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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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The promise of the rainbow

In Britain the autumn has been very wet. Most days there has been some rain and often it has been very heavy. Some places have experienced flooding and the water table is higher than usual. One of the blessings of sunshine and showers is the beautiful rainbows we have seen. Recently I was driving through Mid Wales and saw some stunning rainbows over the mountains on which the trees are already displaying their autumn colours. God’s creation reminds us so eloquently of his greatness and glory. He truly has made everything beautiful in its time.

The rainbow is a particularly encouraging sign, especially at this time when we are seriously concerned about climate change. The book of Genesis describes a great Flood in the time of Noah which affected the whole world. The historic traditions of many peoples and nations around the world also bear witness to this event. The Flood was God’s righteous judgement on great human wickedness. Violence and depravity could be seen everywhere, and the thoughts of people’s hearts were consistently and totally evil. The Flood was devastating and destroyed all people and animals except those who were in the ark that Noah built.

Today there is great wickedness in our world. People in our world are doing things that deserve God’s righteous judgement. Yet the stability of the natural world is being maintained by God who, after the Flood, made a wonderful promise to Noah. God said, “I solemnly promise never to send another flood to kill all living creatures and destroy the earth. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life.”

An even greater sign of God’s love is that he sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to save us. One of the Bible’s great promises is, “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Just as Noah and his family entered the ark and were safe so everyone who puts their trust in Jesus receives the gift of eternal 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!”

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Change is possible

We live in a violent world. Terrorists use bombs and vehicles to kill and injure innocent people. Drug gangs employ and intimidate young people to carry out their evil trade. Those who “fail” are killed or seriously wounded to teach them a lesson. The streets of our great cities are not safe places because of the increase in violent crimes. Prison staff struggle to control violent inmates. There are an increasing number of violent assaults on prison staff and on hospital staff in A&E departments. Is it possible for violent people to change?

Michael Franzese grew up as the son of the notorious Underboss of New York’s violent and feared Colombo crime family. Michael became a mafia boss and, in 1986, was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. At his most affluent he generated between $5 and $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. Rudy Guiliani, the Manhattan federal prosecutor, tried several times to put Michael in prison for his crimes, but failed. Life in the mob was dangerous and several of Michael’s fellow leaders died violent deaths on the orders of mob leaders. At times he himself was in danger.

However, Michael is now a changed man. It happened when he met Camille Garcia, who is a Christian. Michael fell in love with Camille and married her. Michael saw in Camille’s life what it means to be a real Christian. She was different from anyone he had ever met before. She told him that Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world to save people by dying on the cross to pay the price of their sins. Michael repented of his many sins and asked God to forgive him for the sake of Jesus and began a new life.

He went to the authorities and pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes. He received a 10-year prison sentence and vowed to walk away from the mob. Michael is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. As a Christian, Michael now seeks to help business people, student athletes and at-risk young people to overcome the odds and make positive changes in their lives. From his personal experience, he knows that with God’s help anyone, however bad they may be, can change and start a new life. Like the Apostle Paul, who had also been a violent man, Michael knows that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

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Remembering Stephen Lawrence

Stephen Lawrence was murdered as he waited for a bus in Eltham, south-east London, on 22 April 1993. He was attacked and stabbed by 5 youths because he was black and died from his wounds before reaching hospital. He was just 18 years old. It took 19 years for two of the gang to be convicted of his murder. A judicial enquiry into the police investigation concluded that it was marred by “professional incompetence and institutional racism.” Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, have always behaved with great dignity. Both were awarded the OBE in 2003 for their services to community relations. Recently Doreen asked that the investigation into Stephen’s death be closed because there are no fresh leads.

In an interview to mark the 25th anniversary of Stephen’s death, his father, Neville, has spoken about his Christian faith. He said that he forgives his son’s killers and plans to spend the anniversary in church. He said the decision to forgive them was the hardest one he would ever make. He described the profound impact of Stephen’s death on all the family, “The fact that I had to lose my first child has been devastating. I can’t begin to explain the pain and the anguish I and my family have suffered over the past 25 years.” Neville speaks to young people to spell out the dire consequences of carrying a weapon. He said, “Right now with the violence, and the knife crime violence, it is even more urgent that I talk to these youngsters and explain to them the pain and the suffering they inflict on families.”

Neville’s decision to forgive Stephen’s killers, even though they have never expressed any remorse for what they did, is very significant. He has found the strength to do this because of his own experience of God’s forgiveness through Jesus. When he was dying on the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He also taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

When we forgive those who have sinned against us, we are set free to move forward and rebuild our lives. As we open ourselves to God, and experience his love and grace in Jesus, he takes away the bitterness that paralyses us. We cannot fully enter into all the sadness and pain Neville and the family have experienced, but we can pray that they will all know the love and comfort of God.

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The Prince of Peace

We live in a world of conflict. Every day we see vivid pictures of violent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and other places. Bombs, bullets, catastrophic destruction of homes and communities, life-changing injuries and deaths, have become an integral part of our modern world. Men, women and children are helpless as they are caught up in violent conflict between some of the most powerful armies in the world using advanced weapons. What’s it all about? Often the parties to the conflict are motivated by a political or religious ideology that makes them hate their enemies and want to destroy them.

2000 years ago a young man rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. The people spread their coats on the road and waved palm branches. They were acknowledging their King and looking to him for deliverance as they shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people hoped Jesus would deliver them from the Roman occupation of their land, but he was a very different kind of King. Within 5 days the same people had rejected him and handed him over to the Romans, who crucified him. Even his closest friends thought that that was the end, but on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead and today millions of people gladly live under his gracious rule.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Whenever the Christian church identifies itself with political powers, whether it be the Roman Emperor Constantine or King Henry VIII or the Russian government today, it compromises its allegiance to Jesus, it’s true King. His kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world that use military power to advance their cause. His kingdom advances by peaceful means. Those who live under his rule find peace with God and a wonderful inner peace of mind and heart.

During a Sunday morning service on 11 December 2016 a bomb ripped through a section of Cairo’s main Coptic Cathedral reserved for women. Most of the 25 who died and the 49 who were injured were women and children. One of those who died was a young girl, Maggie Samir, and her mother was seriously injured. In an interview a year later Maggie’s grandfather, Abdo, said “I forgive the people who killed my granddaughter Maggie.” He said Jesus had taught his disciples to love their enemies, pray for them and be kind to them. The gracious strength and dignity of people like Abdo is a deeply-moving testimony to the life-changing influence of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

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Blessed are the peacemakers

Last weekend was the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bomb. At 10.43am on 8 November 1987, as people were gathered at the town’s cenotaph for the Remembrance Day service, the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb. The explosion killed 11 people and injured 64. One of those who died was a 20-year-old nurse, Marie Wilson, who was with her father Gordon. As they lay buried under rubble Gordon held Marie’s hand as she told him, “Daddy, I love you very much.”

In an interview soon after the bombing Gordon Wilson said, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” One historian said, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”

Gordon also pleaded that no Loyalists take revenge for Marie’s death and, until he died in 1995 at the age of 67, Gordon campaigned for peace and an end to the violence. When he was voted Man of the Year by the BBC’s Today programme, ahead of world-famous figures, Gordon said, “I’m not worthy of it. The others are very important people. I’m not in their class. I’m just an ordinary guy.”

We still live in a violent world and, at times, it may seem as if the terrorists have the power, but in reality it is extraordinary “ordinary” people like Gordon Wilson whose example and influence will ultimately triumph. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Gordon’s personal faith in Jesus as his Saviour and Lord was the source of his strength and his hope. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. When he died on the Cross he made a way of peace for sinful people like us all. In that apparently weak act God reconciled the world to himself and provided the way in which we can all experience forgiveness and know peace with him. Gordon was right. He and Marie have indeed been reunited in heaven in the presence of Jesus who has wiped every tear from their eyes.

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The best news ever!

Like many people around the world I like to follow the news. Every morning I listen to the radio to hear what’s been happening. Most news stories are bad news. Reports cover economic uncertainty, corruption, child abuse, refugees, unaccompanied children, violence, conflict, crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, disease, earthquakes, drought and famine. For many of us the stories are about what is happening to other people in other parts of the world, but for millions of people the stories are about them and the troubles and sorrows they face in their daily lives.

The message of the New Testament is called the “Gospel”, which means “Good News.” It is a message about what God has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. This message speaks into the real experiences of our broken world and of our daily lives. It is a message about reconciliation, peace and hope for the future. It lifts us out of despair. It is a true message. When people want to emphasise that they are telling the truth they sometimes say that they are speaking the gospel truth. Today we hear about fake news, but this message about Jesus is absolutely genuine.

Strangely, perhaps, one of the great themes of the Good News is sin. This is an unpopular word to many, yet the daily news stories are full of the sinful actions of people. It is the greatest problem the world faces. We all sin every day in our thoughts, words and actions. However hard we try, we cannot stop sinning. We sin when we break God’s moral commands. We misuse God’s name, dishonour our parents, hate and kill, commit sexual immorality, steal, lie, and covet what other people have. Our sinful behaviour brings great sadness to us and to others. It spoils everything.

The solution to the problems we face is not religion, but reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God. In a letter to Christians living in Corinth the apostle Paul explained the heart of the Good News in this way, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” This is the best news ever!

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Be still and know that I am God

Some friends of mine were in Istanbul the night of the attempted military coup. The following day one of them wrote, “Today was a lot quieter. We were advised to stay indoors. But last night was terrible. The suddenness of the attempted coup shocked everyone. The subduing of the coup carried on through the night, so sleep was impossible. All around were gunshots, emergency vehicle sirens, low-flying jets sometimes letting off sonic booms, and the constant helicopters. I have cried a lot today because of the terrible loss of life last night. The death toll is over 160, and over 1000 wounded. Most people are in complete shock and disbelief. There is a sense of fear and hopelessness.”

In recent months many people around the world have found themselves suddenly caught up in acts of violence. In Lahore, on Easter Sunday a bomb attack in a park killed 74 Christian and Muslim people and injured more than 350 people, many of them children. In Nice, 84 people died when a man drove a heavy lorry through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade Des Anglais. In Munich, a teenage gunman shot and killed 9 people, many of them teenagers, at a fast-food restaurant. These events, and many more, have created a spirit of fear and uncertainty in the minds of many. Where can we turn, at such times, to find comfort and hope?

Psalm 46 has been a source of strength to many over the centuries. It says, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! The nations are in chaos, and their kingdoms crumble! The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honoured by every nation. I will be honoured throughout the world.’ The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

The Psalm also speaks about heaven, “A river brings joy to the city of our God, the sacred home of the Most High. God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed.” In a very uncertain world, God’s Word gives us sure hope for the future. Whatever happens, Jesus really is the Resurrection and the Life and the Way to an eternal home.

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Love your enemies

The life and teaching of Jesus Christ was radically different. He was not chiefly concerned about his own interests, but about the interests of others. He lived in a nation which was dominated by the Romans, who were cruel and oppressive to the nations they conquered. The people amongst whom Jesus lived hated the Romans. This was understandable because the Romans had occupied their land, robbed them of their freedom, and made them pay taxes.

Yet Jesus 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 sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Today we hear many reports of violence and wicked acts done in the name of religion. Those who are not of the same religion are treated as enemies to be attacked and even killed. This is done in the name of righteousness and with the expectation that those who do it will receive an eternal reward. In the past wars were fought in the name of Christianity and empires were established by “Christian” nations. What happened was a contradiction of the teaching of Jesus.

The love Jesus taught is more than a kindly disposition, it is practical. He told a story about a Jewish man who was travelling on a lonely and dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beaten, robbed and left half dead. A priest came down the road and passed by without helping him. Then a Levite priest did the same. But a Samaritan man, whom the Jewish people would have despised, took pity on the man. He bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him and paid the bill. Jesus said the Samaritan had obeyed God’s command that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Then he said, “Go and do likewise.”

I remember studying this parable with some Iranian Christians. When they understood what Jesus was teaching they said, “This means we must love the Iraqis!” They were right. Jesus’ teaching is radically different. We, too, need to ask, “Who are my enemies?” and “How can I show love to them?”