Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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.”

The challenge of digital dependency

For the first time in many years sales of dumb phones have increased. Dumb phones only enable people to make phone calls and send texts. Some people want to escape round the clock access to social media. One lady said, “I just hated the fact I was always on it. My friend told me I checked my smartphone 150 times a day and told me I was always on Facebook pages and Instagram. The more you do it the more you feel you need to do it. Switching to a dumb phone is not full cold turkey because I do have an iPad, but it’s more about choice. If I go out with just a dumb phone then I can make a choice and have a day without all the noise of the notifications and apps.”

A recent report by Ofcom entitled “A Decade of Digital Dependency” says that 78% of people in Britain now have a smartphone and most of them say they couldn’t live without it. People spend less time making phone calls and more time messaging and accessing the internet. Many check their phones every 12 minutes and spend more than a day a week online. 40% of adults check their phone within 5 minutes of waking up and just before they switch out the light at night. On average young people aged 15-24 spend 4 hours a day on their phones and check them every 8 minutes. For the first time women are spending more time online than men.

While the Ofcom report highlights benefits such as keeping in touch with family, it also says that smartphone use increases stress and disrupts personal and family life. More than 50% of people admitted that using their smartphone interrupts conversations with friends and family. Using a smartphone at mealtimes was deemed inappropriate by 72% of 18-34s and 90% of those aged over 55.

Smartphones must be used wisely. Time is valuable, and our lives fly by so quickly. Personal face-to-face relationships are really important. Our family and real friends are very precious. Real friends do not demand our constant attention but love and give. There are many things we don’t need to know but some things are so important we dare not miss them. Time to listen to God and to speak to him is vital. He hears our prayers and he cares. When we begin and end each day speaking to him in prayer he gives us his peace and the strength to face whatever may come.

Let the children come to me

Hospitals in Britain are treating almost twice as many girls for self-harm as they did 20 years ago. Hospital admissions have increased from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017. The number treated for attempting an overdose has increased tenfold from 249 to 2,736. The number of boys admitted to hospital for self-harm has stayed the same but the number of boys attempting an overdose increased from 152 in 1997 to 839 in 2017. A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: “Sadly, these heart-breaking figures are unsurprising. Many children are being driven to self-harm as a way of dealing with the pressures and demands of modern-day life. Young people are crying out for help.”

Jon Goldin, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I think there are a range of factors putting pressure on young children – academic pressures, social media, the fear of missing out and comparing yourself unfavourably to images you see online.” He added that girls may be more ‘sensitive’ to the pressures than boys. One girl aged 14 said: “Recently I’ve lost some people who were really close to me. When I started to self-harm, it seemed to mask the emotional pain I was feeling. When I get the urge to cut, I can’t seem to stop it until it’s done, otherwise I get really upset and angry.”

Children and young people are more vulnerable today than they were 20 years ago. Social media and smartphones mean that they can never hide or escape. The Photoshopped images of celebrities present a false body-image of perfection. Teenagers, and others, are pressurised into thinking that your image, clothes and possessions are what really matter. However, what matters most is not our outward appearance or possessions but the people we really are. Peer pressure can also be very cruel. If others don’t like me then I don’t like myself and so I punish myself through self-harming.

Jesus taught that children are precious in God’s sight. When parents brought their children to Jesus he said: “Let the children come to me. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” He also gave a very solemn warning to those who mistreat or exploit children: “If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.”

My friend David

David was born nearly 60 years ago. Soon after his birth his mother and father were told that he had Down’s syndrome. They didn’t know anything about the condition but began to find out about it. They knew that David, just like any baby, needed a secure and loving family in which to thrive. They, and David’s two older sisters, watched him grow and develop. David’s father took him out to enjoy a wide range of experiences and, every year, the family went on holidays together. David has always known that he belongs to a family who love him.

When David was a teenager, he and the family became involved in a local church. David was warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the church family. One of the highlights of his week was going to church on Sundays. He loved greeting his friends in the church and was often one of the first people to welcome newcomers to the church. He would say, “I’m David, what’s your name?” David loved reading the Bible and learning about Jesus. He received a certificate from a church in Scotland he used to visit, “In recognition of extensive study of the Holy Bible and by giving encouragement to others, by his example.”

When you talked to David he would often hold up a finger and say, “One thing…” Over the years the one thing that came to mean most to David was knowing Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. When he was 30 years old he was baptised and became a member of the church. It was a special day for David and his family and for the church. As he came out of the baptistry David gave a joyful double thumbs up!

Just by being the person he is, David has enriched the lives of many people. For nearly 40 years one of his sisters has led a special ministry of the church to people in the community with learning disabilities. Christians in the church have come alongside families and a weekly meeting is held for people with learning disabilities and their carers. They enjoy being together and praying for one another. Several young people from the church are working with people with special needs.

David now has dementia and is living in a nursing home. His family and friends from the church often visit him. One day David will go to be with his Saviour who loved him and gave himself for him; he will see Jesus face to face and will be with him for ever.

Look at the birds

The nights are dark and we have had the first frosts of winter. We may envy the birds that have begun to migrate to sunnier and warmer places. Bird migration is an amazing phenomenon. Scientists have recently studied the Alpine swift, a swallow-like bird found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Some of the swifts breed in Switzerland and then fly across the Sahara to West Africa. A team of scientists caught six Alpine swifts in Switzerland and tagged them with data loggers which enabled them to track the birds’ migration.

When the swifts returned to Switzerland three were caught and the data was analysed. It revealed that the swifts can fly for 200 days consecutively, eating and sleeping on the wing. They eat insects in mid-air and seem to be able to control their flying even when sleeping. The scientists concluded that it is possible that some swifts stay on the wing for their whole lifetime, except for breeding.

Jesus taught that we can learn an important lesson from the birds. He said, “I tell you not to worry about everyday life – whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?”

We all worry about everyday things and how we will find the money we need to buy the necessities of life. Poor people worry about finding the food they need for each day. Unemployed people worry about how they will be able to live on the lower allowances they are receiving. Students and young people worry about how they will repay their loans and save up a deposit to buy their own home. People nearing retirement worry about whether they will be able to live on their pension. Pensioners worry about how they will pay big bills and have enough money to pay for the care they may need in later years.

When we worry it’s so important to remember God, our heavenly Father, and to tell him about our anxieties. He feeds the Alpine swifts on the wing. He feeds the birds in our gardens through the food we put out for them. We are much more valuable to him than the birds. So valuable that, out of love for us, he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins, that we might receive eternal life through him.

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.

The Olympic Torch Relay

The Olympic Torch Relay is making its way around the British Isles. 8000 torch bearers are carrying the Olympic Flame to 1019 communities. Some torch bearers are famous, others have been chosen because of their bravery in the face of adversity or their service to others. Most of the torch bearers are young people, some as young as 12. The flame was ignited from the rays of the sun at Olympia in Greece, the site of the ancient Olympics. The Torch Relay will end on the day of the opening ceremony when the flame is lit in the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium, where it will burn until the closing ceremony.

The motto of the modern Olympic Games is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” In every Olympics new world records are set as athletes achieve success. The Games demonstrate what can be accomplished by people who are single-minded and dedicated. The Paralympic Games show this in a very special way. The hope is that this Olympic Games will inspire a new generation of young people in Britain and the world and bring a new spirit of hope to us all.

The Olympic Games will be a brief interlude in our lives, an opportunity to focus on human achievements rather than human failures. I remember hearing Jack Dain, Bishop of Sydney, say that when he read his daily newspaper he always started with the back page, to see what people had achieved before turning to the front pages to see their failures. Today our failures are great and potentially very serious. All of us, young and old, need to find real and lasting hope.

The apostle Paul speaks of life as being like a race. We are all running in the race. Like any good athlete we need to keep our ultimate goal before us. Near the end of his life Paul wrote, “The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Not many have the honour of competing in the Olympic Games, but all of us can live our lives in loving fellowship with Jesus Christ who guarantees us a safe and happy arrival in heaven.