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Who is my neighbour?

Recently I was driving on a fast dual carriageway when I saw a man in the central reservation waving his hands. As I got nearer, I saw an elderly man who looked very confused standing near the other man. It seems the elderly man had dementia, had left his care home, and had wandered onto the dual carriageway. He didn’t realise the danger he was in, but someone, seeing he was in danger, had stopped to help him and take him to safety. Some years ago, an elderly friend of mine who suffered from dementia left his home without his wife, who was his main carer, knowing and was knocked over by a car and died.

I was so encouraged to see someone who was willing to take time to care for a vulnerable stranger who was in need. This is not common in our society today. When we set aside the first Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, the second Great Commandment: “Love our neighbour as you love yourself” also becomes a casualty.

A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus told a story about a Jewish man who was attacked when he was travelling on a lonely desert road. The thieves robbed him of all his possessions, beat him severely and left him half dead. Two religious leaders passed by but, when they saw the man, didn’t stop to help him. Then another man, a Samaritan, came by. He stopped, cleansed the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day he gave the inn keeper money to continue taking care of the man. Jesus said this man showed what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The story Jesus told was especially powerful because at that time most Jewish people had nothing to do with Samaritans because they were of mixed-race heritage. Jesus taught that true neighbour love goes beyond the love of family and friends and reaches out to strangers. Jesus himself exemplified such love in coming from heaven to this world to seek and save people who are lost. His death on the Cross paid the price of our sins so that through him we might experience God’s forgiveness and receive the gift of eternal life. Christians joyfully sing, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.”

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My joy in the way God has made me

This week the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games begins. More than 4500 athletes from 163 countries will compete in 539 events in 22 sports. Sadly, the two athletes from Afghanistan have not been able to travel because of the political turmoil in the country. Zakia Khudadadi, who competes in taekwondo, would have been the first female athlete ever to represent the country at the Paralympic Games. The Paralympic Games is a very special event at which people with disabilities demonstrate amazing skills and the way they have overcome adversity.

Anna Tipton represented Great Britain in goalball at the London Paralympics in 2012, where she was the highest scorer for Team GB. Anna was born with a retina cell disorder which meant she had tunnel vision and found playing sport a nightmare. She couldn’t see either the ball or her teammates clearly and often felt she was the weakest link in the team. PE lessons in school were very stressful.

When she was in her early teens Anna and her visually impaired brother, Michael, were introduced to the sport of goalball. The game is played with three players on each side all wearing blind folds and attempting to throw the ball into a goal the width of the court. The ball has a bell in it so that players can use the sound of the bell to judge the position and movement of the ball. Able-bodied athletes are also blindfolded when playing goalball.

When Anna was in her mid-teens, she became a Christian. She understood how Jesus’ death on the cross gave her a personal relationship with God by taking away the barrier of her sin. This led to a wonderful closeness with her heavenly Father as Anna integrated her sport and her faith. Anna says, “Being a Christian is about the ins and outs of your life, including sport. God is there with you. Every time I play it’s like my worship to God. If I can do my best on a goalball court, then that’s my joy in the way that God has made me.” 

Anna is now a mother with a young son. She no longer competes in elite sport but continues to know God’s nearness and unchanging love. She prays that those who know her, including her former teammates, will also experience God’s love in Jesus. She says, “My teammates have seen the best and worst of me and all my emotions as we’ve competed together. I’ve always been open about my faith and the fact that God is at the heart of everything I do.”

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Precious in the sight of God

Every individual life matters. No-one is unimportant. The “Black Lives Matter” protests around the world, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis, are rightly demanding that black people must not be treated as second-class citizens, each one matters. The renewed investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, who was abducted 13 years ago, shows that she matters. The British government has spent £12 million on the investigation because the life of a 4-year-old little girl matters. When a seriously ill person is taken into hospital doctors and nurses do everything they can to save their life, whatever their age or social circumstances, because every life matters.

Societies that have been deeply influenced by the Bible have a high view of the preciousness of every individual person because they understand what God is like. No-one is unimportant in God’s eyes. He knows each of us as individuals and cares deeply for us. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. How precious are your thoughts concerning me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

During his ministry many people came to Jesus for help and healing. Jesus never met an unimportant person and never turned anyone away. He welcomed people who were outcasts in their society and taught that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. His love changed people and gave them new hope.

In his early life the apostle Paul hated the name of Jesus and persecuted Christians. He arrested men and women and put them into prison because they were followers of Jesus. When the ascended Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus he was totally changed. He realised that, despite the evil things he had done, God was concerned for him and loved him. God’s love for him was revealed in the cross where Jesus died for his sins. Later Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.

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Remembering VE Day

This weekend there will be an international celebration of the 75th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. On 8 May 1945 there was a great joy when the Allied Forces announced the surrender of Germany; World War II in Europe was over. More than a million people celebrated in the streets, including the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”

A Service of Thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey gratefully acknowledging that God had heard the many prayers offered through the dark years of the war. The service opened with these words, “The Lord has done great things for us, which ought to be remembered. Let us, therefore, offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which he has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through years of danger and suffering: for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen: for the hope that we are about to enter upon a righteous and abiding peace: for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.”

The planned VE Day celebrations will be severely curtailed because of the coronavirus restrictions. Today the peoples of the world are involved in a different kind of deadly conflict. We are under threat from an unseen enemy and many have already died. The courage and skill of medical teams and carers have been an inspiration to us all. Victory over the virus is still in the future as great efforts are made to develop an effective vaccine.

At Easter we remembered the greatest victory ever accomplished when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, confronted our greatest enemies of sin and death. Human sinfulness causes untold misery and suffering and every day many face the last enemy, death. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty our sins deserve. His death was a great victory. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” His resurrection on the third day showed he had broken the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality. As we pray for those seriously ill with coronavirus, and those who have lost loved ones, we can rejoice in the hope Jesus gives; “for those who die believing die safely through his love.”

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The day Jesus died

This Friday is Good Friday when Christians remember the day on which their Saviour Jesus Christ died. For three years Jesus had exercised a remarkable ministry. He had taught the people and great crowds had gathered to hear him. His teaching was not dry and harsh like the religious teachers of his day. He spoke with divine authority and made people think about God and eternity. One of his disciples said, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus travelled around doing good and performing many remarkable miracles. He made blind people to see, lame people to walk, deaf and dumb people to hear and speak. He cleansed lepers and cast out evil spirits. He fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish and calmed the storm. He raised three people who had died back to life. Just five days before he died, he was acclaimed by thousands of people as he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. They proclaimed him as their Messiah and King! So why was he condemned to die on a cross as if he was a criminal?

The death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sins, but not his own. As he began his ministry John the Baptist declared, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Our sins are serious. Every day we break God’s commands. In the Old Testament God commanded the people to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. They would go to the Temple and offer an animal or a bird which would be sacrificed so that the worshipper might be forgiven. The death of Jesus was the final, complete sacrifice which took away the sins of the world.

But people respond to Jesus in very different ways. Two criminals died alongside Jesus. One of them hurled insults at him saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Like many people, he felt no remorse for his own sins but blamed God for what was happening to him. The other man rebuked him, “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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When tragedy strikes

After school on 13 January the school minibus dropped 7-year-old Samuel Barker at his home in Monmouth. Tragically Samuel was then knocked over by the minibus. His mother, Cat, rushed to him and knew the moment she got there that little Samuel was not alive. She said, “I was there in seconds, I picked him up off the road and put him on my lap. I knew he was dead straight away and there was no suffering. I praised God for his life and that I knew exactly where he was now, and that it had been so quick. I kissed his head – his very tousled hair.” Cat and two friends then prayed as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Cat and her husband are Christians and have known God comforting and strengthening them in their grief. The day after Samuel died, Cat went to the school and explained to his class that Samuel is in heaven. After praying with them she went outside to the playground and comforted other parents. Cat is “desperately sad” for the driver of the minibus and prays that he will not be wracked with guilt.

Cat said, “Samuel was exuberant and bouncy. There was never a dull moment. He often had messy hair, paint on his jumper, and muddy knees. He made the best of every moment.” A year ago, Cat bought some new notebooks for Samuel and his two brothers. Samuel was very excited to receive his notebook and took it to his bedroom. He sat down at his desk and started busily writing.

This is what Samuel wrote that day, “I love Jesus and God because they look after me and are nice to me. They love me very much and they make me better and they are the best adults in the whole wide world. And I love them very, very much. They are so nice to me. So, I will always believe in them. They like me so much. They are so, so, so, so, so kind to me and I trust them. They give me strength. He loves me all the time, I praise the Lord. I can trust in them. They are the best. I am so excited to go to heaven. I will never hurt myself. I will never, never get a stitch. And he died on the cross for me. He saved my life.”

Cat said, “The Bible tells us that all you need is the faith of a child. You don’t need to have a degree in theology or your life together perfectly. You just need to say, ‘Yes – I believe, help me in my unbelief.’”

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The love that transforms

Last week a man suddenly threatened to blow up the Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, where a prisoner rehabilitation conference, organised by Cambridge University, was being held. He then began attacking people with two knives. The man, who had been convicted of a terror offence, was invited to attend the conference. He had served half his 16-year sentence and had been released on licence in 2018 with an electronic tag. The man moved on to London Bridge where he was restrained by members of the public and then shot by the police. Two people were killed and 3 were injured.

As one hate-filled man was trying to kill people, others showed great courage in seeking to save lives. Lukasz from Poland, who works as a chef at Fishmongers’ Hall, bought time for others to escape by fighting the terrorist with a narwhal tusk he pulled off the wall. Despite being stabbed 5 times, he continued to confront the man. His actions, and those of others who confronted the terrorist, undoubtedly saved lives.

Tragically two young people who were attending the conference died. Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were involved with Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme for prisoner rehabilitation. Jack’s father said, “Jack: you were a beautiful spirit. You lived your principles; believing in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and always took the side of the underdog. Cambridge lost a proud son and champion for underdogs everywhere, but especially those dealt a losing hand by life, who ended up in the prison system.” He went on to say that Jack “would not wish his death to be used as a pretext for more draconian sentences or to detain people unnecessarily.”

Jesus was a man who was committed to helping and changing people. He is still doing that today by the power of the Holy Spirit. During his ministry many people who had failed in life, and wanted to change, were drawn to him. He loved them and gave them new hope. Knowing him and experiencing his love changed them. Jesus died not for his own sins, but for ours. He laid down his life that we might know God and receive the gift of eternal life. He loves people who are his enemies and changes their hearts so that they truly love him. The apostle Paul was an enemy of Jesus, but he was changed. Seeing the transformation in him Christians were amazed and said, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!”

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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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The peace that passes all understanding

On a recent Songs of Praise programme Simon Thomas spoke about the way in which God has given him strength since his wife Gemma died in November 2017. Simon became well-known to millions of people as a Blue Peter presenter before moving to Sky Sports news, becoming a lead presenter of Football League and Premier League programmes. In November 2017 his wife Gemma, who was also a Christian, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just 3 days later. Simon and his 8-year-old son, Ethan, were devasted. At that time Simon said, “Today I am crushed with indescribable pain. If you pray – please pray for my boy Ethan, precious and in bits.”

On Songs of Praise Simon said he had never truly understood the “peace that passes all understanding.” He said, “I just thought it was a nice place to be, but actually it’s because you feel that sense of peace in almost impossible situations in which to find peace.” In the three days after Gemma was diagnosed, he said, “Everything’s coming at you – we’re wondering what on earth acute myeloid leukaemia is, and is she going to survive? Yet I experienced peace, amidst the noise and fear, that gives me the hope that one day I’m going to see her again.”

Simon continued, “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on, and yet at times that’s impossible to get your head around and to draw comfort from. At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith because it gives direction to everything else. It was the glue in our marriage, and it helps in terms of how we, and now I, bring up Ethan. You know, it’s the reference point for my life.

A hymn was sung at the Thanksgiving Service for Gemma which was also sung at Simon and Gemma’s wedding. The words of the hymn meant a lot to both Simon and Gemma and have given Simon strength since Gemma died. “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid Ground firm through the fiercest drought and storm. No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his hand, till he returns or calls me home here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”