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.”

Amazing grace

One Sunday morning I was driving along the M4. The weather was fine and most cars were driving at, or below, the speed limit. Some cars and vans passed me doing 80mph and then, on a quiet part of the motorway, a car passed me doing about 100mph. It disappeared from sight very quickly. Presumably the driver felt able to drive at that speed because there was little possibility of him being caught by a speed camera.

A little further on we came to a short stretch of the motorway where there is average speed camera surveillance. Every vehicle, without exception, drove at 50 mph! Why did everyone keep to the speed limit on that of part of the motorway? Because, if they drove too fast, the cameras were certain to detect it and they would be fined and have points on their licence. The evidence of the cameras would make conviction certain.

Our fallen human nature means that we are all most likely to break laws when we think we will “get away with it” and, in many cases, we do. Yet our leaders seem to think that making more laws will change people’s behaviour. In 2010 a record 3506 new laws were introduced in Britain, 10 for each day. The task of enforcing those laws, and all the other laws, is becoming impossible. In the absence of certain detection, laws have a very limited effect on how people behave.

The most important laws are God’s moral laws, summarised in the Ten Commandments. Few of us seem to have a sense of our ultimate accountability to Almighty God for the way we live. However, the Bible, and our consciences, tell us that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” When we realise that divine judgement is certain for us all, our sense of guilt and helplessness can be overwhelming. At such times, we know we need a Saviour.

In one of his hymns Horatius Bonar summed up his faith, and the faith of all Christians. “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.”

Forgive us our debts

Christmas is a distant memory, but the arrival of credit card bills this month reminds us of how much we spent and how much we owe. At the end of November 2015, people in Britain owed £1.458 trillion. This is £708 more for each adult than in November 2014. By the end of 2016 the average household will owe almost £10,000 in personal loans, credit cards and overdrafts.

Debt can become overwhelming and destructive. I remember visiting Bob. He had gone through the pain of divorce and had also lost his job. He was in serious debt. He hated the sound of the postman putting letters through his door because many of them were final warnings. If he didn’t pay what he owed his electricity, gas, and telephone would be cut off. He had no money to pay and had reached his overdraft limit at the bank.

One Friday he had gone to his bank hoping to draw our £20 to get some food. The cashier told him he couldn’t give him the money. Bob’s desperation must have been obvious to the cashier because, later that day, after the bank had closed, the bank manager brought some money to his house! I talked with Bob and discovered the full extent of his debts. Then I went with him to talk to the bank manager and, together, we agreed a way for his debts to be paid and for him to move to a smaller property which he could afford. The crushing burden of debt had been lifted from Bob and, now, he had hope for the future.

The Bible speaks about another debt we all owe. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God “to forgive us our debts.” Every day we all break God’s commands and our debt to him accumulates. Sometimes our sense of guilt becomes overwhelming as we realise how our sinful patterns of behaviour are destroying our lives, and the lives of those we love. At such times we feel utterly helpless, as Bob did when faced with his debts. The good news is that Jesus came into the world to provide a way of escape and to give us hope. By his death on the cross he paid the debt of our sins and we can experience forgiveness through him. One hymn says, “My sin, oh, 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!”

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away

This week there will be a debate in the House of Lords on a Bill to legalise “assisted dying” which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally-ill patients. If passed, the law would apply only to those who it is judged have less than 6 months to live and would have to be signed off by two doctors. The patient would administer the substance themselves, although they would be able to receive help if they could not lift or swallow it. So the Bill would legalise assisted suicide.

Compassion is at the centre of the debate. What is the compassionate thing to do for someone who is terminally ill and, possibly, in great pain? Over my years in the ministry I have pastorally cared for many people in such situations and their families. I have witnessed the amazing courage of terminally-ill people and seen the loving care of their families which has surrounded them. The skill and commitment of the medical team and the palliative carers has been wonderful to see. Even though everyone involved knows that death is drawing near, they have committed themselves to showing compassion and love to the dying person.

The proposed Bill presents a very different picture of compassion. When a terminally ill person feels they cannot go on those who are with them, both family and medical team, will agree that the compassionate thing to do is to allow them to end their life, even though they may have as much as six months to live. Lethal drugs will be prescribed and, then, the person, either on their own, or with assistance from those nearest to them will take the drugs and, within a short time, die. A husband or wife or son or daughter will have to live with the realisation that they played an active role in the death of someone they loved very deeply.

As I have visited terminally ill people it has been amazing to see how God has wonderfully sustained them. He has given them grace to face each day as they have experienced the deep love of their family and friends. When, finally, they have died the family had no sense of guilt but have been able to trust God to comfort them in their deep sense of loss. They could say with Job, when he suffered great personal loss in the death of all his children, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”