Thursday, April 12, 2018

Suicide Capital of Britain?

Is Guernsey set to become the suicide capital of Great Britain? This headline in the UK newspaper the Daily Express, copied by others, has thrown a forthcoming debate in the island's government into the national limelight. In May the States of Guernsey will be asked by its leading minister plus six others, to decide whether Guernsey is in favour of 'assisted dying' for the terminally ill. If they prevail, and there are signs that they may, the island will set up a consultation to find ways and means to implement this momentous step, and may well lead the way in doing so within the British Isles.

One island politician, Deputy Emilie Yerby, in a blog on the issue, said "This is a very personal, emotionally fraught debate. Whatever side of the argument we are on, we need to approach it with compassion, mutual respect and honesty. People will bare their souls and confront some of their deepest fears over the coming weeks. We owe it to our community to create the kind of environment where they feel safe to do so."

Maybe not quite baring my soul, but I want to share my own perspective on this emotive issue. I do so not just as a Christian or church leader, but as a sufferer. In all my 22 years of the most appalling pain requiring around 100 admissions to hospital and over 30 surgeries I have always felt that the medics were on my side. I have often been embarrassed to be causing them so much work, and felt like a real nuisance, but they have always reassured me that they were with me in wanting to overcome this dreadful disease and keep me alive, even when that seemed so unlikely. I really do feel that my relationship with those doctors and nurses would have been changed for the worse if they were asked to become 'killers'.

Also, during the two decades I spent battling this most painful and deadly disease, if I had chosen to take a short-cut, I would have missed the amazing space-age transplant surgery that transformed my life nine months ago in Newcastle. Even now, the NHS in England is only proposing to start clinical trials into this surgery which is still not available anywhere in Europe. Medical research is constantly advancing, and short-cuts would have denied me this opportunity, even if I had wanted to take one.

I feel the utmost sadness and compassion for folk who are suffering appalling pain and life-limiting conditions. I also understand that carers and loved ones must feel desperate in the face of such circumstances and might feel that they would not even treat an animal the way their loved ones might be suffering. But we are not merely animals - we are body mind and spirit - and our lives are precious even when we might feel that all earthly hope is gone.

Please don't let us get agitated and heated over this, as Deputy Yerby advises us, but if you live in Guernsey do please engage with our States' deputies and help them to grapple with what is surely one of the toughest decisions they will have to make for a long while. And if Guernsey is a long way away from you, don't forget the words of the poet John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself;... any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Garden without Easter bunnies?

This is the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, believed by many to be the actual site, or very similar to it, of the grave where Jesus' body lay on the first Easter Saturday.There is a tomb at the centre of the Easter story. A place of cold grief and bitter tears. A real tomb for a really dead man, not just somewhere for a swooned imposter to await rescue by his fellow conspirators. This is God's tomb, where God the Son tasted death for me. This is the devil's best, an attempt to wipe out the catalogue of miracles and mercy that Jesus wrote in Galilee and substitute his own pathetic offering of "always look on the bright side" and "did God really say..?" doubt.

And the view from the tomb of Jesus is magnificent. Its light casts a quick flicker of hope over a place of suffering and pain, Golgotha or Calvary, and slowly expands towards the brilliant dawn that is already starting to change the colours we see only through our tears. Yes, this is God's tomb, but much more than that - it is MY tomb as well. For, in the words of the Apostle Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ" (Galatians 2:20). The old me is dead and buried, and just as Jesus breaks forth from the tomb outside Jerusalem, so I am set free by Christ from self, from having to impress others, even from the fear of death itself.

And here's an offer you won't see in many catalogues - it can be YOUR tomb as well! "Oh thanks Eric" I can hear you say "that's all I need on top of everything else I am suffering". But that's the whole point, this tomb is the place where you can lay your sufferings down, and your achievements, and stop trying to impress God and others. You can be identified with Jesus in His death also, and rise with Him to a completely new life!

I am grateful that God knows what it feels like to suffer and die, and be laid in a tomb by weeping loved ones. I am glad that he understands my pain, and yours, and that he comes to us on our 'silent Saturdays' and dark nights of the soul. But I'm also rejoicing that the tomb is no longer in use as a grave. The Lord of life and glory could not be held by those chains of death. It may be Easter Saturday, but hey - Sunday's coming!

Friday, March 30, 2018

No Greater Sacrifice

 On this Good Friday Christians around the world are recalling the death of Jesus on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. We are not doing so in some kind of dark or mournful fascination with violent death, but in gratitude for an act which changed our lives forever. Jesus, who committed no sin in his amazing life of compassion and care for others, "became sin for us" according to the Bible's teaching, so that we might receive forgiveness and right standing with God. This substitution of the Son of God for us and in our place means that God's rightful anger against sin and wrongdoing is forever dealt with. Christ paid the price for us to go free. He took the hostage's place and died instead of us.

France mourned this week the death of a national hero. Col. Beltrame attended a terrorist incident in southern France where hostages were being held. The officer's brave actions helped bring an end to the siege in a supermarket in Trèbes by 25-year-old Redouane Lakdim, who had earlier killed a person in nearby Carcassonne. The gunman claimed to be a supporter of the Islamic State group. Sixteen people were also injured, two seriously, in what was the worst jihadist attack under Mr Macron's presidency. The gunman was shot dead by police.

When the French police colonel offered to take the place of a female hostage he would have known he was putting his life on the line. The gunman had already killed and declared his opposition to Western values and all those in authority. Surely compassion must have moved Col Beltrame's heart as he contemplated the fate of the threatened woman. He stepped forward to put himself in the firing line. No greater sacrifice could be asked of a public servant.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is the ultimate authority figure, shunned by millions who refuse his love and way, but worshipped by countless millions more. He was sent to us here on earth as a rescue mission. We were hostages held by our passions, selfishness and pride. Then one stepped forward to take our place. "I will go" he said to his heavenly father and moved purposefully towards Jerusalem and the appalling death of crucifixion for us. No greater sacrifice could be asked of a God who loves us.

Yes, it is Good Friday. But hey - Sunday's coming!

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Beast from the East

Cold War shivers are back. The 'Beast from the East' is freezing more than our air temperatures. A whole generation of younger folk have never known the fears and chills of the nuclear arms race with its threats of global extinction. By the grace of God the world did not blow itself up during those decades. There were many nuclear accidents and equipment malfunctions that occurred where disaster was only just averted. On top of that men with huge egos played fast and loose with threats of holocaust that were only turned away at the last moment, like the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960's. We can only presume that it was not yet God's time to wind up this planet in the way described in the prophecy of St Peter:"...the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare". (2 Peter 3:10).

President Putin seeks re-election this weekend. His name is on the lips of nations around the world for recent allegations that may make his popularity rise at home, but increase the possibility of a renewed cold war. He boasted recently of having developed nuclear devices and missiles that cannot be traced or stopped by any defences. He is not alone in his self-aggrandising threats to world peace. The two egoistical and possibly unstable presidents of nuclear armed nations and historic enemies, Trump and Kim Jon Il, will meet sometime this year.  It is to be hoped that their nuclear buttons will be well out of reach as they boast to one another about the size of their respective devices.

How should Christians prepare for the new big freeze? As they always have done, of course, since power-mad Caesars like Nero and Caligula ruled the known world with cruelty and violence. We need a living, passionate, powerful, attractive relationship with Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit that will win people over by the warmth of God's reality, love and kindness. We also need to pray for leaders and their advisors. I felt very keenly this week the need to pray for Mrs May, and we should also intercede for those named above. And above all, we need to remember who is really in charge. We are not at the mercy of 'rocket man', maniacs and 'dotards'. We belong to the living God, and this world will be folded up like a scroll when he says so and not a moment sooner.

We don't need a 'fall-out shelter' (yet!). We do need to 'fall-in' though, with the maker of the universe, and seek his perspective on our crazy mixed-up generation. A shivering world is starving for warmth, affection, love and a higher hand on the tiller. That hand is the healing hand of Jesus.

Friday, March 09, 2018

With cameras watching our every move, are we truly free?

Some years ago the phrase 'big brother is watching you' from George Orwell's classic tale 1984 inspired fear. The thought that governments and businesses could watch us through secret cameras was a futuristic nightmare. We comforted ourselves that this would never happen in good old Great Britain with all its ancient rights of freedom secured since King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215! Yet today our lives are being observed daily via countless CCTV cameras, dash-cams, helmet cameras, body cameras and a variety of online snooping devices. Without them I doubt whether our police would make many arrests let alone secure convictions! We are a watched people.

I officiated at a funeral this week where the deceased had asked in advance that we read Psalm 139 - my favourite psalm anyway.  It begins with the words "O Lord, you have searched me and know me, you are familiar with all my ways". Some folk would find that idea unpalatable. The thought of God knowing us through and through, even to the extent of reading our thoughts from afar, could potentially terrify. That level of scrutiny might threaten our sense of independence of thought and action, reducing our dignity as decision making human beings. Yet, to me, the opposite is the case. The God who knows us completely, loves us totally - and without reserve. His knowledge of us does not reduce our ability to choose and act, but it should make us reflect on the fact that what we do and say in secret is seen and known in the spiritual realm. We are a watched people - but also a people loved.

The Psalm also asks the question "where can I go from your Spirit and where can I flee from your presence, O Lord?" Here again seems to be a level of Divine activity that might be a surprise, if not a worry to some. It certainly shocked the Old Testament character Jonah who thought he could escape God's call by taking a ferry and clearing off into the distance. The great fish that was prepared for him became a submarine delivery service, spewing him up onto the very beach from which he had fled! We might run from God but we cannot hide from him nor his relentless love and care for us. Changing the narrative, and the Testament, Jesus told of a good shepherd who left his 99 sheep in the fold and went searching for the lost sheep. When he found it he returned carrying the errant animal rejoicing that the one who was lost had been found. Jesus is a good shepherd and an expert tracker. He is obsessed with finding lost people. If you are running from God or trying to hide, maybe now would be a good time to face the one who is pursuing you and accept his embrace of love, forgiveness and change. We are a pursued people.

Given the first line of Psalm 139 the finale is a little strange. Yet it sets out for us a prayer that the persistent love of God requires of us. "Search me, O God, and know my heart.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Maybe if we could make that our prayer right now, we could stop the running and the hiding, and even the fear of being fully known. After all, if we are being watched and pursued and loved, maybe it would be a relief to be found!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Time for Flowers

The time for flowers has come. Well - not quite because as I write on the 28th February 2018 there will not be a leap year day tomorrow. But on the 29th February exactly 50 years ago, Diane and I first met. We both attended a car treasure hunt being organised by her local church and Diane was in charge (when isn't she?? Only joking my love.. hmm). I looked at her and thought "Wow"! Then "I'll bet she's already taken" and with that thought gave up and focused on winning the game. Afterwards we were sitting in the coffee bar area when she came up to me and asked "would you like some more soup"? My answer was to shuffle up and make room for her to sit down and we had our first chat. Half a century later we are still chatting.

We both feel that we found the treasure that day. When folk talk about love at first sight it hardly seems real. It is, in fact, quite rare, but the idea is both alluring and romantic. That was our experience, though, and we have been 'Eric and Diane' ever since. Now our desire is to do life together right up until we walk through heaven's gate hand in hand. To know and love one other person as deeply for as long is a great privilege, and one that we do not take for granted. Diane has sat beside what she thought would be my death-bed more than once, and we have said our final farewells to each other more times than we would have ever wanted, but God has been good to us and spared us so that we can rejoice in this day.

I have recently started keeping a 'gratitude diary' in which I write briefly down things for which I am thankful every day. It helps me to stay focused on positive things when weakness or problems might distract. Today I have plenty to write down. I hope you would have too. If you have not been blessed with the sort of relationship that I have described above please don't be too disheartened. We are all individuals and are all different, but God is still good and has good plans for our lives. Maybe there are still things that, despite the winter cold, you can join me in rejoicing about today? It may be cold and dark outside, but the time for flowers is also here.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Clean Hands and a Pure Heart?

Photo from Christianity Today Weekly Newsletter Feb. 23rd 2018
The death this week of Billy Graham aged 99 has awakened a whole lot of memories from the middle of the last century. The US evangelist took Britain by storm in the 1950's and '60's with his large-scale major 'Crusades' in venues like the huge stadiums at Wembley and Haringay. His simple but powerful preaching of the good news of the gospel of Jesus made a huge impact on many thousands and resulted in folk making commitments of their lives to the service of Christ and others. I met missionaries overseas in Africa and India who had come to faith through his preaching and were going on to do great work for God where they felt called.

I had never heard of him so when a college friend invited me to the 'landline Billy Graham relays' at St James hall in Guernsey in 1967 I was puzzled. "Who is this man?" I asked my Mum, who replied that he was some kind of religious salesman. I was not intrigued enough to attend, but I was stirred to know more, as I reasoned that if a man could sell religion he could probably sell anything!

As I look back upon his influence over the decades I am most struck by the record for integrity that Billy Graham and his team maintained.  Stung by the Elmer Gantry caricature of the hypocritical travelling evangelist in American culture and media, the Graham team decided to act. In 1948 during a crusade in Modesto California, Billy called the team to his hotel room and challenged them to find a way to 'stay clean' in their work. Sex, money and power were proving to be the downfall of other itinerant evangelistic teams as it sadly has been too often in Christian leadership over the years. The Modesto Manifesto became a programme of accountability and avoidance that would serve Billy Graham well over the decades.

Integrity is when your outsides match your insides even when nobody is looking. It is a vital component to ministry and leadership of all kinds. Billy Graham wanted to 'stay pure' but he harboured no misunderstanding about his own vulnerability. He protected himself in advance so that his work would not be undermined or destroyed by scandal.

Another great evangelist in my own denomination, Alexander Tee, once said "If you want to be successful in ministry keep your hands off the glory and your fingers out of the gold". Billy Graham's hands were clean but not by accident. By the grace of God and the wise counsel of others he fought the good fight and overcame. After all, isn't it better to erect a fence at the top of a cliff rather than park an ambulance at the bottom?