O Thou who changest not, abide with me!

The terrible fire at Grenfell Tower has traumatised a nation. The vivid pictures of the inferno that quickly engulfed the council tower block, in which more than 500 people lived, portrayed the horror of what was happening. There was an acute sense of helplessness as firemen tried to extinguish the fire that raged through the 24-storey tower in the middle of the night. The faces of people at the windows desperately crying out for help were heart-rending. For many there was no escape. The photographs of the inside of the flats, released by the Metropolitan Police, show the total devastation of the fire. Everything was destroyed.

The stories of some survivors are desperately sad. Brothers Omar and Mohammed Alhajali had fled the war in Syria and come to London. Omar was led to safety through the smoke by firefighters. He thought his brother, Mohammed, was with them only to realise that he was still in the flat. They spoke on the phone before Mohammed died. Mohammed sent a voice message to his mother in Syria saying, “Good-bye. I love you.” Omar, like many other survivors is traumatised and has a deep sense of guilt that he survived when his brother died.

Such tragedies are utterly devastating. The courage and skill of the emergency services and the practical love of the community have shone out in the darkness, but the deepest needs of those affected can only be met by the eternal God whose Son, Jesus, died and rose again to give us hope. There are things that happen in this life that cannot be put right or resolved. The finality of death takes us into a realm where only the living God can help us.

The words of a well-known hymn speak into our moments of deepest pain and grief. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see: O Thou who changest not, abide with me. I need Thy presence every passing hour; what but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Christ is risen!

The days leading up to Easter this year have seen tragic and horrific events around the world. Terrorist attacks in Westminster and Stockholm; a chemical weapons attack in Syria; a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro; the bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday; a suicide bomb attack on evacuees near Aleppo. People of many nations and of all ages have been bereaved or have experienced life-changing injuries. Where can we find strength and solace in such sad and uncertain times?

The message of Easter is one of glorious and transforming hope because, “Christ is risen!” It seemed to the disciples, and all those who loved Jesus, that his death on the Cross was the end. On the third day after Jesus died, one of his grieving disciples said, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” The death of Jesus had crushed them and their hopes had died. Early in the morning of that same day, however, the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body discovered the stone had been rolled back from the mouth of the tomb. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes and asked them, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples and filled them with courage as they took the good news of Jesus to the ancient world. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection; they had seen him alive after he died and knew for certain that he had conquered death. They were ready to face fierce persecution, imprisonment and even death because they knew that Jesus was with them and believed his promise, “Because I live, you also will live.” Today the risen Jesus is sustaining Christians who are experiencing violent and hateful persecution in some parts of the world.

I recently met John, who has regularly attended a church for 50 years but has never known Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. He was scientifically trained and this raised many questions in his mind. His brother, who is a Christian, wrote to him and encouraged him to put aside his questions and to simply believe the Bible’s message about Jesus. He did this and his life has been transformed; he is a changed man. He is at peace with God and has a sure hope for the future, because Jesus really is alive.

The King of kings and Lord of lords

We are living in a time of change and political leaders are in the news. In the USA, President Trump is making the headlines every day. In Britain, Teresa May is preparing for Brexit negotiations. In Russia, President Putin has become active in Ukraine and Syria and is raising new challenges for NATO. France is preparing to elect a new leader to succeed the unpopular President Hollande. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel faces significant opposition when she stands for re-election in September. In Turkey, President Erdogan is seeking to make his position inviolable. In The Gambia, President Jammeh has eventually given way to newly-elected President Barrow. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye is facing impeachment. In North Korea, President Kim Jong-un reigns supreme as he develops his nuclear capability.

There has also been a rise in populism in some democratic countries. Populism mobilizes large alienated sections of the population against governments that are perceived to be controlled by an out-of-touch elite that acts in its own interests. Sometimes populism creates a situation that encourages extremism of both left and right elements in the population. Populism does not always lead to good things. There were great hopes in some countries for the “Arab Spring”, but the outcome has by no means been a happy one.

The example of the early Christians to their rulers has much to teach us in our uncertain world. They lived in the Roman Empire and suffered under Roman rule. Jesus was crucified at the order of Pilate, the Roman governor. The apostle Paul was arrested and beaten at the command of Roman magistrates, even though he was a Roman citizen. Later he was executed at the command of the Roman emperor. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD, Nero instigated a violent persecution of Christians and many died in unspeakably cruel ways.

Despite the persecution they experienced, the early Christians firmly believed that God is supreme. Because they believed the authorities that existed had been established by God they did not rebel against them but, as a matter of conscience, submitted to their rule. They prayed for kings and those in authority so that they might live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. They honoured their rulers and paid their taxes. They knew that one day all earthly rulers will be called to account for the way they have exercised their power and will stand before the judgement throne of the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Two courageous doctors

Dr David Nott is a remarkable doctor. He is a consultant surgeon at Royal Marsden, St Mary’s and Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. For more than 20 years he has spent several months each year working as a volunteer war surgeon with Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Syria and Yemen. This year he was presented with the Robert Burns’ Humanitarian Award that recognizes those who help to change people’s lives for the better.

As well as treating victims of conflict and catastrophe, Dr Nott teaches advanced surgical skills to local medics and surgeons. One of the doctors he helps and encourages is Dr Hamza al-Khatib, who lives and works in war-torn Aleppo in Syria. Dr Khatib moved back to his home in rebel-held eastern Aleppo four years ago. He made the journey on foot with his wife and 6-month-old daughter. The journey was very dangerous and he was afraid for their safety.

Aleppo used to have 9 hospitals. All have been bombed by government and Russian forces. The situation in Aleppo is a daily nightmare for medics and the people because of barrel bombs and Russian fighter jets’ missiles. Recently a 9-year-old boy brought his 7-year-old brother to the hospital. The younger boy died and they had to give his body to his brother to take away. Every day Dr Khatib survives is a victory, yet he never regrets returning to Aleppo. He said, “The presence of every single one of us is important. We help each other. If I went back in time I would do the same again.”

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spoke of a Samaritan man who helped a Jewish man who had been robbed and beaten by thieves who left him half dead. Two priests saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side. The Samaritan, at risk to his own life, stopped, treated the man’s wounds and took him to a place of safety. After telling the parable Jesus said to the people, “Go and do likewise.” We can pray for people like David Nott and Hamza al-Khatib as they seek to save the lives of people terribly injured in today’s conflicts. We can also ask ourselves what we can do to truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Fighting the hate that killed Jo

The response of Jo Cox’s family to her tragic death has been deeply moving. Her sister Kim said, “For now, our family is broken but it will mend in time, and we will never let Jo leave our lives. She will live on through Brendan, through us and through her truly wonderful children who will always know what an utterly amazing woman their mother was.” Jo’s husband, Brendan, said, “Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.”

Evil and hatred are a very real part of our life in this world. The cold-blooded murder of a young mother and MP, in a small Yorkshire community, is one example of this evil. So are the events in Syria in which the daily fighting and bombing claim the lives of ordinary men, women and children. Jo campaigned passionately for the people of Syria and other needy nations around the world. In the face of evil people, and the finality of death, we all feel our helplessness but, nevertheless, are determined that evil, in all its forms, must be defeated.

The death and resurrection of Jesus give us grounds for real hope and confidence that evil will not triumph. The ministry of Jesus brought great blessing to the lives of many people as he healed the sick, cast out evil spirits and raised the dead. Yet, those in authority hated him and determined to destroy him. He was betrayed by one of his disciples, arrested, falsely accused, mocked and condemned to die. He died in deep agony and pain on a Roman cross. His disciples and family were devastated and helpless. They were unable to do anything to change the course of events.

On the morning of the third day after he died, however, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, who struggled to realise that he really had conquered death. By his resurrection Jesus triumphed over sin, evil and death. His triumph gives hope to the people of our sad and troubled world because he has “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Heaven is real. God has also set a day when Jesus “will judge the world with justice” and will make all things new. Love and justice will indeed triumph.

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.”

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

This week many people around the world will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three of the people in the world professes to be a Christian and many others will join them in singing carols and hearing Bible readings about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. The message about Jesus is a message for our world today.

The message of Jesus is for all people. The infant Jesus was visited by Wise Men who came from the east. They had travelled hundreds of miles from Mesopotamia, which included modern Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Iran. They had seen a special star which indicated the birth of a great King and were guided to the place where Jesus had been born. When they saw the child they bowed down and worshipped him and presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The message of Jesus speaks to the peoples of those troubled lands today and to people all over the world.

The message of Jesus is a message of of peace. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.” The shepherds heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.” Jesus came to bring peace between God and the people of this world. His death for our sins reconciles us to God so that we have peace with God and know his favour resting on us. When we are reconciled to God, we are also at peace with ourselves and with all other people. The message of Jesus speaks peace to our conflict-torn modern world. Jesus changes hearts and reconciles people from all nations to one another.

The message of Jesus is a message of joy. When the Wise Men arrived at Bethlehem they were overjoyed to have found the new born King. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Recently some Christians in eastern Ukraine were giving out food at a bus station to people who had fled their homes because of the conflict. There were also a few Bibles on the table. A lady came up to them and asked, “Is that your book of hope?” The Christians said it was and the lady said, “Please could I have one, because there isn’t much hope in Ukraine today!” The coming of King Jesus brings joy and hope to our sad and needy world. His birth really is something to celebrate!

Love your neighbour as you love yourself

The picture of Turkish police officer Mehmet Ciplak carrying the lifeless body of little Aylan Kurdi from the beach at Bodrum has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. When Mehmet saw the little body floating at the water’s edge he said, “Dear God, I hope he’s alive.” When he found that Aylan had died he said he felt crushed deep down inside. Aylan’s mother, Rehan, and brother, Gylip, had also died. Only his father, Abdullah, survived and he has now returned to his home town of Kobane in Syria to bury his loved ones in the “Martyrs’ Cemetery.”

The tragic pictures of one little boy who died have made real to many people the desperate plight of thousands of families who have left their homes to set off on a long and dangerous journey to find a place of safety. The town of Kobane has been reduced to rubble and the people have witnessed the barbarism of IS who have killed hundreds of men, women and children in their homes and in the streets. Abdullah, like many others, wanted to protect his wife and two little boys and to take them to a place where they could live in peace. Tragically, in the attempt to do this, he has lost them all.

How do we respond to this situation? Our news reports tell us about anonymous and faceless “migrants”. Some simply see them as just a big problem. In reality most of them are people like Abdullah and his family. They are our fellow human beings; people like us who, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in a terrible war that has destroyed their homes and communities and put their very lives at risk? When one young man was asked why he wanted to come to Britain he said, “Because the people there are kind and good.”

God has given us two great commandments. The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus taught that all our fellow human beings are our neighbours. So when we ask how we should respond to the many families desperately fleeing for safety, God’s answer is straightforward. He tells us to put ourselves in their situation and ask, “If I and my family were in that situation, how would I want people to help me?” Then it is very clear what we must do.

The God who reconciles us to himself

At 2.54am on 12 October 1984 an IRA bomb exploded in The Grand Hotel, Brighton. It was the week of the Conservative Party Conference and the intended target was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was not injured, but 5 people were killed and 34 were taken to hospital. Margaret Tebbit, the wife of Norman, was left paralysed. She spent nearly a year being treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and another year at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore before returning to her home. For the past 30 years she and her husband have lived daily with the devastating personal consequences of that bomb.

The Brighton bombing and more recent events in Iraq and Syria remind us of the potential for great evil in human beings. The bombers carefully planned the atrocity in cold blood; just as Alan Henning was executed by IS militants in cold blood. The IRA statement claiming responsibility for the Brighton bombing said, “Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”

The reference to “getting away with it” implies that people have a right to commit any kind of atrocity as “pay back” for the actions of those whom they hate and in pursuit of their cause. It fails, however, to recognise that God has created us all as morally accountable beings. None of us ultimately “gets away with it.” Death does not pay all debts. The New Testament says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

The survivors of acts of atrocity are sometimes asked whether they can forgive the perpetrators. Norman Tebbit, in a very moving article about his and his wife’s experience over the past 30 years, has said that forgiveness is not possible because the bombers have not repented and justice has not been done. This takes us to the heart of the Christian message. In his Son, Jesus, God reconciled a sinful world to himself. His divine justice was satisfied when his Son died for our sins and so opened the way for each of us to repent and be forgiven. As one hymn says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

For the love of Jesus

The conflict in Iraq and Syria is having very serious consequences for Christians. The Christian message came to both countries in the 1st century and there has been a significant population of Christians ever since then. Now Christians are suffering along with other minorities. Many have been driven from their homes and communities and some have been killed. In recent weeks I have received news directly from those I know in Northern Iraq.

A Canadian Christian man sent news of what is happening in the town where he lives. IS has taken over the town and has gone to every Christian home demanding that the children denounce Jesus or be killed. None of the children has denounced their Saviour and so have been killed. The children’s courage and love for Jesus is deeply moving. They and their parents believe the promise Jesus made to persecuted Christians in the first century, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Canadian man has remained in the town, at great risk to his life, to be with and comfort the Christian families.

A friend visiting Kurdistan has sent news from a town where there are more than 100,000 refugees from the conflict. The total number of refugees in Kurdistan, from both Syria and Iraq, is estimated at 1 million. They are in desperate need of housing and food. The unsanitary conditions mean that an epidemic is highly likely. My friend wrote, “I rejoice to see Christian people distributing food in small vehicles, but it’s a drop in the ocean. Muslim Kurds are helping as well and the government gave each family $800, but what of the future? Seeing the little portions there are to go around here made me think: can we not as Christians, whose Saviour gave up everything for us, simplify our menus a little and send the spare cash to the Yezidis?”

Jesus spoke about a day when all nations will be gathered before God’s throne. The King will separate the people into two groups and say to those on his right, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”