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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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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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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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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’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.”

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Being given time to change

The murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, by police during an arrest in Minneapolis has appalled people around the world. George was arrested after a shop keeper alleged he had paid with a counterfeit $20 note. George died because one of the four police officers who arrived at the scene knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes, ignoring George’s pleas, “I can’t breathe!” The policeman has been convicted of murdering George.

Pastor Patrick Ngwolo, lead pastor of the church Resurrection Houston, was a friend of George’s. Before he moved to Minneapolis George had mentored young men in Houston and trained them in basketball. Pastor Patrick said, “We want to lament and grieve and process through the pain but then also celebrate the life of somebody who meant so much to so many people.” Pastor Patrick says he remembers George “as a Christian and a protective and hospitable ‘gentle giant.’” George was influential in breaking down barriers of suspicion in the community and won the confidence of people.

George grew up in Houston. His parents separated when he was 2 years old. George had problems in his life. He battled with drug addiction and was convicted of several crimes, including aggravated robbery, for which he was sentenced to 4 years in prison. After his release, George became involved in Resurrection Houston. He mentored young men, delivered meals to senior citizens and helped with a drug rehabilitation programme.

In 2014 he moved to Minneapolis to help rebuild his life. George knew he had made mistakes that cost him years of his life but was turning his life around through Christianity. Speaking on a video to young people in his neighbourhood he acknowledged his own “shortcomings” and “flaws” and said he wasn’t better than anyone else, but condemned violence in the community and advised his neighbours to put down their weapons and remember they are loved by him and by God.

George knew that through trusting in Jesus we are given time to change. A well-known Christian song explains this: “Wonderful grace, that gives what I don’t deserve, pays me what Christ has earned, then lets me go free. Wonderful grace, that gives me the time to change, washes away the stains that once covered me. Wonderful love, that held in the face of death, breathed in its latest breath forgiveness for me. Wonderful love, whose power can break every chain, giving us life again, setting us free. And all that I have I lay at the feet of the wonderful Saviour who loves me.”

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A father to the fatherless

The Bible teaches us that God is deeply concerned for vulnerable people, and especially widows and orphans. In the Law he commands, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.” The book of Psalms says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” The prophet Isaiah reminded the people of their responsibilities before God, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” In the New Testament, James tells us that true religion is practical, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Wilfried Zaha is a very skilful and successful footballer. He plays for Crystal Palace in the Premier League and internationally for Ivory Coast. Recently he spoke about being homeless when he was 6 years old. One day an older brother met him from school and took him to a shelter where his whole family was now staying. His family had lost their home. Later they stayed with relatives until they were given a three-bedroomed house where the family of 11 people lived. Wilfried shared a bedroom with his 5 brothers. He says, “I have been that kid who had nothing and now I have the opportunity to help people, so why not?”

When he was 16 Wilfried signed his first professional contract and vowed to donate 10% of his earnings to an orphanage in Daloa, Ivory Coast, called “Tomorrow’s Hope”, that is run by his sister, Carine. He says, “Me and my mum would pray and say to God, ‘You have done this for me, I am going to give back’. My family, especially my mum, are heavily Christian, so it felt like a duty to help. I feel like my life is a testament to God helping me – 100 per cent. So as soon as I was able to help, I helped. That’s why, with everything that’s going on now, if I have the opportunity to help out, then it’s a no-brainer.”

Wilfried doesn’t like speaking about donating a percentage of his wages to the orphanage, “I haven’t spoken about it much, because it’s a duty for me. I have been there, and I just want to help. I thank God he blessed me with the opportunity to be a footballer and now I have the things I couldn’t have as a child.”

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Because he lives

This year we’ve lived in a very different world from the one we have known in the past and the one we hoped to one day see. The future remains uncertain, despite the vaccines that thankfully are now becoming available. Many hopes and dreams have faded. We need to find a foundation on which to build our lives even when things are really tough, and from that foundation to find a true and substantial hope for the future, both for ourselves and our children.

In 1971, when the horrors of the Vietnam war were impacting many people, John Lennon wrote a song which became very popular. It was called “Imagine”. These are the words, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

John Lennon was not the first to promote utopian optimism. In the early 20th century, there was a great optimism that mankind was coming of age. It was believed that people are essentially good and through education would progress morally and in love for one another. Tragically two world wars, the Holocaust and the invention of atomic weapons put an end to that optimism. A shallow optimism was no longer convincing.

At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus who brought hope to the world. One Christian song sums it up; “God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal and forgive. He lived and died to buy my pardon, an empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives. How sweet to hold a new-born baby and feel the pride and joy he gives, but greater still the calm assurance this child can face uncertain days, because he lives. And then one day, I’ll cross the river, I’ll fight life’s final war with pain, and then, as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know he reigns. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone, because I know he holds the future and life is worth the living, just because he lives.”

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Bobby Ball’s Story

The comedian Bobby Ball died recently from Covid-19 complications. He and his partner Tommy Cannon hosted the very successful Cannon and Ball show from 1979 to 1988 with an audience of 18 million people. Bobby was born Robert Harper in 1944 at Shaw, a village near Oldham. His father’s family had been fairground workers and his mother worked in a cotton factory. Bobby took a job as a welder at Boden Trailers where he met Tommy. They appeared as a musical act on the talent show Opportunity Knocks and came last, so they decided to turn to comedy.

The success and wealth Bobby and Tommy experienced created stress on their friendship. Between 1983 and 1986 they did not speak to each other outside rehearsals and performances. By 1986 Bobby, disillusioned with the shallow world of show business, hit rock bottom. He said, “I was famous, and it meant nothing to me, it felt quite trivial, I was drinking a lot and womanising.”

Then in 1986, while working at the Bradford Alhambra, Bobby began talking with chaplain Max Wrigley. Bobby said: “I got talking to him and attacked him verbally about God. But he had a peace about him. I can’t explain exactly what he had but he had something that I didn’t have. One day I asked to speak to him and after a while he said, ‘Let’s pray.’ I’d never prayed in my life, but we prayed and it just changed my life – just like that.” Six months later his wife, Yvonne, also become a Christian.

Becoming a Christian helped to re-kindle Bobby’s broken friendship with Tommy and, in 1992, Tommy also became a Christian. In 1996 they co-authored a book “Christianity for Beginners” and spent time every year visiting churches and sharing the good news about their Saviour, Jesus Christ. When Bobby was asked what impact Jesus Christ had had on his life, he immediately answered “Being a Christian? It doesn’t have an impact. It gives you a new life. It doesn’t impact it; it turns it totally around.”

When Bobby accepted Jesus Christ as his Saviour in 1986, he received the gift of eternal life. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life begins now and continues after death in eternal happiness in heaven with Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”