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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “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.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.

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The selfless example of Dr Adil El Tayar

We are deeply grateful for the doctors and nurses who are working with great dedication and courage to treat and care for patients who are seriously ill with COVID-19. Last week Dr Adil El Tayar became the first working NHS surgeon to die from the virus. Adil, 64, was from Sudan and was an organ transplant specialist who had worked around the world. His skills had saved many lives. Before he contracted the virus, he had volunteered on the frontlines of the outbreak in the accident and emergency department at his hospital in the Midlands.

Adil’s cousin, BBC News journalist Zeinab Badawi, said, “He wanted to be deployed where he would be most useful during the crisis. That was typical of my cousin Adil; always willing to help, always with a willing smile.” A surgeon colleague described Adil as a “noble human being” who was a “hard-working, dedicated surgeon”.

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” At a time when we may be tempted to think only of ourselves Adil thought of others. He knew that if he was ill with the virus, he would want doctors and nurses to do everything they could to help him. He didn’t stand at a safe distance but was ready to use his skills to treat others, people he didn’t know, and to put his life at risk. He died from the very disease his patients had. There are people alive today because of the loving and self-sacrificing care they received from Adil.

We will soon be celebrating Easter when we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the supreme example of love and self-sacrifice. He died, at the age of 33, not for his own sins but for the sins of others. John the Baptist described him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In an amazing act of love Jesus, the Son of God, died in our place, paying the penalty of our sins, so that we might be forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life. “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.” On the third day after he died Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by his disciples and many others. His promise to all who believe in him is “because I live you also will live.”

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Resting in the shadow of the Almighty

Our world is in crisis. Political leaders are struggling to contain the spread of the Covid-19 so that medical facilities are not overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses are courageously treating patients at risk of being infected themselves. Business, commerce and travel are seriously disrupted. Financial markets are falling. Shoppers are panic buying and food rationing may be imposed. Elderly people may be told to self-isolate in their homes. It’s like living in wartime. People are afraid and anxious and feel helpless. What can we do?

Remember God. He has made it very clear to everyone in the world that he is the creator and sustainer of all things. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech; they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Spring has come, the days are getting longer, and the natural world is coming to life with beautiful flowers that remind us of God’s faithfulness.

Remember our vulnerability and dependence on God. One virus has thrown the plans of great nations into confusion. In his letter James says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'”

Pray to God who hears us and helps us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray to their heavenly Father and to ask him “to deliver them from evil.” The apostle Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

In Psalm 91 the psalmist, who lived in very uncertain times, says, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely, he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly disease. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

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Remembering God

Spring is coming. It’s a lovely time of the year. The dark drab days of winter are beginning to recede and the days are getting longer. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are blooming; birds are beginning to build nests; lawns are being cut for the first time. This year, however, there are real problems to face. In Britain hundreds of people are clearing up after the floods and it may be months before they can move back into their homes. The coronavirus continues to spread with almost 90,000 confirmed cases worldwide and more than 3000 deaths. Medical services in many countries are working hard to contain the spread of the virus.

Today, we live in a secular society in which the spiritual dimension has been specifically excluded. In times of crisis we hear of the need for “political” and “military” solutions. Our only hope is in people and their limited wisdom and skills. This was not always the case. Since at least the 9th century monarchs have ordered petitionary prayers to be said in the event of national disasters – such as bad weather or plague – as well as for man-made threats, such as war. In the past people believed in the overruling providence of God in all situations of life and prayed to God for help. In times of personal crisis today many ordinary people still cry out to God for help.

In May 1940, when the German High Command was preparing to “annihilate the British Army”, King George VI requested that a National Day of Prayer be convened on Sunday 26 May for God’s gracious intervention. On that day the nation, in an unprecedented way, devoted itself to prayer. Churches and cathedrals were overflowing with people. With the Allied forces at his mercy Hitler, for some unknown reason, ordered his army to halt for three days and bad weather grounded the Luftwaffe. In those days 338,000 Allied troops were evacuated in a flotilla of boats. On Sunday 9 June a National Day of Thanksgiving was called and Churchill spoke of “the miracle of Dunkirk”.

The creation itself testifies to the power and goodness of God. The earth is unique in the known universe: with the abundance of water and life of all kinds. As we face an environmental crisis, and some people talk of the “extinction” of the human race, how reassuring it is to know that the God who created all things also upholds and sustains all things. We are frail and vulnerable but there is an almighty hand that graciously guides the course of history.

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Facing fear and vulnerability

Michael Johnson, the retired American sprinter, had an outstanding athletics’ career. He won 4 Olympic gold medals and 8 World Championship gold medals. He held the world and Olympic records in both the 200m and 400m and the world indoor 400m record. He is the only athlete in history to win both the 200m and 400m events in the same Olympics. After retiring from athletics, he opened Michael Johnson Performance centres and became an athletics’ pundit on BBC Sport. He has always made physical fitness a top priority; eating healthily, drinking alcohol moderately, exercising regularly and watching his weight.

In early September 2018, however, he suffered a TIA – a transient ischaemic attack. He lost mobility and co-ordination in his left side and in the days after it took him 15 minutes to walk 200 metres – the same distance he often ran in under 20 seconds. Thankfully Michael has made a good recovery. He approached his rehabilitation with the same determination he approached training during his athletics’ career and after 4 months he was paddle-boarding, rowing, cycling and running.

For the first time, he experienced fear and vulnerability because neither he nor his doctors could explain why he suffered the stroke. He said, “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable being vulnerable. I’m still working through this need I have to be superman. My persona, personally and publicly, has been that I have got everything under control, and I don’t need anyone else’s help, don’t need anyone’s sympathy. I don’t like sympathy or empathy. Now I have been faced with the vulnerable position of not being able to walk. Needing help to do that and some regular normal daily activities was tough for me. But I realised that in order to get back to where I needed to be, people’s help was something I was going to need and to open up to.”

Michael’s honesty highlights the fears and vulnerability we all experience. In Psalm 56 David, who was a great military leader, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in God.” The Apostle Paul, who was a man of great energy, suffered what he called a “thorn in the flesh”, a physical weakness with which he had to live. But God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed sunny weather this summer and the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well, and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks.

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, thank you for every fresh new day, thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, thank you for everyone I know, thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, thank you for every heartfelt joy, thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, thank you for grace to hold it fast, thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well, we can gladly thank him and when hard times come, we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”

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Facing death

Every day we hear news of people who have died. The present death toll from the hurricane that devastated the Bahamas is at least 43 and the number is expected to rise dramatically. A good friend of mine, who is a doctor, has gone with a medical team from the States to the Bahamas to help. A few weeks ago, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least 80 Shia Muslim people who were attending a wedding. There have been 99 violent deaths in London this year, including 20 teenagers who have been fatally stabbed. Elderly and very sick people or all ages will die in hospitals or homes today. Each death brings a precious life to an end and plunges a family and circle of friends into grief.

When facing death, or grieving the loss of a loved one, many people have found comfort from the Bible. As they read the Bible God speaks to them and brings comfort and peace in times of deepest need. One of the best-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23. One modern translation reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams. He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honour to his name. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honour me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

Amidst the uncertainties of life and in the face of death, the last enemy, we all need the help of someone greater than us. David, who wrote the psalm, had been a shepherd and he knew God as the One who was his shepherd. Through his life God had provided everything he needed, and he knew would also be close beside him when he passed through the darkest valley of death. He would not be alone, at the mercy of his fears, because God had promised to be with him. David also knew that death was not the end because God, who had been his shepherd throughout his life, had promised him eternal life, “I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”

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The “lullaby mothers” of the DR Congo

The outbreak of Ebola in the DR Congo is very serious. Over the past year more than 2,000 people have died out of more than 3,000 cases. Nearly 600 of those who have died are children. New treatments are available, but many people are afraid to seek treatment because this involves being isolated away from their family and being cared for by strangers.

Yet in the midst of the suffering and sadness there are beautiful examples of love. More than 3,500 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents by the outbreak. A group of grieving women who are at the epicentre of the outbreak, known as the “lullaby mothers”, are caring for babies who are orphans or who are at risk. They are providing these little ones with a priceless tonic: the human touch.

In April Joniste Kahambu lost her three-year-old son to Ebola, but she herself survived. As a result, she has antibodies in her system that protect her against re-infection. She has returned to the clinic where she was treated and is helping to care for babies who are being kept in isolation. As a stand-in mother she feeds the infants, holds and soothes them; a labour of love that she says eases her own pain. “If I had to stay at home, I’d think too much about my son. Many babies have lost their mothers and need our love. Caring for them is my way of helping the people who looked after me.”

In March, another of the lullaby singers, Gentile Kahunia, watched two of her four children die in a week, even as she herself was responding positively to treatment at the clinic. The love she once showed them is now given to the children of other women. She says, “I feel relieved and can forget a little about the death of my children when I take care of the ones here. I treat them like they are my own.” One aid worker said, “The touch of these women provides the orphans with essential human interaction and a glimmer of hope, their selflessness, kindness and bravery are immeasurable.”

There are many Christians in the DR Congo and the love of these mothers reminds us of the transforming love of Jesus. One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

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The Good Samaritan

A recent international study based in Lancaster University found that in nine-out-of-ten public fights bystanders intervened to help the victims of aggression and violence. The research was based on CCTV footage of 219 arguments and assaults in inner city Amsterdam, Lancaster and Cape Town. The greater the number of bystanders the more likely it was that someone would intervene to help. In 90% of situations bystanders intervened by physically gesturing for an aggressor to calm down, or by physically blocking the aggressor and pulling them away, and by consoling the victim.

One of the lead researchers said, “The results contradict the idea that we live in a ‘walk-on-by’ society in which people don’t like to get involved in the troubles and difficulties of others. They suggest that people naturally feel responsible for the needs of others – that if they see that somebody needs help, they provide it.” The researchers think that the international nature of the study suggests that human beings are programmed to help.

One of the greatest commandments God has given is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” God created human beings in his own image with a natural desire to love and care for one another. Often our sinful nature distorts that natural love and instead we focus on our own needs rather than the needs of others.

Jesus told a parable about a man who was attacked on a lonely desert road. His attackers robbed him and savagely beat him, leaving him half dead. Two priests happened to come down the road, but when they saw the man they passed by on the other side. They didn’t want to get involved or to put their own lives at risk. Being religious doesn’t automatically make us kind.

Then a Samaritan came by. There had been a long-standing dispute between Jews and Samaritans, but this good Samaritan took pity on the man. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he gave the innkeeper enough money for the injured man to stay for several weeks and said, “Look after him and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” The good Samaritan loved and cared for a needy stranger in the same way he would have liked someone to care for him if he had been attacked. Jesus then challenged the people by saying, “Now go and do the same.”

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I lift up my eyes to the mountains

The photographs of long queues of climbers waiting to reach the summit of Mount Everest have been seen around the world. Climbers want to take advantage of a short window of favourable conditions to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world. Their ambition is to stand for a short time “at the top of the world.” But climbing Everest presents real dangers from altitude sickness, wind and weather and avalanches. Over the years about 300 people have died on Everest, many of whose bodies remain on the mountain.

This spring, during the short periods of fine weather, 381 people have ascended Everest and 10 climbers have died. One man from Britain died minutes after reaching the summit and a man from Ireland died in his tent. A man from India died from exhaustion after being “stuck in traffic for more than 12 hours.” George Mallory, who took part in the first British expeditions to Everest, died on the mountain in 1924. His body was not discovered until 1999 and it is not known whether he and his companion, Sandy Irvine, reached the summit. When Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest he replied, “Because it’s there!”

The majesty of great mountain ranges like the Himalayas creates a sense of awe in the human heart. They tower above us and make us feel how small and vulnerable we are. Those who reach the summit of Everest are tiny specks in a vast universe. It is often impossible to recover the bodies of those who perish in the attempt because of our human limitations. Mount Everest stands unmoved as human beings die on its heights.

So, we must look beyond the mountains to the almighty God who created them and in whom we can find help in life and in death. In Psalm 121 the psalmist wrote, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”