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God is merciful

The case of Omar Farouq, a 13-year-old boy, in northern Kano state in Nigeria has attracted international attention. In August Omar was convicted in a Sharia court of making uncomplimentary remarks about Allah during an argument with a friend and was sentenced to 10 years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy. Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, said the sentence “negates all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice.”

In a remarkable intervention, Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland, has asked President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria to pardon the teenager. In an open letter Piotr wrote, “He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities and stigmatised physically, emotionally and educationally for the rest of his life.” Omar’s case has struck a painful chord for Piotr because countless children were imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz by the German Nazi regime.

In his letter Piotr also said that if Omar cannot be pardoned then he would be willing to serve part of his sentence along with other volunteers from around the world. He wrote, “However, if the words of this child absolutely require 120 months of imprisonment, and even you are not able to change that, I suggest that in place of the child, 120 adult volunteers from all over the world, gathered by us – myself personally among them – should serve a month in a Nigerian prison.” More than 120 people from around the world have already offered to serve part of Omar’s sentence. If Omar is pardoned, Piotr also offered to personally fund his education resulting in “an aware and educated young citizen” rather than a “destroyed young man.”

Piotr’s intervention reminds us of the words of the prophet Micah, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the Bible the principle of substitution was the foundation of the sacrificial system. When anyone sinned, they were commanded to offer an animal in their place and were told that because the animal died their sins would be forgiven. The supreme substitute is the Lord Jesus. Philip Bliss’ hymn says, “’Man of Sorrows’, what a name for the Son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood; sealed my pardon with his blood; Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was he; full redemption—can it be? Hallelujah! what a Saviour!”

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Remembering VE Day

This weekend there will be an international celebration of the 75th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. On 8 May 1945 there was a great joy when the Allied Forces announced the surrender of Germany; World War II in Europe was over. More than a million people celebrated in the streets, including the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”

A Service of Thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey gratefully acknowledging that God had heard the many prayers offered through the dark years of the war. The service opened with these words, “The Lord has done great things for us, which ought to be remembered. Let us, therefore, offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which he has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through years of danger and suffering: for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen: for the hope that we are about to enter upon a righteous and abiding peace: for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.”

The planned VE Day celebrations will be severely curtailed because of the coronavirus restrictions. Today the peoples of the world are involved in a different kind of deadly conflict. We are under threat from an unseen enemy and many have already died. The courage and skill of medical teams and carers have been an inspiration to us all. Victory over the virus is still in the future as great efforts are made to develop an effective vaccine.

At Easter we remembered the greatest victory ever accomplished when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, confronted our greatest enemies of sin and death. Human sinfulness causes untold misery and suffering and every day many face the last enemy, death. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty our sins deserve. His death was a great victory. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” His resurrection on the third day showed he had broken the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality. As we pray for those seriously ill with coronavirus, and those who have lost loved ones, we can rejoice in the hope Jesus gives; “for those who die believing die safely through his love.”

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The selfless example of Dr Adil El Tayar

We are deeply grateful for the doctors and nurses who are working with great dedication and courage to treat and care for patients who are seriously ill with COVID-19. Last week Dr Adil El Tayar became the first working NHS surgeon to die from the virus. Adil, 64, was from Sudan and was an organ transplant specialist who had worked around the world. His skills had saved many lives. Before he contracted the virus, he had volunteered on the frontlines of the outbreak in the accident and emergency department at his hospital in the Midlands.

Adil’s cousin, BBC News journalist Zeinab Badawi, said, “He wanted to be deployed where he would be most useful during the crisis. That was typical of my cousin Adil; always willing to help, always with a willing smile.” A surgeon colleague described Adil as a “noble human being” who was a “hard-working, dedicated surgeon”.

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” At a time when we may be tempted to think only of ourselves Adil thought of others. He knew that if he was ill with the virus, he would want doctors and nurses to do everything they could to help him. He didn’t stand at a safe distance but was ready to use his skills to treat others, people he didn’t know, and to put his life at risk. He died from the very disease his patients had. There are people alive today because of the loving and self-sacrificing care they received from Adil.

We will soon be celebrating Easter when we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the supreme example of love and self-sacrifice. He died, at the age of 33, not for his own sins but for the sins of others. John the Baptist described him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In an amazing act of love Jesus, the Son of God, died in our place, paying the penalty of our sins, so that we might be forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life. “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.” On the third day after he died Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by his disciples and many others. His promise to all who believe in him is “because I live you also will live.”

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God’s laws are good

In the UK and the Western world, we are experiencing a moral revolution. There is now a new morality. What, from the beginning of time, has been regarded as morally wrong is now morally right. What was morally right is now morally wrong. Positive words are used to give the impression that this is all for the better. Promoting the new morality is “progressive”. Politicians often tell us that what they are doing is “the right thing to do.” This seldom means doing what is morally right but rather that they are pursuing what they believe to be the correct policy or action to deal with a problem. The new morality involves key words and ideas; “freedom”, “choice”, “respect”, “tolerance”, “discrimination”, “phobic”, “hate”. Armed with these concepts you can justify almost any action and present anyone who disagrees as a religious bigot or being out of touch.

But morality is fundamental to the lives of every one of us and to any society. Being honest matters. Working hard is good. Sexual purity is precious. Being faithful to our husband or wife is vital to personal happiness and social stability. Respecting people who are different from us is a fundamental principle. To disagree with people of another faith or of another sexual disorientation is not “phobic” or “hateful” but arises from personal moral convictions and spiritual beliefs. A Muslim may fundamentally disagree with a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, but he isn’t being “Christian-phobic”. Nor do fundamental disagreements always lead to hostility. I have Muslim friends. We like and love one another. Love transcends fundamental differences of religious belief and lifestyle.

Those who promote the new morality present it as an absolute standard and are intolerant of anyone who dares to disagrees. People who disagree may be attacked, hounded or denied the right to speak. God has been removed from the scene. There is no vertical dimension in the new morality, no ultimate accountability, no place for God and his moral laws. In his book “The God Delusion” Richard Dawkins quotes the atheist Bertrand Russell saying that when he met God he would say, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” Did this very intelligent man really believe that he would talk to Almighty God on equal terms?

God’s two great commandments are a sure guide for life and the secret of true happiness. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

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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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Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known; another’s tears, another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

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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.

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Immanuel – God with us

The birth of Jesus Christ really is a cause for great celebration! His coming into the world has changed the lives of millions of people for the better. His birth was foretold in detail by prophets who lived more than 600 years earlier and their prophecies were fulfilled. The prophet Micah foretold where he would be born and spoke of his greatness. “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Jesus came from heaven to earth with kingly power to do us good.

The prophet Isaiah foretold that he would be born to a young virgin mother. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” As the eternal Son of God, Jesus reveals God to us. When he came into the world God himself drew near to a troubled world. Throughout history Christians have experienced the presence of God with them, often in very difficult circumstances. One of our greatest needs this Christmas is to know that God is with us.

The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the greatness of the child who would be born, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Jesus came into this world from the presence of his heavenly Father with divine power to execute God’s great plan of salvation for the peoples of this world and to do it as the “Prince of Peace.”

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that is often sung at Christmas and expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. “Come, O long-expected Jesus, born to set your people free! from our fears and sins release us, Christ in whom our rest shall be. Israel’s strength and consolation, born salvation to impart; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us for ever, now your gracious kingdom bring: By your own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by your all-sufficient merit raise us to your glorious throne.”

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The God who is there

The hard crash-landing of the Europe Space Agency’s experimental Mars probe, Schiaparelli, was a deep disappointment for the team managing the project. Although the lander was destroyed the probe’s mother ship is in orbit around Mars and will soon begin analysing the Martian atmosphere in its search for evidence of life. The Schiaparelli project, which has cost in excess of €1 billion, was designed to test technology for a more ambitious European Mars landing in 2020.

Our explorations into space make us aware of the immensity and wonder of the universe. The planet Mars is a near neighbour in our solar system, just 33.9 million miles away. It takes between 6 and 8 months to get there. Neptune is 2.7 billion miles from earth. Voyager 2 travelled for 12 years at an average velocity of 42,000 miles per hour to get there. The photographs of Earth taken from space make it very clear how different our little planet is compared to all the other planets we know. It seems that planet Earth is unique with its abundance of water and life.

The Bible speaks about the origins of life. The book of Genesis describes God’s almighty creating power. It begins with the majestic affirmation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It also describes the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, who were created in God’s image, and were given authority over all creation. Our God-given dignity and intelligence enables us explore the universe he has created.

The Bible also tells us that God has revealed himself to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. God did not leave us to seek for him, but, in Jesus, he visited our little planet. In his Gospel, the apostle John, says that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was active in creating the universe. He also became a man and “lived for a time among us.”

When we realise the awesome greatness and majesty of God we cannot but be moved to worship him and give thanks to him. In Psalm 8 the psalmist writes, “O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth! Your glory is higher than the heavens. When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!”

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Amazing grace

One Sunday morning I was driving along the M4. The weather was fine and most cars were driving at, or below, the speed limit. Some cars and vans passed me doing 80mph and then, on a quiet part of the motorway, a car passed me doing about 100mph. It disappeared from sight very quickly. Presumably the driver felt able to drive at that speed because there was little possibility of him being caught by a speed camera.

A little further on we came to a short stretch of the motorway where there is average speed camera surveillance. Every vehicle, without exception, drove at 50 mph! Why did everyone keep to the speed limit on that of part of the motorway? Because, if they drove too fast, the cameras were certain to detect it and they would be fined and have points on their licence. The evidence of the cameras would make conviction certain.

Our fallen human nature means that we are all most likely to break laws when we think we will “get away with it” and, in many cases, we do. Yet our leaders seem to think that making more laws will change people’s behaviour. In 2010 a record 3506 new laws were introduced in Britain, 10 for each day. The task of enforcing those laws, and all the other laws, is becoming impossible. In the absence of certain detection, laws have a very limited effect on how people behave.

The most important laws are God’s moral laws, summarised in the Ten Commandments. Few of us seem to have a sense of our ultimate accountability to Almighty God for the way we live. However, the Bible, and our consciences, tell us that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” When we realise that divine judgement is certain for us all, our sense of guilt and helplessness can be overwhelming. At such times, we know we need a Saviour.

In one of his hymns Horatius Bonar summed up his faith, and the faith of all Christians. “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die, another’s life; another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known, another’s tears; another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see.”