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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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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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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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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

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Remembering the Battle of Britain

This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940 and continued until 31 October 1940. It was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as the RAF’s finest hour. France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany who now dominated Western Europe. British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Despite being in a seemingly hopeless military situation, Britain refused to surrender.

Britain was the last bastion against what Churchill called “the menace of tyranny.” The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was mounting destructive bombing air raids against Britain, the Blitz, in preparation for an invasion by the German army. In July 1940 the Luftwaffe had 2800 aircraft, mostly bombers. They were experienced and confident and anticipated taking only a few days to defeat the RAF. At the start of the Battle of Britain the RAF had 650 aircraft and 1300 pilots, some of whom came from Commonwealth countries, Nazi-occupied countries and the USA. Britain ramped up factory production of aircraft, especially Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and by October 1940 had more planes that the Luftwaffe.

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe lost 1887 aircraft and 2600 pilots. The RAF lost 1023 aircraft and 544 pilots. The outstanding courage and skill of the RAF pilots led to success in the Battle of Britain and saved many lives. It was a decisive turning point in the course of World War II and the history of the world. In a speech on 20 August 1940 Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem was the decisive moment in human history. He had come from heaven to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The self-sacrifice of God’s eternal Son has brought new life and hope to countless people around the world. Horatius Bonar’s hymn explains it well: “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die, another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed: not on the sorrows I have known, another’s tears, another’s griefs, on them I rest, on them alone. Jesus, O Son of God, I build on what thy cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, my pardon there I see.”

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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.”

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The story of Ricky Valance

Ricky Valance has died at the age of 84. In 1960, he had one big hit, the song “Tell Laura I love her.” He was the first Welshman to have a Number One hit song. The song was controversial because it told the story of Tommy, a teenager who was desperately in love with a girl called Laura. Tommy entered a stock car race so he could use the prize money to buy Laura a wedding ring. His car crashed and Tommy was fatally injured. As he lay dying, he said, “Tell Laura I love her … my love for her will never die.” The BBC banned it, which only increased the sales, reaching more than a million copies and topping the charts. Ricky never had another hit song.

Ricky was born David Spencer, the eldest of 7 children, and grew up in Ynysddu, in the Gwent Valleys, where he was the lead soprano in St Theodore’s Church. His father worked in the mines and when he was 15 Ricky, too, went to work in a mine. When he was 17, he joined the RAF serving as a leading aircraftsman in Tripoli during the Suez crisis. After his one hit song Ricky sang in clubs and on cruise ships. He also experienced a number of crises.

By the 1990s he was clinically depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown. He said, “I experienced fear, loneliness and desolation in a way that I wouldn’t wish on any other person.” During this time Ricky visited his local golf club and played with Brian, whom he’d never met before. Brian encouraged Ricky to rediscover his Christian faith. Ricky went to Brian’s church and attended an Alpha course, a programme designed to introduce people to the Christian faith. Ricky said, “It was following that course that I asked Jesus to take full control of my life.”

After becoming a Christian Ricky said, “I’ve started to understand myself more and found that I don’t need to be so hard on myself. If God forgives me for the things I do, then I need to be able to do the same. And I guess it’s made me see others in a different light too. I don’t understand why so many Christians don’t tell others the Good News about what Jesus did for us all on the Cross.” In his last years Ricky suffered from dementia. He is now at peace in heaven with his Saviour, who loved him and died that he might have eternal life.

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Precious in the sight of God

Every individual life matters. No-one is unimportant. The “Black Lives Matter” protests around the world, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis, are rightly demanding that black people must not be treated as second-class citizens, each one matters. The renewed investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, who was abducted 13 years ago, shows that she matters. The British government has spent £12 million on the investigation because the life of a 4-year-old little girl matters. When a seriously ill person is taken into hospital doctors and nurses do everything they can to save their life, whatever their age or social circumstances, because every life matters.

Societies that have been deeply influenced by the Bible have a high view of the preciousness of every individual person because they understand what God is like. No-one is unimportant in God’s eyes. He knows each of us as individuals and cares deeply for us. In Psalm 139 David wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. How precious are your thoughts concerning me, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

During his ministry many people came to Jesus for help and healing. Jesus never met an unimportant person and never turned anyone away. He welcomed people who were outcasts in their society and taught that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. His love changed people and gave them new hope.

In his early life the apostle Paul hated the name of Jesus and persecuted Christians. He arrested men and women and put them into prison because they were followers of Jesus. When the ascended Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus he was totally changed. He realised that, despite the evil things he had done, God was concerned for him and loved him. God’s love for him was revealed in the cross where Jesus died for his sins. Later Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”