above the earth. It was the first flight with a full crew and was the culmination of 17 years of work. The aim is to fly fare-paying passengers on joyrides to space and back at a cost of at least £200,000 each. Richard said, “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age. It’s been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a kid but honestly, nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space. It’s just magical.”

There is already a waiting list of wealthy people wanting a seat on future flights to the edge of space. No doubt it will be for them, too, the experience of a lifetime. But it will be an exclusive privilege only a few can enjoy and will last just one hour. Yet there is an experience anyone, whether rich or poor, can enjoy which is infinitely more wonderful and lasts for ever. Recently a good Christian friend of mine died from renal failure. His wife and family feel his loss very keenly, but are comforted by knowing that their loved one is now in heaven, in the very presence of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth.

The night before he died on the Cross Jesus told his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

People from every nation, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, who have received Jesus Christ as their Saviour have this wonderful hope. They know that when they die, they will go to heaven and be with their Saviour for ever. It is God’s free gift to them. A well-known hymn says, “God by himself has sworn, I on this oath depend: I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend. I shall behold his face, I shall his power adore, and sing the wonders of his grace for evermore.”

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Remarkable People

Dan Walker is a well-known BBC presenter who has presented Football Focus and Match of the Day and now the “Breakfast” morning show. Dan recently published a book entitled “Remarkable People” in which he tells the stories of people who have inspired him during his 20-year career. Dan says they are remarkable “either in the way they’ve dealt with adversity or inspired those around them by the way they’ve acted or the difference they have made.”

Dan is a Christian and says, “My Christian faith is what makes me tick.” He became a Christian in his early teens when he started thinking deeply about his place in the universe: “I wanted to understand who I am; who God is; what my relationship with Jesus Christ is and what I wanted it to look like.” Eric Liddell, the Olympic athlete who became a missionary in China, and then a prisoner of war, has had a big influence on Dan. Eric was a Christian and in 1924 didn’t run in the Olympic 100 yards final because it was on a Sunday. Instead, he ran in the 400 and won the gold medal.

Eric Liddell’s story is one of self-sacrifice. As a famous athlete, he was offered a prisoner exchange, to return to the UK in exchange for a Chinese prisoner, and he turned it down. He gave his place to a pregnant woman who went back and had her child. Three months later Eric died in that prisoner of war camp. Dan says, “I just find that sacrifice incredible and inspiring. Eric did that when nobody was watching. Eric was a real hero who thought of others not himself.”

In his book Dan writes about his friend Gary Speed, the international footballer and Wales’ coach, who tragically took his own life. The day before he died Gary had been on Football Focus with Dan and had seemed fine. The next morning Alan Shearer called Dan to tell him, “Gary’s gone!” Dan has asked himself: “Did I do enough? As a Christian, could I have done more? Could I have said something or done something that could have led to him still being here today?” Gary’s death changed the way Dan relates to the people he interviews because underneath they may be struggling with big problems, and it may even be the last time he speaks to them. There are mysteries in life that we can never fully understand but Dan says, “I think my faith gives me real perspective, and also something and someone to cling on to.”

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We will remember them

On 6 June 2021, the 77th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings, the new Normandy Memorial was opened at Ver sur Mer, overlooking Gold Beach. The names of the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who died on 6 June 1944, and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy, are inscribed on 160 stone columns. The site also remembers the French civilians who died during this period. About 100 veterans and their families, who were unable to attend the ceremony at Ver-sur-Mer because of coronavirus restrictions, gathered at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to watch remotely.

George Batts, a Normandy veteran now 95 years old, who had dreamed of this day for many years and energetically raised money to build the memorial said, “Only those who were there on D-Day can truly know what it was like. We lost a lot of our mates on those beaches. Now, at long last, Britain has a fitting memorial.” Prince Charles, who is patron of the Normandy Memorial Trust, said: “The memory of these remarkable individuals should be preserved for future generations as an example of personal courage and sacrifice, for the benefit of the wider national and, indeed, international community.”

Remembering the past is important. Future generations owe an incalculable debt to those who gave their lives to secure the freedom we enjoy. George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, many of those who survived D-Day, including my wife’s father, didn’t talk about the traumas they experienced, they wished they could forget. At remembrance services the words of Laurence Binyon are recited, “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.”

The Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme example of love, courage and self-sacrifice. The night before he died, Jesus shared a Passover meal with his disciples. He broke bread and passed around a cup of wine saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” When Christians celebrate Holy Communion they remember their Saviour, Jesus, who died that they might be forgiven and rose from the dead to give them a living hope. They also look forward to the day when Jesus will return and men “will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”