From death to life

Outside the empty tomb

Today we remember the culmination of a battle won, we celebrate a great victory. It’s a victory that has changed the course of history and dramatically altered the quality of life of millions on this planet, yet strangely is understood by so few.

Almost two thousand years ago, and documented by a variety of historians of the time, Jesus died on a Roman cross outside the walls of Jerusalem; but His death was planned before the world began. In fact He said that He came to give His life as a ransom. It was to be a divine exchange: Jesus’ perfection sacrificed for our guilt, that we may go free, forgiven, accepted and cleansed for all eternity.

Death is a formidable enemy. It is something that none of us can avoid, but it was helpless against Jesus. Yes, He succumbed to death, but that was His choice. It could not hold Him, as hundreds of witnesses at the time could testify (1 Corinthians 15:6). He rose from the dead, even keeping an appointment in Galilee that He made before His death (Matthew 26:32; John 21).

Throughout His time on earth, He frequently spoke about life; not just humdrum, everyday life, but a new quality of life that continues into eternity, and that is on offer to all who will put their trust in Him. John, one of His closest followers, records His words: “I came to give life with joy and abundance.” “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” “Whoever trusts in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life.” “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

However, Jesus didn’t just talk about it, He fought the battle with death and came out the victor, and because of what He did two thousand years ago, we have the opportunity today to receive that free gift of life, life in all its fulness, life for all eternity.

To find out more, check out: Time to Change.

Love changes everything!

Mass wedding
Afghan mass wedding (Photo: Comfort Aid International)

“Love Changes everything”1 is the title of a well-known song from Aspects of Love, the 1989 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but it’s also a profound truth. Romantic love can make you feel alive, as though your life has a purpose; each day becomes an adventure, each night a chance to dream, but it’s the love that we show to our fellow human beings that really changes everything.

In a Valentine’s Day report from Afghanistan, NBC News correspondent Mandy Clark reported on the impact that love can make, and is making, on the war against the Taliban. Valentine’s day was banned in Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power, but now love and marriage are being seen as a way of strengthening society and a means of depriving the Taliban of new fighters.

Afghan newlyweds Suliman and Farzana believe that if everyone understood the proper meaning of Valentine’s Day, “there would be no more weapons.” This is not just wishful thinking. Afghan young men have been joining the Taliban for money because they are single and poor. Young, married men, however, have a wife and responsibilities at home.

To improve Afghan society a Muslim charity, Comfort Aid International, have been sponsoring mass weddings in the poorer parts of the country. Thirty-eight couples took part in the latest event. Eighteen year-old Sayeed Hussaini and his bride Fatima could not have got married without the charity’s help. “I’m jobless, but I will not join them,” said Sayeed, determined to avoid the Taliban for the sake of his new wife Fatima.

As Farzana aptly put it, “So when love comes even Taliban cannot stop anybody … Love can change everything!”

Or as Michael Ball sang, “Love, love changes everything: how you live and how you die … Nothing in the world will ever be the same … Love will turn your world around, and that world will last forever … Love will never, never let you be the same.”

Or as Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Jesus obviously knew that … love changes everything!

NOTE:

1 Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics written by Charles Hart and Don Black and sung by Michael Ball.

You’re wrong, I’m right!

CartoonAn inch – the exact length of the tip of my little finger! Or for those who are unfamiliar with Imperial measurements: 2.54 cm. That short distance is at the centre of a court case brought by two men from New Jersey, John Farley and Charles Pendrak. They are taking the sandwich shop chain Subway to court because the “Footlong” sandwiches they bought were one inch (or less) shorter than a foot. However, whether the two men lost out at all is contentious. The Life Inc. website reports that, “online commenters identifying themselves as Subway employees speculated that the consumers were receiving exactly the same dough as others who got 12-inch subs, but that the dough, which arrives frozen at franchise locations, hadn’t been properly tugged, pulled and “proofed” before it was baked.”

To be fair I must declare an interest, having bought some very tasty £3 Subway lunches on one or two business trips recently. But what’s your verdict? Should their dough just have been tugged a bit further or was Subway already aware that its ‘Footlongs’ were not a foot long? Should these men be rewarded for standing up for “the little guy”, and not allowing big business to trample all over them – remembering that Subway is run on a franchise system, so all their shops are “little guys”? Or do you think that there are more important matters in this world, personal crises in many people’s lives – even in the States – people who genuinely deserve their day in court, if only there was someone to represent them? These questions are rarely black and white.

We may not take people to court over the length of a sandwich, but we may still judge people in our hearts, often without having the full facts. God once reminded the prophet Samuel, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) What about the homeless guy whom we see in the street? I heard this week of a former chauffeur to a foreign royal family, who is now living on the streets of Britain.  As the saying goes, there but for the grace of God go I.

We all make mistakes, it’s part of being human – even so, we need to accept others and allow them to be who they are. OK, if someone’s committed a crime there should be justice, but for most of us, whether it’s a fashion faux-pas, a slip of the tongue, our skin colour or even a life on the streets, what we need is encouragement not judgement.

Jesus was not one to criticise or condemn, unless you were a religious hypocrite that is; instead he showed love and compassion to the downtrodden and the marginalised, becoming known as “a friend of sinners”. The religious leaders once brought to him a woman caught with a man who wasn’t her husband. The legal sentence was death by stoning. Jesus answered, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” The crowd began to melt away. When the last of her accusers had gone, Jesus’ response was one of understanding and forgiveness. “Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?”  he asked.

“No one, sir,” she answered.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11)

Going underground

London Underground sign

From Kew Gardens to the Tower, from Baker Street to Elephant & Castle, from Wembley to London Bridge and from Heathrow to Piccadilly Circus; for millions of Londoners, the London Underground, or ‘the Tube’ as it’s more commonly known, is occasionally fast, sometimes noisy, often crowded and generally the most effective way of getting around the UK’s capital city. Exactly 150 years ago today on 9th January 1863, the first passenger journey on the world’s first underground railway took place. In those days it was known as the Metropolitan Railway. It ran from London’s Paddington railway station to Farringdon, a journey of three-and-a-half miles, and was hauled by a steam train.

The Metropolitan Railway Company had difficulty in proving to potential backers that the scheme was viable, not least because of negative stories in the press. ‘The Times’ newspaper, for instance, described the project as ‘an insult to common sense’. Others argued that passengers would be poisoned by the sulphurous smoke from the engines, and that the tunnels would collapse under the weight of the traffic above. Today however, London Underground has 270 stations and carries more than three million passengers a day.

The Metropolitan Railway’s detractors had no idea how popular the underground railway would become, but more pointedly they had no vision for anything but the status quo. Jesus faced the same problem. His coming had been prophesied hundreds of years before in the Jewish scriptures. Details like his birth at Bethlehem, his healing miracles and his suffering, death and resurrection were all foretold by the prophets. Yet when he began to teach and preach, privately declaring himself to be the long-awaited Messiah, the religious hierarchy didn’t recognise him. They weren’t prepared for something new. They were expecting a Messiah who would free them from Roman occupation not from personal wrongdoing; a Messiah who would come in power not in weakness; a Messiah who would come from God, not claim to be God. They couldn’t think outside the box.

Today that same Jesus, who turned the world upside down 2,000 years ago, is wanting to do the same with your life. He’s looking for people who see beyond the status quo, who will love the unlovely, who will go the extra mile, who will put him first and trust him for their future. As Rabbi Sha’ul once wrote: “I press on to take hold of that for which Jesus the Messiah took hold of me. … one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Jesus the Messiah.” (Philippians 3:12-14 TNIV)

A whisper in the wind

Man jumping over 2013Time flies! Everyone I speak to feels that the years are passing faster than ever. A few months ago 2012 was only just beginning, and now it’s nearly over! Here in the UK this year we’ve celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games and ‘enjoyed’ the wettest summer for 100 years. In Europe scientists announced the discovery of the elusive Higgs Boson particle, and the Costa Concordia cruise ship found itself at the centre of one of Italy’s worst maritime disasters. In Asia there’s been severe flooding in the Philippines, and Xi Jinping became the new Chinese leader. In the Middle East there have been worries over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the tragic Syrian civil war and a few miles further south nearly 800 Gazan rockets were fired into Israel in 2012 before Israel finally responded in November. Superstorm Sandy brought death and destruction in the Caribbean, before going on to wreak havoc in the north-eastern states of the USA. Over New Mexico Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian skydiver, made the highest and fastest jump in history from a helium balloon at an altitude of 128,100 feet.

Much has happened in a relatively short time – including many other important events, but that’s not always the case for us all. If we’re not careful time can quickly fly by with little being achieved. How was 2012 for you? Did you manage to accomplish as much as you’d hoped? Unless we take stock of our time it will quickly slip through our fingers. 3,000 years ago King David wrote, “Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered — how fleeting my life is. … My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; certainly, everyone alive is like a whisper in the wind.” (Psalm 39:4-5)

In the light of eternity we are here for a relatively short time – “a whisper in the wind”, so the beginning of a new year is a good time to think about our priorities in life. The time quickly comes when we can look back twenty, thirty, even forty years over our adult life, and realise that we can’t change our past and that our future is shorter than it once was. So 2013 offers us a whole new start to make the most of our time, by reassessing our priorities and making the most of every opportunity. As Moses once prayed, “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. … So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:4, 12)

I hope that 2013 will be a blessed year for you, a year when you accomplish your goals yet find time to rest, when your priorities are ones that you’ll look back on with gladness, and, whatever your situation, may God be your guide. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Why, oh why?

a Christmas wreath

It’s with hearts tinged with sadness that we draw closer to Christmas. We were all shocked by yesterday’s tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut when, after killing his mother, a lone gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 26 people dead, including 20 children. Our sympathies go out very much to the bereaved families. Dannel Malloy, the state governor, said yesterday, “We’ll do whatever we can to overcome this event.” But how can something like this be overcome, how can good come out of something so evil?

Darrell Scott’s 17 year-old daughter Rachel was the first student to be killed at the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. Speaking yesterday to Fox News Darrell said, “We made a choice not to be angry or bitter, but to celebrate Rachel’s life.” In memory of Rachel he set-up a foundation called “Rachel’s Challenge”. It has seen seven school shootings and over 500 suicides prevented through its work. It’s website describes it as “a series of student empowering programs and strategies … to combat bullying and allay feelings of isolation and despair by creating a culture of kindness and compassion. The programs are based on the writings and life of Rachel Scott. … Rachel left a legacy of reaching out to those who were different, who were picked on by others, or who were new at her school. Shortly before her death she wrote, “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.””

Rachel’s father Darrell went on to say, “The answers are long term. They’re not just a knee-jerk reaction on gun control or more laws, … but we have got to be a kinder nation. We have got to take time to listen to one another, to love one another, to be role models to these kids.”

As Peter, a follower of Jesus, once wrote: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)

This is not just true for American society, but for us all. For the sake of our children, our world needs to wake up and look at the society that we have created. For instance, there is a movie currently being promoted in the UK about a serial killer. How can this be entertainment? We need to question what motivates us as a society; but most of all we need to show love, acceptance and encouragement to our young people, that they might grow up as a loving and integrated community, from which no one will feel excluded. Who knows the difference we personally can make this Christmas? As Rachel wrote: No one knows “how far a little kindness can go.”

To read one Sandy Hook mum’s story click here.

What’s it all about?

Bored man in Christmas hat

The stores have been full of Christmas goods for weeks; you’ve probably heard more than enough of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’; your bank account is probably looking rather forlorn and the children’s excitement will soon be nearing fever-pitch. Enough already! In some countries of course, Christmas comes and goes almost unnoticed, as Christmas presents, or even a proper meal and a roof over one’s head, are only a dream. What’s the point of Christmas?

For others, Christmas is a magical time, the food, the presents and the opportunity to relax and indulge make Christmas the highlight of the year, but is that all there is to Christmas?

Before you give up on Christmas altogether, take a quick look at this video of ‘Christmas in a Nutshell’. In 1 minute 59 seconds it gives us the answer to “Why Christmas?” So when Christmas Day comes and goes, the presents are all unwrapped, the alcohol drunk, and you think what was that all about, you will have learnt the secret, not just of Christmas, but of life itself. Take a look!

Love your enemies

Enniskillen war memorial
Enniskillen in more peaceful times (Photo: Dean Molyneaux)

Jesus is different. He asks us to live in a way that is contrary to the rest of the world. We humble ourselves to become great; to receive, we give away. It’s challenging and often difficult to do. Yet when we do these things, our example has power to change the world. Of all Jesus’ commands none is more challenging than to “Love your enemies”.

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31)

Loving your enemies also includes forgiving them – something misunderstood by so many. In the UK one of the greatest examples of love and forgiveness in recent years happened 25 years ago this month on 8th November 1987, when the IRA detonated a bomb that killed eleven people and injured 68 in the town of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. It was Remembrance Sunday. Committed Christian Gordon Wilson and his twenty year old daughter Marie were standing at the war memorial when the bomb went off. Marie died from the injuries she received in the explosion. Following the tragedy, Gordon Wilson was interviewed by the BBC. “I bear no ill will to anybody nor does my wife,” he said. He also added that he had prayed for the bombers.

“The words that he spoke during that interview went global, touching the hearts of millions including the Queen,” wrote Mervyn Jess of BBC News. Many believe that the huge media coverage along with Gordon Wilson’s reaction transformed it from a tragedy to a turning point in the troubled history of Northern Ireland.

Citizens of Mogadishu
Peace slowly returning to Mogadishu

This week’s ‘Unreported World’ documentary shown this week on the UK’s Channel 4 showed that it’s not just followers of Jesus that have the will to forgive. Ahmed Jama Mohamed arrived in the UK as a child, where he trained as a chef and set up a successful restaurant before returning to war-torn Somalia, leaving his wife and children in the relative safety of London. His aim, to bring peace and normality back to his homeland.

On the Channel 4 website, Aidan Hartley, a journalist with many years experience of Somalia, writes: “Ahmed Jama is a man who serves up hope one meal at a time for a people spat out and exhausted by war. His one-man peace process is to cook comfort food, to bring Somalis back to the table in Mogadishu to enjoy a meal with loved ones, to provide them with the space to enjoy time talking, to pass the time – something that endless, total war has denied them for almost a generation.” Just days before filming, two suicide bombers burst in, shooting at customers before blowing themselves up in his restaurant. Twenty people were murdered. The Islamist perpetrators gloated over the deaths and promised to strike again. When asked if he felt angry and resentful, Ahmed Jama replied, “We have to show forgiveness.”

It is in responding to the difficulty of God’s challenge to love our enemies that we recognise afresh our inability to be all that God calls us to be. Even the apostle Paul, who, as a follower of Jesus, never seemed to put a foot wrong, admitted “I know that good doesn’t live in me—that is, in my body. The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it.” (Romans 7:18) If our world is to live in peace, we personally need to be made anew. No wonder Jesus said: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7)