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Amazing love

More than 2000 years ago a young man died on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem. It seemed even to his disciples, who loved him deeply, that his death was the end of all their hopes. For 3 years he had travelled throughout Israel preaching and teaching the people and healing many sick people. Just 5 days before he was executed large crowds had acclaimed him as their king, but then had turned against him and demanded that he be killed.

As he was nailed to the cross he didn’t look like a king. The Romans knew how to humiliate and eliminate those who offended against their laws and their Emperor. A mock crown, made of thorns, had been pressed on his head and blood ran down his face and neck. His back was a mass of bleeding flesh from the scourging he had endured. As the nails were driven through his hands and his feet the Romans were making sure that this would be the end of him. Jesus of Nazareth would not be causing them any more trouble. But how wrong they were!

This Easter millions of Christians around the world are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. They see his cross, which was a place of curse and shame, as a glorious demonstration of God’s love. Through Jesus’ death in their place, and for their sins, they have found forgiveness for all their sins and have been reconciled to God. Like the Roman centurion who stood at the foot of the cross, and saw him die, they say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Like the criminal who hung on a cross next to Jesus they have heard his promise, “I tell you the truth, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Roman Empire disappeared long ago, but the kingdom of King Jesus has spread around the world. This Easter many Christians will be singing with solemn joy the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet; or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

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I want the best for you

On 26 September 2018 Amber Guyger, a Dallas policewoman, returned to her apartment building after a 14-hour shift. Still in her uniform and in a state she later described as “autopilot”, she entered the wrong flat. She lived at flat 1378 but went into flat 1478, one floor above hers, where Botham Jean, a black accountant, lived. The door was unlocked, and Botham was sitting on the sofa eating ice cream. Thinking he was an intruder, Amber drew her gun, and shot him twice, intending to kill him.

When giving evidence, she wept and said, “I ask God for forgiveness. I hate myself every single day. I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” The mostly black jury of eight women and four men convicted her of murder. She could have been sentenced to life in prison but received 10 years. Protesters outside the court building were outraged by the lenient sentence.

After sentence had been passed Brandt Jean, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, told Amber, “If you truly are sorry, I forgive you. And I know, if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I’m speaking for myself, but I love you just like anyone else. I don’t wish anything bad on you. I want the best for you, I don’t even want you to go to jail, because I know that that’s exactly what Botham would want, and the best is to give your life to Christ.” Then he asked the judge if he could hug his brother’s killer and embraced Amber for about a minute. It was an act of Christian forgiveness that brought tears to many eyes.

Botham’s mother Allison said she had no idea that Brandt was going to hug the killer. She, too, spoke of forgiving Amber but said, “I don’t want forgiveness to be mistaken for a total relinquishing of responsibility.”

The response of the Jean family to the tragic death of Botham illustrates the importance of both justice and forgiveness. How can our sins, that deserve to be punished, be forgiven by God? When Jesus died on the cross he both satisfied the just demands of God’s law and also opened the way for us to be forgiven. One hymn says, “Here is love, vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood, when the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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Heaven is real

The recent warm, sunny days have lifted our spirits after the cold days of early Spring. The cloudless blue skies, awakening nature, and the quiet, warmth of longer evenings have brought joy to our hearts. The beauty of the natural world around us, with the magnolia and cherry blossoms, the daffodils and primroses, and the green of the new leaves now beginning to adorn the trees, reveals the unique splendour of planet Earth, on which we are privileged to live. At such times we might wish to be able to stop and stay in the pleasure and happiness of the moment, but it isn’t possible. The daffodils fade, the blossoms fall and the most glorious of sunsets leads only to the darkness of the night.

The deep longing to find lasting peace, joy and fulfilment is something we all experience. The joys and pleasures of this world are real, but all transient. Because we have been created by God with an eternal soul we, inevitably, long for more, for that which endures. King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom, wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” A prayer, based on words of Augustine, expresses the desires of many, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you; so lead us by your Spirit that in this life we may live to your glory and in the life to come enjoy you for ever.”

Today we seldom talk about heaven and the life to come, but it is fundamental to our very being. We can only make sense of the sadnesses and mysteries of this life in the light of eternity. God is passionately concerned about justice and has set a day when he will righteously judge all people. Heaven is real and is the realm where God dwells in glory, love and unending blessing. Jesus said he was the Way to heaven.

The book of Revelation beautifully describes heaven, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. The one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new! To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. I will be their God, and they will be my children.”

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The inspiration of the Invictus Games

The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.

In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”

He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”

The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.

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When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”

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When tragedy strikes

The Manchester bombing atrocity has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. Thousands attended the Ariana Grande concert, including many children and young people. They had been looking forward to the event for months. As the crowds were leaving the Manchester Arena, the suicide bomber detonated his device killing 22, maiming 64, and traumatizing many more. One of the most poignant images was of a 12-year-old girl being looked after and comforted by police officers. She had gone to the concert with her mother and a friend. Now her mother was dead and she, and those helping her, were struggling to take it in.

Reporting of the bombing has been extensive over the past week, but already things are moving on and life for most people is returning to normal. But what about those who have been most tragically affected because they have lost mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and friends? Or those who have suffered life-changing injuries? Emergency and medical staff have also been traumatized by the things they have seen as they have heroically used their skills to help those devastated by the atrocity. Those of us not directly involved can only try to understand a little of what they are experiencing.

When tragedy strikes the help of other people is a great source of comfort and strength. As we struggle with our questions and numbing sadness we can also find help in God. Psalm 46 affirms, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. The Lord Almighty is with us. Be still, and know that I am God.” Those who come alongside us in the dark days immediately after a tragedy must inevitably return to their own lives and we may be left to struggle with our loss, or cope with our new limitations, alone. But God is always with us. In him we can find solace and strength.

God understands our sadness. His Son, Jesus, was just 33 years old when he was killed by wicked men. During his ministry, Jesus had brought great blessing to many people: he healed people from all kinds of diseases, set people free from the power of evil spirits, and even raised people from the dead. Yet, irrationally, he was hated by the religious leaders who were determined to kill him. He didn’t deserve to die. When we experience overwhelming tragedy and deep sadness we can pray to God. He understands what we are experiencing and will gives us his strength in our time of greatest need.

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Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

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Andy Murray wins at Wimbledon

Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon has brought great joy to him and his family, to the town of Dunblane and to the nation. The long wait for another British men’s champion is over. It was a fiercely contested match, in 40C heat, between two men who know each other well. Novak Djokovic is just 7 days older than Andy and both have committed their lives to becoming tennis champions. Novak left Serbia at the age of 12 to go to Germany to learn his skills. Andy left Dunblane when he was 15 to train in Spain.

Andy has experienced great sadness as well as triumph. He was a pupil at Dunblane Primary School when a local man shot 17 people. Andy’s class was due to be the next in the gym where the shooting took place. This year Andy’s best friend, and former doubles partner, Ross Hutchins, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As Wimbledon began Andy said, “Tennis obviously means a lot to me, but at the end of the day my tennis career is going to be, I hope, seven or eight years more, but there’s a lot more to life than just playing tennis.” Ross was at the Centre Court to see Andy win the title.

Andy has achieved success through hours of great physical and mental effort. He has steadily improved through dedication and patience in the face of disappointments. He said, “I think I persevered, that’s really been it, the story of my career probably. I had a lot of tough losses, but the one thing I say is I think every year I always improved a little bit, every year my ranking was going in the right direction.”

Andy exemplifies very important qualities and insights. The triumphs of life are very brief and transitory. We learn far more through the hard things, such as disappointments, setbacks and tragic events. A Christian song affirms this, “I walked a mile with pleasure, she chatted all the way, but I was none the wiser for all she had to say. I walked a mile with sorrow, not a word said she, but O the things I learned that day when sorrow walked with me.” Sad experiences remind us of our mortality and point us to the ultimate realities of eternity. The apostle Paul wrote, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.”