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The story of Lisala Folau

Early in the morning on 15 January a volcano near Tonga erupted produced a colossal explosion that triggered a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. A shockwave radiated outward at close to the speed of sound eventually travelling halfway around the world. The sonic boom was heard in parts of New Zealand more than 1,300 miles away. A tsunami quickly followed that hit Tongatapu, the main island in Tonga and home to the capital Nuku’alofa. Communications were knocked out as the streets began to flood and people fled for their lives. Smaller tsunami waves rushed across the Pacific Ocean causing surges as far away as Alaska, Mexico and Peru. The Tongan islands were also covered in volcanic ash.

Tonga is a small remote Polynesian kingdom of more than 170 islands most of which are lined in white beaches and coral reefs and covered with tropical rainforest. Many of the islands are uninhabited and most of the 106,000 people live on the main island of Tongatapu. Tonga is a strongly Christian nation with 96% of the population being professing Christians. Sunday is a special day in Tonga when all commercial and entertainment activities cease. The constitution declares the Sabbath sacred forever.

Lisala Folau, a 57-year-old disabled retired carpenter, who has problems with both his legs, was at home on the island of Atata when a devastating tsunami hit the island. Lisala was swept away by a 20ft wave that carried him miles from shore. He eventually found a broken tree and decided to cling to it. He spent 27 hours swimming 8 miles between uninhabited islands before, late on Sunday evening, reaching the mainland and safety. Lisala said he was scared when he saw the wave approach and when the sea kept twirling him and taking him underwater eight times. But he added, “I am a Christian and I had my faith in God that he would save me.”

Psalm 46 speaks about trusting God in times of crisis: “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, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. The Lord Almighty is with us and says ‘Be still, and know that I am God’”

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Good news of great joy

The birth of Jesus was announced to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem. The darkness of the night was suddenly banished as an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. The angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be 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.” Then the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

God has broken into his world to give us hope. The angel messengers, who came from heaven, were accompanied by heavenly glory but the all-important sign was “a baby lying in a manager.” This baby was the long-promised Messiah, God’s eternal Son, yet the circumstances of his birth were so simple and unadorned – he was lying in a manager, an animal feeder. The baby was called Jesus because he had come to save his people from their sins. He was also called Immanuel because in his coming God has drawn near to us.

Whatever our circumstances this Christmas, it is important for us to follow the sign that points us to the Christ-child who gives hope and joy. He was born to an oppressed people living in a troubled world. Today our world is very troubled, and many people are suffering greatly. Many are afraid and hope is in short supply. A well-known Christmas carol says, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Jesus came to give us peace on earth now. We will never be at peace with each other until we know peace with God through his Son, who died on the cross to secure forgiveness of sins and peace with God. He offers the wonderful prospect of a joyful new beginning. The last verse of the same carol is a prayer, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!”

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A Great Rescue

Early on Saturday afternoon Matt, a good friend of mine, who is a member of his local cave rescue team, received an emergency call. A caver was seriously injured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system in South Wales and needed urgently to be rescued. Matt responded immediately and joined the 300 volunteers from across the country who also responded to the call. Ogof Ffynnon Ddu is one of the deepest cave systems in the UK, with its lowest passageways 901ft below the surface. It is suitable only for experienced cavers who see everything from huge chambers, beautiful formations, to yawning chasms and thundering river passages. The rescue operation was very complex and Matt and the other team members would not get home until Monday evening.

The injured caver, George, and his partner were a mile into the 43-mile cave network when George fell suffering injuries to his tibia, fibula, jaw, and chest. He couldn’t move. When the rescuers found George, they immobilised him on a stretcher and began the long journey to the surface. There were many natural obstacles to negotiate including narrow passages, boulders, potholes, and waterfalls. It was exhausting work, so the rescuers worked in shifts.
It was necessary to undertake a long journey underground to get George to an exit big enough to get the stretcher through, but the rescuers were determined to rescue him however long it took. On Monday evening George and the rescue team emerged from the caves and he was taken to hospital. One person said, “Volunteers from everywhere were ready to put their own lives on the line to rescue a fellow caver.”

The greatest ever rescue operation was undertaken by Jesus Christ. We were all in great danger, so Jesus came from heaven to rescue us. The apostle John tells us, “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.”

Jesus laid down his life on the cross to rescue us by suffering the punishment our sins deserve. One hymn says, “He held the highest place above, adored by all the sons of flame. Yet such his self-denying love, he laid aside his crown and came to seek the lost, and at the cost of heavenly rank and earthly fame, he sought me – blessed be his name! Then dawned at last that day of dread, when desolate, yet undismayed, with wearied frame and thorn-crowned head, he, now forsaken and betrayed, went up for me to Calvary, and dying there in grief and shame, he saved me – blessed be his name!”

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God hears our prayers

There was a sense of deep shock for the players and everyone in the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, and millions around the world watching on television, when Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s star player, suffered a cardiac arrest during the Euro 2020 match against Finland. Denmark’s team doctor and the medical team ran to treat him as players and fans stood helplessly by. Dr Boesen said, “He was gone. I don’t know how close we were to losing him, but we got him back after one defibrillation, so that’s quite fast.” Millions of people prayed for Christian as the medical team treated him and God graciously heard those prayers. Christian is now recovering in Rigshospitalet. Many people said that what happened to Christian puts everything into perspective because there are much more important things than football.

Seeing Christian Eriksen collapse brought back deeply emotional memories for former footballer Fabrice Muamba. In March 2012 Fabrice suddenly collapsed during an FA Cup match between Bolton and Tottenham Hotspur. His heart stopped for 78 minutes. His life was saved by Dr Andrew Deaner, a cardiologist and Tottenham fan, who rushed from his seat in the stand to help. Dr Deaner organised paramedics resuscitating him before rushing him to the London Chest Hospital. It took 15 defibrillator shocks, 2 on the pitch and 13 in the ambulance, to bring Fabrice back to life. He said, “I owe him everything. He is the reason I have been able to hold my son again and continue my life. I would not be alive today if he’d not been at the game.”

Fabrice is a Christian and has spoken about his faith in God, “I am walking proof of the power of prayer. For 78 minutes I was dead and, even if I lived, was expected to have suffered brain damage. But I’m very much alive and sitting here talking now. On the morning of the game, I prayed with my father and asked God to protect me, and he didn’t let me down.”

Fabrice’s father, Marcel, came to Britain from Congo in 1994 during the terrible civil war which claimed 4 million lives. While Fabrice lay unconscious in hospital his father prayed for him. Marcel said, “I was obviously very concerned that Fabrice would not make it, but our faith is very strong, and I really believed God would answer my prayer to save him. Somehow, I just knew Fabrice would be safe in God’s hands. I said to God, ‘You are the one who resurrected Lazarus from the dead. Now in this moment glorify yourself.’ We rejoice that Fabrice made a full recovery and pray that Christian will too.

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Remembering Prince Philip

We are remembering Prince Philip who lived a very long and active life. His early years were difficult when, following a coup d’état in 1922, the Greek royal family into which he was born was forced into exile. In 1930 his mother was hospitalised with a serious psychiatric illness. In 1939, at the age of 18, he entered the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and was on active service in the Royal Navy throughout World War II. In 1941, when serving on HMS Valiant in the Mediterranean Fleet, he was involved in the battle of Matapan against the Italian fleet and was mentioned in dispatches.

Following his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, and then the death of her father, George VI, in 1952, his life took a new direction as he became consort to his wife, Queen Elizabeth II. At her coronation he was the first to swear allegiance to her promising to be her “liege man of life and limb.” For nearly 70 years he faithfully fulfilled his promise, accompanying his wife on many public engagements all over the world and always walking at least two steps behind her. On their golden wedding anniversary in 1997 the Queen said, “He has, quite simply, been my main strength and stay all these years.”

Prince Philip’s long and varied life was characterised by committed service to the Queen, to his adopted country and to the countries of the Commonwealth. Each year he fulfilled an average of more than 370 personal engagements, excluding those accompanying the Queen, and also accompanied the Queen on all her 251 official overseas visits. He took a particular interest in young people. In 1956 he established the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme to introduce young people to physical, skills-based and community challenges. More than 4 million young people from over 90 countries have taken part in the scheme. Prince Philip retired from public duty in August 2017 at the age of 96.

The Prince has now passed into eternity. In heaven people from all nations and tribes stand before the throne of God and before the Lamb and cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” No one is there because of what they did in this life but because of what Jesus, the supreme Servant, did for them. He is in the centre of the throne and is the focus of heaven’s worship because he came to this earth not to be served, as was his right, but “to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

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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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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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The world’s most astonished atheist

Memorial events have been held in Hiroshima to mark the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945 a US bomber dropped a uranium bomb above the city killing 140,000 people. At least 70,000 people were killed immediately and in the following weeks and months tens of thousands died from radiation poisoning. On 9 August 1945 a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing at least 74,000 people. Two weeks later Japan surrendered, bringing an end to World War Two. These bombs are the only nuclear weapons ever to be deployed in war and showed their terrifying destructive power. Today Hiroshima is a City of Peace promoting nuclear disarmament in a world where an increasing number of nations have a nuclear capability.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Joy Davidman, who later married C.S. Lewis, was living in New York with her first husband Bill Gresham and was expecting her second son. Joy was from a Jewish family and grew up in the Bronx. From her childhood she had been an atheist and, in her early 20s, became a member of the Communist Party.

When Joy saw the devastation and deaths cause by the atomic bombs, she suddenly realised that civilisation could be obliterated. Her whole worldview was shaken. She was bringing her second child into a world where, she wrote in a poem, “ashes that were babies blew among the bamboo trees.” She had always believed that science would be society’s salvation but now she realised that it might be the world’s damnation.

Joy’s philosophy had always been “rigid and admitted no thought of God, of religion, of anything outside of dialectic materialism.” A self-assured woman who believed she had all the answers, she was now forced to admit helplessness. One night, alone in her room, everything changed. “All my defences – the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily. And God came in.” Joy later described that experience: “There was a Person with me in the room, a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute, but when it was over, I found myself on my knees, praying. I think I must have been the world’s most astonished atheist.” It was a moment of grace when God revealed himself to Joy leading her to a sure future hope for herself, her children and God’s world.

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The life and faith of Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby was a prolific hymn writer who wrote more than 9000 hymns. Remarkably, she did this despite being blind from a very early age. When she was 6 weeks old, Fanny caught a cold and a quack doctor prescribed hot mustard poultices for her inflamed eyes which resulted in her becoming totally blind. Her father died when she was 10 months old and her mother, Mercy, was forced to work as a maid to support the family. Fanny was mostly raised by Eunice, her Christian grandmother.

When Eunice heard that nothing could be done about Fanny’s blindness she said, “Then I will be her eyes.” She taught Fanny about the wonderful colours in nature and all the things she could not see. She also encouraged her to memorise Bible passages. Fanny memorised 5 chapters a week and, when still a child, had memorised whole books from the Bible. In 1835, when she was 15 years old, Fanny was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind. She lived there for 23 years: 12 as a student and 11 as a teacher.

Fanny accepted her blindness without bitterness against the doctor or against God. When she was 8 years old, she wrote a poem: “Oh, what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be. How many blessings I enjoy, that other people don’t; to weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot, and I won’t!” Her love for Jesus gave her great inner strength. She said, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour.”

Fanny expressed her faith in Jesus in her hymns so that others, too, might know her Saviour. Here are some memorable lines from her hymns. “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God; the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine: O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.” “All the way my Saviour leads me: what have I to ask beside? Can I doubt his tender mercy, who through life has been my guide? Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, here by faith in him to dwell! For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.”

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John Wesley’s Story

The 24th May 1738 was a very significant day in the life of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England. He became one of the greatest spiritual leaders in English history playing a key role in the 18th century revival of religion. John was the son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Of the 19 children Susanna bore, only 3 sons and 7 daughters survived. Samuel was the Rector of Epworth and Susanna was a strongminded mother who practised strict discipline with her children.

John and his brother Charles, the great hymnwriter, went to Oxford University, where they started a small group of students, nicknamed “the Holy Club”, which met for prayer and Bible study. The group stressed the need for both a deep inward faith and practical service to those in need. They visited the sick and those in prison. When he left Oxford in 1735, John accepted an invitation to go, with his brother Charles, as missionaries to the recently founded colony of Georgia.

During the voyage to America there was a terrifying storm and John was afraid he was going to die. He attended a service on board ship with a group of German Moravian Christians. During the service a huge wave engulfed the ship and water poured down into the cabins. The Moravians continued singing – men, women and children – seemingly unafraid. Later John asked one of the Moravians why they hadn’t been afraid. The man told him that because they knew God they were not afraid to die. John realised that they had something he didn’t have. They were able to face death because they knew that God was never going to let them go.

After returning from Georgia, John attended a meeting of Moravian Christians in Aldersgate Street on 24th May 1738. He was not keen to go but at that meeting he had a profound spiritual experience. John described what happened to him, “About a quarter before nine, while the man was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” John was no longer afraid of dying. Between 1738 and his death in 1791 he travelled more than 250,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons proclaiming to many people the same message by which he had come to know God and England was transformed.