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The boy in the striped pyjamas

My wife and I recently watched the holocaust film “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” The film portrays the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp in Poland through the eyes of two 8-year-old boys: Bruno, the son of the camp’s Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish inmate. Bruno and his family moved from Berlin to live in a house near the camp. Only his father knows what the camp really is. Bruno can see it from his bedroom and thinks it’s a farm. Bruno has no friends to play with and sneaks into the woods. When he comes to the barbed wire fence, he sees Shmuel who, with his parents, is a prisoner in the camp. The two boys become friends.

Bruno thinks Shmuel’s striped prison uniform is pyjamas. Bruno takes food to Shmeul and they play board games through the barbed wire. One day when Shmuel is working in his home Bruno gives him a cake but doesn’t admit it when a soldier discovers Shmeul eating the cake. The solider punishes Shmeul by beating him badly. Bruno cries because he has let his friend down and later apologises to Shmeul who forgives him. Shmeul tells Bruno that his father has gone missing in the camp. Bruno, thinking the camp is a pleasant place, tells him that, to make up for letting him down, he will help him find his father. The next day Bruno puts on a prisoner’s striped uniform and cap and digs under the fence to join Shmuel.

The boys go into one of the huts and Bruno is shocked to see the many sick and malnourished Jewish people. Suddenly a siren sounds and everyone in the hut, including Bruno and Shmeul, is marched to a changing room where they are told to remove their clothes for a “shower” before they are herded into the gas chamber. As the lights go out Bruno and Shmeul hold hands to comfort each other as a soldier pours the gas pellets into the chamber. When they realise he is missing, Bruno’s parents run desperately to the camp but are too late to save him. Behind the locked door of the now silent gas chamber all the prisoners, including Bruno and Shmeul, are dead.

The film vividly portrays both unspeakable wickedness and a true friendship that transcended man-made barriers. It also reminds us of God’s amazing love. Out of love for us Jesus left his eternal home in heaven to come to this sinful world and willingly died on the Cross to pay the penalty our sins deserve so that we might receive eternal life. Jesus said, “Greater love has no-one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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When I am afraid

Fear is a common human emotion. The coronavirus pandemic has created sustained fear in the hearts of many people, especially the elderly, who are afraid to leave their homes in case they catch the virus. Some people I know have not left their homes since last March.

Fear can protect us from danger. Parents use fear in a positive way to teach their children to be careful when crossing the road or not to touch electric sockets in case they receive a shock. It is helpful for people to be aware that the coronavirus is easily transmitted and, in some cases, produces serious illness and even death. It is wise to be afraid of enclosed spaces, crowds, and close contact with others, especially those who may have the virus.

Fear can also paralyse us and prevent us from coping with daily life. So, it’s really important to know how to cope with fear. The psalms of David help us to know how to handle our fears. In Psalm 56, which he wrote when his enemies had captured him and his life was in danger, he says, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?” Instead of being overcome by fear, he put his trust in God’s promise that he would be king. When we are afraid, we can put our trust in God.

When we are afraid, we can also pray for God’s help and protection. A few weeks ago, some good friends were in a very difficult situation with the virus. The husband is elderly and vulnerable. His wife is caring for him with the help of a team of carers who come into their home every day. One of the carers contracted coronavirus and, soon after their son, who lives with them also picked up the virus at work. All we could do was to pray for God’s protection for the couple and God graciously heard our prayers. When we are afraid, we can pray to God.

In Psalm 23 David speaks of his confidence in the Lord, who was his shepherd, even when facing death. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Despite the excellent care of doctors and nurses, good friends have died from coronavirus, and their families had only been able to visit them at the very end, but they, like David feared no evil because the Lord was with them.

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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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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

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Light and life to all he brings

More than 2 billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three people in the world are followers of Jesus. This is an amazing statistic. Jesus came from a small village in Galilee. His parents were ordinary people. He learned his father’s trade and was a carpenter. He never travelled more than 100 miles from his home. His remarkable ministry lasted just 3 years. When he was 33 years old he was executed by the Romans. Yet today millions of people from every nation on earth know him as their Saviour and follow him as his disciples. How can this be explained?

Jesus was the Son of God. One of our carols says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all.” When the wise men from Persia, who followed the star, found the baby they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They recognised him as a divine King and offered him their gifts. Because Jesus was the Son of God he rose again from the dead. It was not possible for death to keep its hold on him. One of his disciples, Thomas, who at first doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saw him personally and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promise. From the beginning of time God had promised that a child would be born who would bring blessing to the peoples of the world. Through this child God’s great purpose for his world was going to be fulfilled. God is still carrying forward his gracious purpose for the nations. Today the good news of Jesus is being proclaimed around the world and many are receiving him as Saviour and Lord. One day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

Jesus came to give us hope. The world into which he was born knew great sadness and pain. Our world today is very much the same. Jesus is the One who gives us a sure and certain hope both in this life and when we die. Many carol services close with these words, “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!”

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The story of Tani Adewumi

Tani Adewumi was born in Nigeria. His parents are Christians and were aware of the rise of Boko Haram. The school Tani attended hired security guards and every Sunday, when they went to church, everyone had to pass through an airport-style metal detector. As a family the Adewumis kept a low profile to avoid the militants. But when Mr. Adewumi refused to take on a job from Boko Haram in his printing shop, the family became targets. After a number of near misses and close calls the family fled to America.

They claimed asylum and moved into a homeless shelter in New York. Tani’s father joined other refugees doing low-paid manual work – driving Uber taxis, washing dishes and cleaning houses. Eight-year-old Tani joined a chess club. He had never played the game before. In early 2019, within a year of taking up chess, Tani competed at the New York State Championship and became the champion. The New York Times wrote an article on the homeless kid who had become State Champion. The story went viral.

In March 2019 Tani’s coach set up a crowdfunding page. He hoped to raise a few thousand dollars so the family could move out of the shelter and rent somewhere of their own. Within four hours they had raised $10,000 and in less than two weeks the total reached $260,000! Some people gave large sums, but most gave $5 or $10. Someone bought the Adewumis a car, and another person paid for a year’s rent on an apartment, their first home since fleeing Nigeria two years earlier.

Even before they moved out of the shelter into their new apartment, the Adewumis decided they would do something amazing. Mrs. Adewumi explained, “What had started as a need for a home had become something far bigger. The outpouring of generosity from people all over the world had been far greater than we could have ever imagined. We felt compelled to do something equally great with the money that had been given. We wanted to give other people the same opportunity as we had been given to see their lives transformed.” So, the Adewumis decided to form the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation and to give away the money they had been given – all of it!

The Adewumis know and love Jesus and he is the inspiration for what they are doing. The Apostle Paul wrote, “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.”

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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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Living even though we are dying

Some friends of mine have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s a serious diagnosis that takes time to come to terms with. Often there is difficult treatment to face; surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The treatment may continue over many months and there are side effects to cope with. The support of specialist nurses through organisations like McMillan and Marie Curie enables patients to be cared for at home. In a recent advert a person who was being cared for by Marie Curie nurses said, “They helped me to live even though I was dying.”

Death is the one event we must all, one day, face. Coming to terms with our mortality is important if we are to know how we should live now. Facing death makes us seek answers to vitally important questions. Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? What happens when I die? Is there life after death? If one day I must face my Maker, how should I be living? Finding the answers to these questions enables us to live even though we are dying.

The Bible tell us about the God who created all things. Our life is a gift from God and not the result of chance events. God knows each of us personally. In Psalm 139 David says, “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Everyone who comes to know God in the last days of their life wishes they had come to know him sooner.

The God who created us also sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to give us the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “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.” Trusting in Jesus we live our lives in daily fellowship him and know that, when we die, we shall go to be with him in heaven. When I was in school, we sang a hymn which is a prayer about knowing God both in living and in dying; “God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in my eyes, and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking; God be at mine end, and at my departing.”

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The power of forgiveness

We have just celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was one of the most evil events in human history in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazi regime. Yet out of those dark days amazing light sometimes shone. During the German occupation of The Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from arrest and deportation in their home in Haarlem. In February 1944 the Gestapo came to the house and arrested Corrie and her family, but did not discover the 6 Jewish people in the hiding place. In September 1944, Corrie and her sister Betsie were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. They managed to stay together until Betsie died in December. Later that month Corrie was released, but really struggled to come to terms with Betsie’s death.

After the war, Corrie spoke in many places about the need to forgive in order to overcome the psychological scars of the Nazi occupation. In 1947 she was speaking in Germany when she saw a man in the audience whom she recognised as a guard from Ravensbruck. Immediately she remembered him in his blue uniform and cap with its skull and crossbones. She saw the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes on the floor and remembered the shame of walking naked past this man. She saw Betsie’s frail form ahead of her.

The man came up to her, thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck, I was a guard there, but since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

Corrie described the massive inner turmoil she faced at that moment. “Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes, ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried, ‘with all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”

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Coming home

In the coming weeks birds, who have migrated to warmer countries for the winter, will begin to return to Britain. In recent years a pair of swallows was spotted on the last day of February. Swallows winter in Southern Africa and fly more than 9000 miles to return to Britain. Returning early has its risks, especially if we have a spell of cold winter weather and their food is in short supply.

If we have a happy home, then coming home, after being away, is a very positive experience. Familiar places, and people we know and love, are very reassuring. Home is where we belong and find security. When we are at home we can relax and know we are accepted. When we arrive at our home we don’t knock the door so that someone can let us in, because we have a key to the door. However enjoyable a visit to another place may be, there is nothing quite like coming back to our own home.

Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son asked his father if he could have his share of the inheritance. When his father gave it to him, the son left home and went to a distant country. He wanted to be free to enjoy himself and do what he wanted to do. It wasn’t long before he had spent all the money and was alone in a strange place. He realised that there was only one place to which he could go, so he set off on the long journey home. He knew he would have to admit to his father that he had made a big mistake, and had done many wrong things, and ask for his forgiveness. As he got near his father’s house, his father saw him and ran to him and embraced him and kissed him. He experienced his father’s love in a way he had never known before, because he had been taken up with himself and the pleasures the world offers. Now he had truly come home.

We all need to know where we belong and to come home to God. Like the son in Jesus’ story, we may feel we have failed and be sad and lonely. We need to experience the love of God in Jesus as we have never known it before. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”