We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?
Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.
However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.
He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.
In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”
He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”
The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.
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.
The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?
The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and 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 transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.
I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.
Some friends of mine were in Istanbul the night of the attempted military coup. The following day one of them wrote, “Today was a lot quieter. We were advised to stay indoors. But last night was terrible. The suddenness of the attempted coup shocked everyone. The subduing of the coup carried on through the night, so sleep was impossible. All around were gunshots, emergency vehicle sirens, low-flying jets sometimes letting off sonic booms, and the constant helicopters. I have cried a lot today because of the terrible loss of life last night. The death toll is over 160, and over 1000 wounded. Most people are in complete shock and disbelief. There is a sense of fear and hopelessness.”
In recent months many people around the world have found themselves suddenly caught up in acts of violence. In Lahore, on Easter Sunday a bomb attack in a park killed 74 Christian and Muslim people and injured more than 350 people, many of them children. In Nice, 84 people died when a man drove a heavy lorry through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade Des Anglais. In Munich, a teenage gunman shot and killed 9 people, many of them teenagers, at a fast-food restaurant. These events, and many more, have created a spirit of fear and uncertainty in the minds of many. Where can we turn, at such times, to find comfort and hope?
Psalm 46 has been a source of strength to many over the centuries. It says, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! The nations are in chaos, and their kingdoms crumble! The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honoured by every nation. I will be honoured throughout the world.’ The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
The Psalm also speaks about heaven, “A river brings joy to the city of our God, the sacred home of the Most High. God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed.” In a very uncertain world, God’s Word gives us sure hope for the future. Whatever happens, Jesus really is the Resurrection and the Life and the Way to an eternal home.
Last week I was visiting the United States of America and landed at Miami on Monday afternoon. As I waited for my next flight news of the bombs in Boston began appearing on the television screens. People in the airport were shocked as information about those who had died and been injured emerged. The Boston marathon is held on Patriots’ Day each year and is one of the world’s biggest marathons. It attracts 20,000 runners, from all over the world, and up to 500,000 spectators.
One hour after the first runners completed the race, and many were still running, two bombs were detonated near the finishing line. 3 people died and nearly 180 were seriously injured. This was the first major terrorist incident in the USA since 9/11. The bombs were intended to cause maximum damage. Two Chechen men are suspected of being responsible for the bombs, one is dead and the other is in custody.
Events like this remind us of the uncertainty and fragility of our lives. None of us knows what a day may bring. As people enjoyed a happy holiday event in Boston in an instant, without warning, some were killed and many more were maimed through the actions of total strangers. The Book of Common Prayer burial service which is used at the graveside includes the words, “In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord.”
Death is always an unwelcome intrusion into life, and especially so when it is violent and tragic. How important it is at such times to know that we can turn to the living God. He is a refuge and strength in times of trouble. Comfort from family and friends gives us strength, doctors and nurses can tend our injuries, the security services can deal with those responsible for the bomb, but only God can meet our deepest needs.
Just a few weeks ago many people in Boston were celebrating a greater event than the Boston Marathon. At Easter, churches were packed as Christians rejoiced in the resurrection of Jesus. He died and rose again to give us a living hope. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” His words speak to the people of Boston now in their trauma and sadness and also speak to us all amidst the uncertainties of our lives.