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!”

Bear Gryll’s Greatest Adventure

Bear Grylls is well-known as a man who embodies the spirit of adventure and outdoor survival. His love of adventure began when he was growing up on the Isle of Wight. His late father, Sir Michael Grylls, taught him to climb. Bear says, “It brought us close and I loved it. It was never about the climbs but about that closeness.” In his book “To My Sons” he writes, “Aim to live a wild, generous, full, exciting life – blessing those around you and seeing the good in all. Follow your dreams – they are God-given.”

Bear trained in martial arts and perfected many of his skills when he served for 3 years in the British Special Forces as a member of 21 SAS. He has climbed Everest; crossed the North Atlantic on an inflatable boat; navigated the Northwest Passage; survived crocodile-infested swamps in Indonesia; and para-motored over the Himalayas. He says, “It is through faith that we find peace, but that same faith can also give us great boldness to reach out that little bit further than maybe we are comfortable. Everything worthwhile in life comes from reaching beyond that point of comfort; daring to risk it all; following our dreams despite the cost; loving despite the pain; hoping despite the doubts; and living boldly despite the fear. Life is an adventure that it best lived boldly.”

Bear is the youngest-ever Chief Scout and is a role-model to 40 million scouts worldwide. He says, “Scouting is about faith, it’s about friendship, it’s about fun – it’s all part of what we wanted when we grew up.” When it comes to adventure, he says, “The first step is always the hardest. That’s the one that takes the most courage. I’ve learned not to run from that fear and just do it.”

Bear says that finding simple faith to empower his life has been his greatest adventure. “Life is a journey and at times we all need a guide. For me that guide has become my backbone, my helper, my companion and my friend. I always thought that Christianity was about being very sensible and acting all smart and religious. But the more I discovered about Jesus Christ himself, the more I found a man who was as unreligious as you can imagine. It seemed that the very heart of the Christian faith was not about church, pulpits, sermons or Latin verse! It was about a relationship with someone who promises us life in abundance, joy within, peace without and freedom in our soul. Now I was interested!”

A radical alternative to materialism

Materialism has been adopted by many people in the developed world as the basis for their lives. They believe that nothing exists except physical matter and that the universe in which we live is evolving. We, too, are caught up in an impersonal evolutionary process. Materialism tells us that we are all essentially animals and that physical things are the only things that exist. As a result, some people have become materialistic, seeking to accumulate wealth and possessions in the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction.

One very serious consequence of a materialistic life is that the true value of people is lost. The Urban Dictionary defines being materialistic as, “The act of caring more about things than people; judging yourself and others on the cost of your stupid things.” From childhood we are encouraged to believe that the things we possess give us value and worth. Our “stuff” defines us. The sad and tragic lives of some rich and famous people teach us that money and possessions do not guarantee happiness, but may even destroy us.

The Bible warns us of the dangers of being materialistic. Jesus told a man who wanted to inherit a legacy, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” The apostle Paul said, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

The example of Jesus provides a radical alternative to materialism and points the way to true and lasting happiness for us all, as people who have been created by God as both body and soul. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus left the heavenly riches, that were his of right, in order to come to this world and become poor. On the Cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven and receive eternal life. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection teach us that every one of us is valuable in God’s sight and that heaven is real.

Remembering William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, the great English poet and playwright, died 400 years ago on 25 April 1616, at the age of 52. A month before he died, on 25 March 1616, he made his last will and testament. It seems he may have known that his life was nearing its end. The opening paragraph of his will is a clear statement of his own personal faith and his hope for the future.

“In the name of God, Amen. I William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick, in perfect health and memory, God be praised, do make and ordain this my last will and testament. First, I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting and my body to the Earth whereof it was made.”

Most obituaries record the main achievements of the person who has died but say very little, if anything, about their faith in God and their future hope. When the person has had a real and vital faith this may simply be noted briefly towards the end of the obituary. Yet as our lives are drawing to a close it is vitally important that we do not simply look back but also look forward. We are about to enter into the presence of God and the realm of eternity, in comparison to which, our life on earth is but a moment.

William Shakespeare took eternity seriously and had prepared for it. Through the work of men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale the Bible had been translated into English for the first time and the advent of the printing press had made it available to the people. The Bible made a deep impact on Shakespeare personally and on his writings. He knew he had been created by God and was thankful to him for the good health and sound mind he enjoyed. He knew that, after he died, he would stand before God in judgement and his humble hope was to enter into everlasting life.

He “assuredly believed” that Jesus was the way to “everlasting life”. He called Jesus “my Saviour.” He did not trust in himself but in “the merits of Jesus Christ” who had lived a perfect life for him and died on the Cross to pay the price of his sins. He died in the sure and certain hope that through Jesus he would enter into everlasting life.

Secure in the love of God

The terrorist atrocities in Paris have left 129 people dead and more than 350 injured, some critically. The 7 suicide bombers all died after they had attacked restaurants, cafes, bars, a rock concert and the Stade de France. The 3 groups of terrorists used bombs and Kalashnikov assault rifles in a way not seen before on the streets of Western Europe. The attacks have left the French people traumatised and other nations fearing that similar attacks may also come to their streets. Our hearts go out to those who have so tragically lost loved ones.

It is not possible to make sense of the events of this life without reference to God and eternity. Some people believe that this life is the only life there is, but this leaves big questions unanswered. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God and have both a body and a soul, that can never die. We also have a conscience by which we know the difference between right and wrong. So we know that doing what is right matters and that we are all accountable to God for the things we do.

The sacredness of every human life and the evil of wilfully killing human beings is something we all affirm because of who we are. We are created in God’s image. Tragically it seems that some people are being deceived into believing that committing terrorist acts and killing yourself with a bomb takes you to a reward in paradise. But we know that cannot be true. Sinful actions cannot be rewarded and no-one can escape the eternal consequences of their actions by taking their own life.

The events in Paris also remind us of the fragility of our lives. People who set out on Friday evening to relax with friends over a meal died in a way they could not possibly have anticipated. We all need to find refuge in God and to know that, whatever happens, there is nothing that can separate us from his love in Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to persecuted Christians living in Rome, some of whom would die for their faith in Jesus. He told them, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”