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The Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a gunman on this day, 75 years ago. There’s so many stories about the iconic statesman who rose from the brutal scars of abuse to become a man with an almost god-like reputation among the Indian people and a fearless champion of the ‘untouchables’ often being seen in some of India’s worst slums. Gandhi insisted on living a humble life in contrast to other heads of state, wearing simple clothes, travelling third class and staying in basic accommodation.

Gandhi believed he was living without the need for security guards but in reality they were everywhere dressed as slum dwellers. The train carriages he travelled in, were only attached to the engine unit, so he was actually travelling solo with just a guard onboard. Not really a budget option, more like a very expensive one. Many obstacles were overcome to allow such a powerful man as him to be so accessible. After he died, one of his closest aides was quizzed about the way Mahatmas Gandhi had lived. The answer was very interesting “You have no idea what it took to keep that old man in poverty!”

A quick glance at the Bible could give the impression that Jesus lived the same way as Gandhi, refusing the privileges of a respected rabbi in exchange for a life on the street. He certainly spent his days travelling on foot among the dust and the dirt and was frequently seen among the destitute and discarded people. Even the harshest critics of Christianity who reject the claims of Jesus, would concur that he lived a very humble existence. But it was far from a political demonstration or to attract attention to himself, his teachings or his miracles. Jesus lived out his life as a signpost back to God the Father, revealing his heart for the people at the end of the queue who were shunned by the religious system of the day. The shadow of the cross was being cast upon the street everywhere he went. Jesus didn’t simply live a good life,  he died the death of a common criminal for the sum total of human failure. Then he rose to life again, opening the way back to an eternal relationship with God for all of us.

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On January 27th 1945 as World War Two was reaching its final phase, Allied Forces raided an isolated complex in southern Poland. They were confronted with the most horrific scenes imaginable. The appalling images that were captured that day would stain the history books forever. 6,000 innocent Jewish people, most of whom were dying were located and given emergency medical care. The entire free world suddenly was confronted with the reality of Nazi Germany’s ideology and the lengths to which its leaders were prepared to go to impose those views upon the rest of us. 

Of the six million Jews who were slaughtered in World War Two, over a million of them perished in the chilling gas chambers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In 2005 a United Nations Resolution was passed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. January 27th is now a day when many nations mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The systematic extermination of such a vast number of Jews, along with other groups deemed unworthy to live, is one of the very worst examples of the evil people are capable of. A crime of such vast scale plunged mankind to previously unfathomed depths of depravity. 

I’ve often wondered what it was about the Jewish people that made them such a target for hatred. The history of that remarkable people is recorded in the Bible, the epic account of a God who has relentlessly loved humanity in spite of our rejection of him and the ensuing chaos in the earth that he has created. The Bible graphically portrays God’s pursuit of the affection and faithfulness of his people. When Jesus came, the divine covenant between God and Israel, the Jewish people, was extended to the Gentile, or non-Jewish world. This does not mean that God has forgotten Israel, simply that everyone else has been included in on the promise of eternal life in relationship with the one true God. That promise is personalised for each one of us when we recognise our profound need of the personal salvation that flows form the cross of Christ. 

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John F Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the USA on a wave of optimism across the nation and the world on January 20th 1961. Many were cautious because he was a Roman Catholic who owed allegiance to the Pope, the sovereign leader of another state. JFK came to power surrounded by the seismic issues of the Cold War, the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement. He was a man of tremendous energy, charisma and vision who spoke forcefully about America’s place in the world.

Kennedy declared that the “torch has passed to a new generation of Americans” and called on them to “ask not, what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” His inauguration address gripped the world’s media. The speech is famous for several comments he made, including the assertion that “the rights of man come not from generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” In saying that, JFK defined the value of each one of us. A value that is not dependent on our ethnicity, our financial means or where we happened to be born. Our identity is rooted in that eternal unshakable truth that we are created by a God who longs for relationship with us. We are not here by accident nor by a soulless evolutionary process. We are here because a Father called us into existence and has placed a price tag on us, equivalent to the life of his son, Jesus.

President John F. Kennedy’s life was brutally ended by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas, less than three years into his presidency. For many, it brought the dream of a new America to a devastating halt. Political commentators have debated ever since about what might have happened if he’d have lived to implement the changes he believed in. Having said all of that, Kennedy was flawed like the rest of us. He seemed to live out his public life surrounded by conjecture and even direct accusations of moral failure. It’s a stark reminder that leaders, even great ones, are human with all the same struggles as the rest of us. Nevertheless, the heart-cry of the man who stood before the world on January 20th 1961 echoes today. Our true identity is defined by our Creator Father not by the troubles and lies of today.

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On January 10th 2016, musical genius David Bowie sadly passed away. Without doubt, Bowie was one of the seminal artists of the last few decades and very switched on as well. In 1999, he made this accurate prediction about the dawning of the digital age “We have not even seen the tip of the iceberg of what the internet is going to do to society both good and bad is unimaginable.”

Three years later he spoke with remarkable insight into the shape of the music industry, saying “The transformation of everything we ever thought about music will take place within ten years, nothing will stop it. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s the only unique situation that’s going to be left. Music is going to become like running water, it’s not going to work by labels and distribution in the same way.”

David Bowie was clearly an extremely perceptive guy with an uncanny ability to predict what was about to happen. Not a bad person to have around if you were into scratch cards and the National Lottery perhaps? But on a more serious note, he appeared to live with a sense of his own premature death following a prediction from a psychic in the 1970s who told him he would die at precisely the age he did. Slightly spooky I reckon!

The Bible tells us to stay clear of the paranormal and especially those who market it. We have one life and at the end of that life, we will stand before the throne of God. Our eternal future is not determined by such things as talent, wealth, status and success but on one simple criteria – our response to the person of Jesus Christ. When the Son of God stood before the man who would send him down to be crucified, that Roman governor asked the watching crowd this question “What will you do with this man Jesus?” The same question still sounds out into the world today. It is the most important question of all.

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On January 5th 1939, the death of a famous adventurer was recorded after she had been missing for a year and a half. Amelia Earhart was born in the American Midwest to a mother who wanted her to be a ‘proper lady’. Amelia, on the other hand, was more interested in chasing her dreams than curtailing to society’s expectations of what girls were supposed to do. While still in her twenties, she accepted an invitation to be the first female passenger to fly to England. She was bitten by the ‘flying bug’ and the rest, as they say, is history.

Throughout the 1930’s, Earhart was constantly in the sky and soon became an A list celebrity in America. She was the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic and then her big break arrived. At the age of 41, she took off from an airfield in California to fly solo around the globe. Amelia remained at the controls for 12 hours every day, often landing and taking off in extremely remote locations with only rudimentary navigation equipment and techniques. On July 3rd 1937, communication was lost and a search and rescue operation was launched. Amelia Earhart was never found nor was any wreckage of her plane recovered. This was the last telegram she sent: DO NOT WORRY. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS IT WILL HAVE BEEN WORTH THE TRYING. AMELIA.

From an early age, I’ve been captivated by the stories of people who have bucked the trend and done extraordinary things with their lives. When I first became a follower of Jesus, I remember having a sense that I’d been born for a reason and that there was a life on offer to me that only I could live. Amelia Earhart had a belief in God but was not keen on the restrictions of organised religion. The final words go to the great woman herself and they carry a poignant message for us today.

“Don’t think for an instant that I would ever become an atheist, but there is a great deal wrong with the church’s methods. It is not the clergy nor the people that are narrow, but the outside pressure that squeezes them into a routine.” (Amelia Earhart)

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As 2022 draws to a close and we look back on the year that saw the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps it’s fitting to recount a moment many years ago when England faced a New Year blighted by war. Within months, the Battle of Britian would be waging in the skies and England would be staring down the barrel of invasion. Into that crisis, King George VI addressed an anxious nation with this heartfelt New Year’s prayer “Give me your light” the King prayed, “that I may tread safely into the darkness with my hand in yours”. Upon his death in 1952, his daughter was crowned Queen Elizabeth II. She would never forgot the words of her father, sharing his unshakable faith in a God who promises never to abandon us. Queen Elizabeth ensured that her father’s prayer was engraved onto a plaque which hangs on the gates of the chapel at Windsor Castle to this day. What people didn’t know was that he King’s prayer was an extract from a poem written by Minnie Louise Haskins in 1908 entitled “The Gate Of The Year” These are some of the words that King George VI quoted:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown” And he replied “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. God knows, his will is best, the stretch of years which wind ahead. So dim to our imperfect vision, are clear to God. Our fears are premature for in Him, all time hath full provision. Then rest until God moves to lift the veil from our impatient eyes. When, as the sweeter features of life’s stern face we hail fair beyond all surmise God’s thought around His creatures our mind shall fill. 

The Bible says that God is our refuge, an ever present help in times of trouble. His promise to strengthen and pilot anyone’s life who is submitted to him is still true today. Happy New Year!

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On Boxing Day 2004, an earthquake struck under the Indian Ocean triggering a tsunami. The seafloor was ruptured several metres wide and hundreds of miles long creating a deadly wave train that slammed into the coastlines of a dozen countries. I remember when news of the disaster first flashed up on our TV screen. As families celebrated Christmas, across the world, 250,000 people had been swept away and millions more were brutally displaced. If ever something exposed the fragility of life it was this gut wrenching tragedy. 

For many years, I’ve spoken publicly and privately about the issue of suffering and attempted to answer people’s genuine questions with humility as to why God allows it. I have to be honest and say that, although I know the relevant Bible verses and have read some of the books, it is a painful mystery. I explained to a Christian audience some years ago that we serve a God who is all-loving and all-powerful. Those two elements of his divine nature present a tremendous challenge to those who are asking questions about God because they’re appear incompatible. Put plainly “If he loves us and he can help us, why doesn’t he?” The question of evil people doing evil acts can be explained, in some way, by their free choice to accept or reject God’s plan for human life. Natural disasters, on the scale of the 2004 Tsunami, are way more difficult. 

I don’t say that to trigger the debate around science, ecology and climate change, I understand the relevance of those issues in explaining, so called, natural disasters. I raise the questions to express my own personal journey with hurting people and their genuine desire to know God in the context of the enormity of their struggles. For me, my life is anchored in the certain knowledge that God is love and I am at peace with the things I cannot explain. The Bible says that “Creation yearns in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed”. Perhaps, therein lies a small part of the answer to this hugely difficult and complex element of our life’s journey on this earth as we await our departure to our eternal home.

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On December 20th 1620, the Mayflower docked at Plymouth Rock near Boston. Onboard were a group of Jesus followers who would lay the foundation stones of America and go down in history as the Pilgrim Fathers. That very famous old ship had left Southampton on England’s south coast four months earlier for the perilous one way sea passage to the New World. Southampton is now a major stop over for the most opulent cruise liners in the world but Mayflower was a very different kind of vessel. 

So why did a hundred or so people take on such a dangerous journey? Well, it all happened at a time of great religious tension in England and across Europe. In a nutshell, anyone who was English and serious about following Jesus was running into trouble for not signing up to the heavy duty rules laid out by King James I. The situation had been significantly aggravated by, what was perhaps, the very first terror attack on London a few years earlier. Old Jimmy had survived an attempt on his life, known as the Gunpowder Plot, and was now pretty keen on cracking down on those who refused to swear allegiance to his particular brand of dead religion. 

Those who set sail on the Mayflower paid a high price for a personal relationship with God and a deep commitment seeing others experience new life through Jesus. Only about half of those who left England’s shores in August 1620, survived the Atlantic crossing. They went in search of a new life where they could live in freedom and worship the God of the Bible without fear of violent opposition. They befriended the indigenous people they encountered and so much of what is great about America was embodied in those early expressions of community. But difficulties soon emerged with the descendants of those first Europeans onto American soil and a lot went on that is far from the teachings and example of Jesus. The Church has got many things wrong throughout the ages by trading a relationship with God for oppressive religious systems and structures.

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A few years ago now I read the amazing story of two men who had a dream to take off and fly like a bird. It was the oldest of dreams and had baffled the most brilliant minds in the world from Leonardo de Vinci to Thomas Edison. Inventors across the globe were backed by big money in the race to fly but in the end,  it was two brothers and a simple powered glider that unlocked the great mystery of flight. Orville and Wilbur Wright were the most unlikely people to go down in history as genius inventors but when you look into their story, the clues are there. 

Their father was a preacher who travelled America communicating the Gospel of Christ and Wilbur had initially intended to follow in his footsteps. The Wright brothers came from a long line of Jesus followers, one of their ancestors was among the first Christian settlers who crossed the Atlantic from England on the Mayflower. Both of their parents were deeply involved the campaign to end slavery and worked tireless for social reform and the rights of women in America. I’m sure that something of the wild nature of God’s eternal plan was in Orville and Wilbur although little is known about their own personal faith. The Bible says that we are made in the image of God and carry the disguising marks of our Creator. Perhaps it is in our very nature to fly. The Wright brothers ran a very successful bicycle repair business and used the profits to finance their aviation dream. It was inside the bike shop that they designed the first aeroplane, the Wright Flyer which still exists today and featured in the movie ‘Night of the Museum 2’. 

The world was slow to accept what happened on December 17th 1903 as anything more than a crazy stunt by  a couple of cranks but the world would never be the same because of what they achieved. Some say that day in December all those years ago was the turning point of history but that’s not really true. Significant as it was, there is another day in December when we mark the moment God stepped into human history. Jesus came to rescue us all from the things that keep us earthbound and rob us of the eternal life that God intended for us. There is a flight we will all embark on when we take-off from this life and our response to Jesus Christ determines where we will land.

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I remember being in France in December 2015 at our base on the Calais Jungle migrant camp as Christmas approached. I’d had a conversation with a television producer a few weeks earlier who had been involved in the BBC Songs Of Praise programme that was filmed in the camp that summer. She was exploring with me the potential for a follow-up programme at Christmas and what I thought about that. Trying to encourage the residents to sing Christmas carols, I said, would not be particularly authentic, especially given the religious background of the vast majority of them. But to recount the story of the birth of Christ into a displaced family who no one wanted would be more relevant. The powerful reality that Jesus walks the camp with them as one who shared the identity of a refugee. Predictably, it never came to anything but the conversation was important to have. Remembering those hugely significant days in the context of the troubles of today is poignant. Our society is gripped by a crisis that exposes the vulnerable yet again. 

So many families are struggling to pay their bills whilst trying to deliver Christmas 2022 in the knowledge that they will spend 2023 trying to pay for it. These are hard  times when the church must step up to the plate and be the signpost back to a Father. A Father who demonstrated his love for us in a way that baffles the imagination. Emmanuel, God with us.

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