The power of forgiveness

When the Allied forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Tony Lucas, who died recently, was one of 80,000 troops who became prisoners of war. For the next three and a half years he, along with many others, were slave labourers on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Tony was one of 17,000 PoWs packed into Selarang barracks, which was designed to take 800, with all water supplies, barring one tap, disconnected to compel them to sign a pledge not to escape.

Tony was transported by rail to Thailand. Thirty prisoners were locked into each airless steel-roofed truck, in toxic heat. The journey lasted five days. Lucas thought he would die; several did. In Thailand, hacking out the 258-mile railway line, reveille was at 4.30am, followed by a three-mile march through the jungle to the area the Australians named “Hellfire Pass”. Men worked in pairs, alternately swinging a 7lb hammer and holding a 3ft iron bar. They never returned before 10.30pm.

He and the other prisoners survived on a daily ration of a cupful of degraded rice. Tony suffered dysentery, malaria and jungle ulcers; his weight dropped from 11-stone to 6. On his twenty-first bout of malaria, an Allied doctor gave him a massive dose of paludrine. After that he remained free from malaria, but contracted cholera whilst helping carry corpses out for burning. On one occasion a guard, who was nicknamed “The Undertaker” because he had killed prisoners with an iron bar, attacked Tony and knocked out 3 of his teeth.

After the war, Tony suffered nightmares and terrible bouts of depression. Understandably, he at first despised the Japanese. However, as he understood more he realised that it was the military in Japan and not the wider civilian population who were responsible for the atrocities. Later, in his work with an associate company of ICI, he visited Japan on business and showed a remarkable capacity to forgive the extreme suffering he experienced. A forgiving spirit is much more powerful than a spirit of hate and vengeance.

Tony was a private person who had a very deep Christian faith. His father was an Anglican clergyman and, from childhood, Tony had been taught about Jesus and his great love for a sinful world. Tony often prayed the Lord’s Prayer including the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also knew that when he was dying on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.

Remembering Jill Saward

Jill Saward’s funeral takes place this week at Lichfield Cathedral. Her ashes will be taken to Nefyn in North Wales, where for many years she was a member of the annual beach mission team. While she was at home with her husband, Gavin, she suffered an aneurysm, a burst blood vessel in the brain. She died two days later; she was just 51 years old. Gavin and their three adult boys have been devastated by the suddenness of her death.

In 1986, Jill was the victim of a savage rape when three men in balaclavas burst into the Ealing vicarage. They were high on drugs and drink and armed with knives. Jill’s father and boyfriend were beaten unconscious, their skulls fractured. Jill, then aged 21 with no sexual experience, was repeatedly and brutally raped by two of the men. In the months that followed Jill seemed to be coping with her ordeal wonderfully well. When the men came to trial at the Old Bailey the judge, seeing Jill’s air of calm and resilience, gave them lighter sentences because her trauma “had not been so great.” It was a great injustice.

Beneath her calm outward demeanour, however, Jill was suffering deeply. For more than three years she experienced flashbacks and nightmares and came close to suicide on three occasions. She separated from her boyfriend and was afraid no-one would ever be interested in marrying her because she was “on the shelf, soiled goods.” In 1994 she set up HURT (Help Untwist Rape Trauma), a charity to provide support for victims of sexual violence and their families, and became a counsellor.

Jill’s faith in her Saviour, Jesus Christ, was a great source of strength to her. In 1998 she came face to face with the leader of the gang, who had not been involved in the rape, and forgave him. She said, “Of course, sometimes I thought it might be quite nice to be full of hatred and revenge, but you’re the one who gets damaged in the end. So, although it makes you vulnerable, forgiving is actually a release. It’s not whether you can or can’t forgive; it’s whether you will or won’t. I don’t think I’d be here today without my Christian faith. That’s what got me through.”

Jill is now in heaven where she sees her Saviour, Jesus, face to face. There is no more crying or pain and God has wiped away every tear from her eyes. May her family, in their sadness and loss, be comforted by this at the funeral service this week.

Transforming hearts and minds

The destruction of Metrojet Flight KGL9268 on 31 October over the northern Sinai desert seems to have been caused by an explosive device on board. The plane was carrying Russian holidaymakers returning from Sharm el-Sheikh and had reached its cruising altitude of 32000 feet when, suddenly, it disappeared from the radar. The 217 passengers and 7 crew were killed. They didn’t know the person who planted the bomb and the bomber didn’t know them. The reason they were targeted seems to be that they came from Russia. Tragically, and without warning, many families have lost loved ones and have been plunged into mourning.

Sadly, terrorism is now an established part of life in our world. The activities of the terrorists touch the lives of us all. They have a cause for which they are fighting and to which they are passionately committed. They are ready to brutalise and kill other people and, in some cases, to die themselves through suicide bombs. Security and intelligence services use highly sophisticated technology to try to track and foil terrorist plots but no one has an answer to the problem. It seems to be impossible to change the hearts and minds of terrorists so that they abandon their hateful and destructive purposes. Increasing numbers of young people are being radicalised.

Jesus had 12 disciples who spent 3 years with him. One of them was Simon the Zealot. Before he became a disciple of Jesus, Simon belonged to a radical Jewish sect known as the Zealots who were committed to opposing the Roman occupation of their country. They incited the people to rebel against Roman authority and were ready to kill to further their cause. They even killed their own people who collaborated with the Romans. Matthew was also a disciple of Jesus. Before he met Jesus, Matthew collaborated with the Romans by collecting their taxes from his own people. Simon hated men like Matthew. Yet, amazingly, Simon and Matthew were both transformed by their relationship with Jesus and became friends.

A friend of mine, Michael, grew up in the Republic of Ireland and, as a young man, became involved with terrorists. One day he was making a bomb when it exploded and he lost both his hands. Later he met some Christians and heard the good news of Jesus. He became a disciple of Jesus and a preacher of the Gospel. Michael is an example of the power of Jesus to change hearts and minds today, as no one else can.

The God of second chances

On 11 June Vincent Uzomah, a supply science teacher at a school in Bradford, was stabbed with a kitchen knife by a 14 year old pupil. Vincent was very seriously injured and was afraid he was going to die. The boy had racially abused Vincent and had told his school friends he was going to kill him. After the attack the boy put a post on Facebook saying what he had done and 69 people said they “liked” his post. The boy has been given an 11-year sentence and Vincent may never return to a classroom.

After the trial Vincent said, “As a Christian I have forgiven this boy who has inflicted this trauma and pain on me and my family. Our prayer for him is that he will make use of the opportunities and support that will be provided to him to become a changed person who will make a positive contribution to society.” People like Vincent shine light into our dark world.

Why could Vincent speak of forgiving a young man who so obviously hates him? Hatred and revenge are the normal human responses to those who mistreat us; forgiveness is rare. Vincent is able to forgive the boy because he himself has experienced God’s forgiveness. He became a Christian when he realised his own sinfulness before a holy God and acknowledged that God could justly condemn him for all the sins he has committed. He confessed his sin to God and asked for forgiveness. He also put his trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who died on the cross to pay the price of his sins. Vincent experienced the amazing love of God and found forgiveness and new life in Jesus. Every day Vincent continues to need forgiveness and prays, “Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Vincent’s experience of God’s love and grace in Jesus has also taught him that God is a God of second chances and new beginnings. No matter what we have done, God is able to change us from the inside and give us a new heart. That is why Vincent and his wife are praying for the boy during his time in custody. He, too, can experience God’s forgiveness and find new life in Jesus. This offers real hope to us all in our daily struggle with our sinful hearts and ways. God’s promise in Jesus is, “I will forgive their wickedness and I will never again remember their sins.”

On the road to Damascus

After more than 3 years the civil war in Syria between government forces and the rebels continues. More than 100,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million men, women and children, have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Within Syria itself 4 million people have had to move from their homes and are now displaced. Heavy bombing has devastated the cities of Aleppo and Homs, killing and injuring thousands of people. Large parts of these, and other, cities have been virtually destroyed. There seems no prospect of an end to the conflict and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.

Is it possible for people whose hearts are filled with hatred to be changed? Yes it is. The conversion of the apostle Paul is a great example. He was on the road to Damascus, in Syria, when he had a life changing encounter with Jesus. Paul was extremely zealous for his Jewish faith and lived according to very strict religious laws. He hated Jesus and violently persecuted Christians. He wanted to destroy the church.

He was travelling to Damascus to find followers of Jesus, both men and women, and take them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. On the Damascus Road he met the living Lord. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. Saul lost his sight and had to be led by the hand into Damascus. After 3 days the Lord sent a Christian named Ananias to visit Saul. He placed his hands on Saul and he recovered his sight, was baptised, and began proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy. Saul was a changed man and, despite great suffering, preached the good news about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire for the rest of his life.

The good news about Jesus is a life transforming message. Those who receive Jesus as their Saviour are forgiven and begin a new life. An inner, heart change takes place. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” When this happens in places of conflict today, those who become Christians often find their lives are in danger from their old friends, who consider them traitors. Yet they continue faithfully to follow Jesus, whatever the cost, because he “loved them and gave himself for them” and taught them to “love their enemies.”