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Resurrection joy

Easter is a time of great joy. The resurrection of Jesus lifted his first disciples from a spirit of defeat and despair to an experience of great joy and hope. They saw their risen Lord who sent them out into the world to proclaim the wonderful message of the resurrection. This message has transformed many lives and the very course of history. The Apostles faced great opposition from their own people, and from the Roman authorities, but were unafraid. Most of them died for their faith – some were beheaded, others were crucified – but through their message countless people from many nations have found new life in Jesus.

Christian faith centres on the person of Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again to give us hope. Christians put their faith in Jesus, not in their religious observances. They don’t think they are better than other people, or sit in judgement on them, but are deeply conscious of their personal failures and need. They rejoice that Jesus has done everything needed to secure their salvation and gratefully trust in him as their Saviour. They have been delivered from the need to achieve their own salvation and, in response to his love, are free to live for Jesus and to tell others about him.

Many in the Western world have turned away from a living faith in God and Jesus and the consequences are clear to see. Evolutionary theory dominates. It offers no hope to our deepest needs, but declares its doleful message, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” Yet God’s wonderful creation, which is plain for all to see, constantly proclaims that he is. He created this amazing universe and our little planet, which teems with life. He created each of us and put eternity in our hearts. We were created to live with him for ever and God’s freely offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Every day during the Covid-19 pandemic we have been reminded of death. Nearly 3 million people around the world have died and their families feel the loss deeply. Most who have died were elderly, but that in no way diminishes the value of their lives. Every single life is precious in God’s sight. The great evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

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Finding forgiveness

The lives of some well-known people are coming under critical scrutiny. In the past statues have been erected to men who did notable things that benefited the societies in which they lived. Now, however, attention is being drawn to the bad things they did, including being involved in or supporting the evil slave trade.

William Gladstone was a 19th century Liberal politician who is the only person to have been British prime minister on four separate occasions. After slavery was abolished in Britain, Gladstone campaigned for slave owners, such as his father, to be compensated. Later he called slavery the “foulest crime” in British history. His family, who are not opposing the removal of his statute in Hawarden, have said, “By 1850, he was a changed man and cited the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.”

The lives of us all are a mixture of both good and bad things. Some of the things we have done are very seriously wrong, but should we be forever defined by these bad things or is it possible to really change and become a different person?

When we critically judging the actions of others, we also need to look at ourselves. Jesus warned against hypocritical judgement saying, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Final judgement belongs to God who judges justly. Our sins matter and no-one will escape his righteous judgement. Yet, in Jesus, God also reveals his mercy and grace. Every sin can be forgiven, and the experience of God’s forgiveness is life changing. In Psalm 130 the psalmist is in the depths of despair because of his sinful failures and cries out to God for mercy. He says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.”

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Miracle on the River Kwai

Captain Ernest Gordon came from Scotland and served with the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War II. Following the fall of Singapore, he was one of the prisoners of war whom the Japanese put to work on a jungle railway and bridge over the Kwai river. The conditions imposed on the prisoners were very harsh and Ernest became seriously ill. He was put in “Death Ward” and was expected to die.

There he was cared for by two very special men, Dusty Miller and ‘Dinty’ Moore. They gave 24-hour care to Ernest, boiling rags to clean and massage his diseased legs every day. To everyone’s surprise Ernest recovered and he also came to faith in Jesus Christ. He had been an agnostic, but Dusty’s simple, firm Christian faith in the face of the cruel treatment he and the other prisoners experienced made a deep impression on him. Ernest survived the war but discovered that, two weeks before the war ended, Dusty had been cruelly executed by a Japanese guard who was angry at his calmness in the face of hardship.

In his book “Miracle on the River Kwai” Ernest tells a remarkable story. Starvation, exhaustion and disease took a terrible toll on the prisoners and many gave way to selfishness, hatred and fear in a desperate attempt to survive. They felt like forsaken men – forsaken by their families, their friends, their government and even by God. Hatred of their Japanese captors became their motivation for living; they would have willingly torn them limb from limb if they had fallen into their hands. In time even hate died and gave way to numb, black despair.

One day the officer in charge said a shovel was missing and demanded that it be returned, or he would kill all the prisoners. No one moved and, then, one man stepped forward. The officer beat him to death. At the next tool check they found that all the shovels were there; there had been a miscount! The prisoners were stunned. An innocent man had been willing to die to save everyone else. Ernest said this man’s actions led men to think about the sufferings of Jesus, who laid down his life to save others, and they began to treat each other with more care and kindness. The change was so significant that when the skeletal captives were finally liberated they could, instead of attacking their captors, say to them, “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.”

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Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

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The God of Hope

The news that someone we love has taken their own life is devastating. I have ministered to families facing such a tragic loss. Some had been aware that the one who died was depressed, but, for others, there had been no indications. Some felt a sense of guilt because they had not been able to help. Others felt angry that the one who died didn’t think of the consequences their loved ones would have to face. All feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss they have experienced and a sense of the helplessness of being unable to do anything to change the situation.

In the past 45 years suicide rates worldwide have increased by 60%. The World Health Organisation estimates that one million people die by suicide every year – one person every 40 seconds. By 2020 this rate may have doubled. In the USA suicide is the third highest cause of death for young people between 15 and 24. The Samaritans report that suicide rates in the UK are increasing amongst men born in the 1960s and 70s and suggest that the changing role of men in our society may be a contributing factor.

When the apostle Paul was in Philippi he and Silas were severely flogged and put in prison. The jailer was told to guard them carefully, so he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. If his prisoners escaped, he would be executed. At midnight, while Paul and Silas we’re singing hymns to God, there was a violent earthquake. The prison doors flew open and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up and, thinking his prisoners had escaped, drew his sword to kill himself.

Paul shouted to him, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” The jailer brought Paul and Silas into his house, bathed their wounds, and gave them food. Then he was baptised and was full of joy because he had believed in Jesus.

This story shows that when we come to the point of utter despair we are not seeing things clearly. When it seems there is no hope, there always is. God is the God of hope. He saves from death, destruction and despair. He can give us joy again even out of the deepest darkness.

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God is our refuge and strength

Some new stories are very sad and reveal how vulnerable we all are when we are exposed to exceptional pressure. Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at King Edward VII hospital who answered a prank phone call from two Australian DJs, took her own life just 3 days later. Frances Andrade, a mother of 4 sons and a very talented violinist, committed suicide after giving evidence against the music teacher who abused her when she was a teenager. Both Jacintha and Frances were living fulfilled lives until they were subjected to pressures with which they could not cope. Both deaths are tragic and have devastated the families.

The apostle Paul was once imprisoned in Philippi. He and his friend, Silas, were in the deepest cell with their feet fastened in stocks. At midnight there was an earthquake which shook the foundations of the prison. All the prison doors flew open and the chains of every prisoner fell off. The jailer woke up and, seeing the prison doors open, assumed the prisoners had escaped. He drew his sword and was about to kill himself when Paul shouted to him, “Don’t do it! We are all here!”

Under great pressure the jailer made a mistake, which any of us can do. He had experienced an earthquake, saw the prison doors open, and assumed all the prisoners had escaped when, in fact, none of them had. All of us can be brought to a situation where we are in the depths of despair and feel there is no way forward, no hope for the future. It is so important to be sure we have really understood the whole situation. It is easy to think that we need to do something drastic and to do it now!

It is also important to be able to talk to those who love us, our family and friends. Feelings of despair and hopelessness are strongest when we are alone. Those who are tempted to take their own lives often feel that everyone would be happier if they were not around, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can also ask God to help us and give us strength. He is a refuge for all in need. One hymn writer, who had experienced great troubles, wrote, “How oft in the conflict, when pressed by the foe, I have fled to my refuge and breathed out my woe! How often, when trials like sea-billows roll, have I hidden in Thee, O Thou rock of my soul!”