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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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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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Bobby Ball’s Story

The comedian Bobby Ball died recently from Covid-19 complications. He and his partner Tommy Cannon hosted the very successful Cannon and Ball show from 1979 to 1988 with an audience of 18 million people. Bobby was born Robert Harper in 1944 at Shaw, a village near Oldham. His father’s family had been fairground workers and his mother worked in a cotton factory. Bobby took a job as a welder at Boden Trailers where he met Tommy. They appeared as a musical act on the talent show Opportunity Knocks and came last, so they decided to turn to comedy.

The success and wealth Bobby and Tommy experienced created stress on their friendship. Between 1983 and 1986 they did not speak to each other outside rehearsals and performances. By 1986 Bobby, disillusioned with the shallow world of show business, hit rock bottom. He said, “I was famous, and it meant nothing to me, it felt quite trivial, I was drinking a lot and womanising.”

Then in 1986, while working at the Bradford Alhambra, Bobby began talking with chaplain Max Wrigley. Bobby said: “I got talking to him and attacked him verbally about God. But he had a peace about him. I can’t explain exactly what he had but he had something that I didn’t have. One day I asked to speak to him and after a while he said, ‘Let’s pray.’ I’d never prayed in my life, but we prayed and it just changed my life – just like that.” Six months later his wife, Yvonne, also become a Christian.

Becoming a Christian helped to re-kindle Bobby’s broken friendship with Tommy and, in 1992, Tommy also became a Christian. In 1996 they co-authored a book “Christianity for Beginners” and spent time every year visiting churches and sharing the good news about their Saviour, Jesus Christ. When Bobby was asked what impact Jesus Christ had had on his life, he immediately answered “Being a Christian? It doesn’t have an impact. It gives you a new life. It doesn’t impact it; it turns it totally around.”

When Bobby accepted Jesus Christ as his Saviour in 1986, he received the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “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.” Eternal life begins now and continues after death in eternal happiness in heaven with Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

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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.”

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The life and faith of Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby was a prolific hymn writer who wrote more than 9000 hymns. Remarkably, she did this despite being blind from a very early age. When she was 6 weeks old, Fanny caught a cold and a quack doctor prescribed hot mustard poultices for her inflamed eyes which resulted in her becoming totally blind. Her father died when she was 10 months old and her mother, Mercy, was forced to work as a maid to support the family. Fanny was mostly raised by Eunice, her Christian grandmother.

When Eunice heard that nothing could be done about Fanny’s blindness she said, “Then I will be her eyes.” She taught Fanny about the wonderful colours in nature and all the things she could not see. She also encouraged her to memorise Bible passages. Fanny memorised 5 chapters a week and, when still a child, had memorised whole books from the Bible. In 1835, when she was 15 years old, Fanny was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind. She lived there for 23 years: 12 as a student and 11 as a teacher.

Fanny accepted her blindness without bitterness against the doctor or against God. When she was 8 years old, she wrote a poem: “Oh, what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be. How many blessings I enjoy, that other people don’t; to weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot, and I won’t!” Her love for Jesus gave her great inner strength. She said, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour.”

Fanny expressed her faith in Jesus in her hymns so that others, too, might know her Saviour. Here are some memorable lines from her hymns. “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God; the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine: O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.” “All the way my Saviour leads me: what have I to ask beside? Can I doubt his tender mercy, who through life has been my guide? Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, here by faith in him to dwell! For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.”

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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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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “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.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.

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The Lord is risen!

The glorious message of Easter is “The Lord is risen!’ In the present crisis, it is a message of hope we all need to hear. Jesus died and rose again and promised, “Because I live you also will live.” In the past few weeks, more than 10,000 people in Britain have died of the coronavirus and more than 100,000 around the world. Wonderful medical teams are working long hours, with great skill and dedication, to try to save lives, but every day they and their patients are facing the reality of death.

Last week a Covid-19 patient was interviewed on the BBC’s World at One programme and described what is was like to be in intensive care on a pressurised oxygen mask: “It would push oxygen down into my throat and down into my chest. I was completely alone. All these wires around me and sometimes I kept coming to terms with my own death and that was really frightening.”

In an interview in The Sunday Times Dr David Nott, a world-renowned trauma surgeon who has worked in some of the most dangerous war zones on earth, spoke about working in an ICU at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. He said the experience of working there has left him in awe of colleagues, particularly the nurses. “I’m a tiny, tiny cog in this most amazing machine. The real heroes are the nurses who are with patients so seriously sick for 13 hours a day, wearing masks on their face which cause so much discomfort. I have never seen people work so hard, so desperate for each individual patient to get through their sickness. But sometimes the disease wins. It’s the hardest, most dangerous enemy I have ever faced.”

On Good Friday, Hylton Murray-Philipson was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Mr Murray-Philipson, who is 61, had just been clapped out of the ward in Leicester Royal Infirmary having recovered, after six days in intensive care, from Covid-19. His mother and sister had also been ill with the virus and, because he was himself on the verge of death, he had not been able to attend his own father’s funeral. When he was asked about his time in intensive care, Mr Murray-Philipson said: “One of the powerful images I had was the image of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee and that just came to me. I like to think that it was Jesus Christ coming to me and helping me in my time of need.”

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Rays of sunshine that penetrate the darkness

At the end of January more than 200 survivors gathered at the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, most of them Jews. The emphasis of the commemoration was on the survivors who had travelled from many parts of the world. They are now aged between 75 and 101 and this may be the last major commemoration for them.

Angela Orosz, 75, from Montreal was born in the camp. Her mother gave birth to her in secret on a top bunk in December 1944. She said, “I always claimed to my kids that I had suffered no trauma from having been here, until my daughter asked me why then, unlike other families, did I never throw potato peelings away? Because my mother had probably survived because of the peelings she had eaten and the goodness in them had enabled her to give birth to me and so I had survived. So, of course, the survival instinct I inherited from her made me always do the same.”

David Lenga, who became a successful tailor in Beverly Hills, said he refused to let the Holocaust define his life despite the fact that it claimed 98 members of his family. Only David and his father survived. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish and lost members of his family in the Holocaust, said the world should learn about humanity from the survivors whose stories of endurance and forgiveness are exemplary. “You are truly amazing. You are strong and incredibly courageous. So, you are an example that we should follow. The Holocaust is called the dark period in the history of humanity and you are the rays of sunshine that penetrate that darkness.”

The Holocaust is an example of the terrifying capacity for evil in the human heart. Political and military leaders planned the wicked extermination of millions of Jewish people and ordinary citizens carried it out. There are great mysteries in life, but there is no doubt that no one escapes God’s righteous judgement. God’s promises also offer survivors comfort in their devastating pain and loss. The prophet Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

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Light and life to all he brings

More than 2 billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three people in the world are followers of Jesus. This is an amazing statistic. Jesus came from a small village in Galilee. His parents were ordinary people. He learned his father’s trade and was a carpenter. He never travelled more than 100 miles from his home. His remarkable ministry lasted just 3 years. When he was 33 years old he was executed by the Romans. Yet today millions of people from every nation on earth know him as their Saviour and follow him as his disciples. How can this be explained?

Jesus was the Son of God. One of our carols says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all.” When the wise men from Persia, who followed the star, found the baby they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They recognised him as a divine King and offered him their gifts. Because Jesus was the Son of God he rose again from the dead. It was not possible for death to keep its hold on him. One of his disciples, Thomas, who at first doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saw him personally and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promise. From the beginning of time God had promised that a child would be born who would bring blessing to the peoples of the world. Through this child God’s great purpose for his world was going to be fulfilled. God is still carrying forward his gracious purpose for the nations. Today the good news of Jesus is being proclaimed around the world and many are receiving him as Saviour and Lord. One day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

Jesus came to give us hope. The world into which he was born knew great sadness and pain. Our world today is very much the same. Jesus is the One who gives us a sure and certain hope both in this life and when we die. Many carol services close with these words, “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!”