Spiritual heart surgery

Recent major news stories have all been about really bad things that are happening in our world today. In Syria the indiscriminate bombing of eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, has killed than 500 people in a week with thousands more injured. Women and children are hiding in basements while the White Helmets bravely try to rescue casualties. A Serious Case Review into grooming gangs in Newcastle has revealed the systematic sexual abuse of 700 vulnerable girls. A 19-year-old man gunned down 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and wounded others. Major relief agencies have disclosed cases of senior employees abusing women in countries struck by natural disaster.

The responses to these situations have proposed a number of helpful things such as a UN resolution for a cease fire, more gun control, seeking a better understanding of different cultures, better safeguarding procedures, transparency, and more training of relief personnel. But it seems clear that the problems of our human condition go much deeper and affect us all. As human beings we have both the capacity for great goodness and kindness and also the ability to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and wickedness. Why do we all struggle with the darker side of our nature and personality?

The Bible teaches that human beings were created by God in his image but that our first parents rebelled against God by breaking his command. As a result of their disobedience sin and death became universal features of life in this world affecting all people. Our relationship with God has been fractured and we have a constant bias towards what is wrong. The fundamental problem is internal and has to do with our hearts, that is our inner desires and motivation. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”

The Bible also tells us that God has provided a solution to our deepest need. The prophet Ezekiel gave the people a wonderful promise from God, “I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” The Apostle Paul experienced this great change as he was approaching Damascus on a mission to arrest and imprison Christians. He saw a vision of the risen Jesus and became a new man. Later he wrote, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

I was a stranger and you took me in

The birth of Jesus brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but it also involved significant trauma. The news that Mary was pregnant seriously threatened her reputation for purity and integrity in her home village of Nazareth. The circumstances of the birth were extremely difficult as Mary gave birth to her first child in a stable, in a strange town, without the support of family and friends. Then, soon after the birth, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So they left Bethlehem at night and went to Egypt to live in exile while Herod sent soldiers to kill all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. It was several years before Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to their home village of Nazareth.

In our world today there are many people who have left their home countries in fear of their lives. Some have been threatened by those with political power, others fear religious persecution. They have experienced significant trauma in leaving their home country, family and friends and settling in a strange place. They still face a very uncertain future.

In both the Old and New Testaments God commands his people to welcome strangers and to be kind to them. The reason for this is that the Jews had suffered as slaves in Egypt until God delivered them, setting them free and giving them a home of their own. Many of the early Christians also experienced persecution and had to flee to places of safety. The kindness we show to people from other countries living amongst us is a response to the kindness we have experienced from God.

A few years ago, a young couple from the Middle East arrived in Britain as refugees. They were facing persecution in their own country. When they arrived in Britain they were detained in separate holding centres. It was their first experience of Britain and they were afraid, especially as the wife was expecting her first child. In the holding centre she was given a Bible and read these words from Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” God spoke to her through these words and gave her hope and his peace.

Light shines in the darkness

The terrorist attack on London Bridge on Saturday 3 June came without warning and many innocent people were caught up in the tragic events. Kirsty Boden, a young nurse from Loxton in South Australia living in London, responded immediately and ran to help the victims of the barbaric attack. As she ran to help the injured she was stabbed and killed by the terrorists. Kirsty was a theatre recovery nurse at Guy’s Hospital. Colleagues at the hospital said, “She was the most outgoing, kind and generous person who loved to help people. Helping people was what she loved to do in her job as a nurse and in her daily life.” Kirsty was a keen traveller and, on a recent trip, had posted on her blog, “Life is short and we should all use the time we have wisely.”

Brett Freeman was stabbed 4 times in the back by one of the terrorists; one of the wounds punctured his lung. As gunshots continued to ring out, a policewoman, Emily Lewis, came to help him. He told her, “Leave me now – go and save yourself.” But she refused to go and continued to hold his hand and talk to him. She stayed with him for 2 hours until he was safely in King’s College Hospital, where doctors saved his life. Brett said, “If it wasn’t for Emily, who kept talking, who wouldn’t leave me, I might not have reached hospital alive. I could see how scared she was – we all were – but she didn’t think of her own safety. I can only thank everyone who helped me, particularly Emily – I owe her my life.”

These stories, and others like them, show how, at the same time wicked men were bent on destroying as many lives as they could, others were responding in love and were committed to saving lives. One of the two greatest commandments is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Kirsty knew people had been seriously injured and instinctively went to help them, just as she hoped someone would do the same for her if she was in such a terrible situation. Her love for strangers cost her own life. Emily knew that if she was lying seriously injured she wouldn’t want to be on her own. At risk to her own life she stayed with Brett, who might easily have died. Kirsty and Emily’s actions also remind us of Jesus who in love, and at great personal cost, laid down his life that we might live.

God is Light

The days are getting longer. It’s good to go to work and school in the light and to return before dark. Light is essential for life and lifts our spirits. The Bible tells us, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” God’s first creative command was “Let there be light!”

Throughout history people have tried to discover what God is like. The gods of ancient Greece were very much like human beings. They were capricious; for no apparent reason their mood and behaviour would change. They were envious and spiteful and people tried to keep on the right side of them. Animists in many parts of the world today believe in spirits which live in trees, rocks and rivers and govern their lives. The spirits need constantly to be appeased if your crops are to flourish and you are to enjoy good health. Animistic people live in constant fear of the spirits.

The God of the Bible is so very different from the gods of people’s imagination. He isn’t like us. He is light. He is holy, righteous, pure and good. He is unchanging; in him there is no darkness at all. Human history reveals the very dark side of our human nature. Powerful people have imprisoned, tortured and killed those they hate. Today there are people hidden away in dark prisons of oppressive regimes who are treated terribly. Even apparently benign regimes have had very dark chapters in their history. But God isn’t like that; in him there is no darkness at all.

Jesus came into the world to reveal God to us and to bring the light of God’s presence into our lives. He said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” When we know Jesus we discover the light of the truth and experience the amazing kindness of God. In his well-known hymn Thomas Binney reflects on the fact that God is light and our need to know him. “Eternal Light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be, when, placed within thy searching sight, it shrinks not, but with calm delight can live, and look on Thee. There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode; an offering and a sacrifice, a Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God. These, these prepare us for the sight of holiness above; the sons of ignorance and night may dwell in the eternal light, through the eternal love.”

Thoughts on being a parent

On a recent visit to Vietnam the Duke of Cambridge was interviewed on a popular English-language talk show. He was asked about being a father to Prince George and Princess Charlotte. He said, “There’s been wonderful highs and wonderful lows. But I’ve struggled at times. The alteration from being a single, independent man to going into marriage, and then having children, is life-changing. George is a right little rascal sometimes. He keeps me on my toes, but he’s a sweet boy. And Charlotte, bearing in mind I haven’t had a sister … so having a daughter is a very different dynamic!”

Since he has had children William has worried more about the future and hopes his children will inherit a better world. He said, “When you have something or someone in your life to give the future to, I think it focuses the mind more about what you are giving them. Are you happy that you have done all you can to leave the world in a good state? People are living with an enormous amount of stuff that they don’t necessarily need. I would like George and Charlotte to grow up being a little bit more simple in their aspirations and outlook and just looking after those around them and treating others as they would like to be treated themselves.”

The Duke’s concerns are shared by many parents. What kind of world will we hand on to our children and grandchildren? How can we prepare them for the future? When he first came to the throne, King Solomon asked God for wisdom and discernment so that he would be able to rule his people well. Some of the wisdom God gave him related to family life. Solomon knew the importance of teaching his children God’s truths and being an example to them.

The things Solomon taught his children provide a sure guide for the Duke of Cambridge and all parents. Solomon wrote, “My child, never forget the things I have taught you. Store my commands in your heart. If you do this, you will live many years, and your life will be satisfying. Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. Then you will find favour with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation. Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”

Open my eyes that I may see

Scientists at the University of California have developed a remarkable new treatment for infants who have been born with congenital cataracts. The scientists removed the damaged lens and used the patient’s own stem cells to regrow a “living lens” in their eye. In just 3 months the regenerative stem cells have grown into a new, fully functioning and transparent lens. The procedure was successful in all 12 infants under the age of 2, and was without complication compared to the traditional use of plastic lens. The treatment has real potential to be used for other eye conditions.

I remember seeing a programme about North Korea. Eye surgeons from America had gone to the country to perform cataract operations on many patients. When the bandages were taken off the people were full of joy that they could see again. The first thing they saw was a large photograph of their President and they immediately began enthusiastically to give thanks to him for restoring their sight. They knew that, if they were not enthusiastic in their praise, their lives would be in danger. It was very sad.

Our bodies are a masterpiece of God’s creative wisdom and power. In Psalm 139 David reflects on the way God had created him and given him life. “For 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 works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

Thankfully we are free to recognise the goodness and kindness of God who blesses us in countless ways. So we must be careful not to close our eyes to the glory of God revealed in the creation around us and especially in his Son, Jesus Christ. One hymn encourages us to ask God to open our eyes to see his truth. “Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me; place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!”

The beauty and splendour of autumn

Early on the Sunday morning after the clocks went back I drove to North Wales. It was a sunny morning and the autumn leaves were resplendent. The yellows, browns and reds were brilliant in the early morning sun. Scattered amongst them was the occasional green fir tree. It made me realise afresh that God has made our earth a very beautiful place and I thanked him for his wonderful kindness to all of us who live on this little planet.

The autumn colours remind us that the long, warm days of summer are passing and the dark days of winter lie ahead. The regularity of the seasons points us to the faithfulness of God. He has promised, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” So we know that winter will not last for ever, however dark and cold it may be, but that springtime will come and the trees and flowers will come to life again.

There are also seasons in our lives. The early years of childhood are full of hope and promise. The energy and enthusiasm of children hold out great potential for their future lives. Childhood gives way to adult years when physical and mental powers are at their height. It is a time for striving to achieve our full potential at home and work. Loving families and homes provide a secure and loving environment for the next generation to be born and thrive.

Then comes the autumn of our lives when mind and body are not so strong and grey hairs appear. In the early senior years there can be a beauty and poise that make it seem that things may continue as they are but, in our hearts, we know that our lives are moving inevitably to their appointed end.

Solomon, who was legendary for his wisdom, wrote, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.” It is best to remember God and entrust our lives to him when we are young so that he is at the centre of all we do. But we can also draw near to him in the autumn of our life and find in him the peace we need now and the hope we need for the future. His beautiful creation proclaims that he exists and encourages us to seek him and find him.

The man who saved 669 children

Sir Nicholas Winton has died at the age of 106. About 6000 people in the world today owe their lives to Nicholas. He was a stockbroker who became aware of the plight of Jewish families when he was on holiday in Prague at Christmas 1938. In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II he organised the rescue of 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia through an operation known as Kindertransport. He found homes for the children and arranged safe passage for them to Britain. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland. Many of the parents perished in Auschwitz.

Nicholas kept the wonderful things he did, in saving so many Jewish children, secret for more than 40 years until in 1988 his wife, Greta, found a detailed scrapbook in the attic. In 2002, at the age of 93, he received a Knighthood for this work.

Nicholas illustrates the amazing contrasts there are in the actions of human beings. Seeing the growing power of the Nazis in Europe, which led to the death of millions of Jewish people, he took action to save lives. He said, “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.” The death of millions of Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps was one of the greatest acts of evil in the history of the world. It is a warning to us all of the frightening capacity of the human heart for evil. The courageous act of one man in saving so many lives also shows us the amazing capacity of human beings for goodness and kindness.

The reticence of Nicholas to tell people what he did is remarkable. Jesus spoke of the great day when we will all stand before God in judgement. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When the righteous say they can’t remember doing these things for him, the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

The crushing burden of debt

After all the talks and proposals there is still no resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis. Banks in Greece are running out of money because there are no more loans available from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund and ordinary people have withdrawn billions of euros from their accounts. The crisis is hitting all sections of Greek society. Unemployment is at 25%, pensions will be capped and an increase in VAT is unavoidable. This week the banks are closed and people are only allowed to draw a maximum of €60 per day from cash machines.

Massive national debts are a feature of our world today. The UK government debt is £1.56 trillion, which is 81% of our annual Gross Domestic Product. The annual interest payments alone are £43 billion. The reason we are not in the same situation as Greece is that our government is able to raise the money it needs to finance its debt because institutions and people believe we are able to make the repayments and so we also pay lower interest rates. It’s when you can’t pay your debts that the problem gets out of hand, as it has in Greece.

Personal debt is also an overwhelming burden for many ordinary people. One of the early credit cards encouraged people to take their credit because it “takes the waiting out of wanting.” People are encouraged to take the money now and pay later, often at high interest rates. Payday loan companies charge extortionate interest rates. It’s easy to get a small loan, but it’s very costly indeed to repay it.

The Bible reminds us of another kind of debt, which is even more serious, but to which we may give little thought. Each day of our lives our debt to God accumulates as we commit sins by breaking his commands. The debt we owe to him is overwhelming. The amazing message of the Gospel is that Jesus came from heaven in order to pay our debt by his death on the Cross. Each of us can come to God and ask him to forgive the debt we owe him.

The Welsh preacher, John Elias, wrote a hymn expressing his amazement at the wonderful kindness and love of God in Jesus. “And was it for my sin that Jesus suffered so, when moved by His all-powerful love he came to earth below? Thy holy law fulfilled, atonement now is made, and our great debt, too great for us, He now has fully paid.”

I was a stranger and you invited me in

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine shows little sign of ending despite the recent high-level meetings. Ukraine has two official languages: those in the west speak Ukrainian and those in the east speak Russian. Russia, and the rebels they are backing, are exploiting this by appearing to support the grievances some Russian speaking Ukrainians in the east have against the government in Kiev.

Over the past year Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, which conveniently gives them control of the warm water seaport of Sebastopol. A Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down killing 298 people. Major cities in eastern Ukraine are now war zones with massive destruction of property. The brand new international airport in Donetsk, built for the European Football Championships in 2012, is now rubble. Donetsk is the same size as Birmingham. In the conflict 5300 people have died and 1.5 million have been made homeless. Thousands of men, women and children have fled for safety to cities outside the war zone including Kharkov, the second city of Ukraine.

Yet in the midst of this appalling situation good things are happening. I have friends who live in Kharkov. They are Christians and attend a small Baptist church. Christians in the Baptist churches have been helping the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. When buses carrying refugees arrive in Kharkov they are met by Christians who provide food and clothing for the people and help them to find somewhere to stay. The Baptist church buildings have become temporary homes for refugee families and the Christians have also welcomed refugees into their own homes. Ukraine is a poor country and the war has increased the price of everything, yet the Christians are willing to share their own limited resources with strangers who are in great need. Christians in Britain are also sending gifts to help them.

One of the greatest commandments God has given us is, “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus said that his people feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide homes for the homeless. Then he added, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do for me.” Jesus himself is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. The apostle Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”