The love that transforms

At the World Athletics’ Championships two great athletes completed outstanding careers. Usain Bolt is the first person to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records. He has won 8 Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. He is the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in three consecutive Olympics. Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, winning gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between 2011 and 2017 he won 10 successive global finals. It has been a delight to watch both men run.

At this World Championships, however, Usain won a bronze medal in the 100 metres and Mo won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres. Both were disappointed and the sports’ commentators spoke as if they were “failures” when they had won world championship medals; something most athletes only dream of doing. After completing a lap of honour, Usain said, “It’s really sad, I’m saying goodbye to everything.” From now on Mo wants to be known as Mohamed. He said, “I just feel like Mo is done. I need to forget about what I achieved and what I’ve done.”

The story of South African long jumper, Luvo Manyonga, is remarkable and encouraging. He won the gold medal at the World Championships. Just 3 years ago his life was very different. Luvo grew up in poverty in Mbekweni township. His mother, a domestic cleaner, raised him on her own. Luvo was an outstanding young athlete winning the world junior championship in 2010 and the All-Africa Games’ in 2011. However, the prize money disrupted his life. He started using tik, a recreational drug commonly used in the townships, and as a result gave a positive drug test in competition. He described his drug-taking as “hooking up with the devil.” He admitted taking the drug for non-performance-enhancing reasons and was suspended from competition for 18 months. The lower sentence was based on his “exceptional social circumstances.” Luvo underwent drug rehabilitation and was greatly helped by two new coaches.

After winning the World Championship gold medal, Luvo knelt by the side of the long jump pit and gave thanks to God. When he was interviewed by Gabby Logan, he told her he was a Christian and that Jesus had changed his life. What a wonderful encouragement this is. When we fail, as we all do, we can find new life and hope through experiencing the transforming love of Jesus.

Adriaan Vlok is a changed man

On Friday 2 February 1990 President F.W. de Klerk announced the end of apartheid, that for 41 years had inflicted brutality and injustice on millions of South African citizens, simply because of the colour of their skin. White and black people were forced to live entirely separately, the whites in the rich lands and the blacks in the desperately poor homelands. On Sunday 11 February 1990 Nelson Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster prison, after spending 27 years in detention, and declared himself to be a humble servant of the people.

From 1986 to 1991, Adriaan Vlok was Minister of Law and Order and was responsible for enforcing the apartheid laws. When, in 1999, he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he admitted the crimes he had committed, including ordering the bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches. In 2006 he publicly apologised for other acts committed while he was Minister of Law and Order. In a dramatic gesture, he washed the feet of Frank Chikane who, as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, he had targeted for assassination. Later he washed the feet of the 10 widows and mothers of the “Malmelodi 10”, a group of anti-apartheid activists who had been lured to their death by a police informant.

Today, at the age of 78, Adriaan lives in a modest house in the suburbs of Pretoria that he shares with a black man, a former convict and a homeless white family. In 2015 he set up the “Feed a Child” charity that provides food to poor black families. Without any escort or protection, he drives a few miles to the township of Olievenhoutbosch with his car loaded with donated food that he distributes to hungry families, a children’s day care centre and a disabled charity.

Adriaan has become a Christian and is a changed man. In 1994, shortly after he retired from government, his wife committed suicide. Dealing with the loss of his wife, and his own sense of guilt for atrocities committed by his police, Adriaan began reading the Bible. Some words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount spoke powerfully to him “If you are presenting a gift at the altar, and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your offering there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your gift to God.” “I realized,” Adriaan says, “that, because I had been graciously forgiven by God, I had to start making peace with my brothers whom I had so deeply hurt.”

Nelson Mandela – a man of peace and reconciliation

Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. He was the dignified figurehead of the struggle against the evils of apartheid in South Africa. He led a peaceful transition of his country in a way which won the admiration of people around the world belonging to all sections of society. He was, for so many, an inspiration and a figure of hope. In June 1964 he was found guilty of sabotage and given a life sentence which he served initially on the notorious Robben Island, off Cape Town. When he was released, after 27 years in prison, he demonstrated a remarkable spirit of forgiveness and led a powerful movement for peace and reconciliation in his beloved South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If that man wasn’t there the whole country would have gone up in flames.”

Nelson Mandela experienced hardship and struggle throughout his life culminating in his long years in prison. Yet those years changed him in an amazing way. The authorities intended to destroy him but instead he emerged as a man of great dignity and towering stature. Desmond Tutu said he needed that experience to transform him from being an angry man into the man of peace and reconciliation he became.

Nelson Mandela believed passionately in the equality of all people but also knew that this could only become a reality for people in South Africa if he won the support of all sections of their deeply divided society. At his inauguration as President he said, “Never, never, never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

In the Bible Joseph suffered greatly at the hands of his brothers and other people. His brothers nearly killed him before selling him as a slave in Egypt. There he was unjustly imprisoned and forgotten. When he was released he became the Governor of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh. Like Nelson Mandela he emerged from prison as a man of great wisdom and forgiveness. Later he said to his brothers, “Don’t be afraid. You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish the saving of many lives.” There is a far greater strength in the willingness to forgive than there is in a spirit of hatred and vengeance. The supreme example of this is Jesus who taught us to love of enemies and on the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Putting austerity into perspective

In the recent elections in the UK, France and Greece, large numbers of people have voted against the austerity measures being adopted by their governments. These measures include higher taxes and spending cuts, which will reduce the level of public services. People will need to work longer before retiring and public sector wages and pensions are being reduced. The lives of many people are being affected and, so, it is no wonder that they are not happy.

The reason austerity is necessary is that for many years governments have spent more money than they received in taxes. The financial crisis in the world has highlighted this problem, so that, now, some governments are no longer able to borrow the money they need. Some countries, such as Greece, are facing bankruptcy. In the past people have benefited from their government’s over-spending, but now the time has come when the debts must be repaid. The election results suggest that many people have unrealistic expectations.

Many of us who live in Western Europe enjoy a level of affluence millions of people in the world can only dream about. Some Christian friends of mine have set up a project in South Africa to care for children who have become orphans because of HIV/AIDS. In 2009 it was estimated that 5.6 million people in South Africa were living with HIV and AIDS and that in the same year more than 300,000 had died from AIDS-related causes. Young adults aged 15-49 have been particularly affected. It is estimated that there are nearly 2 million orphan children, who have lost one or both of their parents through AIDS. The care of these orphans has been taken on by grandparents and they struggle to cope physically and financially.

When I visited the project I saw the houses where some orphans are being cared for and also visited a feeding programme run in a local church. Children, who live with their grandparents, come after school on 3 days a week to the church where a good meal has been prepared for them. These meals are the only substantial meals the children eat each week. These children face many big problems, but were smiling and thankful. I came away from the project humbled and challenged by these children and by those who are caring for them. I have so much, but do I really appreciate it and do I thank God for it? Even in “austerity” we still have so much.