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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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Remembering Andrew Devine

Andrew Devine has died, aged 55, the 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989. Andrew, then aged 22, suffered life-changing injuries because his chest was crushed and his brain was deprived of oxygen. His parents were told he would probably not live for more than 6 months. Andrew was a postal worker and was diagnosed as being in permanent vegetative state. Five years after this diagnosis, he began to emerge from PVS by looking at people. Then he began using an electric buzzer to communicate more and more with his parents, Stanley and Hilary, who have always looked after Andrew at home. Then, eight years later, he could count. Andrew has been confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.

The love and support of Andrew’s family has kept him going. They said, “Andrew has been a much-loved son, brother and uncle. He has been supported by his family and a team of dedicated professional carers, all of whom devoted themselves to him. As ever, our thoughts are with all of those affected by Hillsborough.” When possible, Andrew attended Liverpool matches and, when they won the Champions League in 2019, the bus parade around the city stopped at the family home so that James Milner could show Andrew the trophy.

In 2002 a friend of mine spoke with Andrew’s father who told him Andrew’s progress had slowed. Andrew seemed to be happy most of the time and, although he could not speak, they managed to communicate as they watched television together and as his father took him out in his wheelchair every day. At that time Mr Devine said, “The experts thought it would be only two, then three, then five years. But Andrew has proved them all wrong. Yes, it is a strain for us looking after him, but he is our son, he needs us, and so we just get on with it.” When Andrew died his family said, “Our collective devastation is overwhelming but so, too, is the realisation that we were blessed to have had Andrew with us for 32 years since the Hillsborough tragedy.”

The loving care of Andrew’s family is a deeply moving example of the preciousness of every human being. Their love for Andrew reflects the love and compassion of God who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

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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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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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It’s not good to be alone

Personal relationships are very important. On a morning walk I saw young children going back to school. They were happy, smiling and singing. They were looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers again. Soon elderly people living in care homes will be able to see one close relative face to face after, for many, having had no physical contact with loved ones for a year. Mothers teaching their children at home have experienced real loneliness. People working at home are feeling the loss of regular contact with their colleagues in the office. Protecting life is important, but life without warm relationships with family and friends can feel very empty.

In the Bible’s account of the creation of human beings we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is the first insight into who God is. There is only one God, but there are three persons within the Godhead – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are united in an eternal relationship of love. God’s image is seen equally in both men and women who long for and find fulfilment in warm personal relationships. When those relationships are lost or spoiled, life itself is diminished and people are impoverished.

God’s supreme revelation of himself is in a person, his eternal Son, Jesus, who shows us what God is like. His gracious life and death for our sins reveal God’s love and compassion for us. Jesus’ disciples walked and talked with him. They experienced his warm love for them and witnessed the compassion he showed to all who came to him need. The Apostle John wrote about Jesus, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

Recently a good friend died of Covid-19. In an attempt to save his life, the doctors put him into an induced coma. Just before he went into the coma my friend said, “God is good.” He was separated from his family, but he was not alone. Like David, who wrote Psalm 23, he trusted in the Lord, who was his shepherd, and could say, “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.”

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As white as snow

We have had the first snowfalls of winter. There is a stillness as the dark days are illuminated by the pure brightness of the snow. Each of the trillions of snowflakes is unique, carrying the Creator’s signature. In 1885, scientist Wilson Bentley devised a way of attaching his camera to a microscope so he could take photographs of snowflakes in greater detail than ever before. Getting this close made it even clearer that no two flakes are the same. Every snowflake has its own unique pattern.

The snow reminds us of one of God’s great promises, “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.” God made this promise to people who had rebelled against him. They worshipped other gods, lived immoral lives and were dishonest. They looked for happiness in material things. They knew God’s law, but they wilfully and deliberately went their own way. As a nation they had turned away from the living God. So, God called them to account. In his mercy, he did not immediately bring on them the judgement their sins deserved but held out the promise of forgiveness and cleansing.

There are real parallels between those people and the way we are living today. Encouraged by politicians and unchallenged by weak church leaders our nation has turned from God. His moral law has been rejected and together we are fulfilling the desires of our own hearts. Inevitably we are reaping the painful consequences both personally and nationally. Even the terrible pandemic we are experiencing has not humbled us and made us seek God.

There are times, however, when we need to face the reality of how we are living. Like a person who wakes after a night on the town and looks in the mirror, we won’t like what we see, we won’t like what we have become. In the light of who God is we will see the tawdry life we are living and the deep stains our sins have left on our God-given conscience. We may long that we could go back and change the things we have done, but we can’t.

God’s wonderful promise is deep and real forgiveness. His Son, Jesus, died on the Cross to pay the price of our sin and rebellion. When we humbly confess our sins, and receive him as our Saviour, the scarlet stains of our sins are cleansed, and we become as white and pure in God’s sight as the driven snow.

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When life changes

I have a friend who has experienced a number of life-changing events. Kristian grew up in Barry in South Wales. His father suffered from mental health issues and the family home was a place of fear and guilt. Kristian felt guilty because he couldn’t stop the violence against his mother. He also experienced bullying at school, but he was very good at football, and when he was on the pitch, he didn’t have any worries.

The first big change in Kristian’s life happened in his early teens. He started playing for Cardiff Academy then Swansea and played internationally for Wales. When he was 15, he was signed by Crystal Palace and moved to London. The football club looked after everything for him and even paid him while he was still in school. Kristian was being recognised as a technically gifted midfield/central defender. He had lots of money and was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.

Then he broke his ankle very badly. Despite the best possible treatment his ankle didn’t fully heal, and it soon became clear to him that, at the age of 20, his football career was over. He was devastated but threw himself into building a successful business career. He was determined to regain the money and lifestyle he had had in football. He returned to Barry, married his girlfriend and had a family. He bought a big house, had nice cars, expensive holidays and extravagant things he bought for himself and his family. He was successful and happy.

Kristian wasn’t expecting the next, and biggest change, in his life. His wife, Carla, started going to a mums and tots’ group at a local church and soon became a Christian. Kristian didn’t like her talking about her Saviour Jesus but could see that she had completely changed and was so caring towards him. Reluctantly Kristian went to some church services. As he listened to one sermon he said, “Suddenly I realised that God loved me. I realised that Jesus had come to this world to live the perfect life and that he died on the cross to take the punishment I deserved.”

Kristian and Carla now live in a village near Hereford with their 5 children where Kristian is the minister of a small church. He says, “I once had thought that contentment was to be found by having the best and the latest stuff, but I’ve realised that life is more than that. Life is about a relationship with God and knowing his love and forgiveness through Jesus. That is something that will last.”

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Hope in a world of injustice

Many people in the world today are experiencing injustice. In Hong Kong tens of thousands protested against the postponement of the planned election and Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong. They face long prison sentences. In Minsk, Belarus, thousands demonstrated against the alleged vote-rigging in the recent re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. They face heavy fines and imprisonment. In Russia the opposition politician Alexi Navalny has been poisoned. In Xinjiang, China, more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in ‘re-education’ camps in an attempt to force them into being more obedient to the Communist party.

Throughout history power has been used to oppress people and to deny them justice. Three thousand years ago, as King Solomon surveyed the world of his time, he wrote about the injustices he saw, “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors – and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

God is just. The Bible makes it very clear that there will be a Final Judgment at which all people who have ever been born will appear. The oppressors and tyrants will not escape divine justice because we are all “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” When the Apostle Paul was speaking in the sophisticated ancient city of Athens, which prided itself on its wisdom and its broad-minded worship of many gods, he told them that God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed and has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

God is also gracious and compassionate. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of sinful people. By his death he paid the price of our sins and satisfied the demands of divine justice. The hymnwriter, William Rees, wrote, “On the Mount of Crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide. Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide. Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above, and heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

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The faith of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was a great French military general and statesman. He played a key role in the French Revolution and became the first emperor of France. His armies conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. After a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba. In 1815 he briefly returned to power but suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died at the age of 51.

Near the end of his life, the exiled Napoleon expressed his convictions about Jesus. He wrote, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ was not a mere man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity.”

Napoleon knew the difference between the empire he had established, and all other human empires, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated. He wrote, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon sheer force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men will die for him. In every other existence but that of Christ how many imperfections! From the first day to the last he is the same; majestic and simple; infinitely firm and infinitely gentle. He proposes to our faith a series of mysteries and commands with authority that we should believe them, giving no other reason than those tremendous words, ‘I am God.’”

As he read the Bible, Napoleon, who had himself exercised great authority over men, recognised its divine authority and entrusted his own eternal destiny to Jesus Christ. He wrote, “The Bible contains a complete series of acts and of historical men to explain time and eternity, such as no other religion has to offer. If it is not the true religion, one is very excusable in being deceived; for everything in it is grand and worthy of God. The more I consider the Gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there which is not beyond the march of events and above the human mind. Even the impious themselves have never dared to deny the sublimity of the Gospel, which inspires them with a sort of compulsory veneration. What happiness that Book procures for those who believe it!”

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The life and faith of Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby was a prolific hymn writer who wrote more than 9000 hymns. Remarkably, she did this despite being blind from a very early age. When she was 6 weeks old, Fanny caught a cold and a quack doctor prescribed hot mustard poultices for her inflamed eyes which resulted in her becoming totally blind. Her father died when she was 10 months old and her mother, Mercy, was forced to work as a maid to support the family. Fanny was mostly raised by Eunice, her Christian grandmother.

When Eunice heard that nothing could be done about Fanny’s blindness she said, “Then I will be her eyes.” She taught Fanny about the wonderful colours in nature and all the things she could not see. She also encouraged her to memorise Bible passages. Fanny memorised 5 chapters a week and, when still a child, had memorised whole books from the Bible. In 1835, when she was 15 years old, Fanny was sent to the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind. She lived there for 23 years: 12 as a student and 11 as a teacher.

Fanny accepted her blindness without bitterness against the doctor or against God. When she was 8 years old, she wrote a poem: “Oh, what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be. How many blessings I enjoy, that other people don’t; to weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot, and I won’t!” Her love for Jesus gave her great inner strength. She said, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour.”

Fanny expressed her faith in Jesus in her hymns so that others, too, might know her Saviour. Here are some memorable lines from her hymns. “O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, to every believer the promise of God; the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine: O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.” “All the way my Saviour leads me: what have I to ask beside? Can I doubt his tender mercy, who through life has been my guide? Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, here by faith in him to dwell! For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.”