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He came down to earth from heaven

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. His mother, Mary, was a teenage girl who lived in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. She had fallen in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, and they were planning their wedding. They loved each other deeply and were looking forward to making their vows before God and sharing their life together. Joseph respected Mary’s purity and was willing to wait until they were married before they slept together. Neither of them anticipated what lay ahead of them.

One day God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary an amazing message. He said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” When Mary asked how this could happened since she was a virgin the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”

That day Mary’s life changed. What would the people of Nazareth say when they heard she was expecting a baby before she had been married? How would Joseph respond when she told him? He assumed that Mary must have been unfaithful to him and decided to call off the wedding until, one night, he had a dream in which an angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Joseph took Mary as his wife but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.

The birth of Jesus speaks to ordinary people everywhere about extraordinary things. One carol says, “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.” Another carol speaks of receiving Jesus as Saviour, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.”

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The love that transforms

Last week a man suddenly threatened to blow up the Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, where a prisoner rehabilitation conference, organised by Cambridge University, was being held. He then began attacking people with two knives. The man, who had been convicted of a terror offence, was invited to attend the conference. He had served half his 16-year sentence and had been released on licence in 2018 with an electronic tag. The man moved on to London Bridge where he was restrained by members of the public and then shot by the police. Two people were killed and 3 were injured.

As one hate-filled man was trying to kill people, others showed great courage in seeking to save lives. Lukasz from Poland, who works as a chef at Fishmongers’ Hall, bought time for others to escape by fighting the terrorist with a narwhal tusk he pulled off the wall. Despite being stabbed 5 times, he continued to confront the man. His actions, and those of others who confronted the terrorist, undoubtedly saved lives.

Tragically two young people who were attending the conference died. Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were involved with Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme for prisoner rehabilitation. Jack’s father said, “Jack: you were a beautiful spirit. You lived your principles; believing in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and always took the side of the underdog. Cambridge lost a proud son and champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.” He went on to say that Jack “would not wish his death to be used as a pretext for more draconian sentences or to detain people unnecessarily.”

Jesus was a man who was committed to helping and changing people. He is still doing that today by the power of the Holy Spirit. During his ministry many people who had failed in life, and wanted to change, were drawn to him. He loved them and gave them new hope. Knowing him and experiencing his love changed them. Jesus died not for his own sins, but for ours. He laid down his life that we might know God and receive the gift of eternal life. He loves people who are his enemies and changes their hearts so that they truly love him. The apostle Paul was an enemy of Jesus, but he was changed. Seeing the transformation in him Christians were amazed and said, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!”

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Siya Kolisi’s Story

On Saturday 2 November Siya Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis Cup high after the South African team won the Rugby World Cup 2019. It was an historic moment because Siya is the first black man to captain the Springboks and to lead the team to success in the World Cup. Siya is a great example of a man who has overcome adversity to become a role model and symbol of hope for young black people in South Africa. After winning the Rugby World Cup he said he hoped their victory will “inspire every kid” back home and pull the country together, “we had one goal and we achieved it, a lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity.”

Siya grew up in the poor Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth. His mother, Phakama, was 16 when Siya was born and his father, Fezakele, was in his final year of school. Siya’s mother died when he was 15 and his grandmother, Nolulamile, cared for him for a few months until she died in his arms. Siya remembers many days with only one meal and many nights spent sleeping on the floor.

Siya’s love of rugby often provided an escape from the struggles and temptations he faced as he was growing up. When he was 12 he was offered a scholarship at Grey Junior in Port Elizabeth. He walked 7 miles each way to go to school. Later he was offered a rugby scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School. In 2016 Siya married Rachel and they have two children.

Siya is a Christian and has spoken of the real spiritual struggles he has faced, as we all do. Earlier this year he experienced stresses in his marriage which led him to a deeper understanding of what it means to truly follow Jesus. In a recent interview he said, “While struggling with a lot of things personally – temptations, sins and lifestyle choices – I realized I wasn’t living according to what I was calling myself: a follower of Christ. I was getting by, but I hadn’t decided to fully commit myself to Jesus Christ and start living according to his way. I’ve been able to discover the truth and saving power of Christ in a whole new way. This new life has given me a peace in my heart I’d never experienced before. I don’t have to understand everything in life, and there are so many things I don’t, but I know God is in control of it all. My job is to do the best I can and leave the rest in his hands.”

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The power of forgiveness

We have just celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was one of the most evil events in human history in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazi regime. Yet out of those dark days amazing light sometimes shone. During the German occupation of The Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from arrest and deportation in their home in Haarlem. In February 1944 the Gestapo came to the house and arrested Corrie and her family, but did not discover the 6 Jewish people in the hiding place. In September 1944, Corrie and her sister Betsie were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. They managed to stay together until Betsie died in December. Later that month Corrie was released, but really struggled to come to terms with Betsie’s death.

After the war, Corrie spoke in many places about the need to forgive in order to overcome the psychological scars of the Nazi occupation. In 1947 she was speaking in Germany when she saw a man in the audience whom she recognised as a guard from Ravensbruck. Immediately she remembered him in his blue uniform and cap with its skull and crossbones. She saw the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes on the floor and remembered the shame of walking naked past this man. She saw Betsie’s frail form ahead of her.

The man came up to her, thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck, I was a guard there, but since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

Corrie described the massive inner turmoil she faced at that moment. “Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes, ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried, ‘with all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”

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Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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O thank the Lord for all his love

We have passed the autumn equinox as the sun has crossed the equator. Traditionally, the full Harvest Moon reminded farmers of the need to complete the harvest. Because of the very hot and dry summer harvesting began early this year and generally the yields have been good. In many churches harvest thanksgiving services are being held and are attended by larger than normal congregations, especially in rural areas. Farmers, more than most people, know how dependent we are on the annual crops their land produces. Those crops will provide us with food for the coming year.

It is good to give thanks to God for all the good things he gives us. Many people, young and old, in churches and in schools, will this year again sing well-known harvest hymns. One harvest hymn gives thanks to God for the way he provides us with our daily food and also gives us so many other blessings as well. “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand: he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

True thankfulness, however, is more than words sung once a year. It involves an ongoing response of love for and delight in God who blesses us in so many ways. The last verse of that harvest hymn says, “We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. Accept the gifts we offer for all thy love imparts, and what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.”

The greatest gift God has given to the people of this world is his Son, Jesus. One of the best-known verses in the Bible says, “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.” Out of love for us, Jesus came from heaven to live among us and then to die on a cross to pay the price for all the sins we have committed. Those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and believe in him receive God’s gift of eternal life; a life that begins now and lasts for ever. Their response is always, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”

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When enemies become friends

Captain Bill Smyly, who died recently at the age of 95, was one of the last veterans of the Chindit expeditions in the Burma Campaign in World War II. In 1943, when serving with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles, he was appointed Animal Transport Officer and was put in charge of the mules. He marched with 3000 Chindits from India into Burma on a mission to cut the main railway line between Mandalay and Myitkyina and to harass the Japanese forces. Heavy weapons, equipment and rations were carried by the mules.

Marching through the jungle in intense heat and torrential rain, they endured repeated bouts of malaria and dysentery. If they were badly injured, they were left at a village. This usually meant capture or death. After achieving their objectives, the troops returned to India in small groups. Bill contracted beriberi, which affected his eyesight and made his feet swell up making it difficult to walk. He became separated from his unit and had to struggle on alone. For many weeks he trekked hundreds of miles through the jungle, receiving food and shelter from local tribesmen. His family were told that he had died but, eventually, he reached Fort Hertz, a remote British military outpost in north-east Burma.

Bill was born in China, the son of Irish missionary doctors. After the war he gained a degree at Cambridge University and became a journalist. Later, he taught at a Chinese University before retiring to Bedford. Bill was a Christian and was an active member of his local church. He also belonged to the Burma Campaign Society which was established in 1983 by Masao Hirakubo. The aim of the society is to encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding between British and Japanese soldiers who had previously been enemies, and especially those who had been involved in the Burma Campaign.

Reconciliation is a great priority in our divided world and is at the heart of what Jesus Christ came into the world to accomplish. The apostle Paul wrote, “God brought us back to himself through Christ and has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them and he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” Because Bill Smyly had himself been reconciled to God through Jesus he was committed to seeking reconciliation with people who, previously, had been his enemies.

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Love and sacrifice

The plight of the 12 boys from a Thai football team and their coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand has moved the hearts of people around the world. The Wild Boars team and their coach had cycled to the caves after a training session. They were reported missing by one of their mothers on 23 June and were not found until 2 July. The cave complex is 6 miles long and heavy rain has flooded the caves making it extremely difficult to reach them. The rescue operation has begun, and 4 boys have, with the help of expert divers, reached safety, but it is a race against time because further monsoon rains are forecast.

The rescue operation, involving many people from many countries, is very complex and dangerous for both the rescuers and the boys and their coach. One diver, Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy seal, has already died from lack of air. All the divers who enter the caves know they are putting their lives at risk, but they are committed to doing everything they can in order to save the boys and their coach.

In a world of strife and conflict this rescue is an outstanding example of human courage, love and sacrifice. The rescuers don’t know the boys and their coach, they are strangers, but they are fellow human beings and their lives are precious. The rescue team are willing to use their skills, and risk their lives, in order to bring those trapped in the cave to safety. Many people around the world are praying they will be successful.

The message of the Bible is about the greatest rescue in history. Out of his great love, God sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to be the Saviour by dying on the cross for our sins. Knowing Jesus as our Saviour brings great joy to our hearts. One hymn wonderfully expresses how every Christian feels about Jesus, their Saviour. “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 but 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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The God of new beginnings

Alice Marie Johnson was enjoying a full and happy life. She was married to her childhood sweetheart and was the mother of 5 beautiful children. She was a manager at FedEx involved in training other managers. Then in 1989, after nearly 20 years together, Alice and her husband divorced, and her life began to spiral out of control. She developed a gambling addiction and lost her job. Then her youngest son was tragically killed in a motor cycle accident. In 1991 she filed for bankruptcy and lost her house. In 1996 she was convicted of being involved in cocaine trafficking and money laundering and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Alice knows that what she did was wrong. She says, “No mother should have to bury her child. This weight was unbelievable and was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation. I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”

Being in prison for life, and knowing you will never be released, is very hard. Alice wrote, “Some refer to prison as a place where hope dies. Some days I’ve found that to be almost right. But at the beginning of my time here I made a pact that I wouldn’t give up hope. Each time that I’ve come close, God has restored my faith.” While in prison Alice became an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are in prison.

A few weeks ago, Kim Kardashian, an American reality television star, met President Trump in the Oval Office and asked him to grant clemency to Alice and to give her a second chance. On 6 June the President issued an order that Alice should be released. The White House statement said, “Ms Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behaviour and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades.”

Like Alice each of us also needs to be granted clemency and to be given a new beginning. We are serial offenders in breaking God’s moral laws. Yet, amazingly God sent his Son, Jesus, to redeem us by dying for the sins we have committed. Jesus personally intervened on our behalf and pleaded our case. When we confess we have done wrong God forgives us and sets us free forever.

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The greatest story ever told

The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told. Joseph and Mary were a young couple living in the small Galilean town of Nazareth. Joseph was about 18 years old and was the village carpenter. He was very much in love with Mary, who was about 14 years old, and their families had agreed that they should marry. One day, before they had married, God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she had found favour in God’s sight and was going to conceive a very special son. She would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and the child would be the Son of God. Mary humbly responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

When Mary told Joseph she had conceived a child he was shocked and thought she must have been unfaithful to him. He decided to divorce her quietly to try to protect her from public disgrace. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So, Joseph did what the angel had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

When the time drew near for the baby to be born Joseph and Mary had to travel 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. So it was in Bethlehem that their first-born son was born. An angel of the Lord announced the birth to some shepherds, ordinary working men, living in the nearby fields, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, a Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds went to see the baby and returned to their fields glorifying and praising God.

Later, Wise Men from the east, probably Persia, came in search of the child. They had followed a special star which signified the birth of a King. When they arrived at the house where Joseph and Mary and the child were staying they were overjoyed. They bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The shepherds and Wise Men show us that the birth of Jesus is reason for us all to wonder and worship him.