A love that changes us

When you read the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus you are struck by the number of individuals he met and helped. He responded to people of all kinds and always had time for them. No-one was unimportant to Jesus. An encounter with Jesus was a life-changing experience. Jesus visited the house of Zacchaeus, a covetous tax collector, and that day Zacchaeus became a changed man. A woman, who had lived a very sad life, talked to Jesus at a well and, for the first time, met someone who truly loved her.

The transforming love of Jesus is still being experienced by people today. We know a young lady who has had a very sad life. She grew up in a very unhappy home and in her teens moved into a hostel where she was, humanly speaking, alone. There was no-one to love and support her. Later, she had to leave the town in which she lived to find a place of safety for herself and her children. She has been a wonderful mother but, during a time of very great stress, all her children were taken into care. She, and they, were heartbroken.

On Christmas Day last year, she went to an evening service at the church she had been attending. She was feeling very low, but that night God showed her that the story of Jesus is true and she experienced God’s love in a way she had never known before. She knew a real peace in her heart and was transformed. She was a new person. She still had to face all the problems she had before, but the love of Jesus had transformed her and given her new life. Everyone who knows her can see the change knowing Jesus has brought to her life.

When she was baptised she told her story. She said, “Since I have known Jesus as my Saviour I have found peace in my life. I still experience hard times but have learned how to deal with them. I listen to hymns and sing along with them. I read my Bible and pray to God and he gives me the strength to cope and to come through the hard times. I find strength and great encouragement in God’s promises. I know that in the future there will be other hard times but I know that because my saviour Jesus Christ is with me I will be able to face them and deal with them. I can do everything through Jesus who gives me strength.”

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!”

I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes

One Sunday morning Matthew Bryce set out for a morning’s surfing off the Argyll coast of Scotland. When he failed to return home, his family reported him missing and a major search and rescue operation was launched, involving RNLI lifeboats, coastguard rescue teams and a rescue helicopter based in Prestwick. Matthew, who is 22, was finally spotted in the Irish Sea by a rescue helicopter from Belfast on Monday at 7.30pm, 13 miles off the north Antrim coast. He had spent 32 hours in the Irish Sea. The Coastguard believe Matthew’s surfing knowledge and thick neoprene wetsuit saved his life.

Speaking from The Ulster Hospital, where he was recovering from his ordeal, Matthew said he had been helpless as changing currents and strong winds swept him out to sea. He said, “It got to the point where my paddling was ineffective, but I did it to keep myself warm.” Fear really set in as night fell, “It was incredibly lonely and quiet because there was nothing – just waves. I hadn’t seen any helicopters. I thought I was going to die – I was almost convinced. I didn’t think I would see sunrise.” Fighting back tears he continued, “I knew I had, maybe, three hours and was watching the sunset when a helicopter flew right over. So, I jumped off the surfboard, lifted it up and waved it; I thought they’d missed me. Then they turned around … and saved my life. I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes.”

One day when Jesus was teaching a group of people who knew they had made a mess of their lives, he told a parable about a shepherd who realised he had lost one of his 100 sheep. Jesus said, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Jesus came into the world to seek and to save those who are lost. Just as Matthew’s rescuers and family were overjoyed when they found him alive, so there is great rejoicing in heaven when any of us realises our need to know God and turns to him.

Christ is risen!

The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?

The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.

I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.

Let’s go to Bethlehem

Christmas is a special time of the year. The preparations begin weeks before. There is a long list of things to be done; cards and presents to be bought, decorations and Christmas trees to be put up, school concerts and carol services, food to be bought and cooked, time with the family and, for parents with young children, an early start on Christmas Day! It’s no wonder we can feel very tired. But after its over what remains? When the food has been eaten, the family have gone home and the decorations have been taken down, what stays with us as life returns to normal?

Christmas is about Jesus. The person who is at the very centre of Christmas is the One who remains with us through all the experiences of life. He’s the One who can make a real difference to our lives. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel announced his birth to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.

Like the shepherds why not “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” The birth of Jesus is indeed good news and brings great joy to all who receive him as Saviour. He is the Prince of Peace. Through him we are reconciled to God, and to each other, and know a deep and lasting peace in our hearts.

The story of the little girl in the picture

Many people, who do not recognise the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc, remember the photograph of her taken in 1972 when, as a 9-year-old little girl, she ran from her village in Vietnam after a napalm attack. Kim Phuc is now 52 years old and lives in Toronto. She is a wife and mother of 2 boys and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Phuc has established a charity that helps children suffering from war. She says that the terrified little girl in the picture is “not running any more, she’s flying!”

In 1972 Phuc was living in the village of Trang Bang, north of Saigon. She and family were sheltering in a temple when they heard planes overhead. They ran outside to find safety, just as bombs detonated containing napalm, a flammable liquid that clings to skin, causing horrific burns. Phuc remembers the intense heat and excruciating pain. She pulled burning clothes from her body. Then she ran and, as she ran, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old photographer, took a photograph that became a symbol of the horrors of that war.

Phuc spent more than a year in hospital. Her family were afraid she wouldn’t survive. After many skin grafts, and other operations, she recovered from her physical injuries. Yet she could not find peace. She wanted to disappear, and even to die. She thought if she died she wouldn’t have to suffer mentally, physically and emotionally. She began seeking answers and, when she was 19 years old, she a trusted Jesus Christ as her Saviour and found new life and peace. She says, “When I became Christian, I had a wonderful connection – the relationship between me, and Jesus, and God.” Phuc asked God for help to move on and says, “From that point I learned to forgive.”

Today Phuc radiates an unmistakeable poise and peace when she tells her story. She sees that famous picture as just one of many blessings. She says, “I really want to thank God that he spared my life when I was a little girl. Whatever happened to me, I have another opportunity to be alive, to be healthy, to be a blessing and to help honour other people. I still have the pain, I still have the scars, and I still have the memories, but my heart is healed. My message to people when they see that picture today is try not to see her as crying out in pain and fear, try not to see her as a symbol of war, but try to see her as a symbol of peace.”

Don’t be afraid

The result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union came as a surprise to many people. The full implications of the decision to leave the European Union are not yet clear, but the result has already created leadership crises in both major political parties. The decision has also revealed significant fault lines between those who live in Britain: young and old, north and south, rich and poor, England and Scotland. During the campaign, and since, two words have often been used – fear and uncertainty.

Fear is not always a negative emotion. In our daily lives fear can protect us from danger. We warn a child not to touch hot things, in case they get burned. We teach them to be careful crossing the road, in case they are knocked over. The Bible teaches us that the fear of God is the basis of morality. The book of Proverbs says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Being conscious of God and showing reverence and respect for him provide a context in which we can seek to live a righteous life. Secular thinking encourages us to eradicate any sense of our ultimate accountability to God, but the wise person listens to their God-given conscience.

Fear can also be destructive. We may be afraid about the future and the bad things that might happen. We may be afraid of death and the way in which we will die. The Bible helps us to cope with our fears. Jesus often reassured people when he said, “Don’t be afraid.” His presence and power and his love for them calmed their fears. When a religious leader begged him to heal his little daughter who was dying, and they were delayed on their way to the house, Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid, just trust me.” In Psalm 56 David wrote, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”

Trusting God is so important as we face the uncertainties of life. He is a refuge and strength for all who put their trust in him. In Jesus God offers us peace in all the troubles of life and a sure hope for the future. Edward Bickersteth’s hymn says, “Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown? Jesus we know, and he is on the throne. Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours? Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers. It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease, and Jesus call us to heaven’s perfect peace.”

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.”

Peace with God

Easter is a special time for Christians all over the world as we remember the death and resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We know that the death of Jesus, on a Roman cross, has reconciled us to God, and his resurrection, on the third day, has given us a sure hope for the future. The message of Easter speaks to our sad and troubled world as much as it ever has. Every day evil people perpetrate their wicked deeds. Personal integrity is at a low ebb in every part of society. Millions of people face a very uncertain future. We all need to experience forgiveness and to find hope for the future.

Jesus died when it seemed his popularity was at its height. Just a few days before he died, thousands of people in Jerusalem hailed him as their King. It was the culmination of his remarkable ministry. For three years he had travelled throughout Israel teaching the people, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits and raising the dead. He had transformed the lives of many people. Yet his life ended in rejection and seeming disgrace. The fickle crowd turned against him because he had not fulfilled their hopes for a military and political leader. However, his death was not a defeat but a glorious triumph.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came from heaven to deal with our biggest problem – our sin. On the Cross he paid the price of our sins when he suffered the punishment we deserve. Through the centuries people had offered animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. Hundreds of thousands of sacrifices had been made. Jesus came to offer one final sacrifice. On the Cross he became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Down through history people from every nation have found forgiveness and peace with God through Jesus.

In Jesus we can all find forgiveness for our sins, whatever we have done. When we face up to the truth that we have broken God’s laws and need his forgiveness, there is always hope. A man, who was crucified on the same day as Jesus, found forgiveness even as he was dying. He knew that he was being justly punished and was getting what his deeds deserved. He also knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. So he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The God of hope

A New Year has dawned. The holiday is over and life is returning to its normal daily routine. The days are dark and wet, and the credit card bills will soon arrive. The new year is a time to look forward, but the future looks very uncertain. Following the floods, climate change is on many people’s minds. Stock exchanges are fragile and the economic future is not good. The moral foundations which undergirded our society are being eroded. It’s clear that our leaders are facing problems that are too big for them.

In the middle of the first century the apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome. The moral corruption, that would eventually lead to the the fall of the Roman Empire, was already taking hold and these Christians were facing persecution. Paul himself would soon be imprisoned for his faith in Jesus and would be martyred, along with many other Christians, at the command of Nero. The personal future of Paul and the Christians was very uncertain.

Near the end of the letter Paul wrote, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.” These words speak to us today. Hope for the future comes not from ourselves, or from those who have power and influence, but from God. He is the God of hope! As we entrust ourselves and our future to him he fills us with joy and peace. Ultimately the world and our lives are not at the mercy of evil people, but are in the hands of a gracious God who gives us a hope that is real.

A few weeks before Christmas, in the little village of Capriana in Moldova, something happened which is a sign of the hope God gives to ordinary people. God has given some Moldovan Christian ladies a deep love and concern for the forgotten people living in the terrible closed institutions in Moldova in which people are locked away, often for very trivial reasons. Life in the institutions is very harsh and, normally, there is no hope of release. A new house, Casa Ana, has been built in Capriana, which is now the home of 6 ladies from one of these closed institutions, and it was officially opened before Christmas. One of the Christian ladies involved in establishing the home said, “We wanted to give these people a future and a hope!” That’s exactly what “the God of hope” does for us as we entrust ourselves, and our future, to him.

You can watch a short video of the opening of Casa Ana at https://vimeo.com/148361564