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God had a plan

Charlie Duke is a former NASA astronaut. In 1972 as Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 16, he became the 10th and youngest person to walk on the Moon. As he waited for take-off he said, “I was really tense. Every part of my being vibrated with the throb of the Saturn V rocket engine. After 6 years of intensive training, I was anxious to finally be on my way, and then we were off into the atmosphere and beyond – starting eleven of the most exciting days of my life.”

“Our view of Earth was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen. From 18,000 miles the Earth was like a beautiful jewel – the blue oceans, white snow and clouds, and brown of land masses. The little crystal jewel of Earth hung there in the blackness of space. I walked in wonder on the Moon, breathless in admiration. It was just the way it had been created – pure, unspoiled, untouched. I was proud to be one of the few men to have such an experience.”

Charlie had always been success-oriented and being an astronaut was the pinnacle of success. He was famous and his ego swelled bigger and bigger. But on his return to earth, he realised his marriage to Dotty was in serious trouble. He had neglected her, and his two sons, and she felt her marriage and life were hopeless. Charlie threw himself into a new business career, but Dotty started going to church and gave her life to Jesus Christ. Charlie saw the change in Dotty and was curious. He could see a new peace and purpose in her life that she had never known before. She began to love and accept him in a new way.

Charlie had gone to church on Sundays but, even though he had walked on the moon, hadn’t found God. He went to a two-day Bible study with Dotty. He said, “The scales fell from my eyes. I saw that God loved Charlie Duke from the time he created the world. We have all turned away from God, but he says, ‘Turn to me, and I will be your God and bless you.’” As he and Dotty drove home Charlie said, “Love, there’s no doubt in my mind. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Charlie had been born again and had found new life in Jesus. He says, “I have never known such an exciting life – a life filled with the love, peace, joy and power of God. You might not be able to walk on the moon with me, but we can all walk together with Jesus, and that walk lasts forever.”

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Who is my neighbour?

Recently I was driving on a fast dual carriageway when I saw a man in the central reservation waving his hands. As I got nearer, I saw an elderly man who looked very confused standing near the other man. It seems the elderly man had dementia, had left his care home, and had wandered onto the dual carriageway. He didn’t realise the danger he was in, but someone, seeing he was in danger, had stopped to help him and take him to safety. Some years ago, an elderly friend of mine who suffered from dementia left his home without his wife, who was his main carer, knowing and was knocked over by a car and died.

I was so encouraged to see someone who was willing to take time to care for a vulnerable stranger who was in need. This is not common in our society today. When we set aside the first Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, the second Great Commandment: “Love our neighbour as you love yourself” also becomes a casualty.

A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus told a story about a Jewish man who was attacked when he was travelling on a lonely desert road. The thieves robbed him of all his possessions, beat him severely and left him half dead. Two religious leaders passed by but, when they saw the man, didn’t stop to help him. Then another man, a Samaritan, came by. He stopped, cleansed the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day he gave the inn keeper money to continue taking care of the man. Jesus said this man showed what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The story Jesus told was especially powerful because at that time most Jewish people had nothing to do with Samaritans because they were of mixed-race heritage. Jesus taught that true neighbour love goes beyond the love of family and friends and reaches out to strangers. Jesus himself exemplified such love in coming from heaven to this world to seek and save people who are lost. His death on the Cross paid the price of our sins so that through him we might experience God’s forgiveness and receive the gift of eternal life. Christians joyfully sing, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.”

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The secret of all true success

William Hartley was born in 1846 in Colne, Lancashire. His father, John, was a tinsmith and his mother, Margaret, ran a grocery. He was their only child to survive infancy. William left school at 14 and started work in his mother’s grocery. When he was 16, he was put in charge of the business and his entrepreneurial talent was immediately obvious. In 1871 William started making his own jam, packaged in his own design earthenware pots. He established a new factory in Bootle and in the early years faced many challenges. This year Hartley’s celebrates its 150th anniversary and has a worldwide reputation.

As a child William attended a Methodist Chapel in Colne with his parents, who were godly people. William’s purpose in life was to “serve the Lord every day to the best of my ability.” His business practice earned him a reputation for integrity, quality and outstanding care for his customers and employees. He said, “Our aim has always been to win the confidence of the public by making the best possible article and selling it at a fair price.”

In the way he treated his employees William always tried “to carry out the teaching of Jesus Christ.” He knew each of them by name and ensured that their working conditions were safe, whatever the cost. He introduced a profit-sharing scheme for his employees and said, “Profit-sharing is over and above a fair and just wage and is given, not because I think it pays commercially, but because it seems to me right and doing as I would be done by.”

William, and his wife Martha, also shared their immense wealth with others. On 1 January 1877 they made a vow to devote 10% of their income for religious and humanitarian work believing it to be the first duty of those who have money to remember generously those who have not. William said, “When we think of the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then nothing we can do is too much.”

During his lifetime William achieved phenomenal success as an entrepreneur and was also recognised as one of the country’s leading philanthropists, but he did not want to be defined by his achievements. Something else mattered far more to him: “I am much exercised as to whether I am such a disciple of Jesus Christ that my employees, business friends, neighbours and family can constantly see the Spirit of my Master in my actions. This is the secret of all true success: the consecration of ourselves to him who loved us and laid down his life for us.”

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I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing

On 4 July the last 750 regular British soldiers left Afghanistan, bringing to an end 20 years of military deployment in the country. Since the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, following the 2001 September 11 terror attacks, 454 British soldiers and civilians have died in Afghanistan. Some 2300 US personnel have also been killed and 50,000 Afghan civilians. The future of the country is very uncertain as the Taliban advances in many parts of the country, sparking fears of a new civil war.

The withdrawal of British soldiers from Afghanistan has brought back very painful memories for soldiers who still remember the sacrifice made by some of their friends. In the early hours of 10 July 2009, Rifleman Peter Sherlock was woken on his camp-bed at Wishtan forward operating base in Helmand’s Sangin district by his fellow troops preparing for their dawn patrol. Peter, then 21, should have been among the men heading out that morning but had been struck down by severe heatstroke the previous day and had been ordered to remain in the base. Peter chatted with the men getting ready, one of whom, 20-year-old Rifleman Danny Simpson, was his best friend in C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles.

As the men said goodbye and filed out of the front gates, Peter went to sit with the medics wondering who had taken his place in the patrol. Within minutes, there were two loud explosions in quick succession, about 500m from the base. Eight members of the 30-man patrol died and more than a dozen suffered life-changing injuries. The first death Peter heard confirmed over the radio was his best friend Danny, who had an eight-month-old son at home. Peter says, “The guilt of not having gone out with them was instant and has haunted me ever since.”

It is important that we remember and give thanks for the people, many of them young men, who have died serving in Afghanistan. They laid down their lives in a foreign land far from home seeking to bring peace to that troubled nation. Peter says, “I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing.” We pray for those like him, still living with the trauma of what he experienced, and others with life-changing injuries, and for the future of the Afghan people. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus is the supreme example of self-sacrifice. His death and resurrection have brought hope to our sad and suffering world. His love in dying for our sins has brought peace to many people burdened with guilt and comfort to those with profoundly sad memories.

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We will remember them

On 6 June 2021, the 77th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings, the new Normandy Memorial was opened at Ver sur Mer, overlooking Gold Beach. The names of the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who died on 6 June 1944, and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy, are inscribed on 160 stone columns. The site also remembers the French civilians who died during this period. About 100 veterans and their families, who were unable to attend the ceremony at Ver-sur-Mer because of coronavirus restrictions, gathered at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to watch remotely.

George Batts, a Normandy veteran now 95 years old, who had dreamed of this day for many years and energetically raised money to build the memorial said, “Only those who were there on D-Day can truly know what it was like. We lost a lot of our mates on those beaches. Now, at long last, Britain has a fitting memorial.” Prince Charles, who is patron of the Normandy Memorial Trust, said: “The memory of these remarkable individuals should be preserved for future generations as an example of personal courage and sacrifice, for the benefit of the wider national and, indeed, international community.”

Remembering the past is important. Future generations owe an incalculable debt to those who gave their lives to secure the freedom we enjoy. George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, many of those who survived D-Day, including my wife’s father, didn’t talk about the traumas they experienced, they wished they could forget. At remembrance services the words of Laurence Binyon are recited, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”

The Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme example of love, courage and self-sacrifice. The night before he died, Jesus shared a Passover meal with his disciples. He broke bread and passed around a cup of wine saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” When Christians celebrate Holy Communion they remember their Saviour, Jesus, who died that they might be forgiven and rose from the dead to give them a living hope. They also look forward to the day when Jesus will return and men “will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

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Hope is coming

Louise Blyth met her husband, George, in 2006. They fell in love and were married in 2011. Their first son was born in 2013 and a second son in 2015. When their second son was 8 months old, they received the devastating news that George had bowel cancer. The moment the diagnosis was confirmed was an incredible shock for George and Louise and they experienced fear, dread and panic.

George was fit and healthy so he and Louise were optimistic that, with treatment, he could be cured. But then a scan revealed that the cancer had spread to his liver. A course of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy, obliterated the tumour in his bowel but left small residual tumours in his liver. Throughout the treatment George was incredibly positive and never thought he wouldn’t get better. Six weeks after a liver resection he rode his bike from London to Paris. Just eight weeks later, at the age of 34, George died.

Louise has written, “George’s death was beautiful. The process of his passing dramatically altered our perceptions of the world we live in. George and I began to look at human existence from a very different perspective, a much more spiritual perspective. This was something that was completely new to us both! A series of miraculous events led to me having an unfaltering belief in Jesus.”

Louise had received a text from a friend who had met a woman who felt she should pray for someone who was seriously ill. The woman visited George in hospital and prayed with him. Louise said, “I thought this was really nice and wanted to believe it was real. Then George put his hand out and asked the woman to come and sit closer to him and there was just this feeling in the room of peace and light, and I didn’t want it to end.” The next day Louise found George lying on his bed with the sun coming into the room. It was seven days before he died, and he was really sick, but he was lying on his bed with his arms out and told her all the pain he’d been feeling had gone.

Louise said, “After this we had a beautiful time before his death. He had five days in hospital where he laid and basked in the Holy Spirit and the hospital room was filled with such perfect peace and hope it was unbelievable.” In the midst of their unspeakable sadness both George and Louise found hope in Jesus. Louise has told their story in her book “Hope is coming – a true story of grief and gratitude.”

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Love your enemies

Sadly, there are many examples of hatred in our world today. Hatred between peoples leads to conflict, such as the present hostilities between Israel and Hamas. In Africa inter-tribal conflicts blight the lives of many people. The systematic persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China seeks to rob them of their human dignity. Many Rohingya people in Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh because of the brutal military regime in Myanmar. Some people use social media as a vehicle for hateful messages and threats of violence.

In Britain legislation has been enacted against “hate crimes”. The Metropolitan Police define a hate crime as, “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.” This can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property.

In the hostile worlds of both the 1st and 21st centuries the teaching of Jesus is radical and challenging. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus not only commanded us to love our enemies, but he also exemplified it. He came to bring reconciliation in the face of the deep-seated hostility between human beings and God. Even in the hearts of apparently respectable people there can be a deep hostility against God. Yet God, who could justly condemn us, sent his Son to be our Saviour. On the Cross God made Jesus, who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The Cross was a place of deep hatred as Jesus’ enemies tried to destroy him. Yet as he hung on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The life and teaching of Jesus shines a bright light of hope into the darkness of our world.

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Justice delayed is justice denied

The Court of Appeal has cleared 39 former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in what is the most widespread, known, miscarriage of justice in the UK. Between 2000 and 2014 the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses based on information from a new computer system called Horizon. Some went to prison following convictions for false accounting and theft, many were financially ruined and were shunned by their communities. Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office’s prosecution of innocent people was so outstandingly bad and shocking as to be “an affront to the conscience of the court.”

One of the most tragic cases was Martin Griffiths, who was a sub-postmaster in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, for 18 years. The accusations against him made by the Post Office, based on the faulty Horizon software, drove him to financial and emotional ruin. Martin was a man of complete integrity and a fastidious bookkeeper. In less than 2 years he was told there was a deficit of more than £57,000 on his account with the Post Office. Over 4 years, with the help of his parents, he paid more than £100,000 to the Post Office. In September 2013, three weeks before his 59th birthday, Martin took his own life.

Martin and the other more than 2000 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses accused by the Post Office were not told about the many other cases being pursued. They thought they were the only ones having these problems. In 2019 the High Court ordered that £58 million compensation be paid to 557 postmasters. After their legal costs were deducted, the group shared an £11 million pay-out, or £20,000 each. The Post Office paid more than £32 million in prosecuting their loyal and faithful staff. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim. Sadly, injustices in this life are all too common, and the assurances that lessons will be learned so that this doesn’t happen again can have a very hollow ring.

The Bible affirms that God is just and will deal with us all in perfect justice. None will escape his judgement. The Old Testament prophets denounced injustices by the rich and powerful against the poor and vulnerable. In his love, God has also provided a way for us to be forgiven. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the penalty our sins deserve and so satisfied divine justice. William Rees’ hymn says, “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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Amazing love

More than 2000 years ago a young man died on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem. It seemed even to his disciples, who loved him deeply, that his death was the end of all their hopes. For 3 years he had travelled throughout Israel preaching and teaching the people and healing many sick people. Just 5 days before he was executed large crowds had acclaimed him as their king, but then had turned against him and demanded that he be killed.

As he was nailed to the cross he didn’t look like a king. The Romans knew how to humiliate and eliminate those who offended against their laws and their Emperor. A mock crown, made of thorns, had been pressed on his head and blood ran down his face and neck. His back was a mass of bleeding flesh from the scourging he had endured. As the nails were driven through his hands and his feet the Romans were making sure that this would be the end of him. Jesus of Nazareth would not be causing them any more trouble. But how wrong they were!

This Easter millions of Christians around the world are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. They see his cross, which was a place of curse and shame, as a glorious demonstration of God’s love. Through Jesus’ death in their place, and for their sins, they have found forgiveness for all their sins and have been reconciled to God. Like the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross, and saw him die, they say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Like the criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus they have heard his promise, “I tell you the truth, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Roman Empire disappeared long ago, but the kingdom of King Jesus has spread around the world. This Easter many Christians will be singing with solemn joy the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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It’s not good to be alone

Personal relationships are very important. On a morning walk I saw young children going back to school. They were happy, smiling and singing. They were looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers again. Soon elderly people living in care homes will be able to see one close relative face to face after, for many, having had no physical contact with loved ones for a year. Mothers teaching their children at home have experienced real loneliness. People working at home are feeling the loss of regular contact with their colleagues in the office. Protecting life is important, but life without warm relationships with family and friends can feel very empty.

In the Bible’s account of the creation of human beings we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is the first insight into who God is. There is only one God, but there are three persons within the Godhead – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are united in an eternal relationship of love. God’s image is seen equally in both men and women who long for and find fulfilment in warm personal relationships. When those relationships are lost or spoiled, life itself is diminished and people are impoverished.

God’s supreme revelation of himself is in a person, his eternal Son, Jesus, who shows us what God is like. His gracious life and death for our sins reveal God’s love and compassion for us. Jesus’ disciples walked and talked with him. They experienced his warm love for them and witnessed the compassion he showed to all who came to him need. The Apostle John wrote about Jesus, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

Recently a good friend died of Covid-19. In an attempt to save his life, the doctors put him into an induced coma. Just before he went into the coma my friend said, “God is good.” He was separated from his family, but he was not alone. Like David, who wrote Psalm 23, he trusted in the Lord, who was his shepherd, and could say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”