Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

The greatest ever rescue

Last Wednesday afternoon a huge avalanche hit Hotel Rigopiano, in central Italy, at an estimated speed of 60mph. Following several earthquakes, guests had gathered on the ground floor of the four-star spa hotel to await evacuation. The avalanche caused the roof to collapse and moved the building 11 yards off its foundations. More than 30 people were known to be in the hotel, including some children. The first rescuers arrived, by helicopter and ski, 12 hours later and faced the complex and urgent task of trying to find survivors.

In the early stages of the rescue there were no signs of life and it was feared that everyone had died. Giampiero Parete was staying at the hotel with his wife and 2 children. They were on a special holiday. Moments before the avalanche struck Giampero left the hotel to get some headache tablets for his wife from their car. He immediately raised the alarm and then waited for help to come fearing that his wife and children had died. On the second day of the rescue Giampero’s wife, Adriana, his 7-year-old son, Gianfilipo, and 6-year-old daughter, Ludovica, were pulled out of the rubble alive. In all 9 people have been rescued, 23 are still missing and 6 have died.

It is always inspiring to watch dedicated rescue teams using all their skills, and the resources at their disposal, to save the lives of those caught up in disasters. Often they are willing to put their lives in danger to save others. We share their joy when people are found alive and are rescued and, also, their sadness when they find the bodies of those who have died.

The message of the Bible is about the greatest ever rescue. Religions usually teach the things we must do in order to find acceptance with God. The good news of the Gospel is about what God has done in Jesus to rescue us. We are all in great need of being rescued. We live in a world of suffering and death and also struggle personally to do what we know is right. The obituaries of the rich and famous often reveal deep sadness as they have struggled with addictions and broken relationships. Out of his great love for us, Jesus came into the world to rescue us and give us a future and a hope. A well-known hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”

Remembering William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, the great English poet and playwright, died 400 years ago on 25 April 1616, at the age of 52. A month before he died, on 25 March 1616, he made his last will and testament. It seems he may have known that his life was nearing its end. The opening paragraph of his will is a clear statement of his own personal faith and his hope for the future.

“In the name of God, Amen. I William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick, in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament. First, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting and my body to the Earth whereof it was made.”

Most obituaries record the main achievements of the person who has died but say very little, if anything, about their faith in God and their future hope. When the person has had a real and vital faith this may simply be noted briefly towards the end of the obituary. Yet as our lives are drawing to a close it is vitally important that we do not simply look back but also look forward. We are about to enter into the presence of God and the realm of eternity, in comparison to which, our life on earth is but a moment.

William Shakespeare took eternity seriously and had prepared for it. Through the work of men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale the Bible had been translated into English for the first time and the advent of the printing press had made it available to the people. The Bible made a deep impact on Shakespeare personally and on his writings. He knew he had been created by God and was thankful to him for the good health and sound mind he enjoyed. He knew that, after he died, he would stand before God in judgement and his humble hope was to enter into everlasting life.

He “assuredly believed” that Jesus was the way to “everlasting life”. He called Jesus “my Saviour.” He did not trust in himself but in “the merits of Jesus Christ” who had lived a perfect life for him and died on the Cross to pay the price of his sins. He died in the sure and certain hope that through Jesus he would enter into everlasting life.

Living and dying in hope

C S Lewis, who wrote “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, had links with North Wales. His great-great-grandfather was born in the village of Caergwrle, near Wrexham. The neighbouring village is called Hope and a local pun, which is still current today, is “Live in Hope and die in Caergwrle.” This saying often comes to mind when I read the obituary columns in national newspapers. The obituaries can be very interesting as they give a brief account of the lives of well-known people. Many have served their country with distinction. Two things which are almost always absent, however, are the cause of death and any reference to their personal faith in God.

Wherever we live, and whatever we do, it is so important that, when the time comes for us to leave this world, we “die in hope!” The early Christians suffered severe persecution. Many of them died as martyrs in the Colosseum in Rome. Men and women, and even children, were thrown to wild beasts as a form of entertainment for wealthy Roman citizens. These Christians died a terrible death, but they died in hope.

The apostle Peter, who himself would later be executed by the Romans, wrote letters to encourage Christians who were experiencing persecution. In his first letter Peter wrote, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you.” Christian hope is unique because it is based on a unique event, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus died a terrible death but, on the third day, he rose from the dead. His resurrection transformed his disciples. He then sent them out to proclaim the good news of a living hope to people of all nations.

The story of our lives is still being written. For us all our lives are a mixture of achievements and failures. Few of us will have an obituary in a national newspaper! That doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that we die in hope! An old hymn says, “Be near me, Lord, when dying; O show thy cross to me; And, for my succour flying, come Lord to set me free; These eyes, new faith receiving, from thee shall never move; For he who dies believing dies safely through thy love.”