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Be near me when I’m dying

The House of Lords has been debating the Assisted Dying Bill that proposes making a new law to enable adults who are of sound mind and have six months or less to live to be provided with life-ending medication. The person wanting to end their life would have to sign a declaration approved by two doctors, which would be signed off by the High Court. The bill is being proposed by Baroness Meacher who said that it would help a “small but significant number of dying people avoid unwanted suffering at the end of life”. The proposed law would mean that helping a person to plan for an assisted death would no longer be a criminal offence.

Anyone who has cared for a loved one who is terminally ill will understand the pain and heartache this involves. I am visiting two very good friends who are very seriously ill. They are being lovingly cared for by their families and are being supported by excellent palliative care teams. Everything possible is being done to help them and their loved ones to cope with a very difficult situation. It is a privilege to be able to come alongside them and their families at this time knowing that one day I too will have to face death. We talk together, read the Bible, and pray to God, our heavenly Father, who helps us in a way no other can as we face death.

David’s words in Psalm 23 have been a great comfort to countless people, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” As we face death we can feel very alone. We leave those we love so much and must pass through that dark valley on our own. The Lord, who is the good Shepherd, knows our fears and promises that he will be with us to keep us safe and bring us into the presence of our heavenly Father.

The death and resurrection of Jesus were decisive and give us a sure hope. The apostle Paul told the early Christians that Jesus, our Saviour, “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” A well-known hymn about Jesus dying on the cross says, “Be near me when I’m dying: O show thy cross to me; thy death, my hope supplying, from death shall set me free. These eyes, new faith receiving from Jesus shall not move; for those who die believing die safely through Thy love.”

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The Wonder of Reconciliation

In May 2019, 15-year-old Leah met up with a group of friends in a car park in her hometown of Northallerton. Connor, who was 17 years old, gave Leah MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, a Class A drug. Connor was involved with county lines gangs which target vulnerable teenagers and use them to supply drugs. After taking the drug Leah collapsed and died. Connor was charged with supplying drugs and was sent to prison.

After the trial Leah’s mother, Kerry, and Connor’s mother, Tammy, were introduced to each other through restorative justice which brings those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm into contact with each other with a view to repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward. Kerry didn’t want to meet Connor but agreed to meet Tammy.

As Kerry and Tammy talked, they were able to understand each other’s situation. Kerry realised that they had both lost something. Tammy knew her son was involved with the gangs and had tried, without success, to get help for him, including reporting him to the police. She felt a deep guilt and shame over Leah’s death. Kerry told Tammy that Leah was her “best friend”, and that she felt “a lot of hatred” about how she had died.

Following their meeting Kerry and Tammy decided to launch a campaign “Do You Know MDMA?” to get the message out that drugs kill. Kerry says, “People will look at us and think it’s an unlikely friendship. They will see us as two separate people, but we are both grieving. They are both our children. I feel if we can tell our story we can try to educate people. Leah died and I can’t let that be for no reason.” Many people have been deeply moved by Kerry and Tammy’s story and pray that because of their campaign other young people will not die from taking drugs.

Reconciliation is a powerful thing and is at the heart of the Bible’s message. All of us have sinned and rebelled against God but through his Son, Jesus Christ, God has at great cost provided the way of reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’ For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

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God had a plan

Charlie Duke is a former NASA astronaut. In 1972 as Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 16, he became the 10th and youngest person to walk on the Moon. As he waited for take-off he said, “I was really tense. Every part of my being vibrated with the throb of the Saturn V rocket engine. After 6 years of intensive training, I was anxious to finally be on my way, and then we were off into the atmosphere and beyond – starting eleven of the most exciting days of my life.”

“Our view of Earth was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen. From 18,000 miles the Earth was like a beautiful jewel – the blue oceans, white snow and clouds, and brown of land masses. The little crystal jewel of Earth hung there in the blackness of space. I walked in wonder on the Moon, breathless in admiration. It was just the way it had been created – pure, unspoiled, untouched. I was proud to be one of the few men to have such an experience.”

Charlie had always been success-oriented and being an astronaut was the pinnacle of success. He was famous and his ego swelled bigger and bigger. But on his return to earth, he realised his marriage to Dotty was in serious trouble. He had neglected her, and his two sons, and she felt her marriage and life were hopeless. Charlie threw himself into a new business career, but Dotty started going to church and gave her life to Jesus Christ. Charlie saw the change in Dotty and was curious. He could see a new peace and purpose in her life that she had never known before. She began to love and accept him in a new way.

Charlie had gone to church on Sundays but, even though he had walked on the moon, hadn’t found God. He went to a two-day Bible study with Dotty. He said, “The scales fell from my eyes. I saw that God loved Charlie Duke from the time he created the world. We have all turned away from God, but he says, ‘Turn to me, and I will be your God and bless you.’” As he and Dotty drove home Charlie said, “Love, there’s no doubt in my mind. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Charlie had been born again and had found new life in Jesus. He says, “I have never known such an exciting life – a life filled with the love, peace, joy and power of God. You might not be able to walk on the moon with me, but we can all walk together with Jesus, and that walk lasts forever.”

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Give us this day our daily bread

The fine weather in September helped farmers to clear the fields of the final crops and finish harvest. The warm, late summer sunshine meant that the crops were in good condition for storage. We all benefit from the hard work of farmers throughout the year that ensures we have the food we need. There have been complaints that some supermarket shelves have been empty, but the reality is that they have been less full than usual. We enjoy an abundance of good food at reasonable prices.

Some countries have serious problems because of a shortage of water. In Ethiopia, rising temperatures are making it harder and harder to grow food. If the rains don’t come, farmers have no option but to watch their crops wither and die. In Uganda, the poorest families face a daily struggle without clean water and decent sanitation and food supplies are uncertain. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that 14 million people, including 2 million children, about one in three of the population, are food insecure and food prices are rising.

Many churches and schools hold Harvest Thanksgiving services at this time of year. The familiar harvest hymns remind us of the goodness of God: “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes, and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain. The winds and waves obey him, by him the birds are fed; much more to us, his children, he gives our daily bread. We thank Thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seedtime, and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. No gifts have we to offer for all Thy love imparts, but that which Thou desirest, our humble, thankful hearts. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

As we give thanks for God’s bountiful provision for us for another year, let’s remember those in our own country and in other countries who are in need. Planet earth is unique. It produces an abundance of food, enough to feed everyone on the planet and up to 10 billion people. As we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” let’s remember the millions of people in our world, men, women, and children, who, because of poverty and human greed, don’t know where their next meal is coming from and let’s do what we can to help them.

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Sara’s Story

Sara grew up in a loving home and enjoyed a very happy childhood in a small rural village in North Wales. As a child she suffered from severe asthma which involved frequent visits to hospital. Her visits to hospital gave Sara the desire to be a doctor so she could help other people as the hospital staff had so often helped her. She was offered a place at Medical School in Liverpool. But things didn’t turn out as Sara expected.

During her second term in Medical School, she was taken ill with meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia. She became very ill very quickly and was soon in intensive care on a life support machine with multi-organ failure. The septicaemia had also caused the circulation to her feet to stop, so 10 days into her illness, as a last resort, the doctors took the very difficult decision to amputate both her legs below the knees. She was in a coma for 6 weeks then woke to the news that she had lost her legs and life would never be the same again.

Sara says, “Although it was a time of fear and uncertainty about the future, I knew deep within my heart that I had been kept alive for a reason. As I look back now, I can see how God was working through it all, because as a 14-year-old I had put my trust in Jesus to be my Saviour. I had been living far from God, but by dying on the cross Jesus took the punishment I deserved and gave me forgiveness and the promise that he would never leave me nor forsake me. In my darkest hours, he was there, when it seemed a totally hopeless situation, I knew I had to trust his plan and purpose for my life.”

God has helped Sara to face the challenges of each day. She completed her medical training, works as a doctor, and is married with two grown-up children. She says, “I have learnt to count my blessings; I make the most of what I can do and enjoy, rather than focusing on the negatives and what I have lost. I am not angry with God; how can I be? Being a Christian does not make us immune from these things but having God as our rock and refuge when the storms of life hit makes all the difference. I am an ordinary girl, who prayed a simple prayer at the age of 14 and found an extraordinary Saviour, who will continue to be my help and strength through this life and into the next.”

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Who is my neighbour?

Recently I was driving on a fast dual carriageway when I saw a man in the central reservation waving his hands. As I got nearer, I saw an elderly man who looked very confused standing near the other man. It seems the elderly man had dementia, had left his care home, and had wandered onto the dual carriageway. He didn’t realise the danger he was in, but someone, seeing he was in danger, had stopped to help him and take him to safety. Some years ago, an elderly friend of mine who suffered from dementia left his home without his wife, who was his main carer, knowing and was knocked over by a car and died.

I was so encouraged to see someone who was willing to take time to care for a vulnerable stranger who was in need. This is not common in our society today. When we set aside the first Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, the second Great Commandment: “Love our neighbour as you love yourself” also becomes a casualty.

A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus told a story about a Jewish man who was attacked when he was travelling on a lonely desert road. The thieves robbed him of all his possessions, beat him severely and left him half dead. Two religious leaders passed by but, when they saw the man, didn’t stop to help him. Then another man, a Samaritan, came by. He stopped, cleansed the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him. The next day he gave the inn keeper money to continue taking care of the man. Jesus said this man showed what it means to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The story Jesus told was especially powerful because at that time most Jewish people had nothing to do with Samaritans because they were of mixed-race heritage. Jesus taught that true neighbour love goes beyond the love of family and friends and reaches out to strangers. Jesus himself exemplified such love in coming from heaven to this world to seek and save people who are lost. His death on the Cross paid the price of our sins so that through him we might experience God’s forgiveness and receive the gift of eternal life. Christians joyfully sing, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.”

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The only way out is through

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Christina Stanton and her husband, Brian, stood on their balcony in lower Manhattan watching with horror as the second plane flew right over them and exploded into the World Trade Centre just blocks away. The plane’s impact into the South Tower blew them back into their living room with such force that Christina momentarily lost consciousness. Brian shook her awake and, still wearing her pyjamas, Christina followed him down the 24 flights of stairs of the emergency exit to the street. Covered by dust and debris from the falling towers and struggling to breathe in a massive dust cloud, they boarded a boat that evacuated them off the island of Manhattan into the unknown. It would be months before they could return to their life in New York City.

Almost 20 years later, on March 27, 2021, another calamity forced them to leave the city again. COVID-19 had arrived, and New York City had become its epicentre. With cases soaring and the death count rising, Christina and Brian packed their bags and left New York attempting to flee this invisible enemy that was closing in on the city. Shortly after their plane to the Southeast landed, Christina began to develop symptoms of COVID-19. They had escaped the city, but not the virus. Christina was seriously ill and, as she left hospital, her doctor told her she had a 50/50 chance of survival. She spent over a month recovering, wondering if she would ever return home.

Christina said, “In 2001, I didn’t have Jesus. At the time, I identified as a Christian, but my faith was untested and shallow. I grew up in a Christian home, and as I got older church/Christianity was a box I checked off. I was in control of my life, and all I had to do was work hard to get the things I wanted and believed were crucial for me to be happy and satisfied.”

“After 9/11 I explored the Bible to know who this Jesus is. Fighting a deadly virus alone in a hospital far from home, wondering if I would live or die, I began to pray. I never wanted to stare death in the face again having no relationship with my Creator. This time I knew God was with me. I heard his voice and felt his love. Through these experiences, I discovered that while we can’t escape suffering, there is comfort and hope as we trust in our sovereign God. I’m not sure if we will return to New York City and rebuild our lives, but I know the only way out is through, with Jesus Christ as our guide, our hope, and our light.”

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I believe in God

Many people in Western Europe today have embraced secular humanism. They have rejected religion and believe in the freedom of each individual to set the terms of his or her own life. Nature is all there is, and science is the key to understanding our world, our universe and ourselves. They do not appeal to a supernatural being, such as a Creator, because they tell us, the universe came into being through a chance event, an accident. Our individual and collective future and happiness depends on the principle of the “survival of the fittest”. The consequences of this world view are being painfully worked out in our society today.

Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970 at the age of 97, was a very intelligent mathematician and philosopher who embraced a secular humanist world view and understood its melancholic implications. He wrote, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach and where none can tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Brief and powerless is man’s life, on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that enable his little day.”

The Christian faith stands in stark contrast to secular humanism. The Apostles’ Creed is a well-known summary of what Christians believe. It says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

Those who believe these truths can face everything life may bring to them knowing that, because their Lord and Saviour Jesus lives, they will live with him forever. We all need such a hope.

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Perfect love drives out fear

The desperate and tragic scenes at the Hamad Karzai International Airport in Kabul have vividly portrayed what terrorism is all about: producing terror in men, women, and children. The ordinary people in Afghanistan are in profound fear of the Taliban and thousands want to flee from their home country to avoid savage punishments or death for alleged offences against Sharia law. Taliban means “students”, who have been schooled in conservative Islamic teaching and are committed to militant Islam. The development of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been encouraged and financed from outside the country.

One of the accusations Jesus faced was from conservative Jewish leaders who alleged that he and his disciples didn’t keep the “traditions of the elders.” Over the centuries various Jewish religious leaders had added to God’s Law hundreds of their interpretations of that law so that keeping their “traditions” had become more important than the Law itself. Jesus said their “traditions’ contradicted God’s Law and made it null and void. The conservative religious leaders hated him for this. All religions are liable to such gross distortions and become especially dangerous when imposed on people by religious zealots.

Early one morning Jesus was teaching a crowd in the Temple at Jerusalem when a group of strict religious leaders appeared. It was one of the great annual pilgrimage feasts and they brought with them a woman they said they had caught in the act of adultery. They told Jesus that the law of Moses said that such women should be stoned and asked him, “What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into either contradicting the law of Moses or offending the Roman authorities who didn’t allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment.

Jesus knew these men were hypocrites. They had brought the woman, but had let the man go free, and were pointing their fingers at the woman to conceal their own sinfulness. So, he said, “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 in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” God’s love in sending his Son to pay the price of our sins creates in the hearts of all who experience it a profound gratitude and a deep love for God.

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My joy in the way God has made me

This week the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games begins. More than 4500 athletes from 163 countries will compete in 539 events in 22 sports. Sadly, the two athletes from Afghanistan have not been able to travel because of the political turmoil in the country. Zakia Khudadadi, who competes in taekwondo, would have been the first female athlete ever to represent the country at the Paralympic Games. The Paralympic Games is a very special event at which people with disabilities demonstrate amazing skills and the way they have overcome adversity.

Anna Tipton represented Great Britain in goalball at the London Paralympics in 2012, where she was the highest scorer for Team GB. Anna was born with a retina cell disorder which meant she had tunnel vision and found playing sport a nightmare. She couldn’t see either the ball or her teammates clearly and often felt she was the weakest link in the team. PE lessons in school were very stressful.

When she was in her early teens Anna and her visually impaired brother, Michael, were introduced to the sport of goalball. The game is played with three players on each side all wearing blind folds and attempting to throw the ball into a goal the width of the court. The ball has a bell in it so that players can use the sound of the bell to judge the position and movement of the ball. Able-bodied athletes are also blindfolded when playing goalball.

When Anna was in her mid-teens, she became a Christian. She understood how Jesus’ death on the cross gave her a personal relationship with God by taking away the barrier of her sin. This led to a wonderful closeness with her heavenly Father as Anna integrated her sport and her faith. Anna says, “Being a Christian is about the ins and outs of your life, including sport. God is there with you. Every time I play it’s like my worship to God. If I can do my best on a goalball court, then that’s my joy in the way that God has made me.” 

Anna is now a mother with a young son. She no longer competes in elite sport but continues to know God’s nearness and unchanging love. She prays that those who know her, including her former teammates, will also experience God’s love in Jesus. She says, “My teammates have seen the best and worst of me and all my emotions as we’ve competed together. I’ve always been open about my faith and the fact that God is at the heart of everything I do.”