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!

A mother laid her baby in a manger

On a Tuesday morning in late November the custodian at The Holy Child Jesus Church in Queens, New York, set up the Nativity scene in the church. Returning from lunch he heard a baby cry and found a newborn baby boy in the manger wrapped in blue towels with his umbilical cord still uncut. The young mother, who had given birth to the baby, had come into the church and put the baby in the manger before slipping away, hoping not to be seen. New York has a “safe haven” law which allows parents to leave their baby in a safe place, such as a church, without being charged with child abandonment.

For 9 months this mother had carried her little boy in her womb and protected his little life. She seems to have had little support and was on her own when she gave birth to him. Knowing she couldn’t care for him herself she wanted to make sure he was safe and decided to give him away and, possibly, never see him again. This was an agonising decision for her to make but her deep love for her son, whom she had only just met and held, was stronger than her natural desire to keep him. She will never forget him but wanted him to be safe and well and to have the kind of life she could never give him.

The mother chose to leave her newborn son in a church; a place where Jesus is known and loved. We can all come to Jesus in the crises of our lives. He came into the world to give us hope. A well-known Christmas carol reflects on his coming and his power to help us now.

“Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child. He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall; with the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy. And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone. Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see him; but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.”

My help comes from the Lord

Tragically 39 trekkers have died in the Himalayas. 400 others have been rescued. They were trekking with local guides in the Thorong Pass, which is one of the final stages of the “Annapurna Circuit”, a 200 mile route around Annapurna 1. This is the 10th highest mountain in the world standing at 26,500 feet. It takes two to three weeks to complete the circuit which attracts more than 100,000 trekkers each year. The route comprises footpaths between villages and teashops and does not require great hill walking experience.

October is the peak season for trekkers because the weather is normally good and the views of the mountains are majestic. This year, however, a cyclone in India moved quickly into Nepal. At altitudes of more than 15000 feet the biting winds and severe cold engulfed the trekkers. Few were equipped to cope with the extreme conditions which were so cold that people’s eyelids were frozen. In April this year 16 people died on Mount Everest and the world’s highest mountain was shut down for the first time.

Those who walk in the Himalayas are attracted by their spectacular grandeur and beauty. Those who complete the Annapurna Circuit, or climb a great mountain, have a real sense of achievement. Yet the sight of towering mountain peaks also makes you aware of your smallness. The Himalayas have stood through the millennia and have been left unmoved by countless severe storms, but we are far more vulnerable. In times of trouble the mountains, for all their greatness, cannot help us, but there is One who hears our cry.

All of us experience the storms of life, which often come suddenly and unexpectedly. To whom can we turn for help? In Psalm 121 the psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.” It is wise to turn to the Lord before the storms come. In one of his hymns Charles Wesley speaks of the safety and security he found in Jesus Christ. “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; Oh receive my soul at last.”

The name of the Lord is a strong tower

This week I am staying in Aberystwyth. In January and February the promenade was very seriously damaged by heavy storms. Massive tidal surges dumped rocks and debris on the seafront and streets. Hotels were flooded and student halls of residence were evacuated. The people and authorities were helpless to stop the devastation as each high tide brought more damage. Now, 6 months later, the promenade has been rebuilt and you can watch the beauty of the sunset over a calm sea. The storms have passed and tranquillity has returned.

We live in a turbulent and troubled world. There seems to be no end to the conflicts and crises in Gaza, Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq. Many people, including women and children, are caught up in events over which they have no control. Every day people die or are seriously injured. People are fleeing their homes and communities, or are watching as they are destroyed by missiles and bombs. The ability of the most powerful nations in the world to help is very limited. There seems to be no end to the trouble.

Where can the people who are suffering so much find help? To whom can we turn when the storms of life come to us? Is there anyone who is great enough and good enough to bring us safely through every storm and trial? The background of the Bible is a turbulent one. The cruelty and barbarity of successive world empires – Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome – are the background to the Old Testament. The unjust suffering and condemnation of Jesus and the relentless persecution of Christians is the background to the New Testament. Yet through all these real and terrible storms of life there is a calm confidence and trust in the living God.

In Psalm 46 we read, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” The book of Proverbs says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” A well known hymn written by Charles Wesley, and often sung to the tune Abersytwyth, says, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, o my Saviour, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.”

Jesus gives us hope and real life

Divers continue to search for the bodies of those who died when a boat carrying migrants from Eritrea and Somalia sank off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa last week. The official death toll stands at 194, and 200 people are still missing. 155 people survived when the boat carrying them sank in deep water just 1000 metres from the island. Every year tens of thousands of migrants attempt the perilous crossing from North Africa to Italian islands. In the past two decades 20,000 people from Africa and the Middle East have lost their lives trying to reach southern Europe. In 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings, 1500 died in one year.

The people who board over-crowded and unseaworthy boats pay large sums to unscrupulous criminal gangs who earn their living through people trafficking. The migrants are desperate. Many are fleeing from countries where there is conflict and persecution. They are willing to spend all they have, and even risk their and their children’s lives, in order to escape poverty and turmoil and find a place of safety and peace.

How do we respond to the plight of these people? Today in European countries, like Britain, immigration is a big issue. The Bible makes it clear that God cares deeply for the plight of migrant people and understands their needs. In the Old Testament there are many examples of people leaving their own countries and going to another. Abraham left his country and his family and went to the land of Canaan. He lived there all his life, but the only land he ever owned was the plot he bought to bury his wife Sarah. In a time of famine Jacob and his family went to Egypt. Later they became slaves there and suffered greatly under hard taskmasters until God brought them out and gave them their own land.

Soon after he was born Jesus was taken by his parents to Egypt because King Herod was determined to kill the new born king. He only returned to Nazareth after Herod has died and it was safe to do so. Jesus is a compassionate Saviour who is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” He understands our needs because he has been where we are. He came into this world to give us hope and real life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”