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He came down to earth from heaven

The birth of Jesus was both ordinary and extraordinary. His mother, Mary, was a teenage girl who lived in the small Galilean village of Nazareth. She had fallen in love with Joseph, the village carpenter, and they were planning their wedding. They loved each other deeply and were looking forward to making their vows before God and sharing their life together. Joseph respected Mary’s purity and was willing to wait until they were married before they slept together. Neither of them anticipated what lay ahead of them.

One day God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary an amazing message. He said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” When Mary asked how this could happened since she was a virgin the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”

That day Mary’s life changed. What would the people of Nazareth say when they heard she was expecting a baby before she had been married? How would Joseph respond when she told him? He assumed that Mary must have been unfaithful to him and decided to call off the wedding until, one night, he had a dream in which an angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Joseph took Mary as his wife but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.

The birth of Jesus speaks to ordinary people everywhere about extraordinary things. One carol says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all; and his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall: with the poor and mean and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy.” Another carol speaks of receiving Jesus as Saviour, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.”

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The first moon landing

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong’s first step on to the lunar surface was broadcast on live TV around the world. He said, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Throughout the rest of his life Neil Armstrong avoided public interviews and died in 2012, aged 82.

Astronauts who went to the moon spoke of the sense of awe they experienced as they saw the Earth from the moon. Buzz Aldrin took with him a small plastic container of wine and some bread which he had been given by his church, where he was an elder. While he was on the moon, during a time of radio silence, he quietly ate the bread and drank the wine and remembered his Saviour, Jesus, who loved him and died for him. He said it was his way of thanking God for the success of the mission.

On 24 December 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 were being televised as they orbited the moon. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman read in turn from Genesis, Chapter 1. Bill Anders said, “We are now approaching the lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light:’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Charles Duke who was part of the Apollo 16 mission and walked on the moon in 1972. He became a Christian in 1978. He said that before he became a Christian his temper, ego, single-minded devotion to work and greed had ruined his relationship with his wife and children but becoming a Christian had changed him and transformed his relationship with his family. He also wrote, “I used to say I could live ten thousand years and never have an experience as thrilling as walking on the moon. But the excitement and satisfaction of that walk doesn’t begin to compare with my walk with Jesus, a walk that lasts forever.”

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Words matter

Words matter. At the marriage of Jack Brooksbank and Princess Eugenie last week their deep love for each other was obvious. The Dean of Windsor declared them to be husband and wife because they made solemn, lifelong promises to each other. Eugenie was asked, “Eugenie, wilt thou have this Man to be thy wedded husband, to live together according to God’s law in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?” She replied, “I will.” Jack made a similar promise.

One media organisation hired professional lip-readers to tell them what the Royal guests were saying to each other. It seems even small talk matters! Jesus taught that our words reveal the condition of our inner self and that God will judge us for everything we say. He said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

Those who heard Jesus speaking recognised the authority of his words. During a difficult time in his ministry, when some people turned away from him, Jesus asked his close disciples, “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” Jesus made wonderful promises in which we can have total confidence. One of his promises is, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Some Christian friends of ours invited a neighbour, who is not a Christian, to a meal. After the meal the wife asked the neighbour if she could read a passage from the Bible. The neighbour agreed and the wife read one of the Psalms. As she was reading the neighbour began to cry. When the reading was finished the neighbour explained why she had cried, “In my religion we speak to God but he never speaks to us. As you were reading I felt God was speaking to me!”

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Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

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When mind and memory flee

More people than ever before are suffering from dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society says there are now 850,000 people in the UK with dementia, including 1 in 6 people over the age of 80. 40% of people with dementia are being cared for in care homes and 60% are being cared for by family members. More than 50% of people with dementia are in the mild stages with 12% being in the severe stage. Caring for a husband or wife, or father or mother with dementia is very demanding and exhausting.

I recently read a moving letter from a Christian lady, Ann, whose husband has dementia. They have been married for more than 40 years and served as missionaries in Asia and London. Ann’s husband studied at Oxford and was an able linguist. She cared for him for 11 years and experienced sadness, isolation and stress. Ann was sad when she saw his mind go blank and him being unable to follow conversations. He was aware of his increasing memory loss and was determined to keep his mind active. Every day he would read to Ann from his library of books and they went for long walks together. But as his condition deteriorated there were fewer visitors, which led to growing isolation for them both.

The increasing demands of care brought Ann to a state of physical and emotional collapse. Then, one evening her husband said to her, “Well it’s been lovely visiting you, but I really must go back to my parents. They will have prepared a meal.” Nothing Ann said could change his mind. For him his “present” was now the past. Wonderfully Ann found a place for her husband in a Christian care home where he is cared for with respect, dignity and love. After visiting her husband Ann is able to leave knowing that he is safe and surrounded by loving carers.

Providing loving support to people with dementia and their family is so important. Just being with them affirms their value as people created in the image of God and our love for them. It’s also a great comfort to have a future hope and to know that there is life beyond dementia in a better world. God does not forget us. A hymn sung in Communion services says, “According to thy gracious word, in meek humility, this will I do, my dying Lord, I will remember thee. And when these failing lips grow dumb and mind and memory flee, when thou shalt in thy kingdom come, Jesus, remember me.”

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Harry and Meghan’s Wedding

The joy of Harry and Meghan’s wedding was shared by 2 billion people around the world. The glorious sunshine and historic setting of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, made it a very special day for Harry and Meghan. At the heart of the day was the marriage service. Marriage is the most significant commitment any two people can make. It is a lifelong, exclusive relationship, based on promises made to each other in the presence of God and before those attending the wedding. The marriage relationship is unique as two people become one. This is why the breakdown of a marriage is so profoundly painful.

In the introduction to the service, the Dean of Windsor said, “Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.”

The vows Harry and Meghan made expressed their deep commitment to each other. Harry was asked, “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” Meghan made the same affirmation. Then they both promised to take one another “to have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law.”

One image the Bible uses to describe heaven is marriage. What an amazing privilege to be in heaven at the marriage feast of Jesus, the divine bridegroom, to his bride, the church he redeemed, comprising people from every nation. A hymn written by Anne Ross Cousin beautifully describes that heavenly marriage, “The bride eyes not her garments, but her dear Bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory but on my King of grace; not at the crown he giveth, but on his pierced hand; the Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.”

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Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

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When mind and memory flee

More people than ever before are facing the challenge of dementia, either in themselves or in someone they love. There are around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and it is estimated that 225,000 will develop dementia this year. The increase in the number of people suffering from dementia is linked to the fact that we are living longer than ever before. The risk of dementia increases with age. One-in-three of those over 85 years old have dementia.

The demands on the immediate family of caring for a loved one with dementia are very great and sometimes there is limited support. It is very distressing when someone we love seems to have become a different person and doesn’t recognise us or other family members and close friends. Carers, often a husband or wife, become very tired and may find it difficult to think positively about the person with dementia. Caring can be a lonely task when you can’t go out and fewer people call in because they don’t know how to react. Carers experience a living grief because they feel they have lost the person they love and may feel guilty if they experience relief when the person dies.

My wife’s mother suffered from dementia and she and her husband lived with us until she died. It was very sad when she couldn’t recognise her family, whom she loved deeply. She was often anxious and fearful, especially when her husband went out, even for a short time. Sometimes she misunderstood situations and could become difficult to deal with. Yet, it was encouraging that she remembered some things very clearly. When I read Psalm 23 to her she would say the words with me which she had memorised when she was a child. When my wife sang familiar hymns to her it comforted her.

As we face the challenges of life we need the comfort and help that God alone gives. Even when we forget him, he never forgets us. One hymn says, “And when these failing lips grow dumb, and mind and memory flee, when Thou shalt in Thy kingdom come, Jesus, remember me.” A modern hymn writer, Mary Louise Bringle, wrote a hymn for a friend whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, “When memory fades and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused, speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts by pain and fear abused. O God of life and healing peace, empower us with patient courage, by your grace infused.”

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Nigel Mansell reflects on his life

Nigel Mansell was a great racing driver. He won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1992. In the course of his career he broke his back, neck, legs, arms, wrists and feet. A crash at Le Mans in 2010 left him with a blood clot on the brain that caused memory loss and difficulty in talking. He feels his greatest achievement in the 62 years of his life is that he is still alive!

In a recent interview Nigel gave a fascinating insight into the kind of man he is and the things that matter most to him. He has lived with danger and knows the fragility of life. This has given him an appreciation of what is truly important in life. His family is a priority. He first met his wife when he was 17, and they have been married for 45 years. His biggest regret is that he did not spend more time with his mother, Joyce, who died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 60. He didn’t realise how ill she was and, at that time, he was busy developing his career with Lotus. He often thinks about her.

People matter to Nigel. He is a special constable and has seen how crime wrecks people’s lives. For 16 years he has been the President of the UK Youth charity that seeks to inspire young people to have greater self-esteem. He is committed to trying to make people’s lives better. He wants to think the best of everyone and never do anyone down.

When he was asked which figure of history he would most like to buy a pie and a pint his answer was, “A pint with Jesus would be interesting, if a little daunting!” Out of all the people who have ever lived Jesus stands supreme. Anyone who is really seeking to discover the meaning and purpose of life must encounter him. Jesus was both very approachable and also created a sense of awe in those who met him.

Jesus wasn’t a religious leader who lived in a palace with great riches. He lived an extraordinary life amongst ordinary people. Because Jesus mixed with all kinds of people, the religious leaders of his day accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners.” Knowing Jesus transforms our lives. He answers all the questions we have and gives real meaning to our lives. Jesus came into this world that we may have life in all its fullness.