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.”

The peace that passes all understanding

On a recent Songs of Praise programme Simon Thomas spoke about the way in which God has given him strength since his wife Gemma died in November 2017. Simon became well-known to millions of people as a Blue Peter presenter before moving to Sky Sports news, becoming a lead presenter of Football League and Premier League programmes. In November 2017 his wife Gemma, who was also a Christian, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just 3 days later. Simon and his 8-year-old son, Ethan, were devasted. At that time Simon said, “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. If you pray – please pray for my boy Ethan, precious and in bits.”

On Songs of Praise Simon said he had never truly understood the “peace that passes all understanding.” He said, “I just thought it was a nice place to be, but actually it’s because you feel that sense of peace in almost impossible situations in which to find peace.” In the three days after Gemma was diagnosed, he said, “Everything’s coming at you – we’re wondering what on earth acute myeloid leukaemia is, and is she going to survive? Yet I experienced peace, amidst the noise and fear, that gives me the hope that one day I’m going to see her again.”

Simon continued, “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on, and yet at times that’s impossible to get your head around and to draw comfort from. At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith because it gives direction to everything else. It was the glue in our marriage, and it helps in terms of how we, and now I, bring up Ethan. You know, it’s the reference point for my life.

A hymn was sung at the Thanksgiving Service for Gemma which was also sung at Simon and Gemma’s wedding. The words of the hymn meant a lot to both Simon and Gemma and have given Simon strength since Gemma died. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand, till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

True happiness

All people long to find true and lasting happiness. The American Declaration of Independence says all people have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including the “pursuit of happiness.” However, many people around the world are unhappy. The UN World Happiness Report 2018 asked people in every country in the world how happy they were. People living in Finland, Norway and Denmark were the happiest. People in these countries live in stable society with a high standard of living. People living in Yemen, South Sudan and Burundi were the unhappiest. People living in these countries are experiencing terrible conflicts and are very poor with no immediate prospect of improvement.

However, people living in affluent countries also experience profound and tragic unhappiness. In South Korea many elderly people commit suicide. The tradition of children caring for their aging parents has declined in the 21st century. Elderly parents are ending their lives because they don’t want to be a financial burden on their families. There is also a higher-than-average suicide rate amongst students. One reason is the pressure put on them by their parents to succeed academically. When students fail to achieve the goals set for them by their parents, they feel they have dishonoured their families and commit suicide.

True happiness is not found in economic prosperity or academic success but in knowing God and in experiencing his grace when we fail, as we all do. King David sinned very greatly when he committed adultery with another man’s wife and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. After he had committed these sins David tried to hide them and to carry on as normal. But God sent a prophet to confront him and then David confessed his sin to God and experienced God’s gracious forgiveness.

David wrote about his experience of forgiveness in Psalm 32, “O, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

To whom shall we go?

The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.

According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.

What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.

The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.

Crushing guilt and true forgiveness

The appalling case of Larry Nassar revealed how he used his position as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University to sexually abuse more than 250 women and girls over a period of 20 years. In January, Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 7 girls, including US Olympic gymnasts, and was sentenced to 175 years in prison. He had previously been sentenced to 60 years for child pornography offences and last week received an additional sentence of 40-125 years. He will spend the rest of his life in a high security prison. He will never be released.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was 15 years old when Nassar began abusing her. She was the first of Nassar’s victims to make allegations against him. She was also the last of more than 150 survivors to share her impact statement in court. Rachael is now a lawyer and is married with 3 children. Her statement was powerful and deeply moving.

Rachael said, “Throughout this process, I have clung to a quotation by C.S. Lewis, where he says: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?'”

“Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimisation or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt, so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.”

New beginnings

A new year has begun and offers the possibility of a new beginning. Looking back on life we have regrets because things haven’t turned out as we hoped they would. We may have experienced problems in our marriages and families which are deeply painful. Broken relationships with friends leave their scars. Disappointments in our work and career are not easily overcome. Our own behaviour can cause guilt and sadness; the things we wish we’d never done or said, but cannot change. So the opportunity to make a new start is attractive.

A woman was once brought before Jesus when he was teaching the people in the Temple. It was the time of one of the great pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem and thousands of people were in the city. The religious leaders were self-righteous and hated Jesus. They wanted to have a reason to accuse him so they had gone out before dawn and found this woman committing adultery. They brought her to Jesus as a test case. The Old Testament law said that people guilty of adultery should be stoned to death, although this had not been done for centuries. The religious leaders were proud and despised Jesus because he dealt gently and kindly with people who had fallen into sin. Would he say that someone like this woman, who had been caught in the very act of adultery, should not be punished?

Jesus challenged them saying, “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, the men who had accused the woman began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. Then he declared, “Then neither do I condemn you go now and leave your life of sin.”

Like this woman we, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and a new beginning. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn us, but that through him we might find forgiveness and new life. Oswald Allen’s hymn reminds us of God’s gracious promises: “Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been. Today your gate is open, and all who enter in shall find a Father’s welcome and pardon for their sin. The past shall be forgotten, a present joy be given, a future grace be promised, a glorious crown in heaven.”

She has saved me

Sergeant Alexander Blackman has been released from prison and has been reunited with his wife, Claire, who tirelessly campaigned for him to be freed. On being reunited with his wife, Sgt Blackman said, “She has saved me. Her determination to keep on fighting for me has been incredible. You just can’t imagine anyone cares for you that much.” Sgt Blackman was a Royal Marine and served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He and his troops manned an outpost deep in hostile territory that has been described as “the most dangerous square mile on earth.” They served in stifling temperatures of 50C, under intense psychological pressure, knowing every step might trigger a land mine.

One day Sgt Blackman shot a severely wounded Taliban fighter whom they had captured. What he said and did was recorded on video. In December 2013, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the first time a British soldier had been convicted of murder on the battlefield. Last month, after a sustained campaign spearheaded by his wife, Sgt Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The appeal judges recognised he had combat stress and reduced his sentence to 7 years, paving the way for his release.

It will take some time to adjust to his new life. He has been dismissed from his beloved Royal Marines and has been offered a civilian job. He said, “Being out of prison is an immense feeling, but I am very conscious that my sentence is not complete. I have been released on licence, and there are certain conditions which I must – and I will – respect.”

All of us have done things that we deeply regret, but cannot change. We feel guilty and long to find forgiveness. The Christian Gospel tells how Jesus, God’s Son, came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins. He lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died on the cross bearing the punishment we deserve. How amazing that anyone could love us so much as to die in our place! When we know Jesus as our Saviour, we are set free from guilt and experience the joy of being forgiven. God’s forgiveness is complete and final; there are no conditions. When we experience God’s love in Jesus we, for the first time, truly love God from our hearts and cannot stop thanking him for what he has done for us; in Jesus, he has saved us!

Adriaan Vlok is a changed man

On Friday 2 February 1990 President F.W. de Klerk announced the end of apartheid, that for 41 years had inflicted brutality and injustice on millions of South African citizens, simply because of the colour of their skin. White and black people were forced to live entirely separately, the whites in the rich lands and the blacks in the desperately poor homelands. On Sunday 11 February 1990 Nelson Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster prison, after spending 27 years in detention, and declared himself to be a humble servant of the people.

From 1986 to 1991, Adriaan Vlok was Minister of Law and Order and was responsible for enforcing the apartheid laws. When, in 1999, he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he admitted the crimes he had committed, including ordering the bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches. In 2006 he publicly apologised for other acts committed while he was Minister of Law and Order. In a dramatic gesture, he washed the feet of Frank Chikane who, as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, he had targeted for assassination. Later he washed the feet of the 10 widows and mothers of the “Malmelodi 10”, a group of anti-apartheid activists who had been lured to their death by a police informant.

Today, at the age of 78, Adriaan lives in a modest house in the suburbs of Pretoria that he shares with a black man, a former convict and a homeless white family. In 2015 he set up the “Feed a Child” charity that provides food to poor black families. Without any escort or protection, he drives a few miles to the township of Olievenhoutbosch with his car loaded with donated food that he distributes to hungry families, a children’s day care centre and a disabled charity.

Adriaan has become a Christian and is a changed man. In 1994, shortly after he retired from government, his wife committed suicide. Dealing with the loss of his wife, and his own sense of guilt for atrocities committed by his police, Adriaan began reading the Bible. Some words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount spoke powerfully to him “If you are presenting a gift at the altar, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your offering there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your gift to God.” “I realized,” Adriaan says, “that, because I had been graciously forgiven by God, I had to start making peace with my brothers whom I had so deeply hurt.”

The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”