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Mary was a remarkable young woman

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a remarkable young woman. She grew up in the family home in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. While she was in her early teens Mary fell in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, who was a few years older than her. Mary and Joseph made a solemn promise to each other that they would marry. Then God sent the angel Gabriel to communicate an amazing message to Mary. The angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary asked, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon 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 it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Mary’s whole life changed! The fact that she had conceived a child before she was married was misunderstood. People thought she must have been unfaithful to Joseph and had brought shame on her family. When she told Joseph what the angel had said, at first, he did not believe her. He decided to quietly end their relationship until God spoke to him in a dream. Then Joseph took his beloved Mary home as his wife.

Mary is an example of a spiritual woman who loved and honoured God. She rejoiced in God who had been mindful of her humble state and was her Saviour. Like all of us she sinned and needed to know God’s forgiveness. She knew that the precious child she was carrying was the long-promised Messiah and that he would be called Jesus because he would save his people, including her, from their sins.

The birth of Jesus is a great encouragement to all people on earth. He is the eternal Son of God yet when he entered our world his parents were an ordinary young couple. He was born in a stable not a palace. No one is too unimportant to be valued by God. 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.”

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Joseph was a good man

Christmas will be more normal this year with some carol services and school nativity plays being held. One character in the Christmas story who tends to be in the background is Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. The Gospels show him to be an upright, loving, and spiritual man. In our society there is a great need for true manhood to be rediscovered and for good fathers to be recognised and encouraged. The absence of a good father is detrimental to the development of any child and to the wellbeing of society.

Joseph was a skilled carpenter. He worked with his hands and was a respected person in the village life of Nazareth. While he was in his late teens he fell in love with Mary, who was a few years younger than him. Joseph made a solemn promise to marry Mary. Their families and the community in Nazareth rejoiced with them and eagerly looked forward to their wedding. Although they loved each other deeply, Joseph and Mary resolved not to have sexual relations until they were married.

Mary went to visit one of her relatives, Elizabeth, who lived in the Judean hills. When she returned to Nazareth, she told Joseph that before going to see Elizabeth she had conceived and was carrying a child in her womb. She assured him that she had not been unfaithful to him but that the baby had been conceived by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and was a very special child. Joseph was shocked and decided to end their relationship. He didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace but to divorce her quietly so that she would be free to marry someone else.

While he was thinking about this 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.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. He did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son, and he gave him the name Jesus. By marrying Mary Joseph assumed responsibility for her pregnancy and embraced her shame. He honoured her and the child she bore whom he knew was the Saviour he and Mary and all of us need.

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I am safe, I am loved

On 18 March 2018 Kenyatta Barron made a desperate emergency call begging for her life and the life of Ronnie, her 7-year-old son. Ronnie’s father had just stabbed him and set him on fire in their home in Hillsborough County, Florida. That same night, Ronnie’s father murdered Ronnie’s mother and sister. Homicide detective Mike Blair responded to the emergency call: “By the time I arrived that night, we were told there was a child being medevacked to Tampa General, but he was not expected to live.”

Mike visited little Ronnie while he was recovering. He brought Ronnie gifts from his favourite American football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a bond began to form between them. Mike says, “The easiest way to surmise about this is it’s been a ‘God-thing’ for us.” One night, when Mike was leaving, Ronnie took his hand and asked him, “Could you watch a movie with me?” Mike and his wife, Danyel, were planning a date night that night. Mike said to her, “Hey, instead of doing our date night, do you mind if we watch a movie with this kid?” Danyel readily agreed. She and Mike have 5 children of their own and Danyel said, “I had already known that I would want to take Ronnie home with us, starting that night.”

A Guardian Ad Litem was supervising Ronnie’s care and Mike and Danyel happened to meet them in the hospital. Mike said, “If he ever needs anything, just give me a call.” Soon after, as Mike was driving past the church where he and Danyel are members, the guardian called asking, “Do you know of somebody who can help us out?” Danyel knew the time had come: “I had already started praying that God would soften Mike’s heart and say, ‘OK, yes, we have a place and Ronnie belongs home with us’.” Mike and their other children were already right on board. The children had said to Mike, “Dad, you just need to go with Mom on this; we need to start fostering.”

Now Ronnie has a new forever home. He says, “They are really nice people. They are the best moms and dads, and they really take care of me. There is no one else better than them. I am safe, I am loved, and I am part of this family.” The love Mike and Danyel have shown to Ronnie is like the love they themselves have experienced from God. In Jesus, God loved them with an amazing love and adopted them into his family. God is their heavenly Father, and they know they are safe forever.

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Remembering Andrew Devine

Andrew Devine has died, aged 55, the 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989. Andrew, then aged 22, suffered life-changing injuries because his chest was crushed and his brain was deprived of oxygen. His parents were told he would probably not live for more than 6 months. Andrew was a postal worker and was diagnosed as being in permanent vegetative state. Five years after this diagnosis, he began to emerge from PVS by looking at people. Then he began using an electric buzzer to communicate more and more with his parents, Stanley and Hilary, who have always looked after Andrew at home. Then, eight years later, he could count. Andrew has been confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.

The love and support of Andrew’s family has kept him going. They said, “Andrew has been a much-loved son, brother and uncle. He has been supported by his family and a team of dedicated professional carers, all of whom devoted themselves to him. As ever, our thoughts are with all of those affected by Hillsborough.” When possible, Andrew attended Liverpool matches and, when they won the Champions League in 2019, the bus parade around the city stopped at the family home so that James Milner could show Andrew the trophy.

In 2002 a friend of mine spoke with Andrew’s father who told him Andrew’s progress had slowed. Andrew seemed to be happy most of the time and, although he could not speak, they managed to communicate as they watched television together and as his father took him out in his wheelchair every day. At that time Mr Devine said, “The experts thought it would be only two, then three, then five years. But Andrew has proved them all wrong. Yes, it is a strain for us looking after him, but he is our son, he needs us, and so we just get on with it.” When Andrew died his family said, “Our collective devastation is overwhelming but so, too, is the realisation that we were blessed to have had Andrew with us for 32 years since the Hillsborough tragedy.”

The loving care of Andrew’s family is a deeply moving example of the preciousness of every human being. Their love for Andrew reflects the love and compassion of God who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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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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It’s not good to be alone

Personal relationships are very important. On a morning walk I saw young children going back to school. They were happy, smiling and singing. They were looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers again. Soon elderly people living in care homes will be able to see one close relative face to face after, for many, having had no physical contact with loved ones for a year. Mothers teaching their children at home have experienced real loneliness. People working at home are feeling the loss of regular contact with their colleagues in the office. Protecting life is important, but life without warm relationships with family and friends can feel very empty.

In the Bible’s account of the creation of human beings we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is the first insight into who God is. There is only one God, but there are three persons within the Godhead – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are united in an eternal relationship of love. God’s image is seen equally in both men and women who long for and find fulfilment in warm personal relationships. When those relationships are lost or spoiled, life itself is diminished and people are impoverished.

God’s supreme revelation of himself is in a person, his eternal Son, Jesus, who shows us what God is like. His gracious life and death for our sins reveal God’s love and compassion for us. Jesus’ disciples walked and talked with him. They experienced his warm love for them and witnessed the compassion he showed to all who came to him need. The Apostle John wrote about Jesus, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

Recently a good friend died of Covid-19. In an attempt to save his life, the doctors put him into an induced coma. Just before he went into the coma my friend said, “God is good.” He was separated from his family, but he was not alone. Like David, who wrote Psalm 23, he trusted in the Lord, who was his shepherd, and could say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

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When I am afraid

Fear is a common human emotion. The coronavirus pandemic has created sustained fear in the hearts of many people, especially the elderly, who are afraid to leave their homes in case they catch the virus. Some people I know have not left their homes since last March.

Fear can protect us from danger. Parents use fear in a positive way to teach their children to be careful when crossing the road or not to touch electric sockets in case they receive a shock. It is helpful for people to be aware that the coronavirus is easily transmitted and, in some cases, produces serious illness and even death. It is wise to be afraid of enclosed spaces, crowds, and close contact with others, especially those who may have the virus.

Fear can also paralyse us and prevent us from coping with daily life. So, it’s really important to know how to cope with fear. The psalms of David help us to know how to handle our fears. In Psalm 56, which he wrote when his enemies had captured him and his life was in danger, he says, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you. I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?” Instead of being overcome by fear, he put his trust in God’s promise that he would be king. When we are afraid, we can put our trust in God.

When we are afraid, we can also pray for God’s help and protection. A few weeks ago, some good friends were in a very difficult situation with the virus. The husband is elderly and vulnerable. His wife is caring for him with the help of a team of carers who come into their home every day. One of the carers contracted coronavirus and, soon after their son, who lives with them also picked up the virus at work. All we could do was to pray for God’s protection for the couple and God graciously heard our prayers. When we are afraid, we can pray to God.

In Psalm 23 David speaks of his confidence in the Lord, who was his shepherd, even when facing death. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Despite the excellent care of doctors and nurses, good friends have died from coronavirus, and their families had only been able to visit them at the very end, but they, like David feared no evil because the Lord was with them.

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Baby Asher

The birth of a first child is an occasion for great joy. In June Pete and Grace, who work at Hebron School in India, rejoiced in the birth of their son Asher and their families and friends rejoiced with them. When he was five weeks old Asher was taken ill with vomiting and admitted to hospital with septic shock. Doctors discovered a twisted bowel which, sadly, could not be saved except for just 6 centimetres. Where he was in India basic treatment like replacement nutrition was not feasible.

When we were first sent news about Asher, in early August, we were asked to pray for him and Pete and Grace, because the medical team at the hospital had, reluctantly, decided to turn off his life support the following morning. However, when morning came the medical team reviewed Asher’s situation and saw that, apart from the very serious problem with his bowel, he was otherwise healthy, bright and alert. So, it was decided to continue to care for him and to seek possible places where he could be treated.

Pete, who is from the UK, discovered that there are hospitals in England that could treat Asher either by lengthening his bowel or by a small intestine transplant and that these hospitals would be willing to treat Asher. But there was one big problem – finance. There would be no charge for Asher’s treatment in England but transferring him on a special medical plane from India to England would cost £102,000, and there would also be other costs. It was decided to pray that God would provide the finance and to set up a crowdfunding page. Wonderfully, gifts have been received from thousands of people around the world to cover the costs of bringing Asher to England and he is now at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

When we experience trials in our own life, or in the lives of those we love, we, too, can pray to God for his gracious help and he will hear our prayers. Even when the way ahead is full of uncertainties, we can commit our way to him and trust him. The kindness and practical care of other people, who may be strangers to us, is a great encouragement. Every human life is precious to God, however small and vulnerable. And, amazingly, the God to whom we pray is the One who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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A precious gift from God

We have had an addition to our family. Our youngest daughter gave birth three weeks ago to her first child, a little boy. My wife and I are thankful to God that they are both safe and well. This baby is a precious gift from God. We have seen him but have not yet held him because of the present restrictions. We are thankful for the excellent care our daughter received from the consultant and midwife during her pregnancy and, especially, their skills during a difficult delivery.

During our daughter’s pregnancy it was lovely to see the scan photos of the baby in the womb and to see him growing and developing. Those photos reminded us of King David’s words in Psalm 139, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful; I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Every human life is precious and little babies are vulnerable and dependent. We are praying for our daughter and son-in-law to have wisdom as they bring up their son. We do not know what the future holds for them or for this world. But whatever the future holds we know that God is faithful and that he is the One who guides both the history of the world and our personal histories. A Christian song says, “I know who holds the future and he’ll guide me with his hand. With God things don’t just happen everything by him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to him my all.”

The birth of a little boy in Bethlehem, more than 2000 years ago, brought light to this dark world. His birth was the dawn of hope and a revelation of God’s love for the peoples of the world. 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.” We pray that our new grandson will one day realise God’s love for him in Jesus and receive the gift of eternal life.

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When tragedy strikes

After school on 13 January the school minibus dropped 7-year-old Samuel Barker at his home in Monmouth. Tragically Samuel was then knocked over by the minibus. His mother, Cat, rushed to him and knew the moment she got there that little Samuel was not alive. She said, “I was there in seconds, I picked him up off the road and put him on my lap. I knew he was dead straight away and there was no suffering. I praised God for his life and that I knew exactly where he was now, and that it had been so quick. I kissed his head – his very tousled hair.” Cat and two friends then prayed as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Cat and her husband are Christians and have known God comforting and strengthening them in their grief. The day after Samuel died, Cat went to the school and explained to his class that Samuel is in heaven. After praying with them she went outside to the playground and comforted other parents. Cat is “desperately sad” for the driver of the minibus and prays that he will not be wracked with guilt.

Cat said, “Samuel was exuberant and bouncy. There was never a dull moment. He often had messy hair, paint on his jumper, and muddy knees. He made the best of every moment.” A year ago, Cat bought some new notebooks for Samuel and his two brothers. Samuel was very excited to receive his notebook and took it to his bedroom. He sat down at his desk and started busily writing.

This is what Samuel wrote that day, “I love Jesus and God because they look after me and are nice to me. They love me very much and they make me better and they are the best adults in the whole wide world. And I love them very, very much. They are so nice to me. So, I will always believe in them. They like me so much. They are so, so, so, so, so kind to me and I trust them. They give me strength. He loves me all the time, I praise the Lord. I can trust in them. They are the best. I am so excited to go to heaven. I will never hurt myself. I will never, never get a stitch. And he died on the cross for me. He saved my life.”

Cat said, “The Bible tells us that all you need is the faith of a child. You don’t need to have a degree in theology or your life together perfectly. You just need to say, ‘Yes – I believe, help me in my unbelief.’”