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Precious in God’s sight

The activities of A-list celebrities are always in the news. To be on the A-list you have to be at the top of your field and be able to demand very high salaries. Film stars and directors, recording artists, international sports stars, social media personalities, moguls and international TV broadcasters are on the A-list and are admired for their social status and lifestyles. They invite each other to extravagant parties and celebrations and fly in private jets. Most of us will never be on the A-list, but does it matter?

God has created every one of us as unique and precious human beings. We are not the product of blind chance or the pinnacle of an impersonal evolutionary process. Each of us has been created by God in his image with a capacity to know and love him and to experience his love. In Psalm 139 David reflects on this, “You have searched me, O Lord, and you know me. You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

We find our deepest happiness and fulfilment in knowing God. During his earthly ministry Jesus encountered many people and valued each one of them. He never met anyone whom he thought was unimportant. He had time for everyone. He transformed the life of a Samaritan woman who had experienced five broken marriages, he raised to life the only son of a widow, he touched lepers and healed them, he restored the sight of blind beggars and promised a dying criminal that he was forgiven and would soon be with Jesus in heaven.

Some years ago, I visited a simple, wooden home in a very poor community in Brazil. A new-born baby had died, and his little body was lying on a table. He had been born prematurely in the back of a car because his mother couldn’t afford to go to the hospital for the birth or for him to receive the urgent medical treatment he needed. His birth had never been registered. Officially he didn’t exist, but he was precious in God’s sight. Jesus once put a child on his knee and said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

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My son belongs to Jesus forever

The news media agenda moves on rapidly. Significant events are reported and then quickly forgotten as the next story breaks. On Easter Sunday suicide bombers killed at least 253 people and injured 500 at churches and high-class hotels across Sri Lanka. Most victims were Sri Lankan citizens, including many children. How have those who were affected by the bombing coped?

One of the churches that was bombed was Zion Church in Batticaloa which lost 29 of its members, including 14 children. The Sunday School children and their teachers were on their way back to the main service for breakfast when the bomb was detonated. Among those who lost their lives were 13-year-old Jackson and his Sunday School teacher and aunt, Verlini. Jackson’s father, Verl, lost his son and sister, who died on the spot, and his brother-in-law who died a week later in hospital.

Verl said, “Losing someone hurts. They are special people. They were not killed, they were sown, like seeds. Jesus died on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday he was resurrected. My son, sister and brother-in-law died, but were resurrected with Jesus on that day. My foundation is Jesus Christ. I’m zero. Jesus is everything. My son was mine for 13 years, but he belongs to Jesus forever.”

When we experience deep pain and loss it is important not to turn away from God but to turn to him. He is the only one who can heal our deepest wounds. In the Bible Job was a man who suffered greatly. He was a righteous man, but he lost his seven sons and three daughters and all his flocks and herds in a series of tragic events. When he heard news of what had happened Job fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

We can only make sense of the things that happen to us in this life in the light of eternity. The Sri Lankan bombers passed immediately into the presence of God and were judged in righteousness. The Christians they killed in Zion church passed immediately into the arms of their Saviour and will be with him forever. The book of Revelation has beautiful descriptions of heaven where Jesus is the shepherd of his people who “leads them to springs of living water,” and God “wipes away every tear from their eyes.”

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No change my heart shall fear

We live in a world of change. In the sphere of technology once state-of the art gadgets are suddenly out of date. Great changes have also taken place in the moral sphere. In Britain the absolute standards of the Ten Commandments have been set aside in favour of “British values” – democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. People do things because they believe it is “the right thing to do” rather than because it is the morally right thing to do. Relativism rules.

Change also impacts our personal lives. People who have worked for decades for the same company suddenly find themselves being made redundant because a decision has been taken “for economic reasons” to relocate production to another country. We lived in Deeside when, in 1980, the Shotton Steelworks closed putting 6500 people out of work in a single day. People’s financial future became uncertain because finding another job was very difficult. Life for many would never be the same.

Change can also suddenly come through illness or death. People experience life-changing events when they receive a diagnosis of cancer or have a heart attack or stroke. There are people now lying on hospital beds who have lost the use of an arm and leg and cannot speak. Or someone we have loved and shared our lives with dies, and we have to face the finality of death. Friends and family gather round to provide loving support, but it is not long before we must face the pain of loneliness and loss.

When life-changing events happen, we can find peace and hope as we trust in God and his Son Jesus. A well-known hymn expresses it well, “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid, but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed? Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh, his sight is never dim; He knows the way He taketh, and I will walk with Him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.”

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The Lord watches over you

Last week the Duke of Edinburgh was involved in a serious traffic accident. The Duke pulled out of a side-road on to a busy A-road and collided with a car carrying two women and a 10-month-old baby. The collision flipped the Duke’s armoured two-ton vehicle on to its side. One eye witness said, “It was turning on its side, over and over. It was frightening to see a powerful car rolling like that. I rushed to the other car – there was smoke coming out as if it may explode. There was a baby in the back seat screaming.” Amazingly no-one was seriously injured.

It seems the Duke made a mistake, possibly because of the low winter sun. Suddenly the other car crashed into the driver’s side of his vehicle at speed. It is no wonder the Duke was very shocked and shaken. So, too were the women in the other car. The Duke was helped out of his car relatively unscathed and the women were taken to hospital with minor injuries. The baby was frightened but unharmed. The police are investigating the circumstances of the accident.

People of all ages make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes have tragic consequences. In this accident everyone was remarkably protected. Reports of the accident have, understandably, concentrated on who was at fault and whether elderly people should be allowed to drive. One headline read, “How did he walk away?” There is real reason for thanksgiving to God that the lives of everyone involved were protected. Any, or all, of them could have died.

Our lives are not in the hands of blind fate, nor mere chance or good luck. We all need to be more conscious of God’s loving care. In Psalm 121 David reflects on the fact that the Lord his God watched over him and cared for him. He 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.”

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My grace is sufficient for you

When my father was in hospital waiting for an operation to remove his bladder he was, understandably, anxious. Scans had revealed a cancerous tumour in his bladder and surgery was the best way to deal with it. After evening visiting on the day before the operation, when my father was on his own in his room, he opened the Gideons’ New Testament at the side of his bed. He found an index in the front of the New Testament that suggested Bible verses to read when experiencing different situations in life. He turned to the one suggested for those who are ill.

He read 2 Corinthians Chapter 12 where the Apostle Paul writes of an illness he had. We don’t know what it was, but Paul calls it “a thorn in the flesh” and makes it clear it was something that caused him to suffer. In verses 8 and 9 Paul says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Like Paul, my father had prayed that God would heal him but that evening he felt that God had spoken to him through those words and had promised to be with him and to give him the strength to face whatever lay ahead. The operation did not fully resolve the problem and, after further surgery, my father died in hospital a few weeks later. He was able to face death confident from the verses he read in the Bible that the Lord was with him.

Gideons distribute free copies of the Bible and New Testament in many countries in the world. Children starting secondary school are given a New Testament and copies of the Bible are also placed in hotel rooms, hospitals and care homes. In April 2015 the Gideons placed their two billionth copy of the Scriptures. Many people have found comfort and strength in times of crisis when they have picked up a Gideons’ Bible and read it. It has literally saved lives.

The Bible is a unique book in which the living God speaks to us. What the Bible says, God says. He makes wonderful promises in which we can put our trust like the promise of Jesus, “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.”

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Let the children come to me

Hospitals in Britain are treating almost twice as many girls for self-harm as they did 20 years ago. Hospital admissions have increased from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017. The number treated for attempting an overdose has increased tenfold from 249 to 2,736. The number of boys admitted to hospital for self-harm has stayed the same but the number of boys attempting an overdose increased from 152 in 1997 to 839 in 2017. A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: “Sadly, these heart-breaking figures are unsurprising. Many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life. Young people are crying out for help.”

Jon Goldin, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children – academic pressures, social media, the fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online.” He added that girls may be more ‘sensitive’ to the pressures than boys. One girl aged 14 said: “Recently I’ve lost some people who were really close to me. When I started to self-harm, it seemed to mask the emotional pain I was feeling. When I get the urge to cut, I can’t seem to stop it until it’s done, otherwise I get really upset and angry.”

Children and young people are more vulnerable today than they were 20 years ago. Social media and smartphones mean that they can never hide or escape. The Photoshopped images of celebrities present a false body-image of perfection. Teenagers, and others, are pressurised into thinking that your image, clothes and possessions are what really matter. However, what matters most is not our outward appearance or possessions but the people we really are. Peer pressure can also be very cruel. If others don’t like me then I don’t like myself and so I punish myself through self-harming.

Jesus taught that children are precious in God’s sight. When parents brought their children to Jesus he said: “Let the children come to me. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” He also gave a very solemn warning to those who mistreat or exploit children: “If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.”

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A costly sacrifice and a living hope

The courage and self-sacrifice of the French gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was remarkable. When an armed man took hostages at a supermarket in Trébes, near Carcassonne, Arnaud offered to take the place of a woman hostage whom the gunman was using as a human shield. Within minutes of taking the woman’s place Arnaud had been fatally wounded by the gunman and later died in hospital. The woman whose place he took survived the ordeal. A short time before he died, Arnaud was married in the hospital in a religious ceremony to his beloved Marielle. They had already been married in a civil ceremony but were planning to be married in church in June.

Arnaud grew up in a non-religious family but experienced a genuine conversion in 2008, when he was 33 years old. From that time on he was keen to learn more about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. What he learned about Jesus prepared him for the moment when he offered to take the place of the woman in the supermarket. Arnaud knew that since he had been converted his life belonged to Jesus who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This weekend Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he died on the Cross Jesus paid the price of our sins. He took our place and suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we may be forgiven. The joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour is expressed in a well-known hymn, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O may soul.”

On the third day after he died Jesus was raised from the dead. The women, who went early in the morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, were met by two angels who asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!” The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian hope. Arnaud’s death was tragic, but he knew Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Jesus made a wonderful promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

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Growing together in God and in love

On 22 May this year Jaquie Farmer married Andy Goncher in a church service in Marietta, Georgia. It was a very special day for Jaquie and her family and friends as she walked down the aisle. In July 2008, when Jaquie was 17 years old, she dived into her friend’s swimming pool and broke her neck. She said, “I remember floating face down, unable to move and thinking I was going to drown. I could hear the girls laughing, thinking I was just joking or something. When I was finally pulled out of the pool and knew my mom was being called to come and get me, my body blacked out.”

In the hospital, Jaquie could feel all her limbs, but couldn’t move them. She asked her mother, “Am I going to be in a wheelchair forever?” Holding back tears, her mother said, “If God wants you to walk, you’ll walk.” Jaquie says that at that moment her faith kicked in and she was determined to be “normal” again. Her first glimmer of progress came when, to her doctor’s surprise, she was able to move her big toe. Jaquie spent hundreds of hours in physiotherapy, and on her own in the gym, working to regain the ability to stand. Her dream was to walk down the aisle on her wedding day.

Looking at the photos of her wedding day brings tears to Jaquie’s eyes. She said, “It’s so easy to forget how miraculous it is that I can walk now, since it’s a journey I’ve been going through for 8 years. When people react with such emotion and awe, it reminds me just how blessed I am. Andy and I have now been married for 3 months. I’m so thankful for his servant’s heart and willingness to put in the work that a good marriage takes. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 3 years and I can’t wait to continue to grow together in God and in love.”

We are all liable to life-changing accidents and illnesses. When tragic events happen to us, or to those we love, it is so important to turn to God. God has sustained Jaquie through dark and difficult days. She has experienced his love in Jesus in a new way. She knows that Jesus is always with her and that there is nothing that can ever separate her from his love. As they share the joys and sorrows of married life, Jaquie and Andy are looking forward to knowing God’s love for them more and more.

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The Lord is gracious and compassionate

Compassion fatigue is a feature of our modern world. It involves “fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others or from constant appeals from charities.” Through the media we are given vivid insights into the suffering of our fellow human beings. The news reports are immediate and show us suffering and death from around the world, sometimes as it is actually happening. Some news items are prefaced with a warning “some viewers may find this report distressing.”

In recent weeks we have heard of 400 migrants who died in an attempt to reach Italy from Libya when their boat, which was carrying 550 people, capsized. Men, women and children perished in Mediterranean Sea. In Ecuador a devastating earthquake destroyed schools and hospitals leaving 413 people dead and at least 3000 injured. Amazingly, a 72 year-old man was rescued 13 days after the earthquake. Air strikes destroyed a Doctors Without Borders’ hospital in Aleppo in Syria and killed at least 60 people, including sick children and doctors. Dr Muhammad Waseem Maaz, the only paediatrician in the hospital, died in the attack.

It is right for us to be moved with compassion for those who suffer. They are human beings, created in the image of God, who have all the same hopes and aspirations we have. They are helpless as their communities and their loved ones are destroyed. This world is a place of suffering and much of it is caused by man’s inhumanity to man. We feel overwhelmed by the scale of the need and the inability of either world leaders, or ordinary people, to bring an end to the suffering.

How precious it is that in times of overwhelming suffering we can turn to the living God for comfort and strength. He is not “the unmoved Mover” who remains impassive and untouched by the suffering of those he has created. Psalm 103 says, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Jesus, who uniquely revealed the heart of God, had compassion on the crowds because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We can pray to God for all those who suffer, and for ourselves, that they, and we, will find in Jesus the One who gives “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

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In times of emergency

As I was driving home one evening on the motorway I was passed by a paramedic vehicle travelling at high speed with its emergency lights flashing. I wondered to what kind of emergency they were responding and prayed that they would arrive in time and that the person’s life would be saved. I also thanked God that I was safe and well.

It is a great blessing to live in a country where, in a medical emergency, we can dial 999 and know that a paramedic team and ambulance will immediately be dispatched to help us. We will be given immediate treatment. Early treatment by paramedics saves many lives. Then we will be taken by ambulance, or sometimes even by helicopter, to the A&E department at the nearest hospital to be treated by a highly skilled medical team with the best available equipment. For all this skilled care we will pay nothing! What an amazing privilege!

In some years the number of life-threatening calls reaches more than 3 million. The aim is to reach 75% of those calls within 8 minutes and for a vehicle that will take the patient to hospital to arrive in 19 minutes. In most cases this is achieved. What a massive relief it is when we speak to the emergency operator and they tell us a paramedic team and ambulance are on their way to help us!

There are many other kinds of emergencies we experience in life. All of us experience fears and anxieties. We have problems in our relationships; with our marriage partners or with our children. We may lose our job or get into debt. We may lose our homes. Someone we love may die; a parent, a partner, a child, or a close friend. We may feel very alone. At such times to whom can we turn for help?

David wrote Psalm 34 at a very difficult time in his life and remembered the way God had helped him. He said, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” What an encouragement David’s experience of God’s help is for us to pray to him when we, too, are in great need!