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When we fail

The XXXII Olympic Games are being held in Tokyo after a one-year delay. Many Japanese people are unhappy that the Games are being held and at most events there will be no spectators present because of Covid-19 restrictions. More than 10,000 athletes from 206 nations will compete in 33 different sports. The preparations for these Games have been especially difficult for athletes, but many have arrived in Tokyo hoping to win an Olympic medal.

It is important for athletes to know how to cope with both success and failure. Nicola McDermott, the first Australian female high-jumper to clear two metres, explains: “When your identity is based on what you do – a performance-based identity – it will never satisfy. I found that I could never jump high enough to be truly satisfied. But when your identity is based on the fact that you are loved by God…that allows me to perform out of joy and freedom.”

Felix Sanchez, who won Olympic gold medals in the 400 metres hurdles in 2004 and 2012, says: “You see a lot of athletes say how blessed they are when they win, but you don’t hear it so much when they lose. They don’t realise that God’s grace is the same whether you win or lose – God just sees you the same. He’s given us this platform to compete and whether we win or lose is not important. It is important that we demonstrate our faith, make him proud with the talent he has given us and give thanks to him.”

Swimmer, Kirsty Balfour, went to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a serious medal contender, but didn’t even make the semi-finals. Speaking of her disappointment, she says: “My first thought was of people I had let down, like sponsors, my family, who had flown out to China to watch me, and my coach and my teammates. All the money and the time that had been invested in working towards Beijing was gone.”

Yet as a Christian, in the midst of the turmoil, Kirsty had a great sense of God’s presence. The words of the song ‘How great is our God’ kept coming to her mind: “He is the name above all names and is worthy to be praised. My heart will sing, how great is our God”. She says: “It was amazing to have that and to know I was standing on the rock of Jesus. I was able to say: ‘Yes, Jesus you are in it. You are here. This was your will.’” She says: “Sometimes when it goes badly, God gets more glory in your reaction than when you win a medal.”

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I shall behold his face

On 11 July Richard Branson travelled as a passenger on Virgin Galactic SS Unity 22, a supersonic rocket-propelled spacecraft, to the edge of space. This test flight lasted one hour and reached an altitude of 53.4 miles above the earth. It was the first flight with a full crew and was the culmination of 17 years of work. The aim is to fly fare-paying passengers on joyrides to space and back at a cost of at least £200,000 each. Richard said, “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age. It’s been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a kid but honestly, nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space. It’s just magical.”

There is already a waiting list of wealthy people wanting a seat on future flights to the edge of space. No doubt it will be for them, too, the experience of a lifetime. But it will be an exclusive privilege only a few can enjoy and will last just one hour. Yet there is an experience anyone, whether rich or poor, can enjoy which is infinitely more wonderful and lasts for ever. Recently a good Christian friend of mine died from renal failure. His wife and family feel his loss very keenly, but are comforted by knowing that their loved one is now in heaven, in the very presence of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth.

The night before he died on the Cross Jesus told his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

People from every nation, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, who have received Jesus Christ as their Saviour have this wonderful hope. They know that when they die, they will go to heaven and be with their Saviour for ever. It is God’s free gift to them. A well-known hymn says, “God by himself has sworn, I on this oath depend: I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend. I shall behold his face, I shall his power adore, and sing the wonders of his grace for evermore.”

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God’s moral law matters

For the past 16 months we have lived under emergency laws made by the Government to protect us from the Covid-19 virus. Most people have kept these laws and recent events have revealed the strong disapproval felt towards those who break them. Ordinary people, who have kept the laws, resent people in power breaking them and demand that they pay the price for doing so.

However, it has also become clear that fundamental moral laws, for example about adultery, are now seen as being of little importance. Breaking a temporary man-made law about social distancing is more serious than sinning against God. The deep pain and distress experienced by marriage partners and children when marriage vows are betrayed is profound and long lasting. The dysfunctional nature of our society, and of many individual lives, can be traced to the fact that we have set aside all the Ten Commandments.

Jesus was fiercely criticised by the religious leaders of his day because he didn’t keep the hundreds of petty rules they had created, called “traditions”. Jesus accused them of hypocrisy because their man-made traditions had become more important than God’s Law. He asked them, “Why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honour their parents and so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition.”

Only when we face up to our sins against God can we experience his forgiveness. Jesus showed mercy to those who had broken God’s laws. One day the religious leaders brought a woman to him whom they had caught in the act of adultery. They said that according to the Law such women should be stoned to death. Then they asked Jesus, “What do you say?” He replied, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and leave your life of sin.”

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I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing

On 4 July the last 750 regular British soldiers left Afghanistan, bringing to an end 20 years of military deployment in the country. Since the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, following the 2001 September 11 terror attacks, 454 British soldiers and civilians have died in Afghanistan. Some 2300 US personnel have also been killed and 50,000 Afghan civilians. The future of the country is very uncertain as the Taliban advances in many parts of the country, sparking fears of a new civil war.

The withdrawal of British soldiers from Afghanistan has brought back very painful memories for soldiers who still remember the sacrifice made by some of their friends. In the early hours of 10 July 2009, Rifleman Peter Sherlock was woken on his camp-bed at Wishtan forward operating base in Helmand’s Sangin district by his fellow troops preparing for their dawn patrol. Peter, then 21, should have been among the men heading out that morning but had been struck down by severe heatstroke the previous day and had been ordered to remain in the base. Peter chatted with the men getting ready, one of whom, 20-year-old Rifleman Danny Simpson, was his best friend in C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles.

As the men said goodbye and filed out of the front gates, Peter went to sit with the medics wondering who had taken his place in the patrol. Within minutes, there were two loud explosions in quick succession, about 500m from the base. Eight members of the 30-man patrol died and more than a dozen suffered life-changing injuries. The first death Peter heard confirmed over the radio was his best friend Danny, who had an eight-month-old son at home. Peter says, “The guilt of not having gone out with them was instant and has haunted me ever since.”

It is important that we remember and give thanks for the people, many of them young men, who have died serving in Afghanistan. They laid down their lives in a foreign land far from home seeking to bring peace to that troubled nation. Peter says, “I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing.” We pray for those like him, still living with the trauma of what he experienced, and others with life-changing injuries, and for the future of the Afghan people. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus is the supreme example of self-sacrifice. His death and resurrection have brought hope to our sad and suffering world. His love in dying for our sins has brought peace to many people burdened with guilt and comfort to those with profoundly sad memories.

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The story of Rodwell Khomazana

On 2 May 9-year-old Rodwell Khomazana was attacked by a hyena and suffered life-changing injuries. The attack took place when Rodwell was with his family at a night religious service at Zviratidzo Zvevapostori Apostolic Church in Zimbabwe and was sleeping. In the attack Rodwell suffered terrible injuries losing his nose, left eye, most of his upper lip and parts of his forehead and face. He was rushed to Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital, the largest hospital in Zimbabwe, where surgeons stabilised his wounds but didn’t have the resources to repair the terrible wounds to his face. A senior nursing sister Chaku Nyamupaguma volunteered to care for Rodwell. The excellent medical care Rodwell received in Zimbabwe saved his life.

Rodwell’s mother couldn’t afford the specialised surgery he needed, which is only available outside Zimbabwe, but contacted doctors in South Africa who agreed to operate on him free of charge in a private Johannesburg clinic. The news was shared, many people prayed, and donations came in to cover the full cost of getting Rodwell to South Africa. One of the team managing Rodwell’s medical evacuation said, “It’s just very overwhelming to see the amount of love that people have shown so readily, without even knowing him.”

Dr Ridwan Mia, a renowned plastic surgeon who is leading the team operating on Rodwell, said, “If he wasn’t to have this reconstructive surgery, I think we would be hearing a terrible story of a child who probably will not face society again. And that was the big key, that we can get him a face that he can walk around in public with and still feel and be as normal a child as possible.” As well as the reconstructive procedures, Rodwell will need months of speech therapy, occupational therapy, and psychotherapy to help him speak properly again, eat by himself again, be able to play football with his friends once more and gain the independence any young boy deserves to have.

The responses of the medical teams in Zimbabwe and South Africa and the generosity of people are a great example to us all. One of the greatest commandments is, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” Jesus came into this world to reveal God to us. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made his light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.”

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Remarkable People

Dan Walker is a well-known BBC presenter who has presented Football Focus and Match of the Day and now the “Breakfast” morning show. Dan recently published a book entitled “Remarkable People” in which he tells the stories of people who have inspired him during his 20-year career. Dan says they are remarkable “either in the way they’ve dealt with adversity or inspired those around them by the way they’ve acted or the difference they have made.”

Dan is a Christian and says, “My Christian faith is what makes me tick.” He became a Christian in his early teens when he started thinking deeply about his place in the universe: “I wanted to understand who I am; who God is; what my relationship with Jesus Christ is and what I wanted it to look like.” Eric Liddell, the Olympic athlete who became a missionary in China, and then a prisoner of war, has had a big influence on Dan. Eric was a Christian and in 1924 didn’t run in the Olympic 100 yards final because it was on a Sunday. Instead, he ran in the 400 and won the gold medal.

Eric Liddell’s story is one of self-sacrifice. As a famous athlete, he was offered a prisoner exchange, to return to the UK in exchange for a Chinese prisoner, and he turned it down. He gave his place to a pregnant woman who went back and had her child. Three months later Eric died in that prisoner of war camp. Dan says, “I just find that sacrifice incredible and inspiring. Eric did that when nobody was watching. Eric was a real hero who thought of others not himself.”

In his book Dan writes about his friend Gary Speed, the international footballer and Wales’ coach, who tragically took his own life. The day before he died Gary had been on Football Focus with Dan and had seemed fine. The next morning Alan Shearer called Dan to tell him, “Gary’s gone!” Dan has asked himself: “Did I do enough? As a Christian, could I have done more? Could I have said something or done something that could have led to him still being here today?” Gary’s death changed the way Dan relates to the people he interviews because underneath they may be struggling with big problems, and it may even be the last time he speaks to them. There are mysteries in life that we can never fully understand but Dan says, “I think my faith gives me real perspective, and also something and someone to cling on to.”

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God hears our prayers

There was a sense of deep shock for the players and everyone in the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, and millions around the world watching on television, when Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s star player, suffered a cardiac arrest during the Euro 2020 match against Finland. Denmark’s team doctor and the medical team ran to treat him as players and fans stood helplessly by. Dr Boesen said, “He was gone. I don’t know how close we were to losing him, but we got him back after one defibrillation, so that’s quite fast.” Millions of people prayed for Christian as the medical team treated him and God graciously heard those prayers. Christian is now recovering in Rigshospitalet. Many people said that what happened to Christian puts everything into perspective because there are much more important things than football.

Seeing Christian Eriksen collapse brought back deeply emotional memories for former footballer Fabrice Muamba. In March 2012 Fabrice suddenly collapsed during an FA Cup match between Bolton and Tottenham Hotspur. His heart stopped for 78 minutes. His life was saved by Dr Andrew Deaner, a cardiologist and Tottenham fan, who rushed from his seat in the stand to help. Dr Deaner organised paramedics resuscitating him before rushing him to the London Chest Hospital. It took 15 defibrillator shocks, 2 on the pitch and 13 in the ambulance, to bring Fabrice back to life. He said, “I owe him everything. He is the reason I have been able to hold my son again and continue my life. I would not be alive today if he’d not been at the game.”

Fabrice is a Christian and has spoken about his faith in God, “I am walking proof of the power of prayer. For 78 minutes I was dead and, even if I lived, was expected to have suffered brain damage. But I’m very much alive and sitting here talking now. On the morning of the game, I prayed with my father and asked God to protect me, and he didn’t let me down.”

Fabrice’s father, Marcel, came to Britain from Congo in 1994 during the terrible civil war which claimed 4 million lives. While Fabrice lay unconscious in hospital his father prayed for him. Marcel said, “I was obviously very concerned that Fabrice would not make it, but our faith is very strong, and I really believed God would answer my prayer to save him. Somehow, I just knew Fabrice would be safe in God’s hands. I said to God, ‘You are the one who resurrected Lazarus from the dead. Now in this moment glorify yourself.’ We rejoice that Fabrice made a full recovery and pray that Christian will too.

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We will remember them

On 6 June 2021, the 77th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings, the new Normandy Memorial was opened at Ver sur Mer, overlooking Gold Beach. The names of the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who died on 6 June 1944, and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy, are inscribed on 160 stone columns. The site also remembers the French civilians who died during this period. About 100 veterans and their families, who were unable to attend the ceremony at Ver-sur-Mer because of coronavirus restrictions, gathered at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to watch remotely.

George Batts, a Normandy veteran now 95 years old, who had dreamed of this day for many years and energetically raised money to build the memorial said, “Only those who were there on D-Day can truly know what it was like. We lost a lot of our mates on those beaches. Now, at long last, Britain has a fitting memorial.” Prince Charles, who is patron of the Normandy Memorial Trust, said: “The memory of these remarkable individuals should be preserved for future generations as an example of personal courage and sacrifice, for the benefit of the wider national and, indeed, international community.”

Remembering the past is important. Future generations owe an incalculable debt to those who gave their lives to secure the freedom we enjoy. George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, many of those who survived D-Day, including my wife’s father, didn’t talk about the traumas they experienced, they wished they could forget. At remembrance services the words of Laurence Binyon are recited, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”

The Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme example of love, courage and self-sacrifice. The night before he died, Jesus shared a Passover meal with his disciples. He broke bread and passed around a cup of wine saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” When Christians celebrate Holy Communion they remember their Saviour, Jesus, who died that they might be forgiven and rose from the dead to give them a living hope. They also look forward to the day when Jesus will return and men “will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

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Hope is coming

Louise Blyth met her husband, George, in 2006. They fell in love and were married in 2011. Their first son was born in 2013 and a second son in 2015. When their second son was 8 months old, they received the devastating news that George had bowel cancer. The moment the diagnosis was confirmed was an incredible shock for George and Louise and they experienced fear, dread and panic.

George was fit and healthy so he and Louise were optimistic that, with treatment, he could be cured. But then a scan revealed that the cancer had spread to his liver. A course of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy, obliterated the tumour in his bowel but left small residual tumours in his liver. Throughout the treatment George was incredibly positive and never thought he wouldn’t get better. Six weeks after a liver resection he rode his bike from London to Paris. Just eight weeks later, at the age of 34, George died.

Louise has written, “George’s death was beautiful. The process of his passing dramatically altered our perceptions of the world we live in. George and I began to look at human existence from a very different perspective, a much more spiritual perspective. This was something that was completely new to us both! A series of miraculous events led to me having an unfaltering belief in Jesus.”

Louise had received a text from a friend who had met a woman who felt she should pray for someone who was seriously ill. The woman visited George in hospital and prayed with him. Louise said, “I thought this was really nice and wanted to believe it was real. Then George put his hand out and asked the woman to come and sit closer to him and there was just this feeling in the room of peace and light, and I didn’t want it to end.” The next day Louise found George lying on his bed with the sun coming into the room. It was seven days before he died, and he was really sick, but he was lying on his bed with his arms out and told her all the pain he’d been feeling had gone.

Louise said, “After this we had a beautiful time before his death. He had five days in hospital where he laid and basked in the Holy Spirit and the hospital room was filled with such perfect peace and hope it was unbelievable.” In the midst of their unspeakable sadness both George and Louise found hope in Jesus. Louise has told their story in her book “Hope is coming – a true story of grief and gratitude.”

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We’re the same as everyone else

In a recent interview with Irish radio host Brendan O’Connor, who has a daughter with Down’s syndrome, the geneticist Richard Dawkins said it is “wise and sensible” to abort babies who have either Down’s syndrome or are deaf or blind in order to “increase the amount of happiness in the world.” In 2014 Dawkins told a woman who said she would face “a real ethical dilemma” if she became pregnant with a baby with Down’s syndrome, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.”

In 2014 Dawkins explained his thinking: “If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down’s baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.” When Brendan O’Connor pressed him, he said he didn’t know for certain that disabled people increase suffering and there is no direct evidence. He also admitted he didn’t know intimately anyone with Down’s syndrome.

The nihilist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who said “God is dead”, understood the implications of this statement, “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.” Nihilism is a philosophy that denies the existence of genuine moral truths and asserts the ultimate meaninglessness of life or of the universe. Such thinking does not “increase the sum of happiness” but is a counsel of despair.

Heidi Crowter is a wonderful example of how people with Down’s syndrome enrich all our lives. After she was born, Heidi was diagnosed with leukaemia, pneumonia, kidney failure and needed open-heart surgery. Heidi left school with GCSEs and, until lockdown, worked at Raspberry Kids Hair Salon in Coventry. In July 2020, when she was 24, she married James. They are both Christians. Heidi is proud of all she has achieved and laughingly says, “My mum didn’t think I’d get married – well boy, didn’t I blow that out the window.”

On 6 and 7 July, Heidi is going to the High Court in London to attempt to change the law surrounding the abortion of babies with Down’s syndrome. Heidi was devastated when she learned that 90% of women whose unborn children are diagnosed with Down’s terminate their pregnancies. Under the present law such pregnancies can be terminated up to birth. Heidi says, “I just want people to see that we’re the same as everyone else.”