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From Pitch to Pulpit

Gavin Peacock has just published his autobiography, “A Greater Glory: from Pitch to Pulpit.” Gavin’s father, Keith, played for Charlton and Gavin’s ambition was to be a professional footballer. When he was 16, he left school to play for Queens Park Rangers. Later he played for Newcastle United and Chelsea. During his career he made 540 league appearances and scored more than 100 goals. One of the highlights of his career was playing for Chelsea against Manchester United at Wembley in the 1994 FA Cup Final. After he retired Gavin worked for the BBC as a football pundit on Match of the Day.

Looking back Gavin says, “I’d achieved the schoolboy dream, if you like, I’d achieved everything that the world says will make you happy – the fame, the potential fortune, and the great career. And yet I wasn’t satisfied as I thought I would be, because football was my god. If I played well, I was up and if I played badly, I was down.”

One Sunday evening, when Gavin was 18, his mother said she was going to church, and he went with her. After the service the minister invited Gavin to the small youth group at the minister’s house. Gavin immediately noticed a difference between the other youngsters and himself: “I pulled up in a nice car, I had that bit of money in my pocket, the career, I was in the ‘in-crowd’, they weren’t. And yet when they spoke about Jesus Christ, when they prayed, there was a joy that they had, and a reality that they had that I didn’t.” Over the next few weeks, Gavin heard the good news about Jesus, recognised his sinfulness and received Jesus Christ as his Saviour. With his new-found faith, he continued with his career, no longer idolising football, but putting God at the centre.

In 2006 Gavin felt a call to preach, which he calls a “joyful compulsion”, and trained for Christian ministry. He and his family moved to Calgary in Canada where he is known more for his faith than his footballing past. He serves as a pastor at Calvary Grace Church. Drawing comparisons between football and faith, Gavin says: “I’ve played in front of 100,000 people at Wembley, and in front of millions on TV, in the biggest of stadiums, and against some of the great players. But nothing quite compares to going up there on a Sunday, whether it’s 25 people or 2,500 people, and preaching God’s Word. Because eternity and heaven and hell hang in the balance and you’re dealing with people’s souls; there’s no greater privilege.”

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The Greatest Gift

The last days leading up to Christmas are normally very busy. A few cards to write and post and presents to find and buy. Making sure we have everything for Christmas dinner and the days following as we look forward to getting together with our extended family and friends. But this year it’s very different. Christmas plans have had to be changed; only small family gatherings are permitted and only on Christmas Day. Most shops are closed; pubs and restaurants are closed; travel is restricted; and we must stay at home.

Christmas is a time for giving and receiving. At Christmas we give special gifts to those we love. Perhaps you won’t be able to buy the presents you had planned to give, but the person who gives us the gift, and the love it expresses, are far more precious than the gift itself.

At the first Christmas God gave a very special gift to the people of his world. It is the greatest gift ever given. Then, as now, the world was a sad place with many troubles. The Roman Empire dominated many nations, and most people were poor. Jesus came, not to solve the problems of the day, but to solve the biggest problem we all face – our sinful hearts and lives. The message of the angels to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord!” Our sins spoil our relationship with God and separate us from him. Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his perfect life and his death on the cross to pay the price of our sins. The name Jesus means “Saviour!” In love God, against whom we have all rebelled, took the initiative by giving his one and only Son to be our Saviour.

Opening a present from someone we love brings great joy. Parents enjoy watching their children opening their present and seeing their delight when they see what it is. The child’s instinctive response is to give their parents a hug and to tell them they love them. Have you ever responded to God’s gift of Jesus like that? Do you love him for giving you such an amazing gift? It brings great joy to God when anyone receives Jesus as their Saviour. This Christmas, like the shepherds, why not take time to receive Jesus, God’s gift to you, and to thank him for his love for you.

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The light shines in darkness

Are you one of those people who really looks forward to Christmas? It’s a special time as the Christmas celebrations brighten up the long dark days of winter. It’s a joy to gather our family and friends together to spend quality time with each other. But, because of Covid-19, Christmas 2020 will be different. Although some restrictions have been eased large family gatherings are not permitted. People are getting ready for a “digital” Christmas.

Yet the wonderful thing about Christmas is that, whatever our circumstances, the Person who is at the centre of it all can fill our lives with joy and peace and hope. Jesus Christ was born in a lowly stable in busy Bethlehem in the middle of winter. Hardly anyone noticed as his teenage mother gave birth to her first-born son, but the birth of Jesus shone light into a dark world and that same light still shines into the darkness that sometimes invades our lives. Phillips Brooks’ carol “O little town of Bethlehem” says, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The world into which Jesus was born was evil and dangerous. Not long after he was born, King Herod tried to kill him and wickedly ordered that all the little boys aged two years or under in Bethlehem and its vicinity should be slaughtered. Many mothers were broken hearted at the loss of their babies and little children. The young Jesus only escaped the slaughter because Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt for safety, taking him with them, and remained there until Herod died.

Thankfully, when Christmas focuses on Jesus it is can never be diminished or cancelled. In fact, the wonderful message about Jesus speaks powerfully into the darkest places of our lives. Seven hundred years before his birth the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Phillips Brooks’ carol closes with a prayer, “O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.”

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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.”

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Through my own fault

Frank Bough, who died recently, was described by his colleagues as a “consummate broadcaster”. For many years he presented BBC’s Saturday afternoon sports programme, Grandstand, and later the early-evening news programme Nationwide. His calmness and easy style made him very popular and, in 1983, he was chosen to present the BBC’s new breakfast show which became a great success.

Frank was a very able man. He grew up in Shropshire and was educated at Oswestry High School from where he went to Merton College, Oxford. He won a football Blue as a centre half, played county hockey for Shropshire and played league cricket. However, his career with the BBC came to a sudden end in 1988 when tabloid newspapers exposed sexual indiscretions and drug taking in his private life. In 1992, following further revelations of his private life, Frank said, “A lot of men are stupid. I am among the most stupid. The prime object now is to keep the family together.” With the loving support of his wife and three sons, Frank survived these crises and continued to work for Sky and ITV.

In 2001 Frank was diagnosed with cancer, had a liver transplant and retired from broadcasting. Looking back on his experiences he said, “The pain never, never goes away. I will never, never forget it. Having said all that, I have to say very loudly, ‘Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’” This Latin phrase means, “Through my own fault, through my most grievous fault.”

As I read about Frank’s life a parable of Jesus came to mind which tells of two men going to the Temple to pray. One was a proud, religious leader who in his prayer told God what a good man he was. The other man was a tax collector who had betrayed his own people by collecting taxes for the hated Romans who occupied Israel. The tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” The tax collector was in a place to which we must all come if we are to know God and experience his forgiveness. All of us have sinned; we all “fall short of God’s glorious standard”, and it’s our own fault. Jesus’ conclusion of the parable is good news for all who feel the deep pain of their past sins. He said that God heard the tax collector’s prayer and that very day he went home forgiven and in a right relationship with God.

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Good news of great joy

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His parents, Mary and Joseph, lived in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. Everyone had to return to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. Because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. It was a long and gruelling journey of 90 miles. On foot it took from 4 to 7 days to complete and the time for Mary’s baby to be born was very near.

When they arrived in Bethlehem the town was crowded and there were no relatives who could offer them hospitality. So, when Mary’s baby was born the only place she could lay him was in a manger, an animal feeding trough. It must have been a traumatic time for Mary and Joseph, amongst strangers, far from home, and learning for the first time how to care for a new-born baby. They gave him the name Jesus, as the angel of the Lord had told Joseph. The name Jesus means Saviour.

The same night that Jesus was born an angel of the Lord announced his birth to some shepherds guarding their flocks just outside Bethlehem. When the angel appeared the radiance of God’s glory surrounded them, and the shepherds were terrified. The angel reassured them saying, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

When the angels had left them the shepherds said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When the shepherds returned to their fields, they glorified and praised God for all the things they had heard and seen. In one sense their lives went on just as they had before, they still worked as shepherds, but in a deeper sense everything was new because they had seen the Saviour. Christmas can be a busy time of special things after which life returns to normal. Nothing changes. But the good news that still brings great joy to all people is that knowing Jesus, the Saviour, transforms our lives.

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Light and life to all he brings

More than 2 billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One in three people in the world are followers of Jesus. This is an amazing statistic. Jesus came from a small village in Galilee. His parents were ordinary people. He learned his father’s trade and was a carpenter. He never travelled more than 100 miles from his home. His remarkable ministry lasted just 3 years. When he was 33 years old he was executed by the Romans. Yet today millions of people from every nation on earth know him as their Saviour and follow him as his disciples. How can this be explained?

Jesus was the Son of God. One of our carols says, “He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all.” When the wise men from Persia, who followed the star, found the baby they “bowed down and worshipped him.” They recognised him as a divine King and offered him their gifts. Because Jesus was the Son of God he rose again from the dead. It was not possible for death to keep its hold on him. One of his disciples, Thomas, who at first doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saw him personally and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promise. From the beginning of time God had promised that a child would be born who would bring blessing to the peoples of the world. Through this child God’s great purpose for his world was going to be fulfilled. God is still carrying forward his gracious purpose for the nations. Today the good news of Jesus is being proclaimed around the world and many are receiving him as Saviour and Lord. One day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

Jesus came to give us hope. The world into which he was born knew great sadness and pain. Our world today is very much the same. Jesus is the One who gives us a sure and certain hope both in this life and when we die. Many carol services close with these words, “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King!”

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We went there to save lives

The recent historical drama television series “Chernobyl” tells the story of the nuclear plant disaster which happened on 26 April 1986. It was the world’s worst nuclear accident. The Wladimir Iljitsch Lenin Atomic Power Station, near the town of Chernobyl in modern Ukraine, experienced what the authorities called a “minor accident.” The reactor experienced a catastrophic core meltdown, exploded and parts of the nuclear fuel were released into the atmosphere.

The effects of the disaster were felt over a wide area. In the first days after the accident 31 people were confirmed to have died from radiation sickness. In the years since the disaster there has been a significant increase in the number of people suffering from cancer. Some 100,000 people from the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat were evacuated. People will probably never live in Pripyat again. As the wind carried the gigantic plume over Europe radioactive particles contaminated wide areas. In Britain bans were placed on the sale of sheep in Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. In some areas the restrictions remained in place until 2012. Mikhail Gorbachev said that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the real reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union as people lost confidence in the authorities.

As the extent of the catastrophe became clear, more than 16,000 policemen and military personnel were deployed to extinguish the fire, remove the radioactive debris and enclose the ruin in a protective shell of steel and concrete. About 400 miners were brought in to dig a tunnel underneath the power plant to contain the contaminated material. As many as one in four miners may have died from cancer or radiation sickness. In the end, the core of the reactor cooled, and the tunnel wasn’t needed. All the people who tried to contain the Chernobyl disaster risked their lives that other might live. One miner, Vladimir Naumov said, “Who else but us? Me and my fellow worked were brought up that way. Not that we went there to die, we went there to save lives.”

At the heart of the Christian message is the good news that God, through his Son, Jesus, has intervened to save us from disaster. The great problem we all have is our sinful hearts. We live in rebellion against God and are powerless to change. We need someone to save us from the eternal consequences of our sin. One hymn writer wrote, “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 Crown of Life

The widespread persecution of Christians has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary. Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The Christians who are being persecuted are some of the poorest people in the world. In the Middle East the population of Christians used to be about 20%; now it’s 5%.

The report also highlights discrimination across southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism. It concludes that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage. In Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on all forms of expression of Christianity including public acts of worship. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. The population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

It is good that the persecution of Christians is being recognised, but persecution is not something new for Christians. Jesus explicitly told his disciples they would face persecution. The night before he was crucified, he said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the good news about him, he promised, “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

On a visit to a country in southeast Asia I met a leader in the underground churches. He had been arrested, imprisoned and fined because he didn’t belong to an official, state-controlled, church. The Christians in the underground churches are always being harassed by the authorities who want to close the churches down. My friend said that he had once been asked by a security official why the underground churches were growing, despite the persecution they experienced, when the official churches were not growing. One reason is that even in the fires of persecution Jesus is with his people, as he promised, and the reality of their faith shines through. Heaven is very real for Christians who experience persecution. Jesus told persecuted first-century Christians, “If you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”

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Love and life in Jesus

On Easter Sunday terror came to Sri Lanka. Coordinated bomb attacks on churches in the capital Colombo, and other towns, killed and seriously injured many people. Hotels were also attacked. The bombs were timed to go off when the churches were packed with worshippers rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. At least 290 people have died, and more than 500 have been injured. Those who died include people from at least 8 other nations. These bombings are the deadliest violence since the end of the civil war in 2009 and the whole country is in shock. In many churches around the world people prayed for those caught up in these atrocities.

The Easter message speaks very powerfully into the tragic events in Sri Lanka. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who were responsible for his death, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He had taught his disciples to love their enemies and demonstrated this in the midst of his own profound sufferings. He told his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake but said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

On Easter Day Christians rejoice that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died. His resurrection was witnessed by many of his disciples, both men and women, and transformed them. When he died their hopes had died but when they saw their risen Lord they were filled with joy. Jesus sent them out into the world to proclaim to all people the good news of his resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross.

The hope that Christians have of being raised to eternal life is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. His promise is “because I live you also will live.” He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So, the Easter message of love and life in Jesus declares that evil and hatred will not ultimately triumph. As one Easter hymn proclaims, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered!”