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Remembering the Pilgrim Fathers

On 6 September 1620 the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth to America, the New World, carrying 102 passengers and 25 crew. Most of the passengers were Christians who have come to be known as the “Pilgrim Fathers.” It was not an easy trip with cramped living quarters for a journey taking 2 months. The first half of the voyage was smooth and pleasant but then the weather changed to continuous North-easterly storms. One passenger died, a baby was born, and for several days they could not use their sails and simply drifted until the storm subsided. On 11 November 1620 they set anchor at Cape Cod and thanked the God of heaven who “had brought them safely over the vast and furious ocean.” During the bitter winter, the passengers remained on board Mayflower, suffering scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis, which killed half the passengers and crew.

Why did the Pilgrim Fathers leave England for the New World? The “Pilgrims” were Christians who based their faith and life on the Bible and wished to be free to organise religious congregations separate from the English State Church. At the time this was illegal. They were known as “Separatists” because they believed they should be free to establish true churches which were voluntary, democratic communities, separate from the State. They experienced fierce persecution and some of their leaders were imprisoned and executed on charges of sedition. Some had fled to Holland before travelling to America.

The “Pilgrims” had a significant influence on the history of America. In July 1776 The Declaration of Independence stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today the Pledge of Allegiance states that the republic of the United States of America is “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “Pilgrims” knew that true liberty is found in knowing God and being guided by the truths he has revealed in the Bible. In submitting to God’s authority, we find real freedom. When we cast off all restraints in an attempt to be “free” it leads only to being enslaved. Jesus came “to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” He said, “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”

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The faith of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was a great French military general and statesman. He played a key role in the French Revolution and became the first emperor of France. His armies conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. After a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba. In 1815 he briefly returned to power but suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died at the age of 51.

Near the end of his life, the exiled Napoleon expressed his convictions about Jesus. He wrote, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ was not a mere man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity.”

Napoleon knew the difference between the empire he had established, and all other human empires, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated. He wrote, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon sheer force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men will die for him. In every other existence but that of Christ how many imperfections! From the first day to the last he is the same; majestic and simple; infinitely firm and infinitely gentle. He proposes to our faith a series of mysteries and commands with authority that we should believe them, giving no other reason than those tremendous words, ‘I am God.’”

As he read the Bible, Napoleon, who had himself exercised great authority over men, recognised its divine authority and entrusted his own eternal destiny to Jesus Christ. He wrote, “The Bible contains a complete series of acts and of historical men to explain time and eternity, such as no other religion has to offer. If it is not the true religion, one is very excusable in being deceived; for everything in it is grand and worthy of God. The more I consider the Gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there which is not beyond the march of events and above the human mind. Even the impious themselves have never dared to deny the sublimity of the Gospel, which inspires them with a sort of compulsory veneration. What happiness that Book procures for those who believe it!”

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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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Remembering Dr Li Wenliang

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is in the news as more and more people are diagnosed with the virus. There are now 110,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and nearly 4000 people have died. The countries most affected to date are China, Italy, South Korea and Iran with growing numbers in France and Germany. There are nearly 300 cases in Britain and 3 people have died. Medical staff are doing a great job treating people but their energies and the hospitals themselves are being stretched way beyond their normal capacity. People who think they may have the virus are being encouraged to self-isolate.

Covid-19 has created economic uncertainty with stock markets around the world registering big falls and factories in China being temporarily closed. Large sporting events are being affected, including possible problems for the summer Tokyo Olympic Games. In Italy, where 366 people have died, strict new quarantine measures have been imposed on 16 million people, a quarter of the population. In Britain some people have been panic-buying basic commodities and Tesco is restricting the sales of essential food and household items to discourage stockpiling.

The virus was first identified in December by Dr Li Wenliang, a young ophthalmologist working in Wuhan Central Hospital. He noticed seven patients with a Sars-like virus who were in quarantine in his hospital. On 30 December he sent a message to fellow doctors in a chat group warning them about the outbreak and advising them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. Three days later police paid him a visit and told him to stop. He was accused of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” Dr Li returned to work and caught the virus from a glaucoma patient. At the end of January, he received an apology from the local authority but died from Covid-19 on 7 February.

Despite the persecution of Christians in Communist China the churches are growing. It seems that Dr Li had joined a chat room about Christianity and was a “seeker of the faith.” When he realised he was dying, and medical treatment could not save him, he may have called out for mercy to the God whom he was seeking. If he did, it is a prayer to which God always responds positively. On the day Jesus was crucified a criminal, who was dying alongside him, made a moving request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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Siya Kolisi’s Story

On Saturday 2 November Siya Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis Cup high after the South African team won the Rugby World Cup 2019. It was an historic moment because Siya is the first black man to captain the Springboks and to lead the team to success in the World Cup. Siya is a great example of a man who has overcome adversity to become a role model and symbol of hope for young black people in South Africa. After winning the Rugby World Cup he said he hoped their victory will “inspire every kid” back home and pull the country together, “we had one goal and we achieved it, a lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity.”

Siya grew up in the poor Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth. His mother, Phakama, was 16 when Siya was born and his father, Fezakele, was in his final year of school. Siya’s mother died when he was 15 and his grandmother, Nolulamile, cared for him for a few months until she died in his arms. Siya remembers many days with only one meal and many nights spent sleeping on the floor.

Siya’s love of rugby often provided an escape from the struggles and temptations he faced as he was growing up. When he was 12 he was offered a scholarship at Grey Junior in Port Elizabeth. He walked 7 miles each way to go to school. Later he was offered a rugby scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School. In 2016 Siya married Rachel and they have two children.

Siya is a Christian and has spoken of the real spiritual struggles he has faced, as we all do. Earlier this year he experienced stresses in his marriage which led him to a deeper understanding of what it means to truly follow Jesus. In a recent interview he said, “While struggling with a lot of things personally – temptations, sins and lifestyle choices – I realized I wasn’t living according to what I was calling myself: a follower of Christ. I was getting by, but I hadn’t decided to fully commit myself to Jesus Christ and start living according to his way. I’ve been able to discover the truth and saving power of Christ in a whole new way. This new life has given me a peace in my heart I’d never experienced before. I don’t have to understand everything in life, and there are so many things I don’t, but I know God is in control of it all. My job is to do the best I can and leave the rest in his hands.”

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Remembering the Great Escape

Last weekend a service of remembrance was held in Poland to mark the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Stalag Luft III opened in Spring 1942 and was used to hold captured air forces personnel. At its height it held 10,000 prisoners of war, covered 59 acres and had 5 miles of perimeter fencing. About 600 prisoners helped dig the three tunnels which were given the names Tom, Dick and Harry.

On the night of 24-25 March 1944 two hundred men were waiting in line to escape but the alarm was raised before most could enter tunnel Harry. Seventy-six men escaped through the tunnel which was 336 feet long and 28 feet deep. Within three days seventy-three of them were recaptured by the Germans and fifty were executed on Hitler’s orders. The camp was liberated in January 1945 by Russian forces.

Flying Officer Marcel Zillessen was last in the queue. His father was German, and Marcus had studied at the University of Berlin, so he spoke German fluently. He played a key role in planning the escape as he gained the confidence of some guards and so obtained valuable items such as paper, pens and ink to help forge travel documents for the escapees. Later he survived the Long March in 1945 and died in 1999 aged 81.

His son, Tim, visited the former site of Stalag Luft III for the first time ahead of the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Speaking of his father Tim said, “Much changed after the war in the sense that it freed his mind. He was no longer materialistic and didn’t worry about the things that we would today. It must have been overwhelming for him at the end to be able to walk away a free man and alive.”

Freedom is very precious. The prisoners at Stalag Luft III made great efforts to win their freedom and some died in the attempt. Those who survived really valued freedom and life itself. Although we live in what has sometimes been called “The Free World” many people are anything but free. Ours is a materialistic society and we do worry about many things. Some are prisoners to debt. Others are addicted to drink and drugs, to gambling and pornography. Jesus came to set us free from the sins that bind us and to give us true life. He said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

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Light and life

The recent Spring-like weather has been a real blessing to us all. The warm sunny days have lifted our spirits and have been an anticipation of the summer months to come. The spring flowers have come early this year. The delicate snowdrops, the bold colours of the crocuses and the bright yellow of the daffodils are beautiful signs of nature coming to life after the cold, dark days of winter. It is a time of light and life as the days begin to lengthen again.

We were created to live in the light because God, who gave us life, is light. In the majestic creation story in the book of Genesis God’s first command was, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and God saw that the light was good. Later he created the sun, moon and stars. On the darkest night the light of the moon and twinkling stars can be seen. They speak to us about God.

In Psalm 19 the psalmist is moved to worship as he reflects on the awesome creation in which he and all people on earth live, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

There is a deep sadness at the heart of our Western society because we have turned away from God. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” But many people rejected him, and still do, and the consequences are plain to see. Jesus spoke about the importance of “coming to the light.” He said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

Springtime speaks eloquently to us about God and invites us to come to him to find the light and life for which we were created and which we all so desperately need to rediscover.

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They followed the star

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem wise men from the east came to visit him. They probably came from Persia, modern Iran, and travelled hundreds of miles to get to Bethlehem. These men were Magi and were experts in astronomy and astrology. They had seen a new star appear and knew it was a sign that something very important had happened. The star was God’s sign to the people of the world that his Son, Jesus, had been born. The Magi understood that the child who had been born was a great king, so they followed the star in order to visit him.

God revealed himself to the Magi, who studied the stars, in a way they could understand. He still does that today as he makes us aware of his presence and his power through everyday events. I once met a man who worked on a North Sea oil rig. He told me that he knew God existed and cared about him because of something that happened to him. After a period of shore leave, he had travelled to Aberdeen to catch a helicopter back to his rig. His train was delayed and he missed the flight he was meant to be on. That helicopter crashed into the sea killing everyone on board. The man felt God had protected him, but it didn’t make any difference to his life. The Magi weren’t like that because when they saw the star they followed it until they found the Christ-child.

The star guided the wise men until it stopped over the place where Jesus was. They were overjoyed and went into the house where Jesus, and his mother Mary, were. They bowed down and worshipped him. It was an amazing scene as these learned, dignified and important men bowed in humble and joyful worship before this child who was born to be king. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, for a king, frankincense, for worship, and myrrh, in preparation for the pain and suffering this child would later experience.

The wise men are a great example to us. They wanted to know God and were determined to follow the star wherever it went until they found the new king who had been born. When they saw the Christ-child their lives were transformed. They experienced the truth of one of God’s great promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

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Crushing guilt and true forgiveness

The appalling case of Larry Nassar revealed how he used his position as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University to sexually abuse more than 250 women and girls over a period of 20 years. In January, Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 7 girls, including US Olympic gymnasts, and was sentenced to 175 years in prison. He had previously been sentenced to 60 years for child pornography offences and last week received an additional sentence of 40-125 years. He will spend the rest of his life in a high security prison. He will never be released.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was 15 years old when Nassar began abusing her. She was the first of Nassar’s victims to make allegations against him. She was also the last of more than 150 survivors to share her impact statement in court. Rachael is now a lawyer and is married with 3 children. Her statement was powerful and deeply moving.

Rachael said, “Throughout this process, I have clung to a quotation by C.S. Lewis, where he says: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?'”

“Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimisation or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”

“Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt, so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.”

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All good gifts around us

Farmers have safely gathered in the harvest for another year. The early season was very dry and during the harvesting period there has been a lot of rain. One farmer said that out of a harvest period of 70 days only 10 were good days for using the combine harvester because the ground was so wet. Some crops have been harvested when they were damp and will need to be dried out. A new strain of blight has also caused problems so that crops in the barns will need to be carefully monitored over winter.

Most of us are almost totally unaware of the challenges farmers are facing. Supermarkets source produce from many parts of the world so we are less aware of the seasonal nature of our food. In the Western World we are protected from the vagaries of uncertain harvests. We expect to be able to buy many things all the year round.

But it’s not like that for millions of people in the world. In East Africa this year there has been a severe and prolonged drought, made worse by ongoing conflicts, that has caused a major food crisis. As crops have failed and animals have died people, including many children, are seriously malnourished and some have died. The shortage of safe water has also led to deaths from cholera-like diseases. It is estimated that in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, 20 million people are in urgent need of food supplies.

In many places around the country, in churches and in schools, Harvest Thanksgiving services are being held. Many will remember our dependence on God for our daily bread and give thanks to him as they sing, “We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

We must also remember those who are in great need and are starving. The Apostle John wrote, “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”