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?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

More than a Passing Pain

I met a dear friend yesterday whose heart is breaking. You would not know it if you saw her in the supermarket or driving her car. She beams with pride when speaking about her extended family and loves the outdoors. Her attitude to those in pain is exemplary, practical and caring. She does her work as requested and puts more into it than many would. She loves and is loved. She believes that God is preparing a place for her 'on the other side' of life.

Yet, Jane (not her real name but I can't keep saying 'she') is wracked with the most appalling clinical depression. I don't know if it is worse at this time of the year when dark winter clouds blot out the life-giving rays of the sun. Maybe it is, but I suspect perhaps not, because this is what the Bible describes as "the arrow that flies by day and the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, the plague that destroys at midday"(Ps. 91:5-6). This kind of deadly depression seems to hit us when we are down, not just when the sun goes down.

Winston Churchill, the great war leader of Britain, suffered from bouts of dreadful self-doubt and dark depression. The recent film Darkest Hour reveals this well. He called depression his black dog, and felt that it plagued him at the most unwelcome times.

William Cowper, the writer of several well-known hymns like "There is a Fountain" and "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" was plagued with dark periods of despair and depression all his life. At the age of 21 he wrote "I was struck with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same, can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, rising up in despair." His many attempts at suicide were not just cries for help - they were the outcome of his hatred of his life and himself, and the misdirected longing to be free from his suffering.

When my lovely, joyful wife and I were first married, she suffered from 13 years of almost unbearable depression and anxiety. Those years of sleeplessness, distress and dark forebodings, affected us both deeply. We can and do thank God for stepping in and through a long process of counselling. love, prayer and healing ministry, bringing both of us out of the shadows. But it is not easy, nor is it something that can be achieved in a moment.

Those whose hearts are breaking right now are precious to God and they should be to us. You can't see a sign on Jane saying "I am depressed". May God help us to be more sensitive to those in the grip of this plague and offer far more than platitudes. Practical love manifest in persevering prayer, comfort and kindness, acceptance and grace, must all play their part in helping others to get through.

Think of that if you have a moment to read William Cowper's words below - words torn from a breaking heart.

  1. God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants His footsteps in the sea
    And rides upon the storm.
  2. Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill
    He treasures up His bright designs
    And works His sov’reign will.
  3. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.
  4. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.
  5. His purposes will ripen fast,
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flow’r.
  6. Blind unbelief is sure to err
    And scan His work in vain;
    God is His own interpreter,
    And He will make it plain.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Preaching and Burning Bones

I love preaching! Mostly doing it, of course, although I am also an avid sermon listener and always make fulsome notes to review later (no, Matt Gregor - [my pastor and friend] I am not writing a shopping list or doodling!). My whole adult life has been given over to preparing and preaching messages of all types. Sermons, homilies, radio talks, debates, speeches, and all kinds of oral communication. My PhD thesis was on the subject of preaching in a 21st Century setting, and I had to research the subject inside out and upside down at that time.

Last weekend I had the joy of preaching at the City Church Cardiff in Wales, UK. It is a preacher's church building, with hundreds of people stacked high in a rising terrace in front of the stage. The church programme that day included services at 9am and 11am, 4pm and 6.30pm with large crowds attending. I spoke at the first two, and Diane gave a short account in each of how God has helped us through the 21 years since I left the post of Senior Pastor at that church, seriously unwell. It was a wonderful day of proclaiming the goodness of God and our need to trust in him even when things are tough. A handful of people made first-time commitments to become followers of Christ and that crowned an otherwise glorious day.

Sadly, though, preaching has fallen onto hard times. As the joke above (taken from the Church Humor (sic) Newsletter published from shows only too well, many preachers find their material in online joke sites and other even less worthy places. Don't get me wrong, I am all for good humour in the pulpit and I try to make effective use of it. But a serious attempt to hear from God in his Word - the Bible - and to communicate that with passion to our listeners, must mark preachers today as always.

Preaching is not a lecture nor a seminar. It is an encounter with the living God in his Word by the power of his Spirit. When I kept silence for the last 2 years up to Christmas 2017 due to my extreme ill health and recovery from major surgery, the fire of God's message burned in my bones. Last Sunday I was at last able to release it with joy and watch it kindle a glow of faith in the hearts of my listeners.  That was a huge privilege and I hope the start of many such times to come.

Please pray for your preachers, and do encourage them when they do well. Take notes of what they teach and say, and make the sermon as vital as Sunday lunch in your life too. Your bones may even start burning as well!

Friday, January 26, 2018

You'll Never Guess what they are Painting now! Lessons from Four-legged Hooligans!

"I didn't do it!"
You will never guess what the Guernsey authorities are going to paint blue now!  Yes, the poor dog hiding behind the fence is the clue - dog poo!! Later this year a team of dog wardens are going to creep around a much-loved island common watching out for those offending heaps.  When they see them they will paint them bright blue (with a spray can you'll be relieved to know). As a (sadly) former dog owner, and all-time dog lover, nothing makes me more mad than owners who refuse to pick up after their pooch. After all, the resulting mess is not only smelly and disgusting to see, it is both unhygienic and downright dangerous to the health of children. But - forgive my cynical incredulity - I just cannot see this plan working to reduce the problem.

The idea is to shame people into avoiding the issue, either literally by not stepping in it, or educationally when they realise it was their beloved hound that did it! But it does feel like bolting, or perhaps painting, doors after the animal has skedaddled. Maybe it will work and time alone will tell.

What this typically Guernsey solution has put me in mind of is how often people go around spray painting our faults and mistakes after the event instead of helping us to avoid them in the first place. Is this what Jesus meant when he said that we shouldn't try to remove a tiny speck of dust from someone's eye while there is a great big plank sticking out of our own?  Well, give them a pair of protective plastic glasses eh? And go and see the surgeons about that plank.

'After-the-event' criticising and highlighting (painting poo) may fulfill our desire to flag up a problem caused by other peoples' wrongs, but does it ever really change human nature? Integrity is choosing to do what's right, to our own cost, even when nobody else is watching. That is an issue of the heart, and maybe if the blue piles of poo reveal that to us, they will have served some slight benefit. Only a change of heart can really address anti-social behaviour of any kind. Sadly we live in an age where ideals of right and wrong are sometimes overlooked by those who should know better.

I still think a supply of poo bags and bins in each car-park is probably the best we can do. "Here boy.. no don't do that - not there!"

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Blue Monday gives way to Wonderful Wednesday!

In this season of grim days and dim days it is so good to have a reason to celebrate! Today is my wonderful wife's birthday and what a different one it is proving to be from the last 21. The past year has seen a remarkable transformation in our lives as amazing space-age surgery has set me free from chronic and recurring acute pancreatitis and everything that belongs to it. Diane has had to be my carer for most of that time, trudging the grimy streets of London alone scores of times while I was in hospital again. We have said 'goodbye' to each other more times than I want to recall when we have been warned that there was a '1 in 3' chance I would not survive this procedure or surgery. Her faithfulness has mirrored to me the character of the God we both love and serve. She has been 'Christ' to me in so many ways. I am glad that she has her voice back after a recent cold stole her joy in singing. In better weather Diane spends time in her shed, reading the Bible in several versions - even in French - and singing hymns and songs. I hesitate to tell her that everyone in the neighbourhood can hear her, but that would not stop her, nor would I want it to. God is glorified in this touching simplicity of love and faith together with its open heart and honest questions. What is there not to love?

We read together this morning from Psalm 13 in the Message version of the Bible. It says:
1  Long enough, GOD—you’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough.
2  Long enough I’ve carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain. Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me.
3  Take a good look at me, GOD, my God; I want to look life in the eye,
4  So no enemy can get the best of me or laugh when I fall on my face.
I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—I’m celebrating your rescue.
6  I’m singing at the top of my lungs, I’m so full of answered prayers.

Well that just about sums up this day. Happy Birthday my glorious wife - and many, many happy returns!

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Jaded by New Year Resolutions? Try this for size!

I don't want to be too hard on you or myself by blowing a trumpet for New Year's resolutions. All well and good as they are, I can recall some spectacular non-starters from my own past. "Going to lose a stone" - "Going to the gym and the pool regularly" - "Pray more" - "Eat less". They're all present and correct in the roll call of erstwhile good intentions. Is it the Chinese who say that the roadway to hell is paved with good intentions? If so, is there any point in this annual outbreak of self-bashing guilt-fest?

Well maybe it's not a bad thing to take a mild kind of self-test at the start of a new year (with the emphasis on the word 'kind'). Perhaps we should content ourselves with aspirations such as - to smile more and scowl less: to listen more and speak less: to err on the side of love if given a choice between that and harsh judgement: to be present in the moment rather than regretting yesteryear or day-dreaming about an unreal future.

But I have been struck anew by a prayer written over 500 years ago by a Christian leader and mystic, Ignatius of Loyola. It sets out before God and my heart what I would really want for my life in 2018, especially since I have been so graciously set free from pain and disease in the last year...

Teach us, Good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil and not to seek for rest;
To labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.

I remember being deeply affected by hearing this prayer being said at college assemblies before I even became a committed Christian. It is so much more than a temporary resolution that may fade by February. I want to make it my prayer as we enter 2018, and I hope you might think it worthwhile to do so too. If not, remember God loves you anyway, and at least be grateful and kind. Happy New Year!