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I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing

On 4 July the last 750 regular British soldiers left Afghanistan, bringing to an end 20 years of military deployment in the country. Since the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, following the 2001 September 11 terror attacks, 454 British soldiers and civilians have died in Afghanistan. Some 2300 US personnel have also been killed and 50,000 Afghan civilians. The future of the country is very uncertain as the Taliban advances in many parts of the country, sparking fears of a new civil war.

The withdrawal of British soldiers from Afghanistan has brought back very painful memories for soldiers who still remember the sacrifice made by some of their friends. In the early hours of 10 July 2009, Rifleman Peter Sherlock was woken on his camp-bed at Wishtan forward operating base in Helmand’s Sangin district by his fellow troops preparing for their dawn patrol. Peter, then 21, should have been among the men heading out that morning but had been struck down by severe heatstroke the previous day and had been ordered to remain in the base. Peter chatted with the men getting ready, one of whom, 20-year-old Rifleman Danny Simpson, was his best friend in C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles.

As the men said goodbye and filed out of the front gates, Peter went to sit with the medics wondering who had taken his place in the patrol. Within minutes, there were two loud explosions in quick succession, about 500m from the base. Eight members of the 30-man patrol died and more than a dozen suffered life-changing injuries. The first death Peter heard confirmed over the radio was his best friend Danny, who had an eight-month-old son at home. Peter says, “The guilt of not having gone out with them was instant and has haunted me ever since.”

It is important that we remember and give thanks for the people, many of them young men, who have died serving in Afghanistan. They laid down their lives in a foreign land far from home seeking to bring peace to that troubled nation. Peter says, “I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing.” We pray for those like him, still living with the trauma of what he experienced, and others with life-changing injuries, and for the future of the Afghan people. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus is the supreme example of self-sacrifice. His death and resurrection have brought hope to our sad and suffering world. His love in dying for our sins has brought peace to many people burdened with guilt and comfort to those with profoundly sad memories.

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Hope in the face of death

More than 3 million people from more than 200 countries have died from Covid-19. These people come from every strata of society and every age group. Most deaths have been of elderly people but that doesn’t diminish the significance their deaths. None of us can escape the reality of death for ourselves and also for our loved ones. In 1750 Thomas Gray wrote his poem “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” reflecting on those buried in the churchyard, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, and all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, awaits alike th’ inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

The Bible teaches that death is the consequence of Adam’s disobedience at the beginning of history, which affected the whole human race. In his letter to Christians in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote, “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many.” Underlying the diversity seen in the different peoples of the world two things are common to us all – we all sin and we all die.

But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought hope to people of all nations. The Apostle John wrote, “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.” The Apostle Paul explained the significance of God’s gracious intervention in Jesus, “The result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

Because of Jesus, Christians are able to face death with confidence. They believe his promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” Writing to Timothy, a fellow Christian leader, the Apostle Paul wrote, “This grace has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

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When life changes

I have a friend who has experienced a number of life-changing events. Kristian grew up in Barry in South Wales. His father suffered from mental health issues and the family home was a place of fear and guilt. Kristian felt guilty because he couldn’t stop the violence against his mother. He also experienced bullying at school, but he was very good at football, and when he was on the pitch, he didn’t have any worries.

The first big change in Kristian’s life happened in his early teens. He started playing for Cardiff Academy then Swansea and played internationally for Wales. When he was 15, he was signed by Crystal Palace and moved to London. The football club looked after everything for him and even paid him while he was still in school. Kristian was being recognised as a technically gifted midfield/central defender. He had lots of money and was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Then he broke his ankle very badly. Despite the best possible treatment his ankle didn’t fully heal, and it soon became clear to him that, at the age of 20, his football career was over. He was devastated but threw himself into building a successful business career. He was determined to regain the money and lifestyle he had had in football. He returned to Barry, married his girlfriend and had a family. He bought a big house, had nice cars, expensive holidays and extravagant things he bought for himself and his family. He was successful and happy.

Kristian wasn’t expecting the next, and biggest change, in his life. His wife, Carla, started going to a mums and tots’ group at a local church and soon became a Christian. Kristian didn’t like her talking about her Saviour Jesus but could see that she had completely changed and was so caring towards him. Reluctantly Kristian went to some church services. As he listened to one sermon he said, “Suddenly I realised that God loved me. I realised that Jesus had come to this world to live the perfect life and that he died on the cross to take the punishment I deserved.”

Kristian and Carla now live in a village near Hereford with their 5 children where Kristian is the minister of a small church. He says, “I once had thought that contentment was to be found by having the best and the latest stuff, but I’ve realised that life is more than that. Life is about a relationship with God and knowing his love and forgiveness through Jesus. That is something that will last.”

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Remembering the Battle of Britain

This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940 and continued until 31 October 1940. It was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as the RAF’s finest hour. France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany who now dominated Western Europe. British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Despite being in a seemingly hopeless military situation, Britain refused to surrender.

Britain was the last bastion against what Churchill called “the menace of tyranny.” The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was mounting destructive bombing air raids against Britain, the Blitz, in preparation for an invasion by the German army. In July 1940 the Luftwaffe had 2800 aircraft, mostly bombers. They were experienced and confident and anticipated taking only a few days to defeat the RAF. At the start of the Battle of Britain the RAF had 650 aircraft and 1300 pilots, some of whom came from Commonwealth countries, Nazi-occupied countries and the USA. Britain ramped up factory production of aircraft, especially Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and by October 1940 had more planes that the Luftwaffe.

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe lost 1887 aircraft and 2600 pilots. The RAF lost 1023 aircraft and 544 pilots. The outstanding courage and skill of the RAF pilots led to success in the Battle of Britain and saved many lives. It was a decisive turning point in the course of World War II and the history of the world. In a speech on 20 August 1940 Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem was the decisive moment in human history. He had come from heaven to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The self-sacrifice of God’s eternal Son has brought new life and hope to countless people around the world. Horatius Bonar’s hymn explains it 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 them I rest, on them alone. Jesus, O Son of God, I build on what thy cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, my pardon there I see.”

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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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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.”

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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.”

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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!”

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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.