O Thou who changest not, abide with me!

The terrible fire at Grenfell Tower has traumatised a nation. The vivid pictures of the inferno that quickly engulfed the council tower block, in which more than 500 people lived, portrayed the horror of what was happening. There was an acute sense of helplessness as firemen tried to extinguish the fire that raged through the 24-storey tower in the middle of the night. The faces of people at the windows desperately crying out for help were heart-rending. For many there was no escape. The photographs of the inside of the flats, released by the Metropolitan Police, show the total devastation of the fire. Everything was destroyed.

The stories of some survivors are desperately sad. Brothers Omar and Mohammed Alhajali had fled the war in Syria and come to London. Omar was led to safety through the smoke by firefighters. He thought his brother, Mohammed, was with them only to realise that he was still in the flat. They spoke on the phone before Mohammed died. Mohammed sent a voice message to his mother in Syria saying, “Good-bye. I love you.” Omar, like many other survivors is traumatised and has a deep sense of guilt that he survived when his brother died.

Such tragedies are utterly devastating. The courage and skill of the emergency services and the practical love of the community have shone out in the darkness, but the deepest needs of those affected can only be met by the eternal God whose Son, Jesus, died and rose again to give us hope. There are things that happen in this life that cannot be put right or resolved. The finality of death takes us into a realm where only the living God can help us.

The words of a well-known hymn speak into our moments of deepest pain and grief. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see: O Thou who changest not, abide with me. I need Thy presence every passing hour; what but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

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.

Bear Gryll’s Greatest Adventure

Bear Grylls is well-known as a man who embodies the spirit of adventure and outdoor survival. His love of adventure began when he was growing up on the Isle of Wight. His late father, Sir Michael Grylls, taught him to climb. Bear says, “It brought us close and I loved it. It was never about the climbs but about that closeness.” In his book “To My Sons” he writes, “Aim to live a wild, generous, full, exciting life – blessing those around you and seeing the good in all. Follow your dreams – they are God-given.”

Bear trained in martial arts and perfected many of his skills when he served for 3 years in the British Special Forces as a member of 21 SAS. He has climbed Everest; crossed the North Atlantic on an inflatable boat; navigated the Northwest Passage; survived crocodile-infested swamps in Indonesia; and para-motored over the Himalayas. He says, “It is through faith that we find peace, but that same faith can also give us great boldness to reach out that little bit further than maybe we are comfortable. Everything worthwhile in life comes from reaching beyond that point of comfort; daring to risk it all; following our dreams despite the cost; loving despite the pain; hoping despite the doubts; and living boldly despite the fear. Life is an adventure that it best lived boldly.”

Bear is the youngest-ever Chief Scout and is a role-model to 40 million scouts worldwide. He says, “Scouting is about faith, it’s about friendship, it’s about fun – it’s all part of what we wanted when we grew up.” When it comes to adventure, he says, “The first step is always the hardest. That’s the one that takes the most courage. I’ve learned not to run from that fear and just do it.”

Bear says that finding simple faith to empower his life has been his greatest adventure. “Life is a journey and at times we all need a guide. For me that guide has become my backbone, my helper, my companion and my friend. I always thought that Christianity was about being very sensible and acting all smart and religious. But the more I discovered about Jesus Christ himself, the more I found a man who was as unreligious as you can imagine. It seemed that the very heart of the Christian faith was not about church, pulpits, sermons or Latin verse! It was about a relationship with someone who promises us life in abundance, joy within, peace without and freedom in our soul. Now I was interested!”

He has made everything beautiful in its time

The Spring and early summer is a beautiful time as nature comes alive. This year I have been struck by the beautiful colours of the flowers and blossoms as they have come one after another: pure white snowdrops, purple crocuses, yellow daffodils, majestic magnolias, delicate almond blossom, pink cherry trees, bluebells, and, now, the May blossom. The sequence of flowers and colours has been stunning and, unmistakably, reveals the hand of the Creator.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon reflected on the meaning of life and wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” Solomon was famous for his wisdom and his wealth. When the Queen of Sheba visited him, and saw his palace and his court, she said, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard.” Yet, when Solomon surveyed God’s creation he saw a beauty far beyond anything the human mind could create and it moved him to worship the awesome God of who created this beauty.

Solomon also saw that the beauty of creation is transient; everything is beautiful “in its time.” The flowers fade and fall; their beauty is only for a brief time. It is the same in our experience of life. Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We bear the image of God and have the glorious capacity to know and love him. Yet, the various stages of our lives quickly pass: the beautiful baby, the boundless energy of childhood, the exciting potential of adolescence, the strength of early adult years, the immense possibilities of middle age, the beauty and dignity of retirement years, before our faculties decline. The inexorable movement of time defies our deep longing to find that which is lasting and totally fulfilling.

The transient nature of life’s beauty points us to the eternity that God has put in our hearts. We echo the words of the hymn, “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” There really is an eternal world, which is even more beautiful than this world. God is there, and the beauty of that world never fades.

Put your trust in God

One hundred years ago this week the Battle of the Somme ended. The Battle started on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. The British soldiers fighting in the Battle belonged to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s volunteer “New Armies”. This included “Pals” battalions made up of men who were friends, relatives and workmates recruited from the same communities. The Battle of the Somme was the first time this volunteer army had taken the leading role in a major battle on the Western Front.

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle, there were 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 who were killed. These were the heaviest losses ever sustained in one day by the British Army. By the time the Battle of the Somme came to an end, 5 months later, the British had gained a strip of territory 6 miles deep and 20 miles long. There were more than a million casualties from both sides, including more than 300,000 who died.

Many of the soldiers who fought at the Somme were young men who volunteered to serve their country. Villages and towns lost a generation of men and many mothers, wives, sisters, children and girlfriends lost the man they loved. The sheer scale of the losses was overwhelming and some communities never fully recovered.

But how did the men themselves cope with being taken from their communities and daily employment to fight an attritional war in a strange place far from home? In World War I British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament.” Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, wrote an inscription in the Testaments that said, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.”

On the evening before battle many soldiers in the trenches, knowing that the next day they may well die, probably read their Daily Portion Testaments. They read wonderful promises from God including the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Whether we are soldiers facing great danger or people facing the uncertainties of life, we can all find strength for today and bright hope for the future in the promises of God’s Word.

The transient beauty of autumn

This year the autumn colours are especially glorious and have lasted longer than usual. In the autumn sun, the brown, red and gold colours of the leaves beautifully adorn the countryside The absence of frosts, high winds or heavy rain has meant that the leaves have been slower to fall this year, but soon they will fall. Trees that shed their leaves are preparing to survive harsh weather conditions; it is a preparation for the cold of winter. The trees seal the spots where the leaves are attached so that fluids cannot flow in and out of the leaves. This causes the leaves to change colour and fall off, which helps the trees to survive the cold, dry air of winter. When the warmer, lighter days of spring come the leaves will return.

There are also seasons in our lives as human beings. Each season has a beauty of its own: a new born baby, an active toddler, a growing child, a maturing adolescent, a strong and healthy adult, a serenity in the newly-retired and the gentle dignity of later years. But the seasons of our lives inevitably move on; we cannot pause and remain in any one of them. So, it is wise for us, like the trees, to prepare for the future.

We are living at a time when deep pessimism is widespread. People who have never heard of the philosophy of nihilism, which means “nothing”, are influenced by it. This philosophy began in Russia in the early 20th century and rejects all religious and moral principles because life is ultimately meaningless. A true nihilist believes in nothing, has no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

The silent witness of God’s creation and the teaching of the Bible declare a very different message. The death of the leaves is a preparation for new life. More importantly, God has created every one of us with an eternal soul. Life is not meaningless and death is not the end. Future hope is found in Jesus Christ who died and rose again on the third day. By his death he “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” Trusting in him we embrace God’s eternal purpose for us. Then, with the hymn writer, we can say, “If Thou art my shield and my sun, the night is no darkness to me; and fast as my moments roll on, they bring me but closer to Thee.”

Amazing grace

One Sunday morning I was driving along the M4. The weather was fine and most cars were driving at, or below, the speed limit. Some cars and vans passed me doing 80mph and then, on a quiet part of the motorway, a car passed me doing about 100mph. It disappeared from sight very quickly. Presumably the driver felt able to drive at that speed because there was little possibility of him being caught by a speed camera.

A little further on we came to a short stretch of the motorway where there is average speed camera surveillance. Every vehicle, without exception, drove at 50 mph! Why did everyone keep to the speed limit on that of part of the motorway? Because, if they drove too fast, the cameras were certain to detect it and they would be fined and have points on their licence. The evidence of the cameras would make conviction certain.

Our fallen human nature means that we are all most likely to break laws when we think we will “get away with it” and, in many cases, we do. Yet our leaders seem to think that making more laws will change people’s behaviour. In 2010 a record 3506 new laws were introduced in Britain, 10 for each day. The task of enforcing those laws, and all the other laws, is becoming impossible. In the absence of certain detection, laws have a very limited effect on how people behave.

The most important laws are God’s moral laws, summarised in the Ten Commandments. Few of us seem to have a sense of our ultimate accountability to Almighty God for the way we live. However, the Bible, and our consciences, tell us that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” When we realise that divine judgement is certain for us all, our sense of guilt and helplessness can be overwhelming. At such times, we know we need a Saviour.

In one of his hymns Horatius Bonar summed up his faith, and the faith of all Christians. “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die, another’s life; another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known, another’s tears; another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see.”

Be still and know that I am God

Some friends of mine were in Istanbul the night of the attempted military coup. The following day one of them wrote, “Today was a lot quieter. We were advised to stay indoors. But last night was terrible. The suddenness of the attempted coup shocked everyone. The subduing of the coup carried on through the night, so sleep was impossible. All around were gunshots, emergency vehicle sirens, low-flying jets sometimes letting off sonic booms, and the constant helicopters. I have cried a lot today because of the terrible loss of life last night. The death toll is over 160, and over 1000 wounded. Most people are in complete shock and disbelief. There is a sense of fear and hopelessness.”

In recent months many people around the world have found themselves suddenly caught up in acts of violence. In Lahore, on Easter Sunday a bomb attack in a park killed 74 Christian and Muslim people and injured more than 350 people, many of them children. In Nice, 84 people died when a man drove a heavy lorry through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade Des Anglais. In Munich, a teenage gunman shot and killed 9 people, many of them teenagers, at a fast-food restaurant. These events, and many more, have created a spirit of fear and uncertainty in the minds of many. Where can we turn, at such times, to find comfort and hope?

Psalm 46 has been a source of strength to many over the centuries. It says, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! The nations are in chaos, and their kingdoms crumble! The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honoured by every nation. I will be honoured throughout the world.’ The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

The Psalm also speaks about heaven, “A river brings joy to the city of our God, the sacred home of the Most High. God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed.” In a very uncertain world, God’s Word gives us sure hope for the future. Whatever happens, Jesus really is the Resurrection and the Life and the Way to an eternal home.

Fighting the hate that killed Jo

The response of Jo Cox’s family to her tragic death has been deeply moving. Her sister Kim said, “For now, our family is broken but it will mend in time, and we will never let Jo leave our lives. She will live on through Brendan, through us and through her truly wonderful children who will always know what an utterly amazing woman their mother was.” Jo’s husband, Brendan, said, “Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.”

Evil and hatred are a very real part of our life in this world. The cold-blooded murder of a young mother and MP, in a small Yorkshire community, is one example of this evil. So are the events in Syria in which the daily fighting and bombing claim the lives of ordinary men, women and children. Jo campaigned passionately for the people of Syria and other needy nations around the world. In the face of evil people, and the finality of death, we all feel our helplessness but, nevertheless, are determined that evil, in all its forms, must be defeated.

The death and resurrection of Jesus give us grounds for real hope and confidence that evil will not triumph. The ministry of Jesus brought great blessing to the lives of many people as he healed the sick, cast out evil spirits and raised the dead. Yet, those in authority hated him and determined to destroy him. He was betrayed by one of his disciples, arrested, falsely accused, mocked and condemned to die. He died in deep agony and pain on a Roman cross. His disciples and family were devastated and helpless. They were unable to do anything to change the course of events.

On the morning of the third day after he died, however, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, who struggled to realise that he really had conquered death. By his resurrection Jesus triumphed over sin, evil and death. His triumph gives hope to the people of our sad and troubled world because he has “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Heaven is real. God has also set a day when Jesus “will judge the world with justice” and will make all things new. Love and justice will indeed triumph.

Amazing Grace!

Amazing Grace is one of the best-known Christian hymns. It was written by John Newton and is a testimony of his own experience of God’s grace. John’s father was the captain of a merchant ship and, when he was just 11 years old, John made his first sea voyage with his father. His mother was a Christian and prayed that John would come to know Jesus as his Saviour. She died when John was still a child.

When he was 19 years old, John was forced into serving on a man-of-war ship. He found the conditions on board intolerable. He deserted, but was recaptured and publicly flogged. Later he volunteered to serve on a slave ship sailing to Sierra Leone, in West Africa. There he sank even deeper into degradation when he became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. When he was 23 years old he was rescued by a friend of his father. He became the captain of his own ship and was involved in the slave trade.

On 10 March 1748 John’s ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Donegal and almost sank. John woke in the middle of the night and, realising that the ship was filled with water, called out to God. He promised that if God would spare his life he would spend the rest of his life serving God. Amazingly the cargo shifted and sealed the hole in the ship which drifted to safety. John knew that God had heard his prayer and saved his life. Later he became an Anglican minister and collaborated with William Wilberforce in seeking the abolition of the slave trade.

John never stopped being amazed at God’s grace to him. He had lived a very wicked life, but God had not treated him as he deserved. God had watched over him and had saved “a wretch” like him. He was amazed that Jesus came not to call righteous people but sinners, like him, to repentance. He knew that God would always be with him and had given him a certain hope for the future. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”