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Time to change

Is it possible for people to change? How do we cope with things we’ve done in the past which we deeply regret? Our society can be very unforgiving. The lives of those in the public eye are unmercifully scrutinised. Things which people said or did in the past, or posted on social media, are discovered and reported as if they alone define a person. None of us can stand up to that kind of scrutiny before the court of public opinion. Such judgements may also be hypocritical. The Apostle Paul wrote, “You have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

Th ultimate issue for each of us is not the judgement of other people but the judgement of God who sees and knows everything we do. The psalmist reflects on this in Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. 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.”

In responding to recent important issues reported in the news it has been said that if someone apologises for what they did in the past they deserve a second chance. This gives people an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to change. In the Bible such a change of mind is called repentance and has to do with our relationship with God. We repent when we hate our sins and forsake them because they are displeasing to God. This change of mind turns us towards God and enables us to understand why Jesus died on the cross. He took the punishment our sins deserve and in his great love died to pay the price of our sins. This is the reason Christians love Jesus as their Saviour.

A modern hymn expresses this love. “Wonderful grace that gives what I don’t deserve, pays me what Christ has earned, then lets me go free. Wonderful grace that gives me the time to change, washes away the stain that once covered me. Wonderful love that held in the face of death, breathed in its final breath forgiveness for me. Wonderful love whose power can break every chain, giving us life again, setting us free. And all that I am I lay at the feet of the wonderful Saviour who loves me.”

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Sara’s Story

Sara grew up in a loving home and enjoyed a very happy childhood in a small rural village in North Wales. As a child she suffered from severe asthma which involved frequent visits to hospital. Her visits to hospital gave Sara the desire to be a doctor so she could help other people as the hospital staff had so often helped her. She was offered a place at Medical School in Liverpool. But things didn’t turn out as Sara expected.

During her second term in Medical School, she was taken ill with meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia. She became very ill very quickly and was soon in intensive care on a life support machine with multi-organ failure. The septicaemia had also caused the circulation to her feet to stop, so 10 days into her illness, as a last resort, the doctors took the very difficult decision to amputate both her legs below the knees. She was in a coma for 6 weeks then woke to the news that she had lost her legs and life would never be the same again.

Sara says, “Although it was a time of fear and uncertainty about the future, I knew deep within my heart that I had been kept alive for a reason. As I look back now, I can see how God was working through it all, because as a 14-year-old I had put my trust in Jesus to be my Saviour. I had been living far from God, but by dying on the cross Jesus took the punishment I deserved and gave me forgiveness and the promise that he would never leave me nor forsake me. In my darkest hours, he was there, when it seemed a totally hopeless situation, I knew I had to trust his plan and purpose for my life.”

God has helped Sara to face the challenges of each day. She completed her medical training, works as a doctor, and is married with two grown-up children. She says, “I have learnt to count my blessings; I make the most of what I can do and enjoy, rather than focusing on the negatives and what I have lost. I am not angry with God; how can I be? Being a Christian does not make us immune from these things but having God as our rock and refuge when the storms of life hit makes all the difference. I am an ordinary girl, who prayed a simple prayer at the age of 14 and found an extraordinary Saviour, who will continue to be my help and strength through this life and into the next.”

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God’s moral law matters

For the past 16 months we have lived under emergency laws made by the Government to protect us from the Covid-19 virus. Most people have kept these laws and recent events have revealed the strong disapproval felt towards those who break them. Ordinary people, who have kept the laws, resent people in power breaking them and demand that they pay the price for doing so.

However, it has also become clear that fundamental moral laws, for example about adultery, are now seen as being of little importance. Breaking a temporary man-made law about social distancing is more serious than sinning against God. The deep pain and distress experienced by marriage partners and children when marriage vows are betrayed is profound and long lasting. The dysfunctional nature of our society, and of many individual lives, can be traced to the fact that we have set aside all the Ten Commandments.

Jesus was fiercely criticised by the religious leaders of his day because he didn’t keep the hundreds of petty rules they had created, called “traditions”. Jesus accused them of hypocrisy because their man-made traditions had become more important than God’s Law. He asked them, “Why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honour their parents and so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition.”

Only when we face up to our sins against God can we experience his forgiveness. Jesus showed mercy to those who had broken God’s laws. One day the religious leaders brought a woman to him whom they had caught in the act of adultery. They said that according to the Law such women should be stoned to death. Then they asked Jesus, “What do you say?” He replied, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and leave your life of sin.”

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We will remember them

On 6 June 2021, the 77th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings, the new Normandy Memorial was opened at Ver sur Mer, overlooking Gold Beach. The names of the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who died on 6 June 1944, and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy, are inscribed on 160 stone columns. The site also remembers the French civilians who died during this period. About 100 veterans and their families, who were unable to attend the ceremony at Ver-sur-Mer because of coronavirus restrictions, gathered at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to watch remotely.

George Batts, a Normandy veteran now 95 years old, who had dreamed of this day for many years and energetically raised money to build the memorial said, “Only those who were there on D-Day can truly know what it was like. We lost a lot of our mates on those beaches. Now, at long last, Britain has a fitting memorial.” Prince Charles, who is patron of the Normandy Memorial Trust, said: “The memory of these remarkable individuals should be preserved for future generations as an example of personal courage and sacrifice, for the benefit of the wider national and, indeed, international community.”

Remembering the past is important. Future generations owe an incalculable debt to those who gave their lives to secure the freedom we enjoy. George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, many of those who survived D-Day, including my wife’s father, didn’t talk about the traumas they experienced, they wished they could forget. At remembrance services the words of Laurence Binyon are recited, “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.”

The Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme example of love, courage and self-sacrifice. The night before he died, Jesus shared a Passover meal with his disciples. He broke bread and passed around a cup of wine saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” When Christians celebrate Holy Communion they remember their Saviour, Jesus, who died that they might be forgiven and rose from the dead to give them a living hope. They also look forward to the day when Jesus will return and men “will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

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Justice delayed is justice denied

The Court of Appeal has cleared 39 former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in what is the most widespread, known, miscarriage of justice in the UK. Between 2000 and 2014 the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses based on information from a new computer system called Horizon. Some went to prison following convictions for false accounting and theft, many were financially ruined and were shunned by their communities. Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office’s prosecution of innocent people was so outstandingly bad and shocking as to be “an affront to the conscience of the court.”

One of the most tragic cases was Martin Griffiths, who was a sub-postmaster in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, for 18 years. The accusations against him made by the Post Office, based on the faulty Horizon software, drove him to financial and emotional ruin. Martin was a man of complete integrity and a fastidious bookkeeper. In less than 2 years he was told there was a deficit of more than £57,000 on his account with the Post Office. Over 4 years, with the help of his parents, he paid more than £100,000 to the Post Office. In September 2013, three weeks before his 59th birthday, Martin took his own life.

Martin and the other more than 2000 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses accused by the Post Office were not told about the many other cases being pursued. They thought they were the only ones having these problems. In 2019 the High Court ordered that £58 million compensation be paid to 557 postmasters. After their legal costs were deducted, the group shared an £11 million pay-out, or £20,000 each. The Post Office paid more than £32 million in prosecuting their loyal and faithful staff. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim. Sadly, injustices in this life are all too common, and the assurances that lessons will be learned so that this doesn’t happen again can have a very hollow ring.

The Bible affirms that God is just and will deal with us all in perfect justice. None will escape his judgement. The Old Testament prophets denounced injustices by the rich and powerful against the poor and vulnerable. In his love, God has also provided a way for us to be forgiven. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the penalty our sins deserve and so satisfied divine justice. William Rees’ hymn says, “On the Mount of Crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide; through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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Being given time to change

The murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, by police during an arrest in Minneapolis has appalled people around the world. George was arrested after a shop keeper alleged he had paid with a counterfeit $20 note. George died because one of the four police officers who arrived at the scene knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes, ignoring George’s pleas, “I can’t breathe!” The policeman has been convicted of murdering George.

Pastor Patrick Ngwolo, lead pastor of the church Resurrection Houston, was a friend of George’s. Before he moved to Minneapolis George had mentored young men in Houston and trained them in basketball. Pastor Patrick said, “We want to lament and grieve and process through the pain but then also celebrate the life of somebody who meant so much to so many people.” Pastor Patrick says he remembers George “as a Christian and a protective and hospitable ‘gentle giant.’” George was influential in breaking down barriers of suspicion in the community and won the confidence of people.

George grew up in Houston. His parents separated when he was 2 years old. George had problems in his life. He battled with drug addiction and was convicted of several crimes, including aggravated robbery, for which he was sentenced to 4 years in prison. After his release, George became involved in Resurrection Houston. He mentored young men, delivered meals to senior citizens and helped with a drug rehabilitation programme.

In 2014 he moved to Minneapolis to help rebuild his life. George knew he had made mistakes that cost him years of his life but was turning his life around through Christianity. Speaking on a video to young people in his neighbourhood he acknowledged his own “shortcomings” and “flaws” and said he wasn’t better than anyone else, but condemned violence in the community and advised his neighbours to put down their weapons and remember they are loved by him and by God.

George knew that through trusting in Jesus we are given time to change. A well-known Christian song explains this: “Wonderful grace, that gives what I don’t deserve, pays me what Christ has earned, then lets me go free. Wonderful grace, that gives me the time to change, washes away the stains that once covered me. Wonderful love, that held in the face of death, breathed in its latest breath forgiveness for me. Wonderful love, whose power can break every chain, giving us life again, setting us free. And all that I have I lay at the feet of the wonderful Saviour who loves me.”

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Amazing love

More than 2000 years ago a young man died on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem. It seemed even to his disciples, who loved him deeply, that his death was the end of all their hopes. For 3 years he had travelled throughout Israel preaching and teaching the people and healing many sick people. Just 5 days before he was executed large crowds had acclaimed him as their king, but then had turned against him and demanded that he be killed.

As he was nailed to the cross he didn’t look like a king. The Romans knew how to humiliate and eliminate those who offended against their laws and their Emperor. A mock crown, made of thorns, had been pressed on his head and blood ran down his face and neck. His back was a mass of bleeding flesh from the scourging he had endured. As the nails were driven through his hands and his feet the Romans were making sure that this would be the end of him. Jesus of Nazareth would not be causing them any more trouble. But how wrong they were!

This Easter millions of Christians around the world are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. They see his cross, which was a place of curse and shame, as a glorious demonstration of God’s love. Through Jesus’ death in their place, and for their sins, they have found forgiveness for all their sins and have been reconciled to God. Like the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross, and saw him die, they say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Like the criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus they have heard his promise, “I tell you the truth, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Roman Empire disappeared long ago, but the kingdom of King Jesus has spread around the world. This Easter many Christians will be singing with solemn joy the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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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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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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God is merciful

The case of Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, in northern Kano state in Nigeria has attracted international attention. In August Omar was convicted in a Sharia court of making uncomplimentary remarks about Allah during an argument with a friend and was sentenced to 10 years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy. Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, said the sentence “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice.”

In a remarkable intervention, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland, has asked President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to pardon the teenager. In an open letter Piotr wrote, “He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities and stigmatised physically, emotionally and educationally for the rest of his life.” Omar’s case has struck a painful chord for Piotr because countless children were imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz by the German Nazi regime.

In his letter Piotr also said that if Omar cannot be pardoned then he would be willing to serve part of his sentence along with other volunteers from around the world. He wrote, “However, if the words of this child absolutely require 120 months of imprisonment, and even you are not able to change that, I suggest that in place of the child, 120 adult volunteers from all over the world, gathered by us – myself personally among them – should serve a month in a Nigerian prison.” More than 120 people from around the world have already offered to serve part of Omar’s sentence. If Omar is pardoned, Piotr also offered to personally fund his education resulting in “an aware and educated young citizen” rather than a “destroyed young man.”

Piotr’s intervention reminds us of the words of the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the Bible the principle of substitution was the foundation of the sacrificial system. When anyone sinned, they were commanded to offer an animal in their place and were told that because the animal died their sins would be forgiven. The supreme substitute is the Lord Jesus. Philip Bliss’ hymn says, “’Man of Sorrows’, what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood; Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was he; full redemption—can it be? Hallelujah! what a Saviour!”