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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!”

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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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John Wesley’s Story

The 24th May 1738 was a very significant day in the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England. He became one of the greatest spiritual leaders in English history playing a key role in the 18th century revival of religion. John was the son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Of the 19 children Susanna bore, only 3 sons and 7 daughters survived. Samuel was the Rector of Epworth and Susanna was a strongminded mother who practised strict discipline with her children.

John and his brother Charles, the great hymnwriter, went to Oxford University, where they started a small group of students, nicknamed “the Holy Club”, which met for prayer and Bible study. The group stressed the need for both a deep inward faith and practical service to those in need. They visited the sick and those in prison. When he left Oxford in 1735, John accepted an invitation to go, with his brother Charles, as missionaries to the recently founded colony of Georgia.

During the voyage to America there was a terrifying storm and John was afraid he was going to die. He attended a service on board ship with a group of German Moravian Christians. During the service a huge wave engulfed the ship and water poured down into the cabins. The Moravians continued singing – men, women and children – seemingly unafraid. Later John asked one of the Moravians why they hadn’t been afraid. The man told him that because they knew God they were not afraid to die. John realised that they had something he didn’t have. They were able to face death because they knew that God was never going to let them go.

After returning from Georgia, John attended a meeting of Moravian Christians in Aldersgate Street on 24th May 1738. He was not keen to go but at that meeting he had a profound spiritual experience. John described what happened to him, “About a quarter before nine, while the man was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” John was no longer afraid of dying. Between 1738 and his death in 1791 he travelled more than 250,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons proclaiming to many people the same message by which he had come to know God and England was transformed.

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The day Jesus died

This Friday is Good Friday when Christians remember the day on which their Saviour Jesus Christ died. For three years Jesus had exercised a remarkable ministry. He had taught the people and great crowds had gathered to hear him. His teaching was not dry and harsh like the religious teachers of his day. He spoke with divine authority and made people think about God and eternity. One of his disciples said, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus travelled around doing good and performing many remarkable miracles. He made blind people to see, lame people to walk, deaf and dumb people to hear and speak. He cleansed lepers and cast out evil spirits. He fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish and calmed the storm. He raised three people who had died back to life. Just five days before he died, he was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. They proclaimed him as their Messiah and King! So why was he condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal?

The death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sins, but not his own. As he began his ministry John the Baptist declared, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Our sins are serious. Every day we break God’s commands. In the Old Testament God commanded the people to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. They would go to the Temple and offer an animal or a bird which would be sacrificed so that the worshipper might be forgiven. The death of Jesus was the final, complete sacrifice which took away the sins of the world.

But people respond to Jesus in very different ways. Two criminals died alongside Jesus. One of them hurled insults at him saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Like many people, he felt no remorse for his own sins but blamed God for what was happening to him. The other man rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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The selfless example of Dr Adil El Tayar

We are deeply grateful for the doctors and nurses who are working with great dedication and courage to treat and care for patients who are seriously ill with COVID-19. Last week Dr Adil El Tayar became the first working NHS surgeon to die from the virus. Adil, 64, was from Sudan and was an organ transplant specialist who had worked around the world. His skills had saved many lives. Before he contracted the virus, he had volunteered on the frontlines of the outbreak in the accident and emergency department at his hospital in the Midlands.

Adil’s cousin, BBC News journalist Zeinab Badawi, said, “He wanted to be deployed where he would be most useful during the crisis. That was typical of my cousin Adil; always willing to help, always with a willing smile.” A surgeon colleague described Adil as a “noble human being” who was a “hard-working, dedicated surgeon”.

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” At a time when we may be tempted to think only of ourselves Adil thought of others. He knew that if he was ill with the virus, he would want doctors and nurses to do everything they could to help him. He didn’t stand at a safe distance but was ready to use his skills to treat others, people he didn’t know, and to put his life at risk. He died from the very disease his patients had. There are people alive today because of the loving and self-sacrificing care they received from Adil.

We will soon be celebrating Easter when we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the supreme example of love and self-sacrifice. He died, at the age of 33, not for his own sins but for the sins of others. John the Baptist described him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In an amazing act of love Jesus, the Son of God, died in our place, paying the penalty of our sins, so that we might be forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life. “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.” On the third day after he died Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by his disciples and many others. His promise to all who believe in him is “because I live you also will live.”

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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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Blessed are the merciful

There are strange contradictions in our contemporary society. On the one hand, a previous morality has been swept aside and people now tolerate things that earlier generations regarded as morally wrong. On the other hand, people in the public eye who fall foul of the moral judgements of social media are mercilessly attacked. Their faults are magnified with no possibility of being able to put things right. Social media morality is the new absolute.

But the reality is that all of us make mistakes and do wrong things. Pointing out other people’s faults can be a way of deflecting attention from our own faults. Jesus warned his disciples about hypocritically judging other people. He said, “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.”

We all need to find God’s forgiveness for the many wrong things we do. The Bible reveals that God is merciful. In Psalm 130 the psalmist says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” The Apostle John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

When we experience God’s forgiveness, we must be ready to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus underlined the importance of this when he said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Our lives and our society would be transformed if we could regain our moral integrity by being honest about our own sinfulness and also being merciful towards others who, like us, fail and sin. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”