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From Pitch to Pulpit

Gavin Peacock has just published his autobiography, “A Greater Glory: from Pitch to Pulpit.” Gavin’s father, Keith, played for Charlton and Gavin’s ambition was to be a professional footballer. When he was 16, he left school to play for Queens Park Rangers. Later he played for Newcastle United and Chelsea. During his career he made 540 league appearances and scored more than 100 goals. One of the highlights of his career was playing for Chelsea against Manchester United at Wembley in the 1994 FA Cup Final. After he retired Gavin worked for the BBC as a football pundit on Match of the Day.

Looking back Gavin says, “I’d achieved the schoolboy dream, if you like, I’d achieved everything that the world says will make you happy – the fame, the potential fortune, and the great career. And yet I wasn’t satisfied as I thought I would be, because football was my god. If I played well, I was up and if I played badly, I was down.”

One Sunday evening, when Gavin was 18, his mother said she was going to church, and he went with her. After the service the minister invited Gavin to the small youth group at the minister’s house. Gavin immediately noticed a difference between the other youngsters and himself: “I pulled up in a nice car, I had that bit of money in my pocket, the career, I was in the ‘in-crowd’, they weren’t. And yet when they spoke about Jesus Christ, when they prayed, there was a joy that they had, and a reality that they had that I didn’t.” Over the next few weeks, Gavin heard the good news about Jesus, recognised his sinfulness and received Jesus Christ as his Saviour. With his new-found faith, he continued with his career, no longer idolising football, but putting God at the centre.

In 2006 Gavin felt a call to preach, which he calls a “joyful compulsion”, and trained for Christian ministry. He and his family moved to Calgary in Canada where he is known more for his faith than his footballing past. He serves as a pastor at Calvary Grace Church. Drawing comparisons between football and faith, Gavin says: “I’ve played in front of 100,000 people at Wembley, and in front of millions on TV, in the biggest of stadiums, and against some of the great players. But nothing quite compares to going up there on a Sunday, whether it’s 25 people or 2,500 people, and preaching God’s Word. Because eternity and heaven and hell hang in the balance and you’re dealing with people’s souls; there’s no greater privilege.”

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It’s not good to be alone

Personal relationships are very important. On a morning walk I saw young children going back to school. They were happy, smiling and singing. They were looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers again. Soon elderly people living in care homes will be able to see one close relative face to face after, for many, having had no physical contact with loved ones for a year. Mothers teaching their children at home have experienced real loneliness. People working at home are feeling the loss of regular contact with their colleagues in the office. Protecting life is important, but life without warm relationships with family and friends can feel very empty.

In the Bible’s account of the creation of human beings we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is the first insight into who God is. There is only one God, but there are three persons within the Godhead – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are united in an eternal relationship of love. God’s image is seen equally in both men and women who long for and find fulfilment in warm personal relationships. When those relationships are lost or spoiled, life itself is diminished and people are impoverished.

God’s supreme revelation of himself is in a person, his eternal Son, Jesus, who shows us what God is like. His gracious life and death for our sins reveal God’s love and compassion for us. Jesus’ disciples walked and talked with him. They experienced his warm love for them and witnessed the compassion he showed to all who came to him need. The Apostle John wrote about Jesus, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

Recently a good friend died of Covid-19. In an attempt to save his life, the doctors put him into an induced coma. Just before he went into the coma my friend said, “God is good.” He was separated from his family, but he was not alone. Like David, who wrote Psalm 23, he trusted in the Lord, who was his shepherd, and could say, “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.”

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When sorrows like sea billows roll

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well-known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to express our faith in God and to rest in his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and sent them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said, “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “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 my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal, O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

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Tomorrow will be a good day

Captain Sir Tom Moore has been a bright shining light in dark times. He captured the hearts of many people when he decided, at the age of 99, to raise money to help the NHS cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. Before his 100th birthday he walked 100 laps of his garden and raised £39 million. He received a well-deserved knighthood and, when interviewed, humbly expressed amazement at the massive amount of money people had given.

Captain Tom’s experiences in life had taught him to be optimistic about the future. In one television interview he said, “I’ve always considered that if things are very hard, don’t worry. You’ll get through them. Don’t give in, just keep going and things will certainly get better. That’s the way to look at it.” In World War II he had served as a dispatch rider in the 8th Battalion, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was sent to Burma, now Myanmar, shortly after the Japanese had overrun a British medical station, not only killing the handful of soldiers but bayoneting the doctors, orderlies and patients. He and his fellow soldiers were each given a tablet of cyanide, a lethal dose to swallow if they were captured.

He survived the war but never forgot his fellow soldiers who didn’t come back. In the early years after the war, he had difficulty finding a settled job but later became managing director of a concrete manufacturing company. His first marriage was loveless and unhappy and ended in divorce, but his second marriage to Pamela was very happy and they had 2 daughters. When Pamela developed dementia and went into a care home Tom, then in his mid 80s, visited her for hours every day. After Pamela died, he moved to live with his daughter Hannah and her family.

Captain Tom spoke of his hope for the future in heaven. He was not afraid of dying and often thought about being reunited with loved ones who had died before him. He wrote: “So, even if tomorrow is my last day, if all those I loved are waiting for me, then that tomorrow will be a good day, too.” When we are trusting in Jesus, he promises a glorious eternal home in heaven. One hymn says, “Through the love of God our Saviour, all will be well. Free and changeless is his favour, all, all is well. We expect a bright tomorrow, all will be well. Faith can sing through days of sorrow, ‘All, all is well.’ On our Father’s love relying, Jesus every need supplying, in our living, in our dying, all must be well.”

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The boy in the striped pyjamas

My wife and I recently watched the holocaust film “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” The film portrays the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp in Poland through the eyes of two 8-year-old boys: Bruno, the son of the camp’s Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish inmate. Bruno and his family moved from Berlin to live in a house near the camp. Only his father knows what the camp really is. Bruno can see it from his bedroom and thinks it’s a farm. Bruno has no friends to play with and sneaks into the woods. When he comes to the barbed wire fence, he sees Shmuel who, with his parents, is a prisoner in the camp. The two boys become friends.

Bruno thinks Shmuel’s striped prison uniform is pyjamas. Bruno takes food to Shmeul and they play board games through the barbed wire. One day when Shmuel is working in his home Bruno gives him a cake but doesn’t admit it when a soldier discovers Shmeul eating the cake. The solider punishes Shmeul by beating him badly. Bruno cries because he has let his friend down and later apologises to Shmeul who forgives him. Shmeul tells Bruno that his father has gone missing in the camp. Bruno, thinking the camp is a pleasant place, tells him that, to make up for letting him down, he will help him find his father. The next day Bruno puts on a prisoner’s striped uniform and cap and digs under the fence to join Shmuel.

The boys go into one of the huts and Bruno is shocked to see the many sick and malnourished Jewish people. Suddenly a siren sounds and everyone in the hut, including Bruno and Shmeul, is marched to a changing room where they are told to remove their clothes for a “shower” before they are herded into the gas chamber. As the lights go out Bruno and Shmeul hold hands to comfort each other as a soldier pours the gas pellets into the chamber. When they realise he is missing, Bruno’s parents run desperately to the camp but are too late to save him. Behind the locked door of the now silent gas chamber all the prisoners, including Bruno and Shmeul, are dead.

The film vividly portrays both unspeakable wickedness and a true friendship that transcended man-made barriers. It also reminds us of God’s amazing love. Out of love for us Jesus left his eternal home in heaven to come to this sinful world and willingly died on the Cross to pay the penalty our sins deserve so that we might receive eternal life. Jesus said, “Greater love has no-one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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A father to the fatherless

The Bible teaches us that God is deeply concerned for vulnerable people, and especially widows and orphans. In the Law he commands, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.” The book of Psalms says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” The prophet Isaiah reminded the people of their responsibilities before God, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” In the New Testament, James tells us that true religion is practical, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Wilfried Zaha is a very skilful and successful footballer. He plays for Crystal Palace in the Premier League and internationally for Ivory Coast. Recently he spoke about being homeless when he was 6 years old. One day an older brother met him from school and took him to a shelter where his whole family was now staying. His family had lost their home. Later they stayed with relatives until they were given a three-bedroomed house where the family of 11 people lived. Wilfried shared a bedroom with his 5 brothers. He says, “I have been that kid who had nothing and now I have the opportunity to help people, so why not?”

When he was 16 Wilfried signed his first professional contract and vowed to donate 10% of his earnings to an orphanage in Daloa, Ivory Coast, called “Tomorrow’s Hope”, that is run by his sister, Carine. He says, “Me and my mum would pray and say to God, ‘You have done this for me, I am going to give back’. My family, especially my mum, are heavily Christian, so it felt like a duty to help. I feel like my life is a testament to God helping me – 100 per cent. So as soon as I was able to help, I helped. That’s why, with everything that’s going on now, if I have the opportunity to help out, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Wilfried doesn’t like speaking about donating a percentage of his wages to the orphanage, “I haven’t spoken about it much, because it’s a duty for me. I have been there, and I just want to help. I thank God he blessed me with the opportunity to be a footballer and now I have the things I couldn’t have as a child.”

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The light shines in darkness

Are you one of those people who really looks forward to Christmas? It’s a special time as the Christmas celebrations brighten up the long dark days of winter. It’s a joy to gather our family and friends together to spend quality time with each other. But, because of Covid-19, Christmas 2020 will be different. Although some restrictions have been eased large family gatherings are not permitted. People are getting ready for a “digital” Christmas.

Yet the wonderful thing about Christmas is that, whatever our circumstances, the Person who is at the centre of it all can fill our lives with joy and peace and hope. Jesus Christ was born in a lowly stable in busy Bethlehem in the middle of winter. Hardly anyone noticed as his teenage mother gave birth to her first-born son, but the birth of Jesus shone light into a dark world and that same light still shines into the darkness that sometimes invades our lives. Phillips Brooks’ carol “O little town of Bethlehem” says, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The world into which Jesus was born was evil and dangerous. Not long after he was born, King Herod tried to kill him and wickedly ordered that all the little boys aged two years or under in Bethlehem and its vicinity should be slaughtered. Many mothers were broken hearted at the loss of their babies and little children. The young Jesus only escaped the slaughter because Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt for safety, taking him with them, and remained there until Herod died.

Thankfully, when Christmas focuses on Jesus it is can never be diminished or cancelled. In fact, the wonderful message about Jesus speaks powerfully into the darkest places of our lives. Seven hundred years before his birth the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Phillips Brooks’ carol closes with a prayer, “O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.”

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Now thank we all our God

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony, at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, which was fought between 1618 and 1648. It is estimated that between 4.5 and 8 million people, both military and civilians, died in that war, most from disease and starvation. In some parts of Germany as many as 60% of the population may have died. Many people sought refuge in the walled city of Eilenburg, which led to severe overcrowding, a deadly plague and famine. The city was overrun three times by armies. Pastor Rinkart opened his home as a refuge for the victims but was hard-pressed even to provide for his family.

By 1637 Pastor Rinkart was the only surviving pastor in Eilenburg and was totally committed to meeting the massive needs of the people around him. In that year he took more than 4,000 funerals, including his own wife’s funeral. Sometimes he conducted as many as 50 funerals in a day. It was heart-breaking pastoral work as social and political unrest induced daily fear as the pandemic threatened people’s lives and livelihoods. People were desperate to find light and hope.

At that time Pastor Rinkart, who was a prolific hymnwriter, wrote a hymn to help the people and to point them to God in the midst of the most terrible suffering. The hymn has been translated into English and continues to be sung today by millions of people around the world. The great theme of the hymn is thankfulness to God for all the blessings he has graciously bestowed on us. The hymn speaks to us as we continue to struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic. It reminds us of the living God who “frees us from all ills in this world and the next.”

These are the words of the hymn Pastor Rinkart wrote, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next. All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, and him who reigns, with them in highest heaven. The one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

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Through my own fault

Frank Bough, who died recently, was described by his colleagues as a “consummate broadcaster”. For many years he presented BBC’s Saturday afternoon sports programme, Grandstand, and later the early-evening news programme Nationwide. His calmness and easy style made him very popular and, in 1983, he was chosen to present the BBC’s new breakfast show which became a great success.

Frank was a very able man. He grew up in Shropshire and was educated at Oswestry High School from where he went to Merton College, Oxford. He won a football Blue as a centre half, played county hockey for Shropshire and played league cricket. However, his career with the BBC came to a sudden end in 1988 when tabloid newspapers exposed sexual indiscretions and drug taking in his private life. In 1992, following further revelations of his private life, Frank said, “A lot of men are stupid. I am among the most stupid. The prime object now is to keep the family together.” With the loving support of his wife and three sons, Frank survived these crises and continued to work for Sky and ITV.

In 2001 Frank was diagnosed with cancer, had a liver transplant and retired from broadcasting. Looking back on his experiences he said, “The pain never, never goes away. I will never, never forget it. Having said all that, I have to say very loudly, ‘Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’” This Latin phrase means, “Through my own fault, through my most grievous fault.”

As I read about Frank’s life a parable of Jesus came to mind which tells of two men going to the Temple to pray. One was a proud, religious leader who in his prayer told God what a good man he was. The other man was a tax collector who had betrayed his own people by collecting taxes for the hated Romans who occupied Israel. The tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” The tax collector was in a place to which we must all come if we are to know God and experience his forgiveness. All of us have sinned; we all “fall short of God’s glorious standard”, and it’s our own fault. Jesus’ conclusion of the parable is good news for all who feel the deep pain of their past sins. He said that God heard the tax collector’s prayer and that very day he went home forgiven and in a right relationship with God.

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When life changes

I have a friend who has experienced a number of life-changing events. Kristian grew up in Barry in South Wales. His father suffered from mental health issues and the family home was a place of fear and guilt. Kristian felt guilty because he couldn’t stop the violence against his mother. He also experienced bullying at school, but he was very good at football, and when he was on the pitch, he didn’t have any worries.

The first big change in Kristian’s life happened in his early teens. He started playing for Cardiff Academy then Swansea and played internationally for Wales. When he was 15, he was signed by Crystal Palace and moved to London. The football club looked after everything for him and even paid him while he was still in school. Kristian was being recognised as a technically gifted midfield/central defender. He had lots of money and was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Then he broke his ankle very badly. Despite the best possible treatment his ankle didn’t fully heal, and it soon became clear to him that, at the age of 20, his football career was over. He was devastated but threw himself into building a successful business career. He was determined to regain the money and lifestyle he had had in football. He returned to Barry, married his girlfriend and had a family. He bought a big house, had nice cars, expensive holidays and extravagant things he bought for himself and his family. He was successful and happy.

Kristian wasn’t expecting the next, and biggest change, in his life. His wife, Carla, started going to a mums and tots’ group at a local church and soon became a Christian. Kristian didn’t like her talking about her Saviour Jesus but could see that she had completely changed and was so caring towards him. Reluctantly Kristian went to some church services. As he listened to one sermon he said, “Suddenly I realised that God loved me. I realised that Jesus had come to this world to live the perfect life and that he died on the cross to take the punishment I deserved.”

Kristian and Carla now live in a village near Hereford with their 5 children where Kristian is the minister of a small church. He says, “I once had thought that contentment was to be found by having the best and the latest stuff, but I’ve realised that life is more than that. Life is about a relationship with God and knowing his love and forgiveness through Jesus. That is something that will last.”