I was a stranger and you took me in

The birth of Jesus brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but it also involved significant trauma. The news that Mary was pregnant seriously threatened her reputation for purity and integrity in her home village of Nazareth. The circumstances of the birth were extremely difficult as Mary gave birth to her first child in a stable, in a strange town, without the support of family and friends. Then, soon after the birth, Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So they left Bethlehem at night and went to Egypt to live in exile while Herod sent soldiers to kill all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2. It was several years before Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to their home village of Nazareth.

In our world today there are many people who have left their home countries in fear of their lives. Some have been threatened by those with political power, others fear religious persecution. They have experienced significant trauma in leaving their home country, family and friends and settling in a strange place. They still face a very uncertain future.

In both the Old and New Testaments God commands his people to welcome strangers and to be kind to them. The reason for this is that the Jews had suffered as slaves in Egypt until God delivered them, setting them free and giving them a home of their own. Many of the early Christians also experienced persecution and had to flee to places of safety. The kindness we show to people from other countries living amongst us is a response to the kindness we have experienced from God.

A few years ago, a young couple from the Middle East arrived in Britain as refugees. They were facing persecution in their own country. When they arrived in Britain they were detained in separate holding centres. It was their first experience of Britain and they were afraid, especially as the wife was expecting her first child. In the holding centre she was given a Bible and read these words from Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” God spoke to her through these words and gave her hope and his peace.

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.”

Secure in the love of God

The terrorist atrocities in Paris have left 129 people dead and more than 350 injured, some critically. The 7 suicide bombers all died after they had attacked restaurants, cafes, bars, a rock concert and the Stade de France. The 3 groups of terrorists used bombs and Kalashnikov assault rifles in a way not seen before on the streets of Western Europe. The attacks have left the French people traumatised and other nations fearing that similar attacks may also come to their streets. Our hearts go out to those who have so tragically lost loved ones.

It is not possible to make sense of the events of this life without reference to God and eternity. Some people believe that this life is the only life there is, but this leaves big questions unanswered. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God and have both a body and a soul, that can never die. We also have a conscience by which we know the difference between right and wrong. So we know that doing what is right matters and that we are all accountable to God for the things we do.

The sacredness of every human life and the evil of wilfully killing human beings is something we all affirm because of who we are. We are created in God’s image. Tragically it seems that some people are being deceived into believing that committing terrorist acts and killing yourself with a bomb takes you to a reward in paradise. But we know that cannot be true. Sinful actions cannot be rewarded and no-one can escape the eternal consequences of their actions by taking their own life.

The events in Paris also remind us of the fragility of our lives. People who set out on Friday evening to relax with friends over a meal died in a way they could not possibly have anticipated. We all need to find refuge in God and to know that, whatever happens, there is nothing that can separate us from his love in Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to persecuted Christians living in Rome, some of whom would die for their faith in Jesus. He told them, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Let the little children come to me

The abduction and murder of April Jones has had a profound effect on the little town of Machynlleth and on many people around Britain. Her parents, Paul and Coral, have, understandably, been devastated. At the end of the trial Coral made a very dignified and moving statement. It gave an insight into the profound trauma they have been experiencing since April’s abduction on 1 October 2012. She said, “April will be forever in our hearts. We are so moved by the overwhelming support we have had from many people all over the world. We would like to take time now to be with our family and to try to come to terms with the loss of April.”

As the media go away and life in Machynlleth returns to its new normality, the sad consequences for Coral and Paul continue. I remember reading the book, “Goodbye, Dearest Holly” by her father, Kevin Wells. It gave an insight into the depth of pain and grief experienced by parents whose young children are murdered. In her statement at the end of the trial Coral said, “As April’s mother I will live with the guilt of letting her go out to play on the estate that night for the rest of my life.”

Coral could never have anticipated that night that April would be taken and wickedly killed. None of us can fully anticipate the consequences of actions we take in the course of everyday life. All of us do things which we later regret. It is at such times that we need help that is more than human. God is able to meet us at the point of our deepest need. He is able to sympathise with us in our deepest pain, and to help us, because he understands what we are going through. Jesus, his only Son, died a cruel death at the hands of wicked men when he was in the prime of his life.

Many of us are praying for Coral and Paul. They can tenderly commit April into the loving care of God. He is also able to give them strength to face each day and to heal their inner pain. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“It is well with my soul – the story of Horatio Spafford”

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to declare our faith and to rest in God and his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and send them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal; O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

When bad things happen

Dealing with the past is not easy, especially when bad things have happened. In recent months people who were abused as children and teenagers have come forward. It is clear that they are still traumatised and are struggling with the pain of what happened to them. In some cases, those who abused them have died, which makes investigating the accusations and bringing justice impossible.

Many of us have had bad experiences in life because people have done wrong things to us. When these experiences cannot be dealt with and resolved we may struggle with ongoing pain and anger. As a result our lives may be crippled for many years and there may seem to be no way of moving forward.

Jesus suffered unjustly and was condemned to death on false charges. He was a good man who had healed the sick, set people free from the power of evil and even raised dead people to life. His teaching brought blessing to many people. But his life and teaching were a challenge to those who were in power and so they plotted to have him put to death. When he was condemned to death, at the age of 33, he had to cope with an injustice to which there could be no remedy in this life. His condemnation and death were a gross abuse of power.

So how did he deal with this? When he suffered, “he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” He committed the whole situation to God, his Father. He knew that a time would come when God will call us all to account and judge us in perfect justice. No one ever really escapes justice. So we, too, can leave issues which we have not been able to resolve with God and try to move on. He will deal with us all justly.

But Jesus also gives us an amazing example. As he hung on the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He did not want those who were responsible for his death to be condemned but to find forgiveness. So, too, God can give us grace and strength to forgive others for what they have done to us. Hatred and the desire for revenge can consume us. The wonderful experience of God’s forgiveness for our sins creates in us the desire that others, too, may find his forgiveness.