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.”

When we are in debt

Christmas has passed, the decorations have been taken down and life is returning to normal. Yet for many people living in Britain January is a worrying month because the bills for Christmas will soon arrive. Millions of people are entering 2018 with a debt hanging over them because they overspent during the festive period. One advice line estimates that 7.9 million people are likely to fall behind with their finances in January because of credit card debt incurred over Christmas.

Being in debt is oppressive. I remember visiting a man who was in debt. He had been injured in a car accident and had lost his job. The debts had begun to accumulate and he was unable to pay them. The bank had refused to increase his overdraft and the red letters, with their demands and threats, were arriving regularly. He no longer opened letters from the companies to which he owed money. Debt had paralysed him and filled him with fear for the future. He felt very alone and had seriously considered ending his life.

When we are in debt we need to seek help. I was able to come alongside the man and to work out with him ways to begin to address his debts. In time, all his debts were cleared and he was able to move to a new flat. A great burden had been lifted from him and he was able to enjoy life again. Organisations like Christians Against Poverty offer practical help to people overwhelmed by debt enabling them to manage their repayments and, in time, to be debt-free.

When I visited the man I was also able to pray with him and to ask God to help him. God is just and is particularly concerned for the poor and for widows and orphans. He sees the oppression of the poor and vulnerable through immorally high interest rates and he will call such lenders to account. God also provides for us in our need. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition is not only for our food but for all our daily needs. God is the One who gives us all good gifts. If you are overwhelmed by debt, ask God to help you. In Psalm 34 the Psalmist says, “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles.”

I was a stranger and you took me in

The birth of Jesus brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but it also involved significant trauma. The news that Mary was pregnant seriously threatened her reputation for purity and integrity in her home village of Nazareth. The circumstances of the birth were extremely difficult as Mary gave birth to her first child in a stable, in a strange town, without the support of family and friends. Then, soon after the birth, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So they left Bethlehem at night and went to Egypt to live in exile while Herod sent soldiers to kill all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. It was several years before Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to their home village of Nazareth.

In our world today there are many people who have left their home countries in fear of their lives. Some have been threatened by those with political power, others fear religious persecution. They have experienced significant trauma in leaving their home country, family and friends and settling in a strange place. They still face a very uncertain future.

In both the Old and New Testaments God commands his people to welcome strangers and to be kind to them. The reason for this is that the Jews had suffered as slaves in Egypt until God delivered them, setting them free and giving them a home of their own. Many of the early Christians also experienced persecution and had to flee to places of safety. The kindness we show to people from other countries living amongst us is a response to the kindness we have experienced from God.

A few years ago, a young couple from the Middle East arrived in Britain as refugees. They were facing persecution in their own country. When they arrived in Britain they were detained in separate holding centres. It was their first experience of Britain and they were afraid, especially as the wife was expecting her first child. In the holding centre she was given a Bible and read these words from Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” God spoke to her through these words and gave her hope and his peace.

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah

This month rugby fans around Britain have gathered for the Autumn International matches. One of the features of matches played in Cardiff is that the Welsh supporters sing hymns, especially “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.” In the past male voice choirs would stand together on the terraces to ensure the singing was high quality. Most of those who sing the hymns don’t attend church services yet the power of the words seems to move them.

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah was written by William Williams Pantycelyn, who was born in 1717. He is Wales most famous hymn writer and was called “the sweet singer of Wales.” Williams was one of the leaders of the Calvinistic Methodists during the 18th century revival and wrote more than 900 hymns in either Welsh or English. A memorial plaque at Pantycelyn farm, where he lived, records that during his life he travelled 111,800 miles on foot or by horse visiting societies of Christians in every part of Wales. The tune Cwm Rhondda was written soon after the 1904-05 revival. The words and tune brought great strength and encouragement to the mining communities of the South Wales Valleys where life was hard.

Life is a journey and Williams hymn is a prayer based on the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They spent 40 years in the desert and felt a deep need to know the presence of their God, Jehovah, being with them on their difficult journey. They were small and weak, but he was great and powerful. The words of the hymn resonate with us today because, although outwardly our lives are very different, inwardly we have the same need to know that this all-powerful God is with us. “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou are mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand: bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”

The last verse speaks of dying. As the Israelites had to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land so all of us will one day face death, the last enemy. Then, more than ever, we will need God to be with us and the victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection to be ours. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side: songs of praises I will ever give to thee.”

Remembering Martin Luther

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther, until then a little-known monk, nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther’s intention was to initiate a debate within the Church of his time about how people come to know peace with God. However, for Luther personally his action led to his excommunication by the Church in 1521 when he refused to recant his views saying, “Here I stand. I can do no other, God help me!” His rediscovery of the Gospel message led to the Protestant Reformation that changed the history of Europe and the Western World.

At the age of 13 Martin Luther went to the University of Erfurt to study law. He earned both his baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the shortest possible time. In 1505, when he was 21, he was nearly struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm. He cried out in fear to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk. He kept his vow and gave away all his possessions before entering a monastery.

Luther became a totally dedicated monk plunging himself into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices, including going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. He later wrote, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was me.” Yet he did not find peace with God and was increasingly terrified by the wrath of God. Whenever he thought of the righteousness of God he felt condemned because he knew the sinfulness of his own heart.

After completing a doctorate in theology Luther became a professor in Wittenberg Cathedral and gave lectures on the Book of Romans in the New Testament. During this time, he came to understand the meaning of the righteousness of God through reading Romans, Chapter 1, verse 17; “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” He realised that, as we put our faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us his righteousness based on the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus.

Luther found peace with God and wrote, “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

Bear Gryll’s Greatest Adventure

Bear Grylls is well-known as a man who embodies the spirit of adventure and outdoor survival. His love of adventure began when he was growing up on the Isle of Wight. His late father, Sir Michael Grylls, taught him to climb. Bear says, “It brought us close and I loved it. It was never about the climbs but about that closeness.” In his book “To My Sons” he writes, “Aim to live a wild, generous, full, exciting life – blessing those around you and seeing the good in all. Follow your dreams – they are God-given.”

Bear trained in martial arts and perfected many of his skills when he served for 3 years in the British Special Forces as a member of 21 SAS. He has climbed Everest; crossed the North Atlantic on an inflatable boat; navigated the Northwest Passage; survived crocodile-infested swamps in Indonesia; and para-motored over the Himalayas. He says, “It is through faith that we find peace, but that same faith can also give us great boldness to reach out that little bit further than maybe we are comfortable. Everything worthwhile in life comes from reaching beyond that point of comfort; daring to risk it all; following our dreams despite the cost; loving despite the pain; hoping despite the doubts; and living boldly despite the fear. Life is an adventure that it best lived boldly.”

Bear is the youngest-ever Chief Scout and is a role-model to 40 million scouts worldwide. He says, “Scouting is about faith, it’s about friendship, it’s about fun – it’s all part of what we wanted when we grew up.” When it comes to adventure, he says, “The first step is always the hardest. That’s the one that takes the most courage. I’ve learned not to run from that fear and just do it.”

Bear says that finding simple faith to empower his life has been his greatest adventure. “Life is a journey and at times we all need a guide. For me that guide has become my backbone, my helper, my companion and my friend. I always thought that Christianity was about being very sensible and acting all smart and religious. But the more I discovered about Jesus Christ himself, the more I found a man who was as unreligious as you can imagine. It seemed that the very heart of the Christian faith was not about church, pulpits, sermons or Latin verse! It was about a relationship with someone who promises us life in abundance, joy within, peace without and freedom in our soul. Now I was interested!”

I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes

One Sunday morning Matthew Bryce set out for a morning’s surfing off the Argyll coast of Scotland. When he failed to return home, his family reported him missing and a major search and rescue operation was launched, involving RNLI lifeboats, coastguard rescue teams and a rescue helicopter based in Prestwick. Matthew, who is 22, was finally spotted in the Irish Sea by a rescue helicopter from Belfast on Monday at 7.30pm, 13 miles off the north Antrim coast. He had spent 32 hours in the Irish Sea. The Coastguard believe Matthew’s surfing knowledge and thick neoprene wetsuit saved his life.

Speaking from The Ulster Hospital, where he was recovering from his ordeal, Matthew said he had been helpless as changing currents and strong winds swept him out to sea. He said, “It got to the point where my paddling was ineffective, but I did it to keep myself warm.” Fear really set in as night fell, “It was incredibly lonely and quiet because there was nothing – just waves. I hadn’t seen any helicopters. I thought I was going to die – I was almost convinced. I didn’t think I would see sunrise.” Fighting back tears he continued, “I knew I had, maybe, three hours and was watching the sunset when a helicopter flew right over. So, I jumped off the surfboard, lifted it up and waved it; I thought they’d missed me. Then they turned around … and saved my life. I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes.”

One day when Jesus was teaching a group of people who knew they had made a mess of their lives, he told a parable about a shepherd who realised he had lost one of his 100 sheep. Jesus said, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Jesus came into the world to seek and to save those who are lost. Just as Matthew’s rescuers and family were overjoyed when they found him alive, so there is great rejoicing in heaven when any of us realises our need to know God and turns to him.

Because I live, you also will live

A poll carried out on Palm Sunday revealed that 23% of people in the UK who regard themselves as Christians do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Amongst regular churchgoers 5% said they did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. It is, perhaps, not surprising that churchgoers are uncertain when a significant percentage of clergy say they don’t believe in the resurrection. Interestingly, the survey also found that 46% of the population in general believe in some form of life after death, including a fifth of those who describe themselves as non-religious. These issues are vitally important to every one of us, because, one day, we will all die.

The Taliabo people live on a small island in Indonesia. They live a very simple life with very little contact with the outside world, but were deeply troubled by the fact that everyone in their tribe died. The stories handed down from generation to generation said that long ago their ancestors knew the secret of eternal life, but they left the island and, since then, the people have become poor and everyone dies. The stories also told of a river of life. Whoever drank water from the river would live for ever. But no one could find the river.

Death was the Taliabo people’s biggest fear. They cried out to the spirits, and used charms, but everyone still died. They would put the bones of relatives who died in a box in the hope someone would come and bring them back to life. But they never did. They prayed to those who had died, but no answer came. The shamans couldn’t help them because they, too, all died. The people even made a raft and loaded it with gifts and put the bones of 2 dead people, a man and a woman, on it. They sent the raft out into the ocean in the hope that the ones who knew the secret of eternal life would see it, take pity on them, and return to the island.

When two Christian couples came to the Taliabo’s island they told the people about Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again on the third day. The Taliabo were overjoyed because now they knew that someone really had overcome death. As they believed the Bible’s teaching about Jesus, their lives were wonderfully transformed. They were no longer afraid of death. In our outwardly sophisticated society we, too, need to believe the wonderful promise of the risen Jesus, “Because I live, you also will live.”

The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.

God is Light

The days are getting longer. It’s good to go to work and school in the light and to return before dark. Light is essential for life and lifts our spirits. The Bible tells us, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” God’s first creative command was “Let there be light!”

Throughout history people have tried to discover what God is like. The gods of ancient Greece were very much like human beings. They were capricious; for no apparent reason their mood and behaviour would change. They were envious and spiteful and people tried to keep on the right side of them. Animists in many parts of the world today believe in spirits which live in trees, rocks and rivers and govern their lives. The spirits need constantly to be appeased if your crops are to flourish and you are to enjoy good health. Animistic people live in constant fear of the spirits.

The God of the Bible is so very different from the gods of people’s imagination. He isn’t like us. He is light. He is holy, righteous, pure and good. He is unchanging; in him there is no darkness at all. Human history reveals the very dark side of our human nature. Powerful people have imprisoned, tortured and killed those they hate. Today there are people hidden away in dark prisons of oppressive regimes who are treated terribly. Even apparently benign regimes have had very dark chapters in their history. But God isn’t like that; in him there is no darkness at all.

Jesus came into the world to reveal God to us and to bring the light of God’s presence into our lives. He said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” When we know Jesus we discover the light of the truth and experience the amazing kindness of God. In his well-known hymn Thomas Binney reflects on the fact that God is light and our need to know him. “Eternal Light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be, when, placed within thy searching sight, it shrinks not, but with calm delight can live, and look on Thee. There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode; an offering and a sacrifice, a Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God. These, these prepare us for the sight of holiness above; the sons of ignorance and night may dwell in the eternal light, through the eternal love.”