Remembering Cyrille Regis

Cyrille Regis, who has died at the age of 59, was a great footballer. Those who knew him have spoken warmly of Cyrille and their sense of loss at his passing. One of his former managers said, “Cyrille was not only the best centre-forward I ever worked with, he was an even better bloke.” Cyrille’s pace, strength and power thrilled the crowds. He scored some spectacular goals that are still remembered today. He was also an inspiration to subsequent generations of black British footballers as he, and other black players, faced blatant and shameful racism from opposing fans with great dignity.

Cyrille was born in French Guiana, but moved to Britain when he was 5 and grew up in West London. When he was 19 he was spotted playing non-league football and signed up by First Division Club West Bromwich Albion. There he played with other talented black players, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson. Cyrille won the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1978 and played for England at both Under-21 and Senior levels. In 1987, he won an FA Cup winners’ medal with Coventry and was awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2008.

In 1989 Cyrille’s best friend and former team-mate, Laurie Cunningham, died in a car crash. This tragedy had a devastating impact on Cyrille as, just two years earlier, he and Laurie had been in a car accident which they had survived. As he was growing up, Cyrille had been taught Christian values, but as an adult he had turned away from them. Laurie’s death left him asking questions such as: Is there really life after death? Where is God in all of this? Why did this happen? Cyrille’s search for answers ultimately lead him to what he described as “a real encounter with Jesus”. This encounter changed his life forever when he received Jesus as his Saviour.

As a born-again Christian Cyrille was passionate about sharing his story with others who were also searching for answers. He said, “I meet people all the time, some famous, some not, who are all looking for hope and peace. I have learned that money cannot buy peace of mind so I simply tell people how I found hope and peace in God. The great thing about it is that anyone can have the peace that I have, you just need to know God.” Now Cyrille is with his Saviour in heaven, and will be with him forever, because Jesus loved him and gave himself for him.

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.”

When tragedy strikes

The Manchester bombing atrocity has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. Thousands attended the Ariana Grande concert, including many children and young people. They had been looking forward to the event for months. As the crowds were leaving the Manchester Arena, the suicide bomber detonated his device killing 22, maiming 64, and traumatizing many more. One of the most poignant images was of a 12-year-old girl being looked after and comforted by police officers. She had gone to the concert with her mother and a friend. Now her mother was dead and she, and those helping her, were struggling to take it in.

Reporting of the bombing has been extensive over the past week, but already things are moving on and life for most people is returning to normal. But what about those who have been most tragically affected because they have lost mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and friends? Or those who have suffered life-changing injuries? Emergency and medical staff have also been traumatized by the things they have seen as they have heroically used their skills to help those devastated by the atrocity. Those of us not directly involved can only try to understand a little of what they are experiencing.

When tragedy strikes the help of other people is a great source of comfort and strength. As we struggle with our questions and numbing sadness we can also find help in God. Psalm 46 affirms, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. The Lord Almighty is with us. Be still, and know that I am God.” Those who come alongside us in the dark days immediately after a tragedy must inevitably return to their own lives and we may be left to struggle with our loss, or cope with our new limitations, alone. But God is always with us. In him we can find solace and strength.

God understands our sadness. His Son, Jesus, was just 33 years old when he was killed by wicked men. During his ministry, Jesus had brought great blessing to many people: he healed people from all kinds of diseases, set people free from the power of evil spirits, and even raised people from the dead. Yet, irrationally, he was hated by the religious leaders who were determined to kill him. He didn’t deserve to die. When we experience overwhelming tragedy and deep sadness we can pray to God. He understands what we are experiencing and will gives us his strength in our time of greatest need.

Remembering Aberfan

On 21 October 1966 I was at work in Cardiff when we heard there had been a disaster in a small valley community near Merthyr Tydfil. We assumed it must have happened underground and that miners had probably been injured or killed. Such tragic events had happened before in the South Wales valleys. Later that day, however, as we watched the evening news on our black and white televisions, we realised that a disaster like no other had struck the small mining village of Aberfan.

By 9 o’clock that Friday morning 240 children and 9 teachers had arrived at Pantglas Junior School for the last day of school before the half-term holiday. It was a damp and misty morning after a week of heavy rain. At 9.15 the school was engulfed by an avalanche of 100,000 tons of black slurry. The school building was demolished, as were some houses. Many of the men of the community were at work in the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. When they heard about the disaster they rushed to the school to try to help. The women went to the school and felt utterly helpless as they saw the devastating scene. Their children were in that school. Were they alive or dead?

The Aberfan disaster claimed 128 lives – 116 children, 4 teachers, the headmistress and 23 local people. The following Thursday there was a mass funeral when the bodies of many who had died were buried side by side in one long grave over which a beautiful memorial was later built. The Aberfan Disaster touched the hearts of people around the world and £1,750,000 was donated to the Disaster Fund.

Aberfan was a man-made disaster and, eventually, the National Coal Board accepted their responsibility. The tip had been sited on a spring and had been poorly managed. Warnings about what could happen had been ignored. Eventually the Board paid families £500 compensation for each child who had died and the Disaster Fund gave them £5000.

To whom can we turn when tragedy strikes? At the heart of the Christian Gospel is a young man called Jesus, the only Son of his heavenly Father, who died a cruel death on a Roman Cross. He died in our place and for our sins. On the third day he rose again. He is uniquely able to help us in the darkest experiences of life because he understands our deepest grief, comforts us when our hearts are broken and gives us a sure hope of eternal life.

Jutland Jack – faithful unto death

The Battle of Jutland was fought in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark from 31 May to 1 June 1916. It was the largest naval battle of World War I. Some 250 ships were involved in the fierce 36-hour battle. The British navy lost 14 ships and more than 6000 lives. The German navy lost 9 ships and more than 2500 lives.

Jack Cornwell was a 16-year-old Boy Seaman First Class on HMS Chester. His job was to help man the guns and keep the deck clear. HMS Chester was hit and badly damaged very early in the battle. A direct hit on the forecastle killed or wounded every member of Jack’s gun crew. Although he, too, had been seriously wounded Jack stood fast at his gun. He did not desert his post and took orders from the officer on the bridge to set the gun’s sights. When Jack was found he was barely alive and died two days later. Jack’s mother took his body home to Essex where he was buried in a communal grave because his family were poor.

Captain Robert Lawson of HMS Chester wrote to Jack’s mother a few months after he died. He wrote, “I know you would wish to hear of the splendid fortitude and courage shown by your boy during the action of May 31. His devotion to duty was an example for all of us. He stayed, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, just his own brave heart and God’s help to support him. I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost from this world. I hope to place in the boys’ mess a plate with his name on and the date, and the words, ‘Faithful unto death’.” Later, Jack was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the youngest person to receive it in World War I. His body was reinterred, with full naval honours, in a private grave in Manor Park Cemetery. Homes for disabled and invalided sailors were established in his memory.

Two thousand years ago a young man, who was just 33 years old, died on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was “faithful unto death” when he died as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His death for our sins, and triumphant resurrection on the third day, offer us all certain hope in the face of the tragedies and sadnesses we may experience in this life.

Tragedy strikes Nepal

More than 3000 people are known to have died in the massive earthquake which has hit Nepal. Thousands of people have been injured. Buildings and houses in the capital city Kathmandu have been destroyed and many rural villages have been devastated. Tented villages have sprung up around Kathmandu providing shelter for thousands of people. Up to 1 million children need help. International aid agencies have begun an emergency operation to help the homeless people who are short of food and water.

The 7.8 magnitude quake also hit Mount Everest causing avalanches killing at least 18 people. Many more are missing. Nepal is home to 8 out of the 10 highest mountains in the world and has more than 240 peaks over 20,000 feet high. The grandeur of the mountains, and the challenge of climbing them, draws thousands of people to the Himalayas every year. The earthquake came at the start of the climbing season.

Tragedies like the Nepal earthquake make us feel small and helpless before the immense power of natural forces. Our hearts go out to the thousands of men, women and children whose lives have been so suddenly and unexpectedly devastated. To whom can they, and we, turn to find comfort and help at such times?

The book of Psalms has been a source and strength and comfort to generations of people. In Psalm 121 we read, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” The mighty mountain peaks of Nepal create a sense of awe and wonder but are powerless to help us in times of need. Many people have perished on those impassive mountains. So we must look beyond them to the Lord, the living God, who created the mountains and who is able to draw near to us in our times of deepest need.

In Psalm 46 we read “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” In the face of the uncertainties of life, and the fears we all experience, we need a place of refuge from danger where we can find strength to face the future. When tragedy strikes only God can fully meet our deepest needs and give us his comfort and strength.

In the midst of life

The destruction of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over Ukraine has caused outrage around the world. The plane was flying at 33000 feet over Eastern Ukraine when, it seems, it was struck by a surface to air missile. The 298 passengers and crew were all killed. The flight had taken off from Schiphol Amsterdam airport en route to Kuala Lumpur carrying families who were looking forward to a very special holiday. A meal had been served and the passengers were settling into the long flight. Some were watching a film, others were reading or resting. Suddenly, without warning, the plane exploded and everyone on board passed into eternity. When they received the news their families were deeply shocked and devastated.

Our lives in this world are very uncertain. None of us knows what a day may bring. There was no connection between the people on the plane and those involved in the conflict in Ukraine. The plane was flying more than 6 miles above the ground and, in a matter of minutes, would have left Ukrainian airspace. Then someone launched a missile which destroyed the plane and all on board. Death is always an unwelcome intrusion into life, an enemy, and especially so in tragedies like this. The burial service in The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that, “In the midst of life we are in death.”

In the face of death we always feel helpless. Whether we are sitting at the bedside of a loved one who is dying or are told the totally unexpected news that precious family members and friends have died because of the evil act of total strangers, there is nothing we can do to change things. So what can we do and to whom can we turn? The burial service also says, “of whom may we seek succour, but of you, O Lord?”

The Lord God is eternal. In times of grief and tragedy we can turn to him for help. He understands our vulnerability and meets us in the depth of our grief. He gives us comfort and strength. One hymn says, “Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail, in Thee do we trust, nor find Thee fail; Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end, Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.” Jesus once came to the home of close friends whose brother, Lazarus, had died. He wept with them and then gave them hope when he declared, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The Lord Almighty is with us

Do you like to keep up to date with the news? With 24 hour news we can catch up on what’s happening around the world at any time of day or night. Inevitably the news is just a very small snapshot of what happens on any one day. Overwhelmingly the reports are about bad and sad things. Have you ever asked yourself what effect watching the news has on you?

This past week we have heard reports of the mysterious disappearance of a Boeing 777 aircraft with 238 people on board. The aircraft may well have been destroyed, killing all on board. We have seen pictures from Crimea of soldiers with tanks and guns and menacing security guards wearing black balaclavas. There have been live broadcasts from the South African courtroom where a disabled man, who has amazingly overcome his disability, is charged with murdering his attractive girlfriend.

These reports all remind us of our helplessness to stop bad things happening. With all our technological skills we can’t find the missing plane. The best efforts of the United Nations seem powerless to influence events in Crimea and Ukraine. The tragic events of a dark St Valentine’s night in Pretoria, when Reeva Steenkamp died, cannot be changed.

So it is good to take time, amidst the never-ending sadness of life, to fix our eyes on the living God and to hear his word. He speaks so directly and helpfully into the tragedy and turbulence of our troubled world. Psalm 46 has strengthened and comforted generations of people like us.

“God is a refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.”

We can all find refuge and strength in the living God. He does not answer all our questions, but he assures us of his presence and gives us real hope. “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

When tragedy strikes

Last Friday evening family and friends in Glasgow were at a social evening of live music at The Clutha Bar. The bar is one of the top 3 venues for live music in Glasgow with a family atmosphere. That same evening a police helicopter took off, with a civilian pilot, a police woman and policeman on board, on a routine operation patrolling the skies over the city. When the helicopter was almost back at its base it suffered a catastrophic failure and crashed into the roof of The Clutha Bar. The 3 helicopter crew and at least 6 people in the bar died, and 32 were injured. None of those involved could possibly have anticipated what happened.

The words of the Book of Common Prayer remind us of the uncertainties of life and our vulnerability. “In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord?” None of us knows what a day may bring. Tragedies come unexpectedly and without warning. We can do our best to help and comfort each other, as the people in The Clutha Bar and the emergency services did so well on Friday evening, but only God can meet our deepest needs.

In the Old Testament we are told of the great sufferings of Job. He was very wealthy. He knew God and lived a righteous life. Yet he also experienced great personal tragedies. On the same day he lost all his possessions and his sons and daughters who were also killed when a strong wind struck the house they were in and it collapsed. On hearing the news Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

The sudden tragedy that has come upon people in Glasgow speaks to us all. We, too, are vulnerable and need God’s help. The Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte’s hymn, written when he lay dying from tuberculosis, has brought comfort to many. “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. 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.”

My help comes from the Lord

An avalanche on Mont Blanc has claimed the lives of 9 climbers, including 3 from Britain. They were part of a group of 28 experienced climbers who were attempting one of the most dangerous ascents in Europe to reach the summit of Mont Blanc. One of those who died, Roger Payne, was the mountain guide for the party and had been the General Secretary of the British Mountaineering Council. He had taken part in more than 20 expeditions to some of the world’s most difficult peaks, including the notorious K2 in the Himalayas. His love of climbing began through his scout group in Hammersmith, West London, and he developed his skills in the Scottish and Welsh mountains. A friend said, “He loved the mountains.”

It is easy to understand why people love the mountains. The photographs of the rescue team at work reveal the awesome beauty of the Mont Blanc massif as it towers above them. The bright sunshine, the white snow and the rugged peaks give little indication of the tragedy which had taken place just a few hours before. Climbers will continue to climb Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, to achieve an ambition and to experience the beauty of God’s creation.

In Psalm 121 the psalmist reflects on the greatness and beauty of the hills. “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Walking and climbing in the mountains make us feel how small we are. The mountains tower above us. They were here before we were born and will continue after we die. We are all so vulnerable and life is so frail. We need help, but the mountains cannot help us.

The help we need comes from the One who created the mountains – the Creator of heaven and earth. He watches over us and never sleeps. He keeps our feet from slipping and keeps us from all harm. He watches over our coming and going both now and for evermore. Life in this world only makes sense in the light of eternity. When terrible tragedies happen and lives are lost there is One to whom we can turn. He understands our frailty and need. His Son, Jesus Christ, came into this world to demonstrate his love for us. This love is so great that nothing in all creation can separate us from it.