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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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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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I shall behold his face

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

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

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

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

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God 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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Love your enemies

Sadly, there are many examples of hatred in our world today. Hatred between peoples leads to conflict, such as the present hostilities between Israel and Hamas. In Africa inter-tribal conflicts blight the lives of many people. The systematic persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China seeks to rob them of their human dignity. Many Rohingya people in Myanmar have fled to Bangladesh because of the brutal military regime in Myanmar. Some people use social media as a vehicle for hateful messages and threats of violence.

In Britain legislation has been enacted against “hate crimes”. The Metropolitan Police define a hate crime as, “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.” This can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property.

In the hostile worlds of both the 1st and 21st centuries the teaching of Jesus is radical and challenging. In the Sermon on the Mount he 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus not only commanded us to love our enemies, but he also exemplified it. He came to bring reconciliation in the face of the deep-seated hostility between human beings and God. Even in the hearts of apparently respectable people there can be a deep hostility against God. Yet God, who could justly condemn us, sent his Son to be our Saviour. On the Cross God made Jesus, who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The Cross was a place of deep hatred as Jesus’ enemies tried to destroy him. Yet as he hung on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The life and teaching of Jesus shines a bright light of hope into the darkness of our world.

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Resurrection joy

Easter is a time of great joy. The resurrection of Jesus lifted his first disciples from a spirit of defeat and despair to an experience of great joy and hope. They saw their risen Lord who sent them out into the world to proclaim the wonderful message of the resurrection. This message has transformed many lives and the very course of history. The Apostles faced great opposition from their own people, and from the Roman authorities, but were unafraid. Most of them died for their faith – some were beheaded, others were crucified – but through their message countless people from many nations have found new life in Jesus.

Christian faith centres on the person of Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again to give us hope. Christians put their faith in Jesus, not in their religious observances. They don’t think they are better than other people, or sit in judgement on them, but are deeply conscious of their personal failures and need. They rejoice that Jesus has done everything needed to secure their salvation and gratefully trust in him as their Saviour. They have been delivered from the need to achieve their own salvation and, in response to his love, are free to live for Jesus and to tell others about him.

Many in the Western world have turned away from a living faith in God and Jesus and the consequences are clear to see. Evolutionary theory dominates. It offers no hope to our deepest needs, but declares its doleful message, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!” Yet God’s wonderful creation, which is plain for all to see, constantly proclaims that he is. He created this amazing universe and our little planet, which teems with life. He created each of us and put eternity in our hearts. We were created to live with him for ever and God’s freely offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Every day during the Covid-19 pandemic we have been reminded of death. Nearly 3 million people around the world have died and their families feel the loss deeply. Most who have died were elderly, but that in no way diminishes the value of their lives. Every single life is precious in God’s sight. The great evangelist Billy Graham, who died at the age of 99 said, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

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Now thank we all our God

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran minister in Eilenburg, Saxony, at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, which was fought between 1618 and 1648. It is estimated that between 4.5 and 8 million people, both military and civilians, died in that war, most from disease and starvation. In some parts of Germany as many as 60% of the population may have died. Many people sought refuge in the walled city of Eilenburg, which led to severe overcrowding, a deadly plague and famine. The city was overrun three times by armies. Pastor Rinkart opened his home as a refuge for the victims but was hard-pressed even to provide for his family.

By 1637 Pastor Rinkart was the only surviving pastor in Eilenburg and was totally committed to meeting the massive needs of the people around him. In that year he took more than 4,000 funerals, including his own wife’s funeral. Sometimes he conducted as many as 50 funerals in a day. It was heart-breaking pastoral work as social and political unrest induced daily fear as the pandemic threatened people’s lives and livelihoods. People were desperate to find light and hope.

At that time Pastor Rinkart, who was a prolific hymnwriter, wrote a hymn to help the people and to point them to God in the midst of the most terrible suffering. The hymn has been translated into English and continues to be sung today by millions of people around the world. The great theme of the hymn is thankfulness to God for all the blessings he has graciously bestowed on us. The hymn speaks to us as we continue to struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic. It reminds us of the living God who “frees us from all ills in this world and the next.”

These are the words of the hymn Pastor Rinkart wrote, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next. All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, and him who reigns, with them in highest heaven. The one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

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In heavenly love abiding

This has been a very strange year. Covid-19 has changed the world and the lives of us all. Every news programme begins by telling us how many new infections there have been and how many people have died. As we move towards winter, scientists and politicians tell us that the second wave of infections will continue well into next year and that we can expect regular “lockdowns” in an attempt to restrict the spread of the virus. Life will not return to “normal” any time soon and, sadly, many people’s livelihoods are in jeopardy. Some are already experiencing unemployment and financial hardship. The future prospects for young people are very uncertain. The hope of having an effective vaccine seems some way off.

The pandemic is having a serious effect on people’s mental health and sense of wellbeing. Elderly people living in residential homes are not being allowed to see their close family in order to protect them from the virus and possible death. But some have said they don’t feel their lives are worth living if they can’t see, kiss and hug their loved ones. For many people there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.

In these difficult times we need to find strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. We are not allowed to sing hymns in church services at the moment, but we can find great comfort in their words. In 1850, when she was a young, single woman of 27, Anna Waring wrote a hymn expressing her confidence in God and his love for her. “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here. The storm may roar without me; my heart may low be laid; but God is round about me, and can I be dismayed?”

Anna’s hymn encourages us to look beyond our immediate situation to the unchanging, eternal God and to rest and abide in him. “Wherever he may guide me, no want shall turn me back; my Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack. His wisdom ever waketh; his sight is never dim; he knows the way he taketh, and I will walk with him. Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen; bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been. My hope I cannot measure; my path to life is free; my Saviour has my treasure, and he will walk with me.”

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Finding peace and hope

Plagues and epidemics have ravaged human beings throughout history. Between 1347 and 1351 the Black Death, the most fatal pandemic, resulted in the deaths of between 75-200 million people in Eurasia, North Africa and Europe. The plague created religious, social and economic upheavals with profound effects on the course of European history. Between 30% and 60% of the people in Europe died and it took 200 years for the population of Europe to recover.

Influenza is a major cause of death. During the 20th century, three flu pandemics caused many deaths in Britain: 200,000 died in 1918-1919 from Spanish flu; 33,000 died in 1957-1958 from Asian flu; and 80,000 died in 1968-1969 from Hong Kong flu. Between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide die every year from flu. Between 2014 and 2019 an average of 17,000 people died each year from flu in England.

How did former generations respond to plagues? In the 16th century, when there was a serious plague, Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, wrote, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he shall surely find me, and I have done what is expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely.”

Pat Allerton the vicar at St Peter’s Church, Notting Hill, has been visiting streets in his parish to pray and play the hymn “Amazing Grace” through a speaker. He holds a 10-minute service in a different place each day, sometimes outside major hospitals. He wants to give people hope. One lady wrote to him saying, “Hello, I’m not a religious person, but I want to thank you for what you did on Thursday night outside Charing Cross Hospital. My uncle was in there at the time and passed away alone the following morning due to coronavirus. Knowing he could have heard this song on his last night on this planet brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart.” A nurse who was treating a patient who was fighting the virus, and later died of it, said that hearing the hymn brought “a peace to her heart and to the patient she will never forget.”