When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”

When tragedy strikes

The Manchester bombing atrocity has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. Thousands attended the Ariana Grande concert, including many children and young people. They had been looking forward to the event for months. As the crowds were leaving the Manchester Arena, the suicide bomber detonated his device killing 22, maiming 64, and traumatizing many more. One of the most poignant images was of a 12-year-old girl being looked after and comforted by police officers. She had gone to the concert with her mother and a friend. Now her mother was dead and she, and those helping her, were struggling to take it in.

Reporting of the bombing has been extensive over the past week, but already things are moving on and life for most people is returning to normal. But what about those who have been most tragically affected because they have lost mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and friends? Or those who have suffered life-changing injuries? Emergency and medical staff have also been traumatized by the things they have seen as they have heroically used their skills to help those devastated by the atrocity. Those of us not directly involved can only try to understand a little of what they are experiencing.

When tragedy strikes the help of other people is a great source of comfort and strength. As we struggle with our questions and numbing sadness we can also find help in God. Psalm 46 affirms, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. The Lord Almighty is with us. Be still, and know that I am God.” Those who come alongside us in the dark days immediately after a tragedy must inevitably return to their own lives and we may be left to struggle with our loss, or cope with our new limitations, alone. But God is always with us. In him we can find solace and strength.

God understands our sadness. His Son, Jesus, was just 33 years old when he was killed by wicked men. During his ministry, Jesus had brought great blessing to many people: he healed people from all kinds of diseases, set people free from the power of evil spirits, and even raised people from the dead. Yet, irrationally, he was hated by the religious leaders who were determined to kill him. He didn’t deserve to die. When we experience overwhelming tragedy and deep sadness we can pray to God. He understands what we are experiencing and will gives us his strength in our time of greatest need.

When bad things happen

What do we do when bad things happen? A dear friend of ours recently had surgery for cancer. This is not the first time she has had to undergo surgery and now the disease has returned. Since she was first diagnosed and treated she has had regular check-ups and the latest tests revealed the need for further surgery. She and her husband and young daughter know it is a serious situation. How have they responded to this difficult situation? The words of a simple Christian chorus help us to understand how they have responded to this “bad thing” that is happening to them and how we, too, can face similar situations.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Most of us are caught up in the busyness of life. There’s no time to stop and think. When we know we have a serious illness, it is a time to be still. The world rushes on, but we withdraw to quietly reflect on our situation. From her childhood, growing up in Eastern Europe, our friend has known God. She knows that it was God who knit her together in her mother’s womb and that he ordained all the days of her life before one of them came to be. She is in the gracious and loving hands of her heavenly Father just as much now as she was before the disease returned.

“I am the Lord who healeth thee.” Our friend is very thankful for the skill and dedication of the medical teams and for all they have done and are doing. Like them, she knows that there are mysteries in the treatment of serious diseases. Even though patients are given the same treatment, the outcomes may be different. She knows that it is the Lord who heals all our diseases. She has experienced his gracious healing in the past and knows he can do it again.

“In thee, O Lord, I put my trust.” Most of us like to be in control of our lives and feel disorientated when things happen that are too big for us to handle. Our friend has quietly and confidently put her trust in Jesus, her Lord and Saviour. She does not know what the future holds, but she knows that there is nothing in all creation that is able to separate her from God’s love for her in Jesus. So, she is consciously trusting in her Lord to give her sufficient courage so that now, as always, he will be exalted in her life.

The story of the little girl in the picture

Many people, who do not recognise the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc, remember the photograph of her taken in 1972 when, as a 9-year-old little girl, she ran from her village in Vietnam after a napalm attack. Kim Phuc is now 52 years old and lives in Toronto. She is a wife and mother of 2 boys and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Phuc has established a charity that helps children suffering from war. She says that the terrified little girl in the picture is “not running any more, she’s flying!”

In 1972 Phuc was living in the village of Trang Bang, north of Saigon. She and family were sheltering in a temple when they heard planes overhead. They ran outside to find safety, just as bombs detonated containing napalm, a flammable liquid that clings to skin, causing horrific burns. Phuc remembers the intense heat and excruciating pain. She pulled burning clothes from her body. Then she ran and, as she ran, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old photographer, took a photograph that became a symbol of the horrors of that war.

Phuc spent more than a year in hospital. Her family were afraid she wouldn’t survive. After many skin grafts, and other operations, she recovered from her physical injuries. Yet she could not find peace. She wanted to disappear, and even to die. She thought if she died she wouldn’t have to suffer mentally, physically and emotionally. She began seeking answers and, when she was 19 years old, she a trusted Jesus Christ as her Saviour and found new life and peace. She says, “When I became Christian, I had a wonderful connection – the relationship between me, and Jesus, and God.” Phuc asked God for help to move on and says, “From that point I learned to forgive.”

Today Phuc radiates an unmistakeable poise and peace when she tells her story. She sees that famous picture as just one of many blessings. She says, “I really want to thank God that he spared my life when I was a little girl. Whatever happened to me, I have another opportunity to be alive, to be healthy, to be a blessing and to help honour other people. I still have the pain, I still have the scars, and I still have the memories, but my heart is healed. My message to people when they see that picture today is try not to see her as crying out in pain and fear, try not to see her as a symbol of war, but try to see her as a symbol of peace.”

Precious in God’s sight

Last week a very poor couple living in Uttar Pradesh, in Northern India, bought three packets of biscuits for their three children from their village grocer. They did not have the money to pay him but promised to pay as soon as they could. A few days later, when they were on their way to work, the grocer stopped them and demanded that they pay the 16 pence they owed him. The couple said they would pay him when they received their daily wages later that evening. The grocer became angry and attacked the couple with an axe. The man was beheaded and the wife died from injuries sustained in trying to protect her husband.

The couple who died, Bharat and Manta, were Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, the lowest rung of India’s caste system. The grocer was from an upper caste. There are more than 160 million Dalits in India. A person becomes a Dalit by birth. They are regarded as being impure and are denied normal human rights. Dalits are employed in poorly paid jobs that are regarded as ritually impure. It is not possible for a person who is born a Dalit to change their caste.

A few years ago a friend of mine was visiting India. One day he was being driven along a crowded street when there was a loud bang. A young disabled boy had run out in front of the vehicle and been knocked over. As people began to gather the driver, who was a Christian, gently picked up the boy who was very seriously injured. He carried him to a medical post but, sadly, the boy died. When the boy’s family arrived the driver was afraid he might be attacked but the father, seeing the blood on the driver’s shirt, asked him if he had carried his son to the medial post. Then he said to the driver, “We are Dalits and no-one has ever touched my son. You must have loved him very much to do that.”

One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus. He knelt before Jesus and begged him to heal him, “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean.” Jesus was moved with compassion and reached out and touched him saying, “I am willing, be healed!” Immediately the leprosy disappeared. Every human being born into this world is precious in God’s sight. When we come to him, with all our varied needs, we can be sure he will never turn us away.

Blessed are the merciful

Early one morning in October 2014 Brian Herrick dropped his partner and three sisters at East Midlands Airport for an early-morning flight to Malaga. On his way home he was waiting at a red light, just a few miles from the airport, when a lorry crashed into his car. Brian died as a result of the accident. His partner and sisters heard the news of Brian’s death as soon as they arrived at Malaga and flew straight back to East Midlands.

At a recent hearing at Nottingham Crown Court the driver of the lorry, Luke Bates, pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He said his attention had been distracted and he had not seen the red light until it was too late. At the court Brian’s family asked the judge not to send Luke to prison because they did not want his 2 young children to be left without a father. They also realised that Luke would have to live for the rest of his life with the memory of the devastation he had caused. The judge said he wished to respect the humbling request from the family and sentenced Luke to a two-year driving ban and a 12-month prison sentence, suspended for two years. He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work.

Brian’s sister, Kathleen, told the judge, “We were brought up as Christians and were taught to be compassionate and humble. We felt so sorry for Luke’s wife when we saw her bring their young baby to the court. We weren’t going to benefit from sending him to prison. I’m sure my brother, who was a kind and gentle man, would have done the same in our position.” Outside the court, Brian’s relatives hugged a distraught Luke.

Mercy is a rare, but beautiful, quality. Our society loves to blame people and condemn them. Some people try to justify their wicked acts because they are retaliating against what other people have done to them. Jesus taught that true strength and dignity is seen not in revenge and “getting our own back”, but in mercy. He said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” When we show mercy to someone who has wronged us, and forgive them, we release the potential for healing and restoration both for them and for us. It is also good to remember that one day each of us must appear before the Judge of all the earth whom we hope will show us mercy.

Peace with God

Easter is a special time for Christians all over the world as we remember the death and resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We know that the death of Jesus, on a Roman cross, has reconciled us to God, and his resurrection, on the third day, has given us a sure hope for the future. The message of Easter speaks to our sad and troubled world as much as it ever has. Every day evil people perpetrate their wicked deeds. Personal integrity is at a low ebb in every part of society. Millions of people face a very uncertain future. We all need to experience forgiveness and to find hope for the future.

Jesus died when it seemed his popularity was at its height. Just a few days before he died, thousands of people in Jerusalem hailed him as their King. It was the culmination of his remarkable ministry. For three years he had travelled throughout Israel teaching the people, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits and raising the dead. He had transformed the lives of many people. Yet his life ended in rejection and seeming disgrace. The fickle crowd turned against him because he had not fulfilled their hopes for a military and political leader. However, his death was not a defeat but a glorious triumph.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came from heaven to deal with our biggest problem – our sin. On the Cross he paid the price of our sins when he suffered the punishment we deserve. Through the centuries people had offered animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. Hundreds of thousands of sacrifices had been made. Jesus came to offer one final sacrifice. On the Cross he became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Down through history people from every nation have found forgiveness and peace with God through Jesus.

In Jesus we can all find forgiveness for our sins, whatever we have done. When we face up to the truth that we have broken God’s laws and need his forgiveness, there is always hope. A man, who was crucified on the same day as Jesus, found forgiveness even as he was dying. He knew that he was being justly punished and was getting what his deeds deserved. He also knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. So he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Let the little children come to me

The abduction and murder of April Jones has had a profound effect on the little town of Machynlleth and on many people around Britain. Her parents, Paul and Coral, have, understandably, been devastated. At the end of the trial Coral made a very dignified and moving statement. It gave an insight into the profound trauma they have been experiencing since April’s abduction on 1 October 2012. She said, “April will be forever in our hearts. We are so moved by the overwhelming support we have had from many people all over the world. We would like to take time now to be with our family and to try to come to terms with the loss of April.”

As the media go away and life in Machynlleth returns to its new normality, the sad consequences for Coral and Paul continue. I remember reading the book, “Goodbye, Dearest Holly” by her father, Kevin Wells. It gave an insight into the depth of pain and grief experienced by parents whose young children are murdered. In her statement at the end of the trial Coral said, “As April’s mother I will live with the guilt of letting her go out to play on the estate that night for the rest of my life.”

Coral could never have anticipated that night that April would be taken and wickedly killed. None of us can fully anticipate the consequences of actions we take in the course of everyday life. All of us do things which we later regret. It is at such times that we need help that is more than human. God is able to meet us at the point of our deepest need. He is able to sympathise with us in our deepest pain, and to help us, because he understands what we are going through. Jesus, his only Son, died a cruel death at the hands of wicked men when he was in the prime of his life.

Many of us are praying for Coral and Paul. They can tenderly commit April into the loving care of God. He is also able to give them strength to face each day and to heal their inner pain. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Stephen is 40!

Recently my wife and I attended a very special 40th birthday party. Stephen was born with multiple disabilities, both physical and mental. He was Carla and Franco’s first child and the full extent of his disabilities only became apparent after he was born. A doctor at the hospital, who realised the implications of Stephen’s disabilities and, no doubt, wanted to help, advised Carla and Franco to leave Stephen in the hospital and carry on with their own lives. They didn’t take his advice.

The challenges of caring for Stephen were very great, but Carla and Franco committed themselves to his care. Although Stephen cannot speak he has always known that he is loved. His mother has gladly given her life to caring for him. She is a wonderful example of motherhood and unconditional love. Caring for Stephen has not meant social isolation but has brought a wide circle of friends who have played a part in encouraging and supporting Stephen and Carla over the past 40 years. Stephen now lives in a house in the community with a wonderful team of carers. More than 100 people came to his 40th birthday party including family members, friends, social workers, carers and other disabled people.

When Stephen was in his early teens Carla met some Christians who began to help with Stephen’s care and shared with her the good news about Jesus. As a result Carla experienced God’s love in Jesus and became a Christian. Soon after Stephen became seriously ill and lost his sight. He was so ill that it looked as if he was going to die. Carla and Franco prayed to God for his help. They remembered how a man called Jairus came to Jesus pleading on behalf of his 12 year old daughter who was dying. Jesus responded to Jairus’s urgent request and healed the little girl.

One evening Carla and Franco and the church leaders met to ask God to make Stephen well, although, at that time, the future was very uncertain. God heard their prayers. Stephen began to recover and now 25 years later is really well. He knows God’s love for him and is a member of the church family. He loves coming to the services. At the birthday party everyone sang Stephen’s favourite hymn, “Living he loved me; dying he saved me; Buried he carried my sins far away! Rising, he justified freely for ever; One day he’s coming – O glorious day!”