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!”

We will remember them

At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.

This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.

In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “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.”

In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Saving lives in Yemen

For more than 3 years Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, has been devastated by a civil war between Houthi rebels and the supporters of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Children are paying the heaviest price as they face the threat of bombs, hunger and disease. Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 and that more than 11 million children now need humanitarian assistance. A recent airstrike hit a school bus carrying children under the age of 10 on a summer school trip: 40 children died, and dozens were injured.

Cholera is a major threat because the sewage and sanitation systems have been destroyed during the civil war. In 2017 there were more than 1 million cholera cases in Yemen. More than 2000 people died, many of them children. However, a new international initiative has reduced the number of new cases by 95%.

Using NASA satellite technology, the Met Office in the UK produces a rainfall forecast for Yemen 4 weeks ahead of time which pinpoints areas likely to be hit by heavy rain. This is important because downpours overwhelm the sewage system leading to a spread of cholera. The forecasts are analysed by a team of scientists in the USA to predict the areas where outbreaks of cholera are likely to occur. They use information such as population density, access to clean water and seasonal temperatures. The information is passed to the UN’s children’s charity, UNICEF, which then deploys resources to prevent the spread of the disease. Simple sanitation advice, such as washing hands and drawing water from safe sources saves thousands of lives.

The situation in Yemen illustrates our human predicament. On the one hand human beings are capable of great evil, leading to the death of many people, and on the other hand our God-given intelligence and skill can save many lives. In Yemen both facets are seen side by side. In our personal lives we also struggle with our natural inclination to selfishness and our ability to express love and kindness.

The apostle Paul vividly described his own struggle; “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Paul and many other people have found the answer to this struggle in Jesus Christ through whom they have experienced forgiveness for their sins and have been given strength to live a new life.

Choose a good reputation

Cliff Richard has won his case against the BBC for seriously infringing his right to privacy. When the South Yorkshire police advised the BBC that they had received an allegation that Cliff sexually assaulted a child in the 1980s, the BBC covered the police search of Cliff’s apartment and named him. The judge, Mr Justice Mann, ruled that naming Cliff was unlawful and awarded him substantial damages. The ruling means that an individual’s right to privacy takes precedence over the public’s right to know.

In interviews following the case an emotional Cliff spoke of the immense stress he has experienced, even though he has never been arrested or charged. He feels that, because he was named, his reputation has been irreparably damaged by a false accusation. He feels it is impossible to undo what has been done by the BBC naming him when the investigation had only just begun. He feels it is unjust that, after spending a lifetime trying to do the right thing, his reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many people. At first he felt hate towards his accuser, but then prayed to God for the grace to forgive him.

Having a good reputation is more important than enjoying success, being rich or living a celebrity lifestyle. The reputations of some well-known people have been totally destroyed because they have been found guilty of terrible crimes. The book of Proverbs says, “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.”

Cliff has stood out in the entertainment world because of his clean image. He is known as a Christian and his life has often been scrutinised in an attempt to find some flaw or fault. Cliff became a Christian in 1966 and, at first, thought he should quit rock and roll, but was persuaded by friends to continue to sing and perform and to be a witness for Jesus in the pop music scene. He has been an ambassador for Christian relief agencies, such as TEAR Fund, and has tried to use his good name and fame to help others.

Jesus told his disciples that they would be persecuted and falsely accused, as he himself was. He told them, “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.”

Crushing guilt and true forgiveness

The appalling case of Larry Nassar revealed how he used his position as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University to sexually abuse more than 250 women and girls over a period of 20 years. In January, Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 7 girls, including US Olympic gymnasts, and was sentenced to 175 years in prison. He had previously been sentenced to 60 years for child pornography offences and last week received an additional sentence of 40-125 years. He will spend the rest of his life in a high security prison. He will never be released.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was 15 years old when Nassar began abusing her. She was the first of Nassar’s victims to make allegations against him. She was also the last of more than 150 survivors to share her impact statement in court. Rachael is now a lawyer and is married with 3 children. Her statement was powerful and deeply moving.

Rachael said, “Throughout this process, I have clung to a quotation by C.S. Lewis, where he says: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?'”

“Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimisation or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt, so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.”

Teach us to pray

Tearfund, a major Christian relief and development charity, recently commissioned a survey on prayer. Over 2000 adults took part in the survey which revealed that more than 50% of people in Britain pray. One in three people pray regularly at a place of worship. Many people also pray as they go about their daily activities in the home, as they travel and exercise, and before they go to sleep.

People pray to thank God and to ask him to bless their family and friends, especially in times of illness. More women (56%) pray than men (46%) and even some who would describe themselves as “non-religious” pray in times of crisis and desperation. Previous surveys revealed that more teenagers and people in their early 20s are likely to pray than their parents’ generation. Younger people tend to be more conscious of the needs of others and often pray for peace in the world and for an end to poverty.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him to teach them to pray and he taught them what we call The Lord’s Prayer; “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”

This is a wonderful example of how to pray. Our prayers don’t need to be long or complex as if we need to impress God with fine words. The Lord’s Prayer is so simple a young child can say it. When we pray we focus our thoughts on the one true, living God, the creator of all things. We are small and vulnerable but he is almighty and gracious. His name is holy, and he is worthy to be praised. Wherever his kingdom comes on earth there is a foretaste of heavenly joy and peace.

We can ask him for our daily food and to forgive us for the wrong things we say, think and do every day. All of us need his protection in the face of the temptations to sin and many evil influences that are all around us. And, amazingly, Jesus taught us that we can know God, in an intimate way, not as some remote, impersonal power, but as our heavenly Father who knows us and loves us!

Fighting the hate that killed Jo

The response of Jo Cox’s family to her tragic death has been deeply moving. Her sister Kim said, “For now, our family is broken but it will mend in time, and we will never let Jo leave our lives. She will live on through Brendan, through us and through her truly wonderful children who will always know what an utterly amazing woman their mother was.” Jo’s husband, Brendan, said, “Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.”

Evil and hatred are a very real part of our life in this world. The cold-blooded murder of a young mother and MP, in a small Yorkshire community, is one example of this evil. So are the events in Syria in which the daily fighting and bombing claim the lives of ordinary men, women and children. Jo campaigned passionately for the people of Syria and other needy nations around the world. In the face of evil people, and the finality of death, we all feel our helplessness but, nevertheless, are determined that evil, in all its forms, must be defeated.

The death and resurrection of Jesus give us grounds for real hope and confidence that evil will not triumph. The ministry of Jesus brought great blessing to the lives of many people as he healed the sick, cast out evil spirits and raised the dead. Yet, those in authority hated him and determined to destroy him. He was betrayed by one of his disciples, arrested, falsely accused, mocked and condemned to die. He died in deep agony and pain on a Roman cross. His disciples and family were devastated and helpless. They were unable to do anything to change the course of events.

On the morning of the third day after he died, however, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, who struggled to realise that he really had conquered death. By his resurrection Jesus triumphed over sin, evil and death. His triumph gives hope to the people of our sad and troubled world because he has “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Heaven is real. God has also set a day when Jesus “will judge the world with justice” and will make all things new. Love and justice will indeed triumph.

What do you think about?

What do you think about? Our minds are an important part of who we are. Many are keen to make sure their bodies are fit, so they eat the right things and exercise regularly, but do we have the same concern to maintain a healthy mind? Near the end of his letter to the Christians at Philippi the apostle Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

These words seem especially helpful for our world at this time. It is easy for our minds to be filled with bad and depressing things. We hear news reports of desperately evil things being done. We see pictures of towns and communities destroyed by bombs and children being killed or maimed. Much of the internet and many television programmes are characterised by cynicism, bad language, and unwholesome content. Our newspapers expose the failures and corruption of prominent people, whose decisions may affect our lives. At a personal level many of us struggle with unhappy family situations, with unemployment, or just the daily grind of making ends meet.

Paul is not encouraging us to be escapists, who can’t cope with the real world. He and the Christians in Philippi lived under the domination of Rome. Daily life was hard. Paul was in a Roman prison and would soon be executed because he was a Christian. It would have been easy to simply dwell on the bad and evil things that were happening, but he knew it was important not to lose sight of the best things because they are the things that will ultimately endure. All the evil things which now dominate our world and our lives will one day pass away.

Last Sunday afternoon I was driving along the Gower coast. It was a beautiful, tranquil, autumn evening. The sun was setting, the sea was calm and the landscape was tinged with beautiful autumn colours. The whole scene spoke to my heart about God, our wonderful Creator. He is eternal and is the source of all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. He has revealed his amazing love for the world in his Son Jesus, who came that we might have life and have it to the full. Because Jesus came into this world we can look forward to the time when there will be “a new heaven and a new earth filled with God’s righteousness.”

The man who saved 669 children

Sir Nicholas Winton has died at the age of 106. About 6000 people in the world today owe their lives to Nicholas. He was a stockbroker who became aware of the plight of Jewish families when he was on holiday in Prague at Christmas 1938. In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II he organised the rescue of 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia through an operation known as Kindertransport. He found homes for the children and arranged safe passage for them to Britain. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland. Many of the parents perished in Auschwitz.

Nicholas kept the wonderful things he did, in saving so many Jewish children, secret for more than 40 years until in 1988 his wife, Greta, found a detailed scrapbook in the attic. In 2002, at the age of 93, he received a Knighthood for this work.

Nicholas illustrates the amazing contrasts there are in the actions of human beings. Seeing the growing power of the Nazis in Europe, which led to the death of millions of Jewish people, he took action to save lives. He said, “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.” The death of millions of Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps was one of the greatest acts of evil in the history of the world. It is a warning to us all of the frightening capacity of the human heart for evil. The courageous act of one man in saving so many lives also shows us the amazing capacity of human beings for goodness and kindness.

The reticence of Nicholas to tell people what he did is remarkable. Jesus spoke of the great day when we will all stand before God in judgement. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When the righteous say they can’t remember doing these things for him, the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

VE Day Remembered

This week is the 70th anniversary of VE Day when, on 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. As World War II in Europe came to an end celebrations erupted from Moscow to Los Angeles. In Britain more than one million people celebrated on the streets of London. King George VI and the Queen, accompanied by Winston Churchill, appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were allowed to join the celebrating crowds incognito.

It is no wonder there were great celebrations. The dark years of World War II, the deadliest conflict in history, were over in Europe, and 3 months later the war in the Pacific also ended. During the War the Allies lost 61 million people, of whom 45 million were civilians. The Axis countries lost 12 million people, including 4 million civilians. Many millions of people were also injured.

The history of the world reveals the constant reality of evil and wickedness. In every generation wicked people kill and maim men, women and children in pursuit of their own evil ambitions. Every day we hear reports of the wars and conflicts in our world today. Will it ever come to an end?

The Bible answers this question and provides a coherent view of history. The universe didn’t come into existence by chance, but by the creative act of God. He created the heavens and the earth. Everything he created, including men and women, was good. In early history, however, sin entered the world as the first man, Adam, disobeyed the command of God. From that time on sin and evil have always been with us and stem from our rebellion against our Creator. The course of human history reveals the tragic consequences of this rebellion.

In his Son, Jesus, God decisively intervened in the history of the world to bring hope to the nations. By his death on the cross Jesus defeated death and the devil and brought a new age of hope for the peoples of the world. He sent his disciples into all the world to preach a message of good news and hope to all. As they have received Jesus as their Saviour, people from all nations have found peace with God and hope for the future. One day the Kingdom of God will be consummated and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” What a celebration there will be when that day comes!