The peace of God

A few years ago we were given a red mug with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On” on it. The design of the mug is based on a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The aim of the poster was to raise public morale in anticipation of the mass air attacks on major British cities. In 1940 and 1941 the Blitz killed more than 40,000 civilians and destroyed more than 1 million houses in major cities around Britain, but the 2.5 million copies of the poster were never used. However, the British people, especially those living in London, show amazing courage and resilience in the face of the terrible bombing they endured.

The motto on the poster was an appeal for stoicism – a “stiff upper lip” and calm resolve in the face of adversity. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy which encourages people to subdue their emotions through self-control and fortitude. Today, a stoic is seen as an unemotional person who seems to be indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and who accepts hardship without any display of feelings or complaint. In hard times a stoic does not look for, or expect, love and comfort, but simply accepts what life throws at them.

In his letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul presents another approach to the challenges of life. He wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When he was in Philippi Paul had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned. At midnight, when he and his companion Silas were in prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God. Their response to suffering was to rejoice in the Lord remembering his love for them in Jesus and thanking him for the many times he had blessed them in their lives. They knew that, even in prison, the Lord was with them. So they prayed to him and gave thanks to him and asked him to help them and give them his peace. When we experience adversity, as we all do, it is good to pray to God and rejoice in who he is. He hears our prayers and will give us his peace.

Sacrificial love in DR Congo

Last week the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo declared an outbreak of Ebola. Two cases have been confirmed in the northwest of the country. Ebola was first identified in DR Congo in 1976. The virus can be transmitted from wild animals to people and spreads through human-to-human transmission. The average fatality rate is 50%. The World Health organisation has made $1 million available to contain the outbreak.

DR Congo is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It has an abundant water supply from the world’s second-largest river, a benign climate, fertile soil and abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium and oil. Yet its 79 million people have experienced great suffering through corrupt government and a long running civil war in which more than 5 million people have died. Millions of people now live in extreme poverty.

Yet there are also bright lights of love and hope that shine in DR Congo. A friend of mine, who lives and works in Shalom University in Bunia, recently wrote to me. In February and March violence flared in the area near Bunia and over a two-week period 50,000 people fled into the city. They arrived on foot with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My friend described the response of Christians to the needs of these displaced people.

“On the first Sunday after the displaced began arriving, it was blazing hot. The pastor of the main church in Bunia preached on Abraham’s hospitality of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God himself. The pastor invited a refugee family up to the front to tell their story. At the end of their story the pastor started singing and the people began to stream forward to give a love offering for the displaced. Soon a large pink laundry basket was overflowing with bundles of money. This came from the people of a city where £70 a month is a good salary.”

The pastor then asked the Christians to prepare for a bigger offering the next Sunday. He told them they should bring their best food and clothes. The following Sunday, the offering was even larger and large bags of clothes were donated. For a month, the Christians throughout Bunia provided the main support for the displaced people. The loving actions of these Christians was inspired by their own experience of God’s love in Jesus who, “though he was rich, yet for their sake became poor, so that you through his poverty they might become rich.”

The greatest ever rescue

Last Wednesday afternoon a huge avalanche hit Hotel Rigopiano, in central Italy, at an estimated speed of 60mph. Following several earthquakes, guests had gathered on the ground floor of the four-star spa hotel to await evacuation. The avalanche caused the roof to collapse and moved the building 11 yards off its foundations. More than 30 people were known to be in the hotel, including some children. The first rescuers arrived, by helicopter and ski, 12 hours later and faced the complex and urgent task of trying to find survivors.

In the early stages of the rescue there were no signs of life and it was feared that everyone had died. Giampiero Parete was staying at the hotel with his wife and 2 children. They were on a special holiday. Moments before the avalanche struck Giampero left the hotel to get some headache tablets for his wife from their car. He immediately raised the alarm and then waited for help to come fearing that his wife and children had died. On the second day of the rescue Giampero’s wife, Adriana, his 7-year-old son, Gianfilipo, and 6-year-old daughter, Ludovica, were pulled out of the rubble alive. In all 9 people have been rescued, 23 are still missing and 6 have died.

It is always inspiring to watch dedicated rescue teams using all their skills, and the resources at their disposal, to save the lives of those caught up in disasters. Often they are willing to put their lives in danger to save others. We share their joy when people are found alive and are rescued and, also, their sadness when they find the bodies of those who have died.

The message of the Bible is about the greatest ever rescue. Religions usually teach the things we must do in order to find acceptance with God. The good news of the Gospel is about what God has done in Jesus to rescue us. We are all in great need of being rescued. We live in a world of suffering and death and also struggle personally to do what we know is right. The obituaries of the rich and famous often reveal deep sadness as they have struggled with addictions and broken relationships. Out of his great love for us, Jesus came into the world to rescue us and give us a future and a hope. A well-known hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”

The story of the little girl in the picture

Many people, who do not recognise the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc, remember the photograph of her taken in 1972 when, as a 9-year-old little girl, she ran from her village in Vietnam after a napalm attack. Kim Phuc is now 52 years old and lives in Toronto. She is a wife and mother of 2 boys and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Phuc has established a charity that helps children suffering from war. She says that the terrified little girl in the picture is “not running any more, she’s flying!”

In 1972 Phuc was living in the village of Trang Bang, north of Saigon. She and family were sheltering in a temple when they heard planes overhead. They ran outside to find safety, just as bombs detonated containing napalm, a flammable liquid that clings to skin, causing horrific burns. Phuc remembers the intense heat and excruciating pain. She pulled burning clothes from her body. Then she ran and, as she ran, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old photographer, took a photograph that became a symbol of the horrors of that war.

Phuc spent more than a year in hospital. Her family were afraid she wouldn’t survive. After many skin grafts, and other operations, she recovered from her physical injuries. Yet she could not find peace. She wanted to disappear, and even to die. She thought if she died she wouldn’t have to suffer mentally, physically and emotionally. She began seeking answers and, when she was 19 years old, she a trusted Jesus Christ as her Saviour and found new life and peace. She says, “When I became Christian, I had a wonderful connection – the relationship between me, and Jesus, and God.” Phuc asked God for help to move on and says, “From that point I learned to forgive.”

Today Phuc radiates an unmistakeable poise and peace when she tells her story. She sees that famous picture as just one of many blessings. She says, “I really want to thank God that he spared my life when I was a little girl. Whatever happened to me, I have another opportunity to be alive, to be healthy, to be a blessing and to help honour other people. I still have the pain, I still have the scars, and I still have the memories, but my heart is healed. My message to people when they see that picture today is try not to see her as crying out in pain and fear, try not to see her as a symbol of war, but try to see her as a symbol of peace.”

The Lord is gracious and compassionate

Compassion fatigue is a feature of our modern world. It involves “fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others or from constant appeals from charities.” Through the media we are given vivid insights into the suffering of our fellow human beings. The news reports are immediate and show us suffering and death from around the world, sometimes as it is actually happening. Some news items are prefaced with a warning “some viewers may find this report distressing.”

In recent weeks we have heard of 400 migrants who died in an attempt to reach Italy from Libya when their boat, which was carrying 550 people, capsized. Men, women and children perished in Mediterranean Sea. In Ecuador a devastating earthquake destroyed schools and hospitals leaving 413 people dead and at least 3000 injured. Amazingly, a 72 year-old man was rescued 13 days after the earthquake. Air strikes destroyed a Doctors Without Borders’ hospital in Aleppo in Syria and killed at least 60 people, including sick children and doctors. Dr Muhammad Waseem Maaz, the only paediatrician in the hospital, died in the attack.

It is right for us to be moved with compassion for those who suffer. They are human beings, created in the image of God, who have all the same hopes and aspirations we have. They are helpless as their communities and their loved ones are destroyed. This world is a place of suffering and much of it is caused by man’s inhumanity to man. We feel overwhelmed by the scale of the need and the inability of either world leaders, or ordinary people, to bring an end to the suffering.

How precious it is that in times of overwhelming suffering we can turn to the living God for comfort and strength. He is not “the unmoved Mover” who remains impassive and untouched by the suffering of those he has created. Psalm 103 says, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Jesus, who uniquely revealed the heart of God, had compassion on the crowds because “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We can pray to God for all those who suffer, and for ourselves, that they, and we, will find in Jesus the One who gives “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

The Forgotten Army

It was a very moving occasion when the veterans of the war in the Far East paraded through central London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that finally brought World War II to an end. These men and women were known as “The Forgotten Army” because their war ended three months after the victory in Europe. Some of them had experienced the appalling cruelty of the Japanese prisoner of war camps; others had worked on the infamous Burma-Siam “Death Railway.”

Thousands of people lined the route from Horse Guards Parade to Westminster Abbey to cheer the veterans, some being pushed in wheel chairs by family members. There was real sadness in remembering those who died so long ago, but also great joy that so many people had joined them to remember what happened and to affirm their love and appreciation for all the veterans and their comrades had suffered to secure victory in the Far East. In Japan, Emperor Akihito expressed “deep remorse” for his country’s wartime actions and the earnest hope “that the ravages of war will never be repeated.”

The war in the Far East left deep mental scars on many who survived. One of my aunts, who died a few years ago, was a member of the Burma Star Association. As a young woman she served in the Far East with the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. She found it very difficult to forget the things she had witnessed when she saw many young soldiers being killed or terribly wounded, both physically and emotionally. The horrors of war remained with her for the rest of her life.

To whom can we turn for comfort when we, or those who we love, suffer through great human evil and wickedness? As we bring our pain and questions to God he will give us his peace. In Psalm 27 David, who fought many battles against fierce enemies, writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.”

Being thankful and content

Many people in the world experience profound suffering and sadness. Sometimes it comes through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis in which people lose everything – loved ones, homes and possessions. Some die from deadly diseases like Ebola. Others perish in the deserts of Africa or the Mediterranean Sea as they flee oppressive regimes and persecution. Some are imprisoned or executed by religious fanatics or megalomaniac rulers.

The pictures of the Rohingya Muslim people on boats in the Andaman Sea vividly portrayed human misery and helplessness. They come from Myanmar where they are not recognized as citizens and face persecution. The people have paid people smugglers to take them to Thailand but have been turned away. Malaysia and Indonesia have also refused to accept them. Men, women and children have been trapped on dilapidated boats with little food or water for weeks. Many are sick and dying. No one seems ready to accept them; they have nowhere to turn.

Watching the report of the people on the boat I felt both a compassion for their plight and a deep thankfulness that I, and my family, have never been in such a terrible situation. We have faced difficulties in our lives but have always had someone to turn to for help. It is easy to complain about relatively minor things that go wrong and not to realize the amazing privileges we enjoy. Seeing the people in the boat puts our problems into their proper perspective.

In the Western world today contentment is very rare. Complaining seems to be the norm in our materialistic society. We are encouraged never to be content with what we have and always to want more. Yet no amount of material possessions can ever bring lasting fulfilment. The apostle Paul wrote, “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.”

Every human being is precious because we have been created in God’s image. When everyone rejects the people in the boats, and they have nowhere to turn, God sees and cares. He hears their cries for help and will hold to account those who are so terribly mistreating them. He is also the one to whom we can give thanks for the many blessings he has given us, none of which we deserve. His greatest gift to a lost and dying world was his Son, Jesus, who came that through him we might have eternal life.

In all their suffering he also suffered

The television programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp brought home afresh the terrifying capacity of human beings to commit acts of great evil and wickedness. The systematic slaughter of millions of helpless Jewish people ranks amongst the darkest chapters in human history. They were first incarcerated in ghettos and then transported like animals to camps like Auschwitz where men, women and children were mercilessly gassed and then buried or incinerated. The emaciated bodies of those living in the camps clearly portray the diabolical treatment they suffered.

In contrast the programmes remembering the funeral of Winston Churchill, who died 50 years ago, reminded us that human beings are also capable of acts of great courage in confronting evil men and bringing liberty to many. Churchill was our greatest wartime Prime Minister who inspired a nation to stand against and, together with our allies, to defeat the megalomaniac ambitions of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. In the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill inspired a nation to rise from a massive defeat and to courageously confront, and ultimately defeat, a very powerful enemy.

Human beings are an enigma. Reflecting on the life of his grandfather, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, one grandson struggled to understand how his grandfather could be a kind and loving husband and father to his own family while at the same time he was supervising the merciless extermination of Jewish families. At a personal level we all struggle with the daily contradictions of our lives. The apostle Paul was conscious of this and wrote, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.”

God has decisively intervened in our world to give us hope in the face of both the continuing acts of great evil and our daily personal struggles. He cares deeply for those experiencing great suffering. The prophet Isaiah spoke God’s word to his suffering people, “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them.” These words of comfort were ultimately fulfilled In Jesus Christ who died in our place. On the cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve in order to redeem us and give us hope. As one hymn says, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

On the road to Damascus

After more than 3 years the civil war in Syria between government forces and the rebels continues. More than 100,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million men, women and children, have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Within Syria itself 4 million people have had to move from their homes and are now displaced. Heavy bombing has devastated the cities of Aleppo and Homs, killing and injuring thousands of people. Large parts of these, and other, cities have been virtually destroyed. There seems no prospect of an end to the conflict and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.

Is it possible for people whose hearts are filled with hatred to be changed? Yes it is. The conversion of the apostle Paul is a great example. He was on the road to Damascus, in Syria, when he had a life changing encounter with Jesus. Paul was extremely zealous for his Jewish faith and lived according to very strict religious laws. He hated Jesus and violently persecuted Christians. He wanted to destroy the church.

He was travelling to Damascus to find followers of Jesus, both men and women, and take them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. On the Damascus Road he met the living Lord. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. Saul lost his sight and had to be led by the hand into Damascus. After 3 days the Lord sent a Christian named Ananias to visit Saul. He placed his hands on Saul and he recovered his sight, was baptised, and began proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy. Saul was a changed man and, despite great suffering, preached the good news about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire for the rest of his life.

The good news about Jesus is a life transforming message. Those who receive Jesus as their Saviour are forgiven and begin a new life. An inner, heart change takes place. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” When this happens in places of conflict today, those who become Christians often find their lives are in danger from their old friends, who consider them traitors. Yet they continue faithfully to follow Jesus, whatever the cost, because he “loved them and gave himself for them” and taught them to “love their enemies.”

The earth is the Lord’s

In 2007 the BBC reported that a scientist in the USA, Professor Wieslaw Maslowski, had forecast that by the summer of 2013 the Arctic would be ice-free. Other scientists agreed with this forecast, which was based on super-computer models. This summer 20 yachts tried to sail the Northwest Passage, which links the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. All these vessels are presently stuck in the ice because the Northwest Passage has remained ice-bound and impassable all summer. The Arctic ice sheet has grown this summer by a million square miles, an increase of 60% on last year.

In the Bible we read of the sufferings of Job. He was a good man who experienced great personal tragedy in his life. The book of Job records his struggle to understand why these things had happened to him. His so-called “comforters” told him his sufferings were God’s punishment on his sins. Then God appears to Job and answers his questions by asking him questions. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”

Then God highlights all the amazing features of the heavens and earth which he has created, including ice. He asks Job, “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?” Job’s humble response to all God says is, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes see you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

This wonderful universe was created by God and he continues to uphold it in his perfect wisdom. Despite everything people do which is environmentally damaging God’s creation remains amazingly stable. The understanding of the greatest of men is very small and partial. Early modern scientists, encouraged by their faith in God, were conscious of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Like Job, we, too, need to find God in the perplexing experiences of our lives. He is gracious and compassionate and very kind. Sometimes out of the pain and struggles of life we come to know God’s presence and comfort in a new way.