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A Great Rescue

Early on Saturday afternoon Matt, a good friend of mine, who is a member of his local cave rescue team, received an emergency call. A caver was seriously injured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system in South Wales and needed urgently to be rescued. Matt responded immediately and joined the 300 volunteers from across the country who also responded to the call. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu is one of the deepest cave systems in the UK, with its lowest passageways 901ft below the surface. It is suitable only for experienced cavers who see everything from huge chambers, beautiful formations, to yawning chasms and thundering river passages. The rescue operation was very complex and Matt and the other team members would not get home until Monday evening.

The injured caver, George, and his partner were a mile into the 43-mile cave network when George fell suffering injuries to his tibia, fibula, jaw, and chest. He couldn’t move. When the rescuers found George, they immobilised him on a stretcher and began the long journey to the surface. There were many natural obstacles to negotiate including narrow passages, boulders, potholes, and waterfalls. It was exhausting work, so the rescuers worked in shifts.
It was necessary to undertake a long journey underground to get George to an exit big enough to get the stretcher through, but the rescuers were determined to rescue him however long it took. On Monday evening George and the rescue team emerged from the caves and he was taken to hospital. One person said, “Volunteers from everywhere were ready to put their own lives on the line to rescue a fellow caver.”

The greatest ever rescue operation was undertaken by Jesus Christ. We were all in great danger, so Jesus came from heaven to rescue us. The apostle John tells us, “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.”

Jesus laid down his life on the cross to rescue us by suffering the punishment our sins deserve. One hymn says, “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame. Yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – blessed be his name! Then dawned at last that day of dread, when desolate, yet undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head, he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame, he saved me – blessed be his name!”

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The Wonder of Reconciliation

In May 2019, 15-year-old Leah met up with a group of friends in a car park in her hometown of Northallerton. Connor, who was 17 years old, gave Leah MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, a Class A drug. Connor was involved with county lines gangs which target vulnerable teenagers and use them to supply drugs. After taking the drug Leah collapsed and died. Connor was charged with supplying drugs and was sent to prison.

After the trial Leah’s mother, Kerry, and Connor’s mother, Tammy, were introduced to each other through restorative justice which brings those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm into contact with each other with a view to repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. Kerry didn’t want to meet Connor but agreed to meet Tammy.

As Kerry and Tammy talked, they were able to understand each other’s situation. Kerry realised that they had both lost something. Tammy knew her son was involved with the gangs and had tried, without success, to get help for him, including reporting him to the police. She felt a deep guilt and shame over Leah’s death. Kerry told Tammy that Leah was her “best friend”, and that she felt “a lot of hatred” about how she had died.

Following their meeting Kerry and Tammy decided to launch a campaign “Do You Know MDMA?” to get the message out that drugs kill. Kerry says, “People will look at us and think it’s an unlikely friendship. They will see us as two separate people, but we are both grieving. They are both our children. I feel if we can tell our story we can try to educate people. Leah died and I can’t let that be for no reason.” Many people have been deeply moved by Kerry and Tammy’s story and pray that because of their campaign other young people will not die from taking drugs.

Reconciliation is a powerful thing and is at the heart of the Bible’s message. All of us have sinned and rebelled against God but through his Son, Jesus Christ, God has at great cost provided the way of reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’ For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

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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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When sorrows like sea billows roll

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well-known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to express our faith in God and to rest in his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and sent them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said, “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “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 my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal, O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

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When tragedy strikes

After school on 13 January the school minibus dropped 7-year-old Samuel Barker at his home in Monmouth. Tragically Samuel was then knocked over by the minibus. His mother, Cat, rushed to him and knew the moment she got there that little Samuel was not alive. She said, “I was there in seconds, I picked him up off the road and put him on my lap. I knew he was dead straight away and there was no suffering. I praised God for his life and that I knew exactly where he was now, and that it had been so quick. I kissed his head – his very tousled hair.” Cat and two friends then prayed as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Cat and her husband are Christians and have known God comforting and strengthening them in their grief. The day after Samuel died, Cat went to the school and explained to his class that Samuel is in heaven. After praying with them she went outside to the playground and comforted other parents. Cat is “desperately sad” for the driver of the minibus and prays that he will not be wracked with guilt.

Cat said, “Samuel was exuberant and bouncy. There was never a dull moment. He often had messy hair, paint on his jumper, and muddy knees. He made the best of every moment.” A year ago, Cat bought some new notebooks for Samuel and his two brothers. Samuel was very excited to receive his notebook and took it to his bedroom. He sat down at his desk and started busily writing.

This is what Samuel wrote that day, “I love Jesus and God because they look after me and are nice to me. They love me very much and they make me better and they are the best adults in the whole wide world. And I love them very, very much. They are so nice to me. So, I will always believe in them. They like me so much. They are so, so, so, so, so kind to me and I trust them. They give me strength. He loves me all the time, I praise the Lord. I can trust in them. They are the best. I am so excited to go to heaven. I will never hurt myself. I will never, never get a stitch. And he died on the cross for me. He saved my life.”

Cat said, “The Bible tells us that all you need is the faith of a child. You don’t need to have a degree in theology or your life together perfectly. You just need to say, ‘Yes – I believe, help me in my unbelief.’”

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Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known; another’s tears, another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

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Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

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The “lullaby mothers” of the DR Congo

The outbreak of Ebola in the DR Congo is very serious. Over the past year more than 2,000 people have died out of more than 3,000 cases. Nearly 600 of those who have died are children. New treatments are available, but many people are afraid to seek treatment because this involves being isolated away from their family and being cared for by strangers.

Yet in the midst of the suffering and sadness there are beautiful examples of love. More than 3,500 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents by the outbreak. A group of grieving women who are at the epicentre of the outbreak, known as the “lullaby mothers”, are caring for babies who are orphans or who are at risk. They are providing these little ones with a priceless tonic: the human touch.

In April Joniste Kahambu lost her three-year-old son to Ebola, but she herself survived. As a result, she has antibodies in her system that protect her against re-infection. She has returned to the clinic where she was treated and is helping to care for babies who are being kept in isolation. As a stand-in mother she feeds the infants, holds and soothes them; a labour of love that she says eases her own pain. “If I had to stay at home, I’d think too much about my son. Many babies have lost their mothers and need our love. Caring for them is my way of helping the people who looked after me.”

In March, another of the lullaby singers, Gentile Kahunia, watched two of her four children die in a week, even as she herself was responding positively to treatment at the clinic. The love she once showed them is now given to the children of other women. She says, “I feel relieved and can forget a little about the death of my children when I take care of the ones here. I treat them like they are my own.” One aid worker said, “The touch of these women provides the orphans with essential human interaction and a glimmer of hope, their selflessness, kindness and bravery are immeasurable.”

There are many Christians in the DR Congo and the love of these mothers reminds us of the transforming love of Jesus. One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

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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.

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O Thou who changest not, abide with me!

The terrible fire at Grenfell Tower has traumatised a nation. The vivid pictures of the inferno that quickly engulfed the council tower block, in which more than 500 people lived, portrayed the horror of what was happening. There was an acute sense of helplessness as firemen tried to extinguish the fire that raged through the 24-storey tower in the middle of the night. The faces of people at the windows desperately crying out for help were heart-rending. For many there was no escape. The photographs of the inside of the flats, released by the Metropolitan Police, show the total devastation of the fire. Everything was destroyed.

The stories of some survivors are desperately sad. Brothers Omar and Mohammed Alhajali had fled the war in Syria and come to London. Omar was led to safety through the smoke by firefighters. He thought his brother, Mohammed, was with them only to realise that he was still in the flat. They spoke on the phone before Mohammed died. Mohammed sent a voice message to his mother in Syria saying, “Good-bye. I love you.” Omar, like many other survivors is traumatised and has a deep sense of guilt that he survived when his brother died.

Such tragedies are utterly devastating. The courage and skill of the emergency services and the practical love of the community have shone out in the darkness, but the deepest needs of those affected can only be met by the eternal God whose Son, Jesus, died and rose again to give us hope. There are things that happen in this life that cannot be put right or resolved. The finality of death takes us into a realm where only the living God can help us.

The words of a well-known hymn speak into our moments of deepest pain and grief. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see: O Thou who changest not, abide with me. I need Thy presence every passing hour; what but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”