Finding faith and hope

In 2018 President Xi of China was reappointed with no time limit. His new personal power and the enhanced role of the Chinese Communist Party has led to the persecution of virtually every major religious group within China. ‘Unofficial’ church buildings have been demolished and entire Christian congregations have been arrested, Tibetan Buddhists have been forced to remove images, and up to one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic group have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps. Religion is seen as a great challenge to the atheism taught and imposed by the Communist Party.

In recent years, however, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa where they have encountered new cultures. Far from home, in strange places, some of these Chinese workers have found comfort in religion, especially amongst the many evangelical Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. Local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese people have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. A small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries have been able to share the Christian gospel with Chinese nationals in Africa in a way that is not allowed in the People’s Republic. Many Chinese workers are returning home and bringing their newfound faith with them.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th century, a lot longer than communism, and today, despite persecution, the number of Christians is increasing. China is losing its fight against Christianity. It is estimated that there are 70 million Chinese Christians. Official figures show membership of the Chinese Communist Party at 90 million. If the present increase in the number of Christians in China continues there will soon be more Christians in China than in any other country in the world.

Atheism, whether espoused and propagated by political regimes or promoted by the secularism of our Western world, can never meet our deepest needs. In Africa Chinese workers have seen the difference a real and warm faith in Jesus Christ makes to people’s lives. Daily life for millions of people in Africa is desperately hard but in their churches people worship God with joy in their hearts. They love one another and help each other. Most African Christians are poor but their relationship with God through Jesus gives them “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Now that’s something we all need and neither communism nor any other political ideology can ever give us.

A special place in heaven

Recently the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, told journalists there was “a special place in hell” for those who promoted Brexit in the UK without having even a sketch plan for how to carry it out safely. It is very unusual to hear politicians talking about eternal issues, but Mr Tusk, who was the Prime Minister of Poland, grew up in the Roman Catholic Church where he would have been taught to fear God. However, the strange idea that people who disagree with our personal political vision will be punished by God for ever is entirely without basis.

The Bible does teach that our actions have consequences. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. People who escape being called to account in this life do not “get away with it” because God will judge them. Death does not pay all debts. Men like Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Jimmy Saville have been judged justly by God. He is the judge of all the earth, and he does what is right.

It is not only notoriously wicked people who are judged; we will all stand before God. The solemn truth is that we all sin every day of our lives. We do and say things we know are wrong. The Bible teaches that throughout all human history, there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, we have together become worthless; there is no one who does good. Even our best actions are stained by pride and self-righteousness.

However, God has graciously intervened through his Son, Jesus Christ, to offer hope to all people. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “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.” When he died on the Cross Jesus took the punishment we deserve and paid the price of our sins. All who put their trust in him receive the gift of eternal life. The night before he died Jesus told his disciples he was going to his Father’s house in heaven to prepare a place for them. How wonderful to know that Jesus has prepared a special place in heaven for unworthy people like us!

The story of Jonathan Bryan

Jonathan Bryan is a remarkable 12-year old young man. When his mother, Chantal, was 37 weeks pregnant, she and her husband Christopher were involved in a car crash. Jonathan was born with cerebral palsy. Chantal and Christopher were told that it was highly unlikely that he would ever walk, talk, feed himself, or even recognise his parents. Life was soon a nonstop round of hospital visits and operations.

As his peers started to say their first words, Jonathan could only frown or grin. He was ‘locked in’ and totally unable to communicate beyond a simple ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. He attended a local special school and his mother often read stories to him. He loves The Chronicles of Narnia. One day a health worker asked Chantal whether she had tried to teach Jonathan his letters and numbers. With the help of various professionals and a huge amount of patience from Chantal, it was established that Jonathan’s eyes would be the key to him communicating. They tried various types of ‘eye gaze’ equipment and eventually settled on a Perspex spelling board. Jonathan turned out to be a highly motivated student. He learnt to recognise different letters and numbers and, using a system of colour-coded letters, he began to be able to spell out whole words.

Jonathan has taken part in television programmes and recently published a book entitled “Eye Can Write: a memoir of a child’s silent emerging.” The book was painstakingly written letter by letter. He has helped to launch a charity – Teach Us Too – which campaigns for all non-verbal children to be taught to read and write. He also writes a blog www.eyecantalk.net.

In his book Jonathan writes of his faith in Jesus Christ. When he was nine, Jonathan was in an induced coma and he describes that near-death experience in this way: “…as the time drew on I was aware that I had a choice to make. Either I could stay to meet the gardener, my saviour; or I could go back to my fragile sick body; back to my mind trapped in silence; back to the family I loved. ‘Jonathan!’ My mother’s voice called me from beyond the garden, and my decision was made. That was the hardest decision of my life, but it has also shaped my perspective ever since. While my soul longs to live in the garden, my heart is torn between my family and freedom, but with Jesus’ presence helping me here, I know I can endure my limiting body for longer. My experience in the garden has given me a zest for life.’

To us a Son is given

Christmas is a special time as people around the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth was prophesied hundreds of years before he was born. The prophet Micah said where he would be born: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” The prophet Isaiah spoke about his special conception: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah also said this child would be a gift from God: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Now more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus, he is still remembered with joy and thanksgiving by countless people from many nations. Christmas carols will be heard in shopping centres, schools will have nativity plays and many people who don’t normally go to church will attend carol services. The focus will be on this special child who was born so long ago. Well-known carols explain why his coming was so important.

Jesus brought light into this dark world: “O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Angels, and the very creation itself, rejoiced at his birth: “For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth and praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth.”

Jesus has transformed the lives of countless people and is still changing lives today. This Christmas many will come to know him for the first time: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in. O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel”

I am with you always

The Remembrance Services this year have been deeply moving as we have remembered the millions of people who died in the World Wars of the 20th century, and especially in the Great War of 1914-1918. The casualty statistics are hard to take in. In the Great War 65 million men were mobilised across Europe: more than 8 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died and 21 million were wounded. Many soldiers from countries in the Commonwealth, including India, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Africa and the West Indies also died. In the Battle of the Somme, 1 July to 18 November 2016, 1 million people on all sides were killed. British forces suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day, of whom more than 19000 were killed.

Theo Chadburn, a miner from Sheffield, was a member of the Salvation Army and played in the band. He served at Ypres and, 3 days before he died, wrote a letter to his wife Lily in which he said, “I believe that every day I learn more of his goodness.” He told her that on Easter Day 1918 he saw 150 soldiers go forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour and said, “It was the best Easter Sunday night meeting I have ever spent. I was greatly blessed.”

Albert Penn came from Hasland, near Chesterfield. He was married to Florence who was expecting their first child. They met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the village where Albert led the boys’ Bible class and Florence led the girls’ class. They were enjoying their first home and looking forward to the sharing the rest of their lives together. But the war changed all that. In 1916 Albert volunteered and was told to come back when their baby, Mary Estelle, was 3 months old. He did and was killed on 30 October 1917 at Passchendaele when Mary was just 11 months old. He was 28 years old and his body was never found.

A wounded solider, who had been a member of Albert’s Bible class at home, told the family that he had seen Albert standing in an open field with a Bible in his hand talking to the young soldiers and then leading them in singing the hymn “Rejoice the Lord is King!” Five days later Albert and his regiment went over the top and he died. His granddaughter said, “I know that, in that terrible time, it wasn’t so much that he kept his faith in God, but that the God in whom he trusted kept him.”

When enemies become friends

Captain Bill Smyly, who died recently at the age of 95, was one of the last veterans of the Chindit expeditions in the Burma Campaign in World War II. In 1943, when serving with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles, he was appointed Animal Transport Officer and was put in charge of the mules. He marched with 3000 Chindits from India into Burma on a mission to cut the main railway line between Mandalay and Myitkyina and to harass the Japanese forces. Heavy weapons, equipment and rations were carried by the mules.

Marching through the jungle in intense heat and torrential rain, they endured repeated bouts of malaria and dysentery. If they were badly injured, they were left at a village. This usually meant capture or death. After achieving their objectives, the troops returned to India in small groups. Bill contracted beriberi, which affected his eyesight and made his feet swell up making it difficult to walk. He became separated from his unit and had to struggle on alone. For many weeks he trekked hundreds of miles through the jungle, receiving food and shelter from local tribesmen. His family were told that he had died but, eventually, he reached Fort Hertz, a remote British military outpost in north-east Burma.

Bill was born in China, the son of Irish missionary doctors. After the war he gained a degree at Cambridge University and became a journalist. Later, he taught at a Chinese University before retiring to Bedford. Bill was a Christian and was an active member of his local church. He also belonged to the Burma Campaign Society which was established in 1983 by Masao Hirakubo. The aim of the society is to encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding between British and Japanese soldiers who had previously been enemies, and especially those who had been involved in the Burma Campaign.

Reconciliation is a great priority in our divided world and is at the heart of what Jesus Christ came into the world to accomplish. The apostle Paul wrote, “God brought us back to himself through Christ and has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them and he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” Because Bill Smyly had himself been reconciled to God through Jesus he was committed to seeking reconciliation with people who, previously, had been his enemies.

Saved to serve

The obituaries that are printed in national newspapers provide a brief summary of a person’s life. How did the person spend their life? What were their main priorities and achievements? It is a good for each of us to ask ourselves what we are doing with the precious life God has given us? I recently read a short account of the life of Michael Lapage, who died in July at the age of 94. His father was the vicar of Shaftesbury and Michael went to Monkton Coombe School, near Bath, where he became an accomplished rower.

In 1942 Michael left school and, deferring his place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm. After training he joined 807 Naval Air Squadron and flew Seafire planes from the escort carrier Hunter. Later he flew reconnaissance and air-to-ground strafing missions during the Allied landings in southern France. Towards the end of the war he was deployed to the Far East where he was nearly shot down while on patrol off the coast of Malaya. The tailpiece of his plane was seriously damaged, but he managed to get back safely to his carrier. Michael knew that he could easily have lost his life that day.

After the war was over, Michael went to Cambridge University and was a member of the crew that won the 1948 Boat Race. That same year he rowed for Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games in London and won a silver medal. In 1950 he won a bronze medal in the, then, Empire Games. In 2012, at the age of 88, he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the 2012 London Olympic Games!

After leaving university Michael taught at Winchester College until, in the late 1950s, he went to Kenya to serve as a missionary. He was a schools’ inspector during the Mau Mau uprising and was later ordained in Kenya as a minister of the Gospel. Michael’s Christian faith, and the experience of nearly being shot down in 1945, convinced him that he had been “saved to serve”.

Michael’s life was shaped partly by the challenges of the days through which he lived but mainly by his love for his saviour Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus came from heaven to this earth not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. So Michael gladly dedicated his life to serving others and to telling them the good news about Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.

Remembering Christabel Pankhurst

This year we are celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 2018 which, for the first time, granted some women in Britain the right to vote. One of the women who campaigned to win the right for women to be allowed to vote was Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s eldest daughter. Christabel was a leader, alongside her mother, in the Women’s Social and Political Union and was the first suffragette to spend a night in prison. In 1905 she and another woman assaulted a police officer and were both arrested. This was the beginning of a decade of civil disobedience directed against the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith who delayed a vote on suffrage for women despite there being growing support for it in the House of Commons.

Christabel took advantage of the opportunity for women to study law and, in 1906, gained a first-class honours degree in law from Victoria University, Manchester. In 1908 she was brought to trial for her WSPU activities and defended herself. She issued a court summons to Lloyd George, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and cross-examined him personally. By 1912 the government had decided to crush the women’s movement and imprison the leadership. Christabel fled to France and from there she continued to lead the WSPU.

In 1918 Christabel read a book on biblical prophecy and came to personal faith in Jesus Christ. The terrible traumas caused by the First World War had made her, and many others, seriously concerned about the future of the world. Through her reading of the Bible, Christabel became convinced that the second coming of Jesus Christ was the only hope for this troubled world.

In 1923 she moved to Toronto to join her mother and became a popular speaker at Christian events in both North America and the UK. She wrote a regular column in The Christian newspaper and wrote several books. In 1936 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. When the local paper reported her death in 1958 it described her as “Dame Christabel Pankhurst, militant campaigner for Christ and women’s suffrage.”

Christabel Pankhurst was a passionate lady. At great personal cost, she campaigned passionately for the rights of women in Britain who were being very badly treated. She was passionate about the future wellbeing of the people of this world. She was passionate in her faith in Jesus Christ and tirelessly proclaimed him to others. And, so, even though she is dead, her life still speaks today.

Miracle on the River Kwai

Captain Ernest Gordon came from Scotland and served with the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War II. Following the fall of Singapore, he was one of the prisoners of war whom the Japanese put to work on a jungle railway and bridge over the Kwai river. The conditions imposed on the prisoners were very harsh and Ernest became seriously ill. He was put in “Death Ward” and was expected to die.

There he was cared for by two very special men, Dusty Miller and ‘Dinty’ Moore. They gave 24-hour care to Ernest, boiling rags to clean and massage his diseased legs every day. To everyone’s surprise Ernest recovered and he also came to faith in Jesus Christ. He had been an agnostic, but Dusty’s simple, firm Christian faith in the face of the cruel treatment he and the other prisoners experienced made a deep impression on him. Ernest survived the war but discovered that, two weeks before the war ended, Dusty had been cruelly executed by a Japanese guard who was angry at his calmness in the face of hardship.

In his book “Miracle on the River Kwai” Ernest tells a remarkable story. Starvation, exhaustion and disease took a terrible toll on the prisoners and many gave way to selfishness, hatred and fear in a desperate attempt to survive. They felt like forsaken men – forsaken by their families, their friends, their government and even by God. Hatred of their Japanese captors became their motivation for living; they would have willingly torn them limb from limb if they had fallen into their hands. In time even hate died and gave way to numb, black despair.

One day the officer in charge said a shovel was missing and demanded that it be returned, or he would kill all the prisoners. No one moved and, then, one man stepped forward. The officer beat him to death. At the next tool check they found that all the shovels were there; there had been a miscount! The prisoners were stunned. An innocent man had been willing to die to save everyone else. Ernest said this man’s actions led men to think about the sufferings of Jesus, who laid down his life to save others, and they began to treat each other with more care and kindness. The change was so significant that when the skeletal captives were finally liberated they could, instead of attacking their captors, say to them, “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.”

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.”