Change is possible

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!”

Being inspired by the Invictus Games

The fourth Invictus Games has just been held in Sydney, Australia. The Games is an international event created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in which wounded, injured or sick armed personnel and veterans compete in a wide range of sports. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered” or “undefeated.” The Sydney Games drew 500 competitors and 1000 family and friends from 17 countries and featured 11 sports.

The stories of the competitors are inspiring. Some have suffered terrible life-changing physical injuries in armed combat, others have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic illness. Invictus has inspired them not to be overcome by their injuries and suffering but to become overcomers and to do it together. There is a wonderful spirit of friendship and mutual encouragement amongst competitors in addition to the loving and persevering support of family and friends. People who thought their lives were over have found new hope and joy.

Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton was one of the Australian competitors at the Sydney Games. He was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an amputation. He suffered from PTSD and found it difficult to face each day. He hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. He said, “I was left lying on my shed floor crying and thinking to myself, ‘I need help and I need to do something about it. I need to try to find a way to regain my life.’ The biggest thing that I found on my road to recovery was how tough it was to ask for help. You know, I think that probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was to reach out and physically ask someone for help. This is my life, I’ve only got one and I nearly lost it. So, I wish I’d asked for help a lot earlier.”

When bad things happen to us, as they have to ‘Bear’ and other competitors at the Invictus Games, we, too, need to ask for help. Many people have asked God to help them when they have been going through dark times in their lives and he has given them new strength and hope. The Bible says that Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same trials we do”, and so we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

The beauty of autumn

The recent sunny days have shown the autumn colours in all their beauty. The summer has past, and winter is coming, and the world around us is beautifully clothed in orange, yellow, red and brown colours. The autumn colours are not a sign of death but of the cycles of life. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures cool many trees shed their leaves so that they can survive the winter. The leaves don’t simply fall but are actively pushed off their branches by the trees. The changes in weather and daylight trigger a hormone that releases a chemical message to each leaf that it is time to prepare for winter and slowly, but surely, the leaf is pushed from the tree branch. This process is essential if the tree is to survive the winter.

The world and the universe around us are constantly revealing the glory of God to all people everywhere. This revelation transcends differences in language and culture. In Psalm 19 we read, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.”

God’s creation reveals his beauty and splendour. Through the year he beautifully clothes his world from the bright colours of the spring flowers to the russet colours of autumn. As each day dawns he floods the world with light and at the end of the day creates spectacular sunsets. The sun, moon and stars speak of his wisdom and greatness. He leaves nothing to chance. Through his creation he speaks to us and tells us that he is and that he cares.

How should we respond to God’s revelation through his creation? The trees are wise enough to prepare for winter, but we may not be so wise. God is the living God. He gives life and breath to everything and satisfies every need. He watched over us in our mother’s womb from the moment of conception until the day we were born. He created us to live and to enjoy him forever. He sent his Son into the world so that we might have life and have it to the full. Jesus said, “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.”

Words matter

Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.

One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”

The burden of debt

Debt is a growing problem for many families in Britain. In 2017 the average annual overspend for families in Britain was £900. It is estimated that £19bn is owed for utility bills, missed council tax payments and repayment of overpaid benefits. There has also been a rapid increase in borrowing on credit cards and poorer families are increasingly looking to payday loan companies for loans to cover daily living costs. The interest charged by these companies is astronomical.

It is only too easy to be enticed into taking credit when companies offer interest-free or low interest credit for new cars, furniture, the latest technological gadgets, new bathrooms and kitchens. The cost of getting everything needed for their children to go to school at the beginning of a new academic year has recently put real pressure on many families. Children experience peer pressure to wear high-cost clothes with designer labels and to have the latest smartphone and tablet.

Debt can be crushing. I remember visiting a man who was seriously in debt. He had been injured in a car crash and could no longer work. His marriage had broken down and he had run out of money. He was afraid of the post arriving because there would be more red letters demanding payments he couldn’t make. His bank refused to lend him any more money and he was afraid that one day the bailiffs would arrive. He was imprisoned in his house and deeply depressed. He needed someone to come alongside him. Together we were able to work through his situation and find a way to address his debts. Today Christians Against Poverty is one organisation which helps people to manage their debts and to face the future with hope.

The Bible also speaks about another debt we owe because we break God’s laws. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray “Forgive us our debts.” All of us have this debt problem, whether we are rich or poor. Every day we do and say things we know are wrong and so our debt to God increases. As many people try to ignore financial debts so we may push this debt to the back of our minds. But Jesus encourages us to face up to our moral and spiritual debt and to ask God to forgive us. Jesus died on the Cross to pay the price of our sins and so through him we can experience the joy of forgiveness and the cancelling of the debt we owe to God.

O thank the Lord for all his love

We have passed the autumn equinox as the sun has crossed the equator. Traditionally, the full Harvest Moon reminded farmers of the need to complete the harvest. Because of the very hot and dry summer harvesting began early this year and generally the yields have been good. In many churches harvest thanksgiving services are being held and are attended by larger than normal congregations, especially in rural areas. Farmers, more than most people, know how dependent we are on the annual crops their land produces. Those crops will provide us with food for the coming year.

It is good to give thanks to God for all the good things he gives us. Many people, young and old, in churches and in schools, will this year again sing well-known harvest hymns. One harvest hymn gives thanks to God for the way he provides us with our daily food and also gives us so many other blessings as well. “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand: he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

True thankfulness, however, is more than words sung once a year. It involves an ongoing response of love for and delight in God who blesses us in so many ways. The last verse of that harvest hymn says, “We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. Accept the gifts we offer for all thy love imparts, and what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.”

The greatest gift God has given to the people of this world is his Son, Jesus. 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.” Out of love for us, Jesus came from heaven to live among us and then to die on a cross to pay the price for all the sins we have committed. Those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and believe in him receive God’s gift of eternal life; a life that begins now and lasts for ever. Their response is always, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

Help, I need somebody!

In 1965 John Lennon wrote the song “Help!” It went to number one in the charts in both the UK and USA. In an interview some years later, John spoke of the stress he experienced because of his sudden rise to success, “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was fat and depressed and was subconsciously crying out for help.”

Many people can identify with the words of the song; “Help, I need somebody. Help, not just anybody. Help, you know, I need someone. Help! When I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But now these days are gone, I’m not so self- assured and now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors. And now my life has changed in, oh, so many ways. My independence seems to vanish in the haze, but every now and then I feel so insecure, I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before. Help me if you can, I’m feeling down, and I do appreciate you being ’round. Help me get my feet back on the ground. Won’t you, please, please help me?”

Many of us go through experiences which shake our self-confidence and make us feel insecure. Even when we are surrounded by people we become conscious that we need help from someone, and not just anybody. At such times a cry of “Help!” comes from our hearts. We need to know, as we have never needed before, that there is someone there.

The Bible declares that there is someone there and he is willing to help us. The opening words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The universe and our lives have meaning and purpose because God is there. We are not alone. Augustine, an early Christian leader, wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

One day Jesus saw a widow following the coffin of her only son. A large crowd of people was with her. The heart of Jesus went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” Then he went up and touched the coffin and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. The people were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.”

Saving lives in Yemen

For more than 3 years Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, has been devastated by a civil war between Houthi rebels and the supporters of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Children are paying the heaviest price as they face the threat of bombs, hunger and disease. Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 and that more than 11 million children now need humanitarian assistance. A recent airstrike hit a school bus carrying children under the age of 10 on a summer school trip: 40 children died, and dozens were injured.

Cholera is a major threat because the sewage and sanitation systems have been destroyed during the civil war. In 2017 there were more than 1 million cholera cases in Yemen. More than 2000 people died, many of them children. However, a new international initiative has reduced the number of new cases by 95%.

Using NASA satellite technology, the Met Office in the UK produces a rainfall forecast for Yemen 4 weeks ahead of time which pinpoints areas likely to be hit by heavy rain. This is important because downpours overwhelm the sewage system leading to a spread of cholera. The forecasts are analysed by a team of scientists in the USA to predict the areas where outbreaks of cholera are likely to occur. They use information such as population density, access to clean water and seasonal temperatures. The information is passed to the UN’s children’s charity, UNICEF, which then deploys resources to prevent the spread of the disease. Simple sanitation advice, such as washing hands and drawing water from safe sources saves thousands of lives.

The situation in Yemen illustrates our human predicament. On the one hand human beings are capable of great evil, leading to the death of many people, and on the other hand our God-given intelligence and skill can save many lives. In Yemen both facets are seen side by side. In our personal lives we also struggle with our natural inclination to selfishness and our ability to express love and kindness.

The apostle Paul vividly described his own struggle; “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Paul and many other people have found the answer to this struggle in Jesus Christ through whom they have experienced forgiveness for their sins and have been given strength to live a new life.

To whom shall we go?

The visit of Pope Francis to Ireland has revealed the depth of disillusionment many Catholic people in the country feel with their church. The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations of paedophile priests, sexual abuse in Catholic-run orphanages, and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes. When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 more than a million people attended the mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin. Attendance at the mass celebrated by Pope Francis was estimated at 200,000.

According to the Irish Statistics Office, Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country but the percentage of the population who identify as Catholics has fallen. In 1981, just 2 years after the papal visit, Catholics made up 93% of the population. By 2016 that number had fallen to 78%, of whom only 44% attended church weekly. The fall in church attendance is most marked amongst younger people. There has also been a sharp decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland is now 70.

What has happened to those who have turned away from the Catholic Church? Many of those under the age of 50 now describe themselves as having no religious faith. The increasing secularisation of Irish society has also been seen in recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in which two-thirds of people rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church and voted for change.

The heart of Christianity is focussed not on any particular church but on the person of Jesus. All of us fall short of God’s standards and need to experience his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come into the world for self-righteous people who feel no sense of need but for those who know their guilt and who want to change. Many people all over the world have listened to the words of Jesus and have found new life and hope in experiencing his love.

At one point in the ministry of Jesus people who had been following him turned away from him. Jesus asked his closest disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” At times of crisis, when people have seriously let us down and it’s hard to find answers to our questions, the best thing to do is not to turn away from God but to draw near to his Son and to listen to what he says.

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.”