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God is merciful

The case of Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, in northern Kano state in Nigeria has attracted international attention. In August Omar was convicted in a Sharia court of making uncomplimentary remarks about Allah during an argument with a friend and was sentenced to 10 years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy. Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, said the sentence “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice.”

In a remarkable intervention, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland, has asked President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to pardon the teenager. In an open letter Piotr wrote, “He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities and stigmatised physically, emotionally and educationally for the rest of his life.” Omar’s case has struck a painful chord for Piotr because countless children were imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz by the German Nazi regime.

In his letter Piotr also said that if Omar cannot be pardoned then he would be willing to serve part of his sentence along with other volunteers from around the world. He wrote, “However, if the words of this child absolutely require 120 months of imprisonment, and even you are not able to change that, I suggest that in place of the child, 120 adult volunteers from all over the world, gathered by us – myself personally among them – should serve a month in a Nigerian prison.” More than 120 people from around the world have already offered to serve part of Omar’s sentence. If Omar is pardoned, Piotr also offered to personally fund his education resulting in “an aware and educated young citizen” rather than a “destroyed young man.”

Piotr’s intervention reminds us of the words of the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the Bible the principle of substitution was the foundation of the sacrificial system. When anyone sinned, they were commanded to offer an animal in their place and were told that because the animal died their sins would be forgiven. The supreme substitute is the Lord Jesus. Philip Bliss’ hymn says, “’Man of Sorrows’, what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood; Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was he; full redemption—can it be? Hallelujah! what a Saviour!”

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Remembering the Pilgrim Fathers

On 6 September 1620 the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to America, the New World, carrying 102 passengers and 25 crew. Most of the passengers were Christians who have come to be known as the “Pilgrim Fathers.” It was not an easy trip with cramped living quarters for a journey taking 2 months. The first half of the voyage was smooth and pleasant but then the weather changed to continuous North-easterly storms. One passenger died, a baby was born, and for several days they could not use their sails and simply drifted until the storm subsided. On 11 November 1620 they set anchor at Cape Cod and thanked the God of heaven who “had brought them safely over the vast and furious ocean.” During the bitter winter, the passengers remained on board Mayflower, suffering scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis, which killed half the passengers and crew.

Why did the Pilgrim Fathers leave England for the New World? The “Pilgrims” were Christians who based their faith and life on the Bible and wished to be free to organise religious congregations separate from the English State Church. At the time this was illegal. They were known as “Separatists” because they believed they should be free to establish true churches which were voluntary, democratic communities, separate from the State. They experienced fierce persecution and some of their leaders were imprisoned and executed on charges of sedition. Some had fled to Holland before travelling to America.

The “Pilgrims” had a significant influence on the history of America. In July 1776 The Declaration of Independence stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today the Pledge of Allegiance states that the republic of the United States of America is “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “Pilgrims” knew that true liberty is found in knowing God and being guided by the truths he has revealed in the Bible. In submitting to God’s authority, we find real freedom. When we cast off all restraints in an attempt to be “free” it leads only to being enslaved. Jesus came “to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” He said, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”

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Hope in a world of injustice

Many people in the world today are experiencing injustice. In Hong Kong tens of thousands protested against the postponement of the planned election and Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong. They face long prison sentences. In Minsk, Belarus, thousands demonstrated against the alleged vote-rigging in the recent re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. They face heavy fines and imprisonment. In Russia the opposition politician Alexi Navalny has been poisoned. In Xinjiang, China, more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in ‘re-education’ camps in an attempt to force them into being more obedient to the Communist party.

Throughout history power has been used to oppress people and to deny them justice. Three thousand years ago, as King Solomon surveyed the world of his time, he wrote about the injustices he saw, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

God is just. The Bible makes it very clear that there will be a Final Judgment at which all people who have ever been born will appear. The oppressors and tyrants will not escape divine justice because we are all “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” When the Apostle Paul was speaking in the sophisticated ancient city of Athens, which prided itself on its wisdom and its broad-minded worship of many gods, he told them that God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed and has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

God is also gracious and compassionate. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of sinful people. By his death he paid the price of our sins and satisfied the demands of divine justice. The hymnwriter, William Rees, wrote, “On the Mount of Crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide. Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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I want the best for you

On 26 September 2018 Amber Guyger, a Dallas policewoman, returned to her apartment building after a 14-hour shift. Still in her uniform and in a state she later described as “autopilot”, she entered the wrong flat. She lived at flat 1378 but went into flat 1478, one floor above hers, where Botham Jean, a black accountant, lived. The door was unlocked, and Botham was sitting on the sofa eating ice cream. Thinking he was an intruder, Amber drew her gun, and shot him twice, intending to kill him.

When giving evidence, she wept and said, “I ask God for forgiveness. I hate myself every single day. I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” The mostly black jury of eight women and four men convicted her of murder. She could have been sentenced to life in prison but received 10 years. Protesters outside the court building were outraged by the lenient sentence.

After sentence had been passed Brandt Jean, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, told Amber, “If you truly are sorry, I forgive you. And I know, if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I’m speaking for myself, but I love you just like anyone else. I don’t wish anything bad on you. I want the best for you, I don’t even want you to go to jail, because I know that that’s exactly what Botham would want, and the best is to give your life to Christ.” Then he asked the judge if he could hug his brother’s killer and embraced Amber for about a minute. It was an act of Christian forgiveness that brought tears to many eyes.

Botham’s mother Allison said she had no idea that Brandt was going to hug the killer. She, too, spoke of forgiving Amber but said, “I don’t want forgiveness to be mistaken for a total relinquishing of responsibility.”

The response of the Jean family to the tragic death of Botham illustrates the importance of both justice and forgiveness. How can our sins, that deserve to be punished, be forgiven by God? When Jesus died on the cross he both satisfied the just demands of God’s law and also opened the way for us to be forgiven. One hymn says, “Here is love, vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood, when the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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That Great Day

This is the time of year when students receive their A level and GCSE exam results. It is an anxious time! Some are elated as they achieve the grades they need to move on to university or sixth form. Others are very disappointed when they fail to achieve the necessary grades.

It is a crucial time in the life of each student. Success opens the way for the future; failure seems to cast a shadow, although this is by no means always the case. In the past many who have not achieved the grades they needed to go to university have gone on to do very well in their chosen careers.

In preparing students for exams teachers always encourage them to work hard in order to achieve the best possible grades. Not all students take the advice and some hope that by a combination of natural talent and good luck they will get through. Often, however, the exams reveal their lack of preparation and poor results follow.

In many aspects of our lives we face assessment. Many employees have some form of appraisal which indicates their performance and effectiveness in their job. It is good to be appreciated and praised, but not easy to take constructive criticism which identifies areas of weakness and poor performance.

The Bible teaches that at the end of our lives we must all appear before God to be judged. This judgment will be totally fair and will be based on how we have kept God’s laws. There is no escape from God’s justice. Tyrants and evil people may seem to get away with their evil deeds, but God will call every one of them to account and they will be justly punished. History provides many examples of unspeakable wickedness. It is a great comfort to know that those who have done these things are called to account by God, who knows all things.

But the certainty of God’s judgment is a solemn thing for us all. None of us has kept God’s laws. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of what God requires. On that great day we will all need someone to stand with us to be our Advocate and Saviour. When he was dying, David Dickson, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, said, “I have taken all my good deeds and all my bad deeds, and cast them in a heap before the Lord, and fled from both, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in him I have sweet peace!”

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The call for justice

The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong have brought back memories of the Tiananmen Square protests in May 1989. On 9 June more than one million people in Hong Kong marched against a controversial extradition bill which, if approved, would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Three days later, Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at a crowd of hundreds of thousands surrounding a government complex. On 15 June Hong Kong’s leader decided to suspend the bill rather than scrapping it. The next day two million people took to the streets in protest calling for her resignation.

In 1989 in Tiananmen Square, in central Beijing, hundreds if not thousands of unarmed peaceful pro-democracy protesters were massacred and tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across China were arrested. The Chinese authorities have never disclosed the total number of people detained, tried or executed throughout China since the 1989 crackdown. Even today the authorities forbid all mention of the protest. One image that symbolised the Tiananmen Square protest is of a lone man in a white shirt carrying shopping bags standing in front of a tank sent to disperse protesters. It was a David and Goliath moment!

People protests against longstanding political leaders are happening in many countries including France, Algeria, Venezuela, Haiti, Sudan, Georgia and the Czech Republic. Ordinary people are standing together to protest against corruption and the abuse of power and to call for justice.

God is passionately concerned about justice. His people were once slaves in Egypt and were ruthlessly oppressed with forced labour. The Egyptian midwives were told to kill all Hebrew boy babies. In their suffering the people cried out to God and he heard them. He raised up Moses who confronted Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler of the day, demanding that he let God’s people go. God rescued his people and set them free. Today God holds all people responsible for their actions and he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice.

God is also merciful. None of us is able to stand before God’s judgement and be declared righteous. So, God, against whom we have all rebelled, in love sent his Son, Jesus, to deal with our sins by dying in our place. His death satisfied the demands of God’s justice and offers mercy and forgiveness to us all. Through the cross on which his Son died God shows us that he is fair and just and also makes sinful people right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

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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!

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Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

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Heaven is real

The recent warm, sunny days have lifted our spirits after the cold days of early Spring. The cloudless blue skies, awakening nature, and the quiet, warmth of longer evenings have brought joy to our hearts. The beauty of the natural world around us, with the magnolia and cherry blossoms, the daffodils and primroses, and the green of the new leaves now beginning to adorn the trees, reveals the unique splendour of planet Earth, on which we are privileged to live. At such times we might wish to be able to stop and stay in the pleasure and happiness of the moment, but it isn’t possible. The daffodils fade, the blossoms fall and the most glorious of sunsets leads only to the darkness of the night.

The deep longing to find lasting peace, joy and fulfilment is something we all experience. The joys and pleasures of this world are real, but all transient. Because we have been created by God with an eternal soul we, inevitably, long for more, for that which endures. King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom, wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” A prayer, based on words of Augustine, expresses the desires of many, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you; so lead us by your Spirit that in this life we may live to your glory and in the life to come enjoy you for ever.”

Today we seldom talk about heaven and the life to come, but it is fundamental to our very being. We can only make sense of the sadnesses and mysteries of this life in the light of eternity. God is passionately concerned about justice and has set a day when he will righteously judge all people. Heaven is real and is the realm where God dwells in glory, love and unending blessing. Jesus said he was the Way to heaven.

The book of Revelation beautifully describes heaven, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. The one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new! To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. I will be their God, and they will be my children.”

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The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.