Let the children come to me

Hospitals in Britain are treating almost twice as many girls for self-harm as they did 20 years ago. Hospital admissions have increased from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017. The number treated for attempting an overdose has increased tenfold from 249 to 2,736. The number of boys admitted to hospital for self-harm has stayed the same but the number of boys attempting an overdose increased from 152 in 1997 to 839 in 2017. A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: “Sadly, these heart-breaking figures are unsurprising. Many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life. Young people are crying out for help.”

Jon Goldin, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children – academic pressures, social media, the fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online.” He added that girls may be more ‘sensitive’ to the pressures than boys. One girl aged 14 said: “Recently I’ve lost some people who were really close to me. When I started to self-harm, it seemed to mask the emotional pain I was feeling. When I get the urge to cut, I can’t seem to stop it until it’s done, otherwise I get really upset and angry.”

Children and young people are more vulnerable today than they were 20 years ago. Social media and smartphones mean that they can never hide or escape. The Photoshopped images of celebrities present a false body-image of perfection. Teenagers, and others, are pressurised into thinking that your image, clothes and possessions are what really matter. However, what matters most is not our outward appearance or possessions but the people we really are. Peer pressure can also be very cruel. If others don’t like me then I don’t like myself and so I punish myself through self-harming.

Jesus taught that children are precious in God’s sight. When parents brought their children to Jesus he said: “Let the children come to me. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” He also gave a very solemn warning to those who mistreat or exploit children: “If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.”

A costly sacrifice and a living hope

The courage and self-sacrifice of the French gendarme Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame was remarkable. When an armed man took hostages at a supermarket in Trébes, near Carcassonne, Arnaud offered to take the place of a woman hostage whom the gunman was using as a human shield. Within minutes of taking the woman’s place Arnaud had been fatally wounded by the gunman and later died in hospital. The woman whose place he took survived the ordeal. A short time before he died, Arnaud was married in the hospital in a religious ceremony to his beloved Marielle. They had already been married in a civil ceremony but were planning to be married in church in June.

Arnaud grew up in a non-religious family but experienced a genuine conversion in 2008, when he was 33 years old. From that time on he was keen to learn more about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. What he learned about Jesus prepared him for the moment when he offered to take the place of the woman in the supermarket. Arnaud knew that since he had been converted his life belonged to Jesus who said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This weekend Christians around the world will be celebrating Easter and remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he died on the Cross Jesus paid the price of our sins. He took our place and suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we may be forgiven. The joy of knowing Jesus as our Saviour is expressed in a well-known hymn, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O may soul.”

On the third day after he died Jesus was raised from the dead. The women, who went early in the morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, were met by two angels who 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 is the foundation of Christian hope. Arnaud’s death was tragic, but he knew Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. Jesus made a wonderful promise, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.”

How could I not embrace him?

Tragedy often strikes suddenly and without warning. Late on a Saturday evening in June 2013 Stephen Donnelly, who was 26, and his girlfriend Mandy Gold, who was 21, were driving home to South Yorkshire on the A14 after a family wedding in Kettering when they were involved in a head on collision. They both died instantly. The driver of the other car, William Wilson, was driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway. William, who was 33, was twice over the legal limit for alcohol. He pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving and was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Both Stephen and Mandy’s parents were devastated at the tragic loss of their children, who were very much in love and planned to marry. Stephen and Mandy were Christians and had met at a church in Sheffield which they both attended. Stephen was a talented musician and had worked for the church for 5 years. Since the loss of Stephen, his parents, Mark and Sue, have said and done some remarkable things.

At the court case, William’s barrister said that William was genuinely remorseful and was struggling with the consequences of his actions. He said, “It’s the first thing he thinks of in the morning and the last thing he thinks of at night. He unequivocally accepts responsibility.” William wrote to both bereaved families. After the court case Mark and Sue said, “We hold no ill-will towards Mr Wilson for killing our son, indeed we are able to forgive him because of the forgiveness we receive through Jesus Christ.”

Recently Mark and Sue met William in Doncaster Prison, for two hours, as part of a restorative justice programme. In a radio interview, Mark said, “There is a son who needs embracing and who sits in jail thinking all day about what he’s done. There is more to life than earning money and bearing ill-will to somebody. How could I not embrace him?” Sue said, “Two young people, Stephen and Mandy, have been lost, but there is someone who doesn’t have to end his life in prison. It’s quite right and proper that there’s a punishment and the punishment must match the crime, but then the punishment’s done and that’s a closed book.” The meeting was a very emotional time as they talked with William about what Stephen meant to them and the impact losing him had had on them and their family. Mark said, “It seemed the right thing to do and I would do it again.”

In all their suffering he also suffered

The television programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought home afresh the terrifying capacity of human beings to commit acts of great evil and wickedness. The systematic slaughter of millions of helpless Jewish people ranks amongst the darkest chapters in human history. They were first incarcerated in ghettos and then transported like animals to camps like Auschwitz where men, women and children were mercilessly gassed and then buried or incinerated. The emaciated bodies of those living in the camps clearly portray the diabolical treatment they suffered.

In contrast the programmes remembering the funeral of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, reminded us that human beings are also capable of acts of great courage in confronting evil men and bringing liberty to many. Churchill was our greatest wartime Prime Minister who inspired a nation to stand against and, together with our allies, to defeat the megalomaniac ambitions of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill inspired a nation to rise from a massive defeat and to courageously confront, and ultimately defeat, a very powerful enemy.

Human beings are an enigma. Reflecting on the life of his grandfather, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, one grandson struggled to understand how his grandfather could be a kind and loving husband and father to his own family while at the same time he was supervising the merciless extermination of Jewish families. At a personal level we all struggle with the daily contradictions of our lives. The apostle Paul was conscious of this and wrote, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.”

God has decisively intervened in our world to give us hope in the face of both the continuing acts of great evil and our daily personal struggles. He cares deeply for those experiencing great suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to his suffering people, “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them.” These words of comfort were ultimately fulfilled In Jesus Christ who died in our place. On the cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve in order to redeem us and give us hope. As one hymn says, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Amazing Grace!

The trials of high profile people found guilty of child abuse have revealed a dark, hidden side to their character. They have been called to account for crimes committed many years ago. Their previous good reputation has been destroyed. The book of Proverbs tells us, “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold.”

These cases remind us that the wrong things we do really matter, even when they happened a long time ago. Those who have been found guilty of abuse have done many good things and have helped people who are in need. They have been kind to their families and friends, but all this is now of little consequence because of the sins they have committed. No amount of good actions can compensate for the wrong things they have done. They will not be remembered for the good things they did, but for the evil deeds they perpetrated.

There is a deep sense in each of us that those who do wrong should be punished. We identify with the victims who have suffered greatly for many years because of the abuse done to them. We want the truth to come out and justice to be done through long prison sentences.

This raises important questions for us all because throughout our lives we have done wrong things. Will we one day have to give an account to the God who made us for how we have lived? Will it be enough for us to say that many of the wrong things we did happened a long time ago and that the good things we have done outweigh the bad things we have done?

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came into the world to be the Saviour of sinful people like you and me. He came not for self righteous people, but for those who know they have sinned and want to find forgiveness. Isaac Watts wrote, “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Saviour die? Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I? Was it for crimes that I had done he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree! Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears, dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt my eyes to tears. But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe; here, Lord, I give myself away, ‘tis all that I can do.”

Hope in the Cross of Jesus

The murder of 2 year old James Bulger in Liverpool 1993 shocked the nation. He was abducted from a shopping centre in Bootle and murdered by two 10 year old boys. They were the youngest convicted murderers in modern British history. The two boys were given a custodial sentence until they reached adulthood, initially until the age of 18, and were released on lifelong licence in June 2001.

The recent court appearance of Jon Venables on child pornography charges has brought the horror of little James’s death back into our minds. There are some crimes which are so serious that we struggle to know how to deal with them. We have deep sympathy and compassion for James’s father and mother, who must think about James every day and who long for justice to be done. They believe the boys who killed James have not been adequately punished for the terrible crime they committed.

None of us ultimately escapes the consequences of our sins. We are all accountable to God, “for we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” Our sins are serious and God’s judgement will fair and just. On that day no-one will feel that justice has not been done. His judgement is final, there will be no appeal. This is a deeply solemn reality for us all.

The seriousness of our sins is also seen in the Cross of Jesus Christ. God sent his own dear Son into this world to be the Saviour of sinners. God’s only Son came to pay the price of our sins and to die in our place. We could only be forgiven if God’s justice was satisfied and “there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.” Forgiveness has been secured at an awful cost, but the Cross of Jesus offers hope to us all.

On the day Jesus was crucified, two other men were also executed. One man died in bitterness, cursing Jesus, but the other man said to him “don’t you fear God? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then 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.”