The God of new beginnings

Alice Marie Johnson was enjoying a full and happy life. She was married to her childhood sweetheart and was the mother of 5 beautiful children. She was a manager at FedEx involved in training other managers. Then in 1989, after nearly 20 years together, Alice and her husband divorced, and her life began to spiral out of control. She developed a gambling addiction and lost her job. Then her youngest son was tragically killed in a motor cycle accident. In 1991 she filed for bankruptcy and lost her house. In 1996 she was convicted of being involved in cocaine trafficking and money laundering and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Alice knows that what she did was wrong. She says, “No mother should have to bury her child. This weight was unbelievable and was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation. I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Being in prison for life, and knowing you will never be released, is very hard. Alice wrote, “Some refer to prison as a place where hope dies. Some days I’ve found that to be almost right. But at the beginning of my time here I made a pact that I wouldn’t give up hope. Each time that I’ve come close, God has restored my faith.” While in prison Alice became an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are in prison.

A few weeks ago, Kim Kardashian, an American reality television star, met President Trump in the Oval Office and asked him to grant clemency to Alice and to give her a second chance. On 6 June the President issued an order that Alice should be released. The White House statement said, “Ms Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behaviour and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades.”

Like Alice each of us also needs to be granted clemency and to be given a new beginning. We are serial offenders in breaking God’s moral laws. Yet, amazingly God sent his Son, Jesus, to redeem us by dying for the sins we have committed. Jesus personally intervened on our behalf and pleaded our case. When we confess we have done wrong God forgives us and sets us free forever.

When mind and memory flee

More people than ever before are suffering from dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society says there are now 850,000 people in the UK with dementia, including 1 in 6 people over the age of 80. 40% of people with dementia are being cared for in care homes and 60% are being cared for by family members. More than 50% of people with dementia are in the mild stages with 12% being in the severe stage. Caring for a husband or wife, or father or mother with dementia is very demanding and exhausting.

I recently read a moving letter from a Christian lady, Ann, whose husband has dementia. They have been married for more than 40 years and served as missionaries in Asia and London. Ann’s husband studied at Oxford and was an able linguist. She cared for him for 11 years and experienced sadness, isolation and stress. Ann was sad when she saw his mind go blank and him being unable to follow conversations. He was aware of his increasing memory loss and was determined to keep his mind active. Every day he would read to Ann from his library of books and they went for long walks together. But as his condition deteriorated there were fewer visitors, which led to growing isolation for them both.

The increasing demands of care brought Ann to a state of physical and emotional collapse. Then, one evening her husband said to her, “Well it’s been lovely visiting you, but I really must go back to my parents. They will have prepared a meal.” Nothing Ann said could change his mind. For him his “present” was now the past. Wonderfully Ann found a place for her husband in a Christian care home where he is cared for with respect, dignity and love. After visiting her husband Ann is able to leave knowing that he is safe and surrounded by loving carers.

Providing loving support to people with dementia and their family is so important. Just being with them affirms their value as people created in the image of God and our love for them. It’s also a great comfort to have a future hope and to know that there is life beyond dementia in a better world. God does not forget us. A hymn sung in Communion services says, “According to thy gracious word, in meek humility, this will I do, my dying Lord, I will remember thee. And when these failing lips grow dumb and mind and memory flee, when thou shalt in thy kingdom come, Jesus, remember me.”

The peace of God

A few years ago we were given a red mug with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On” on it. The design of the mug is based on a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The aim of the poster was to raise public morale in anticipation of the mass air attacks on major British cities. In 1940 and 1941 the Blitz killed more than 40,000 civilians and destroyed more than 1 million houses in major cities around Britain, but the 2.5 million copies of the poster were never used. However, the British people, especially those living in London, show amazing courage and resilience in the face of the terrible bombing they endured.

The motto on the poster was an appeal for stoicism – a “stiff upper lip” and calm resolve in the face of adversity. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy which encourages people to subdue their emotions through self-control and fortitude. Today, a stoic is seen as an unemotional person who seems to be indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and who accepts hardship without any display of feelings or complaint. In hard times a stoic does not look for, or expect, love and comfort, but simply accepts what life throws at them.

In his letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul presents another approach to the challenges of life. He wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When he was in Philippi Paul had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned. At midnight, when he and his companion Silas were in prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God. Their response to suffering was to rejoice in the Lord remembering his love for them in Jesus and thanking him for the many times he had blessed them in their lives. They knew that, even in prison, the Lord was with them. So they prayed to him and gave thanks to him and asked him to help them and give them his peace. When we experience adversity, as we all do, it is good to pray to God and rejoice in who he is. He hears our prayers and will give us his peace.

Harry and Meghan’s Wedding

The joy of Harry and Meghan’s wedding was shared by 2 billion people around the world. The glorious sunshine and historic setting of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, made it a very special day for Harry and Meghan. At the heart of the day was the marriage service. Marriage is the most significant commitment any two people can make. It is a lifelong, exclusive relationship, based on promises made to each other in the presence of God and before those attending the wedding. The marriage relationship is unique as two people become one. This is why the breakdown of a marriage is so profoundly painful.

In the introduction to the service, the Dean of Windsor said, “Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.”

The vows Harry and Meghan made expressed their deep commitment to each other. Harry was asked, “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” Meghan made the same affirmation. Then they both promised to take one another “to have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law.”

One image the Bible uses to describe heaven is marriage. What an amazing privilege to be in heaven at the marriage feast of Jesus, the divine bridegroom, to his bride, the church he redeemed, comprising people from every nation. A hymn written by Anne Ross Cousin beautifully describes that heavenly marriage, “The bride eyes not her garments, but her dear Bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory but on my King of grace; not at the crown he giveth, but on his pierced hand; the Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.”

Sacrificial love in DR Congo

Last week the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo declared an outbreak of Ebola. Two cases have been confirmed in the northwest of the country. Ebola was first identified in DR Congo in 1976. The virus can be transmitted from wild animals to people and spreads through human-to-human transmission. The average fatality rate is 50%. The World Health organisation has made $1 million available to contain the outbreak.

DR Congo is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It has an abundant water supply from the world’s second-largest river, a benign climate, fertile soil and abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium and oil. Yet its 79 million people have experienced great suffering through corrupt government and a long running civil war in which more than 5 million people have died. Millions of people now live in extreme poverty.

Yet there are also bright lights of love and hope that shine in DR Congo. A friend of mine, who lives and works in Shalom University in Bunia, recently wrote to me. In February and March violence flared in the area near Bunia and over a two-week period 50,000 people fled into the city. They arrived on foot with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My friend described the response of Christians to the needs of these displaced people.

“On the first Sunday after the displaced began arriving, it was blazing hot. The pastor of the main church in Bunia preached on Abraham’s hospitality of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God himself. The pastor invited a refugee family up to the front to tell their story. At the end of their story the pastor started singing and the people began to stream forward to give a love offering for the displaced. Soon a large pink laundry basket was overflowing with bundles of money. This came from the people of a city where £70 a month is a good salary.”

The pastor then asked the Christians to prepare for a bigger offering the next Sunday. He told them they should bring their best food and clothes. The following Sunday, the offering was even larger and large bags of clothes were donated. For a month, the Christians throughout Bunia provided the main support for the displaced people. The loving actions of these Christians was inspired by their own experience of God’s love in Jesus who, “though he was rich, yet for their sake became poor, so that you through his poverty they might become rich.”

Miracle on the River Kwai

Captain Ernest Gordon came from Scotland and served with the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War II. Following the fall of Singapore, he was one of the prisoners of war whom the Japanese put to work on a jungle railway and bridge over the Kwai river. The conditions imposed on the prisoners were very harsh and Ernest became seriously ill. He was put in “Death Ward” and was expected to die.

There he was cared for by two very special men, Dusty Miller and ‘Dinty’ Moore. They gave 24-hour care to Ernest, boiling rags to clean and massage his diseased legs every day. To everyone’s surprise Ernest recovered and he also came to faith in Jesus Christ. He had been an agnostic, but Dusty’s simple, firm Christian faith in the face of the cruel treatment he and the other prisoners experienced made a deep impression on him. Ernest survived the war but discovered that, two weeks before the war ended, Dusty had been cruelly executed by a Japanese guard who was angry at his calmness in the face of hardship.

In his book “Miracle on the River Kwai” Ernest tells a remarkable story. Starvation, exhaustion and disease took a terrible toll on the prisoners and many gave way to selfishness, hatred and fear in a desperate attempt to survive. They felt like forsaken men – forsaken by their families, their friends, their government and even by God. Hatred of their Japanese captors became their motivation for living; they would have willingly torn them limb from limb if they had fallen into their hands. In time even hate died and gave way to numb, black despair.

One day the officer in charge said a shovel was missing and demanded that it be returned, or he would kill all the prisoners. No one moved and, then, one man stepped forward. The officer beat him to death. At the next tool check they found that all the shovels were there; there had been a miscount! The prisoners were stunned. An innocent man had been willing to die to save everyone else. Ernest said this man’s actions led men to think about the sufferings of Jesus, who laid down his life to save others, and they began to treat each other with more care and kindness. The change was so significant that when the skeletal captives were finally liberated they could, instead of attacking their captors, say to them, “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.”

Remembering Stephen Lawrence

Stephen Lawrence was murdered as he waited for a bus in Eltham, south-east London, on 22 April 1993. He was attacked and stabbed by 5 youths because he was black and died from his wounds before reaching hospital. He was just 18 years old. It took 19 years for two of the gang to be convicted of his murder. A judicial enquiry into the police investigation concluded that it was marred by “professional incompetence and institutional racism.” Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, have always behaved with great dignity. Both were awarded the OBE in 2003 for their services to community relations. Recently Doreen asked that the investigation into Stephen’s death be closed because there are no fresh leads.

In an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of Stephen’s death, his father, Neville, has spoken about his Christian faith. He said that he forgives his son’s killers and plans to spend the anniversary in church. He said the decision to forgive them was the hardest one he would ever make. He described the profound impact of Stephen’s death on all the family, “The fact that I had to lose my first child has been devastating. I can’t begin to explain the pain and the anguish I and my family have suffered over the past 25 years.” Neville speaks to young people to spell out the dire consequences of carrying a weapon. He said, “Right now with the violence, and the knife crime violence, it is even more urgent that I talk to these youngsters and explain to them the pain and the suffering they inflict on families.”

Neville’s decision to forgive Stephen’s killers, even though they have never expressed any remorse for what they did, is very significant. He has found the strength to do this because of his own experience of God’s forgiveness through Jesus. When he was dying on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He also taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

When we forgive those who have sinned against us, we are set free to move forward and rebuild our lives. As we open ourselves to God, and experience his love and grace in Jesus, he takes away the bitterness that paralyses us. We cannot fully enter into all the sadness and pain Neville and the family have experienced, but we can pray that they will all know the love and comfort of God.

A costly sacrifice and a living hope

The courage and self-sacrifice of the French gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was remarkable. When an armed man took hostages at a supermarket in Trébes, near Carcassonne, Arnaud offered to take the place of a woman hostage whom the gunman was using as a human shield. Within minutes of taking the woman’s place Arnaud had been fatally wounded by the gunman and later died in hospital. The woman whose place he took survived the ordeal. A short time before he died, Arnaud was married in the hospital in a religious ceremony to his beloved Marielle. They had already been married in a civil ceremony but were planning to be married in church in June.

Arnaud grew up in a non-religious family but experienced a genuine conversion in 2008, when he was 33 years old. From that time on he was keen to learn more about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. What he learned about Jesus prepared him for the moment when he offered to take the place of the woman in the supermarket. Arnaud knew that since he had been converted his life belonged to Jesus who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This weekend Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he died on the Cross Jesus paid the price of our sins. He took our place and suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we may be forgiven. The joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour is expressed in a well-known hymn, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O may soul.”

On the third day after he died Jesus was raised from the dead. The women, who went early in the morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, were met by two angels who asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian hope. Arnaud’s death was tragic, but he knew Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Jesus made a wonderful promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

The Joy of Spring

When does Spring begin? The Met Office regards 1 March as the first day of Spring but the heavy snowfalls on that day this year made it feel much more like winter! Amazingly, when the snow cleared from our garden we found the crocuses in flower despite the cold blanket that had covered them. However, the days are getting warmer and longer, and the daffodils are beginning to bloom, which means that winter really is passing and springtime has arrived! Spring is an encouraging time for us all as we see nature coming to life again and anticipate the brighter, warmer days of summer.

The passing seasons remind us of the faithfulness of God. Following the devastating flood, which happened in the time of Noah, God gave a wonderful promise for all subsequent generations. He said, “As long as the earth remains, there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” He also gave the rainbow as a sign of his everlasting covenant with Noah and his descendants and all living creatures. God told Noah, “I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is a sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth.”

The great reality of our life on earth is that God exists. He is eternal and created each one of us. The heavens and the earth declare his glory and the changing seasons reveal his loving care. There is something deep in every one of us that is instinctively drawn to him. In every way we are dependent on him. “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, blows the wind and it is gone; but while mortals rise and perish God endures unchanging on. Praise him, praise him, praise the high Eternal One!”

Thomas Chisholm’s well-known hymn affirms, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not, as thou hast been thou for ever will be. Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided – Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

As we move forward into the Spring it is good to know that we can do so trusting in the living God. We can rejoice in his presence with us each day to cheer us and guide us. He gives us strength for each day, bright hope for the future, and every blessing we need along the way.

Remembering Billy Graham

The evangelist Billy Graham died at his home in North Carolina on 21 February at the age of 99. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, as World War I was coming to an end. His father owned a 400-acre dairy farm and Billy grew up during the Depression, working long hours to keep the family business going. In 1934, when he was 15, he heard the evangelist Mordecai Ham preach and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. Neither he nor anyone else realised that night that he would become an international evangelist and preach to more people than any other preacher in history.

During his life Billy Graham preached in person to more than 100 million people and to billions more via television, satellite and film. More than 3 million people responded to his invitation to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour.” In 1954 he led the Greater London Crusade at Harringay that was attended by 1.75 million people. He was a spiritual adviser to every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and was invited to speak at times of national crisis, including the memorial service following the 9/11 attacks. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King Jr to preach jointly at a crusade in New York.

I first heard Billy Graham preaching in 1966 at a relay in Cardiff from his Earls Court crusade. I had grown up in church and was a church member. Billy’s preaching challenged me as to whether I had ever received Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour. Like many other people who belonged to a church I had no such assurance. I “tried my best” and hoped that when I died I would be accepted by God and go to heaven. What I believed was a mixture of what I had been taught in church and my own ideas. Time and again Billy affirmed, “the Bible says” and I realised that my faith needed to be Bible-based and centred on Jesus Christ.

As I listened to Billy preaching from the Bible I realised that I could experience forgiveness and find peace with God through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to pay the price of my sins. In the quietness of my heart I confessed my sins to God and asked Jesus Christ to be my Saviour. It was a life-changing experience. Every day since then I have struggled with my sinful heart but know that in Jesus my sins have been forgiven fully and for ever.