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Being given time to change

The murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, by police during an arrest in Minneapolis has appalled people around the world. George was arrested after a shop keeper alleged he had paid with a counterfeit $20 note. George died because one of the four police officers who arrived at the scene knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes, ignoring George’s pleas, “I can’t breathe!” The policeman has been convicted of murdering George.

Pastor Patrick Ngwolo, lead pastor of the church Resurrection Houston, was a friend of George’s. Before he moved to Minneapolis George had mentored young men in Houston and trained them in basketball. Pastor Patrick said, “We want to lament and grieve and process through the pain but then also celebrate the life of somebody who meant so much to so many people.” Pastor Patrick says he remembers George “as a Christian and a protective and hospitable ‘gentle giant.’” George was influential in breaking down barriers of suspicion in the community and won the confidence of people.

George grew up in Houston. His parents separated when he was 2 years old. George had problems in his life. He battled with drug addiction and was convicted of several crimes, including aggravated robbery, for which he was sentenced to 4 years in prison. After his release, George became involved in Resurrection Houston. He mentored young men, delivered meals to senior citizens and helped with a drug rehabilitation programme.

In 2014 he moved to Minneapolis to help rebuild his life. George knew he had made mistakes that cost him years of his life but was turning his life around through Christianity. Speaking on a video to young people in his neighbourhood he acknowledged his own “shortcomings” and “flaws” and said he wasn’t better than anyone else, but condemned violence in the community and advised his neighbours to put down their weapons and remember they are loved by him and by God.

George knew that through trusting in Jesus we are given time to change. A well-known Christian song explains this: “Wonderful grace, that gives what I don’t deserve, pays me what Christ has earned, then lets me go free. Wonderful grace, that gives me the time to change, washes away the stains that once covered me. Wonderful love, that held in the face of death, breathed in its latest breath forgiveness for me. Wonderful love, whose power can break every chain, giving us life again, setting us free. And all that I have I lay at the feet of the wonderful Saviour who loves me.”

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Resurrection joy

Easter is a time of great joy. The resurrection of Jesus lifted his first disciples from a spirit of defeat and despair to an experience of great joy and hope. They saw their risen Lord who sent them out into the world to proclaim the wonderful message of the resurrection. This message has transformed many lives and the very course of history. The Apostles faced great opposition from their own people, and from the Roman authorities, but were unafraid. Most of them died for their faith – some were beheaded, others were crucified – but through their message countless people from many nations have found new life in Jesus.

Christian faith centres on the person of Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again to give us hope. Christians put their faith in Jesus, not in their religious observances. They don’t think they are better than other people, or sit in judgement on them, but are deeply conscious of their personal failures and need. They rejoice that Jesus has done everything needed to secure their salvation and gratefully trust in him as their Saviour. They have been delivered from the need to achieve their own salvation and, in response to his love, are free to live for Jesus and to tell others about him.

Many in the Western world have turned away from a living faith in God and Jesus and the consequences are clear to see. Evolutionary theory dominates. It offers no hope to our deepest needs, but declares its doleful message, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” Yet God’s wonderful creation, which is plain for all to see, constantly proclaims that he is. He created this amazing universe and our little planet, which teems with life. He created each of us and put eternity in our hearts. We were created to live with him for ever and God’s freely offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Every day during the Covid-19 pandemic we have been reminded of death. Nearly 3 million people around the world have died and their families feel the loss deeply. Most who have died were elderly, but that in no way diminishes the value of their lives. Every single life is precious in God’s sight. The great evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

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Bobby Ball’s Story

The comedian Bobby Ball died recently from Covid-19 complications. He and his partner Tommy Cannon hosted the very successful Cannon and Ball show from 1979 to 1988 with an audience of 18 million people. Bobby was born Robert Harper in 1944 at Shaw, a village near Oldham. His father’s family had been fairground workers and his mother worked in a cotton factory. Bobby took a job as a welder at Boden Trailers where he met Tommy. They appeared as a musical act on the talent show Opportunity Knocks and came last, so they decided to turn to comedy.

The success and wealth Bobby and Tommy experienced created stress on their friendship. Between 1983 and 1986 they did not speak to each other outside rehearsals and performances. By 1986 Bobby, disillusioned with the shallow world of show business, hit rock bottom. He said, “I was famous, and it meant nothing to me, it felt quite trivial, I was drinking a lot and womanising.”

Then in 1986, while working at the Bradford Alhambra, Bobby began talking with chaplain Max Wrigley. Bobby said: “I got talking to him and attacked him verbally about God. But he had a peace about him. I can’t explain exactly what he had but he had something that I didn’t have. One day I asked to speak to him and after a while he said, ‘Let’s pray.’ I’d never prayed in my life, but we prayed and it just changed my life – just like that.” Six months later his wife, Yvonne, also become a Christian.

Becoming a Christian helped to re-kindle Bobby’s broken friendship with Tommy and, in 1992, Tommy also became a Christian. In 1996 they co-authored a book “Christianity for Beginners” and spent time every year visiting churches and sharing the good news about their Saviour, Jesus Christ. When Bobby was asked what impact Jesus Christ had had on his life, he immediately answered “Being a Christian? It doesn’t have an impact. It gives you a new life. It doesn’t impact it; it turns it totally around.”

When Bobby accepted Jesus Christ as his Saviour in 1986, he received the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “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.” Eternal life begins now and continues after death in eternal happiness in heaven with Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

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Remembering the Battle of Britain

This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940 and continued until 31 October 1940. It was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as the RAF’s finest hour. France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany who now dominated Western Europe. British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Despite being in a seemingly hopeless military situation, Britain refused to surrender.

Britain was the last bastion against what Churchill called “the menace of tyranny.” The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was mounting destructive bombing air raids against Britain, the Blitz, in preparation for an invasion by the German army. In July 1940 the Luftwaffe had 2800 aircraft, mostly bombers. They were experienced and confident and anticipated taking only a few days to defeat the RAF. At the start of the Battle of Britain the RAF had 650 aircraft and 1300 pilots, some of whom came from Commonwealth countries, Nazi-occupied countries and the USA. Britain ramped up factory production of aircraft, especially Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and by October 1940 had more planes that the Luftwaffe.

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe lost 1887 aircraft and 2600 pilots. The RAF lost 1023 aircraft and 544 pilots. The outstanding courage and skill of the RAF pilots led to success in the Battle of Britain and saved many lives. It was a decisive turning point in the course of World War II and the history of the world. In a speech on 20 August 1940 Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem was the decisive moment in human history. He had come from heaven to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The self-sacrifice of God’s eternal Son has brought new life and hope to countless people around the world. Horatius Bonar’s hymn explains it well: “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 them I rest, on them alone. Jesus, O Son of God, I build on what thy cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, my pardon there I see.”

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Siya Kolisi’s Story

On Saturday 2 November Siya Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis Cup high after the South African team won the Rugby World Cup 2019. It was an historic moment because Siya is the first black man to captain the Springboks and to lead the team to success in the World Cup. Siya is a great example of a man who has overcome adversity to become a role model and symbol of hope for young black people in South Africa. After winning the Rugby World Cup he said he hoped their victory will “inspire every kid” back home and pull the country together, “we had one goal and we achieved it, a lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity.”

Siya grew up in the poor Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth. His mother, Phakama, was 16 when Siya was born and his father, Fezakele, was in his final year of school. Siya’s mother died when he was 15 and his grandmother, Nolulamile, cared for him for a few months until she died in his arms. Siya remembers many days with only one meal and many nights spent sleeping on the floor.

Siya’s love of rugby often provided an escape from the struggles and temptations he faced as he was growing up. When he was 12 he was offered a scholarship at Grey Junior in Port Elizabeth. He walked 7 miles each way to go to school. Later he was offered a rugby scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School. In 2016 Siya married Rachel and they have two children.

Siya is a Christian and has spoken of the real spiritual struggles he has faced, as we all do. Earlier this year he experienced stresses in his marriage which led him to a deeper understanding of what it means to truly follow Jesus. In a recent interview he said, “While struggling with a lot of things personally – temptations, sins and lifestyle choices – I realized I wasn’t living according to what I was calling myself: a follower of Christ. I was getting by, but I hadn’t decided to fully commit myself to Jesus Christ and start living according to his way. I’ve been able to discover the truth and saving power of Christ in a whole new way. This new life has given me a peace in my heart I’d never experienced before. I don’t have to understand everything in life, and there are so many things I don’t, but I know God is in control of it all. My job is to do the best I can and leave the rest in his hands.”

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Wes Hall – Pace like Fire

The England cricket team has a new fast bowler. Jofra Archer stands in a line of formidable fast bowlers who have all come from the West Indian island of Barbados. He bowls at more than 90mph and has been causing real difficulties for the best batsmen in the world. Jofra’s father is British and in March he qualified to play for England. In just 3 months he has been the leading wicket-taker in the England team that won the World Cup and has played an important role in the Ashes series against Australia.

In the 1960s, Wes Hall was a fiery West Indian fast bowler. He had one of the longest run ups in the history of cricket and bowled at more than 90mph. The batsmen who faced him needed great skill and courage. He wanted to get his opponents out but never intended to injure them. A former captain of England, who faced Wes many times, said, “There was never a hint of malice in him or his bowling.” During his playing days, and since, Wes has been known as a lovely human being and in 2012 he received a knighthood.

Wes’s mother was a remarkable woman of faith who worked hard to create a home full of love for her children. Wes really looked up to her and her influence and discipline shaped his character. Looking back on his upbringing he said, “When I was young, I was religious, but it wasn’t until much later when I understood that I could accept Christ as my Saviour and experience a significant spiritual relationship with God.”

It was in 1990, when Wes was in Florida, that he heard a Christian preacher and made the greatest decision of his life. He wrote, “I turned to Christ as Lord, asking him to forgive my sins and be my personal Saviour. That’s when my new life began.” Wes went to Bible College and became a minister in the Pentecostal Church.

Reflecting on his life, Wes wrote, “I wasted some of the best years of my life not following Jesus. It has been wonderful in the years since to grow as a follower of Christ, to serve many cricketers and the West Indies team. One of the most special times was when Malcolm Marshall, another of our West Indies famous fast bowlers, in the last month of his life, entered into a conversation with me about his eternal life, and I had the joy of introducing Malcolm to his life-changing personal faith. It is a joy to know the Lord personally and to serve others.”

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Forgive us our debts

Student debt is a massive problem. Young people who go to university or college in Britain are given loans to help pay their tuition fees and living costs. Every year £16 billion is loaned to students. The value of outstanding loans is more than £105 billion. The Government forecasts the value of outstanding student loans will rise to £450 billion in the next 30 years. The average debt of a recent cohort of students, who have completed their courses, is £32,000. It is estimated that only 30% of current full-time graduates who take out loans will repay them in full.

In America the problem is even greater and has become an issue in the run up to the 2020 presidential election. The total U.S. student loan debt is more than $1.3 trillion and affects 44 million people. The average loan balance is $37,000 and increases every year because of interest charges. Today many Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s consider themselves fortunate if their job pays them enough to make their student loan repayments. Some former students refer to their loans as a “debt sentence” which they will carry throughout their whole life.

The recent action of billionaire technology investor Robert F Smith has brought great joy to one class of students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Morehouse College was established soon after the American Civil War to provide education for black male students. Martin Luther King Jnr. was a student at Morehouse. When he was at the College to receive an honorary doctorate, Robert Smith told the students in the class of 2019 that he would pay their student loans. More than 400 students will benefit from this gift which will cost tens of millions of dollars. The College President said the gift will give the students “the liberty to follow their dreams.”

The biggest problem we all face is not financial debt but the debt we owe to God because of our sins. Every day this debt grows, and we can never repay it. The greatest act of love and generosity in the whole of human history was when Jesus, God’s Son, gave his life to pay the debt of our sins. Every day millions of people pray to God, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When we confess our sins to God, and experience his forgiveness, he sets us free to live a new life in fellowship with him; the life for which we were created.

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Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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Saving lives in Yemen

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

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

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

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

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

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To whom shall we go?

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

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

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

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

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