“Without publicity, a terrible thing happens – nothing!” – PT Barnum

The great circus impresario, PT Barnum died on this day in 1891. His highly controversial ‘American Museum’ once stood on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York. The blockbuster movie ‘The Greatest Showman’, tells the story of Barnum’s meteoric rise to fame. Within five years of opening, the museum was attracting half a million visitors every year until a devastating fire reduced it to rubble and ashes. He then teamed up with James Bailey to form the Barnum & Bailey Circus, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ took America and the world by storm for the next 146 years. Barnum was seen an icon of American spirit and ingenuity.

In the 1920’s a flamboyant female preacher called Aimee Semple McPherson was being called the ‘Barnum of the pulpit’ as she dramatically presented the message of Jesus to the waiting masses of Los Angeles and Hollywood. They were no ordinary presentations, more like music hall performances than the religious liturgy of the day. The ‘Barnum of the Pulpit’ attracted three times more visitors than the ‘Barnum of the circus’ ever did.

She believed that the Bible was the ‘divine drama’ and it deserved to be presented and illustrated extravagantly not simply taught from an old book in the dreariness of church services. She drew her inspiration from the theatre and people were cut to the heart, turning their lives over to Jesus Christ in vast numbers. Her 20 presentations a week culminating in the lavish Sunday Night Service which attracted thousands every week.

PT Barnum’s critics came from those who detested the freak shows and the abuse of animals, Aimee Semple MacPherson’s critics came from the religious establishment. Several leaders of LA’s most powerful churches thought she was turning her nose up to decorum and the traditional ways of ‘doing church’. Her response was typically forthright “Show me a better way to get willing people to come to church and I’ll try it, but please don’t ask me to speak to empty seats!”

I’ve never been big on practical jokes but I love comedy and some of the stunts that have been pulled on April 1st are hilarious, although some were criminal! Like the Oxford University students in the 1970s who nicked a gas van at night, set up a diversion through the town and dug up the road for three hours until the council and the police worked out what was going on!

Another famous practical joke was done to a guy who lived in a flat with a lounge and kitchen downstairs and a bedroom and bathroom upstairs. While he was away over April Fool’s Day, his mates swapped the floors round including the plumbing. When he returned and opened his front door he was now in his bedroom and upstairs was the lounge and kitchen. He thought he was losing his mind!

The Bible says if Jesus never rose from the dead, Christians are fools not just on April 1st but all year round. But this message has transformed billions of lives across the world for 2,000 years. It’s an invitation to be reconciled to a father through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus his son. It seems foolish to refuse an offer like that? Someone famously said, “It is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Ludwig van Beethoven died on this day in 1827. Personally, I’m more of a rock man, but LVB’s phenomenal contribution to his art places him at the top of the tree in the eyes of many. He was a Catholic and, by all accounts, a deeply spiritual person who believed his work was a mission of divine art not simply a creative process. 

Throughout the centuries people have reinterpreted his work as simply ‘spiritual’ denying his own assertion that it was a response to a personal faith in God. On October 6th 1802, he wrote a now famous letter to his brothers expressing the agony he was experiencing over the onset of deafness. It must have been heartbreaking for someone who did what he did to face something like that. Nevertheless, his faith came through over and over again. Towards the end of his life, he would write these words to his closest friend “I know that God is nearer to me than to others. I go without fear to him. I have constantly recognised and understood him” 

Ludwig van Beethoven was a rare genius, but also one who lived with tremendous personal struggles that seemed to give him empathy for others. Like Jesus, and many who have followed in his footsteps, he identified with the poor and the forgotten. Beethoven’s music fills the world’s concert halls and his short life of 56 years was one that contained a profound knowledge of God, his love and his mercy.

On March 19th 2003, British troops were about to enter Iraq. More specifically it was the same regiment that was immortalised as the Desert Rats during WW2. Their commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins and this is an extract from the speech he gave to his men from the bonnet of a British armoured vehicle as they prepared for battle.

“We are entering Iraq not to conquer but to free a people. The only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Iraq is steeped in history, it is the location of the Garden of Eden and the birthplace of Abraham so tread lightly there.”

The Iraq War remains a highly controversial operation and I write this not to make any kind of statement about the rights and wrongs of it. But Tim Collins clearly sensed the enormous significance of that Biblical land his men were about to enter. It is true for so many of the places on earth that have been, and continue to be, ravaged by war and conflict. My countless visits to Normandy and other battle sites across Europe lead me to conclude that there is a spiritual imprint in those places that is caused by a catastrophic loss of life. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his glorious church can turn the tide of evil and the wickedness that flows from the human heart. 

I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes.” (US General Douglas McArthur)

World-renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking died on this day in 2018. It would have come as no surprise to anyone that his position as an atheist appeared in his book ‘Brief Answers To The Big Questions’ shortly after he passed away. His final words were these “There is no God. No one directs the universe.”

Some years ago, he was asked what his response was to Christians who have a different view to his, he graciously replied “I think that God is the name people give to the reason we are here. I believe the answer is in the laws of physics rather than someone we can have a personal relationship with.”

Stephen Hawking was probably one of the greatest minds we have encountered. His immense presence despite his titanic struggle with the debilitating effects of ALS was truly inspirational, but what about his position on whether there is a God? Ultimately, no one can prove or disprove the existence of a Creator because it is all about evidence and what each person does with that evidence. Any amount and type of evidence may constitute proof for one person but is not enough for the next. It is the reason why we have 12 members of a jury in a court of law. Each member decides if the evidence presented forward is enough to convict, the verdict is read out and then the judge declares the outcome.

In the case for the existence of God and particularly the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his son, Jesus Christ, I have seen way too much evidence of changed lives over the last 35 years to have any doubt. For me, it provides irrefutable proof that God not only exists but changes lives that are surrendered to him and transformed through the power of Christ. I have seen the lonely loved, the hungry fed, the sick healed, the addicted set free, the shattered mended and the lost found. Jesus is Alive!

On March 7th 1936, a radio broadcast was transmitted to the United States from Great Britain. The man holding the microphone was not a DJ or a chat show host, but the king of England, Edward VIII. It was an historic moment but not everything would go to plan, in fact it almost ended in disaster. 

Just a few moments before the king’s voice was heard, someone tripped over a wire in the control room of the radio station and severed the only line of communication between ‘king and country’. The engineers went berserk sensing the catastrophe that was about to play out. With only a couple of seconds remaining before going on air, a quick thinking apprentice grabbed the two ends of the broken wire and bridged the gap. Seconds later, the connection went live, the king delivered his address across the airways and no one knew what had gone wrong. 

In a very real sense, the words of the king were transmitted through the body of that man. 2,000 years ago, God sent his son into this world to fix the connection between him and us that had been severed by our rejection of him and his will. Through Jesus, the voice of the King of Heaven was transmitted through the body of a man. When that guy grabbed the two wires in the radio station on this day in 1936, all he could do was come up with a temporary solution. But Jesus did something far greater restoring the connection and the relationship to its original condition. This is how the Bible describes the permanent repair that Jesus made possible “God’s gift was poured out through one man, Jesus Christ. The breathtaking recovery is for those who grasp with both hands this wildly extravagant life that Jesus Christ provides”

Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, was born in 500 AD and died on this day 59 years later. He was born into a privileged Welsh family but gave it all up to devote his life to the advancement of the message of Jesus Christ. David was a hero among the early Celtic Jesus followers, an indigenous band of radicals who loved God and loved the Gospel. They were a people deeply committed to ensuring everyone they encounter got to hear how much they were loved by their creator. 

David was a powerful preacher who founded churches in Britain and then over sea in Brittany. One of the stories suggests he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, bringing back a stone from the Holy Lands that now sits in St David’s Cathedral on the site of his original monastery he founded. David was a man who believed in the miracles of Jesus and in his promise that Christians would do similar and even greater things. He frequently saw the sick healed and witnessed miracles over the laws of nature. 

On one occasion while speaking to a vast crowed in Llanddewi Brefi, people at the back complained they could not hear him. As David prayed, the ground he was standing on rose to form a hill! Throughout his relatively short life, Wales’ patron saint helped to found well over 1,000 monasteries that became powerful sending bases for the message of Jesus and his rescuing power for all people everywhere. Many of those establishments were built in the remote places where the followers of Jesus felt closer to God’s creation and could experience the wild wind of his presence. These are David’s final words to his people, translated into modern English “Brothers and sisters, be constant and single-minded. Continue to the very end with the mission we have started for Jesus”

On this day in 1945, a famous photograph was taken of 6 US Marines raising their flag over the battle-scarred landscape of Iwo Jima. More marines died in that battle than in any other in history and so that image was enshrined as a symbol of sacrifice and freedom. 

Many stories that emerge from our wartime past have profound parallels with the message and mission of Jesus on earth. At the time of the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda’s orders were rescinded but he never received the news in  the remote jungle area where he was based. Mass leaflet drops were carried out announcing the end of the war but the Japanese officer believed they were fake. A search party stumbled on the Japanese officer who had now lived for 30 years stranded somewhere between war and peace. 

When Jesus died on the cross, a war was won and a debt was paid for our rejection of God. It happened 2,000 years ago, but many still live in the battlefield, failing to realise they can walk free from it. Just like Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, people come along, announcing the news that freedom has arrived. It’s usually our pride that means we continue living life independent of God. The Bible says we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ but we have to choose to accept it. 

Those who accept God’s gift of new life become flag bearers of peace and reconciliation in this world. Choose today to live in the good of Christ’s victory on the cross and emerge from the wilderness of self-imposed separation from God.

The switchover to decimal currency on February 15th 1971 ended centuries of tradition. It wasn’t an easy transition for the British people with many refusing to adopt the new money. Previously there were 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound but now it was 100 pennies to the pound. 

A huge national campaign was launched to help millions of people and thousands of businesses to adapt. Families were confused, coin machines were obsolete and cashiers were retrained. Even the world famous London store, Harrods, employed ‘Decimal Penny Assistants” to help confused customers with the new coins. The transition to decimalisation took five years of planning. February 15th was chosen as it was thought to be a quiet time for banks and shops who were closed for 5 days ahead of the big day to allow cheques to be cleared and accounts to be converted. 

Don’t forget, that this was before computers so the whole thing was done manually. Even though the new currency had arrived, the old stuff was still legal in banks and stayed around for a long time. 

When someone encounters God for the first time, believes and understands that when Jesus his son lived, died and rose again, something extraordinary happens. We are quite literally born again into a new life and we begin to live with a new currency. Giving your life to Jesus happens in a moment but the process of transitioning from an old life to a new life is a process that takes a lifetime. The Bible says “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come.”

On February 11th 2012, the lifeless body of Whitney Houston was found in a bathtub inside room 434 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. Many spoke poignantly at her funeral of the little girl with the faith in God and the huge voice who sang in the church choir. Throughout her illustrious career, Whitney always included at least one gospel song in her set list whether in a stadium or a concert hall. The documentary about her life and legacy was deeply moving. How could the girl, raised in a loving Christian family, become so lost to anxiety and addiction? 

A closer look at her upbringing though reveals an awful exposure to abuse and racism in her early teens. Whitney Houston once said “I know my singing talent is something God has given me” but at the same time she expressed her sense of disconnect with the faith she once had a child. 

She told Oprah Winfrey in 2009 “I’m so humbled and thankful to God that, by his grace and goodness, he has never given up on me and I know I am his daughter. Jesus loves me, this I know” Whitney’s talent has been lost to the world but the heartfelt honesty of her words remain. I often encourage people who have lost the child-like faith they once had to “go back and pick up what you left behind”

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.

On January 21st 1950, George Orwell, author of ‘Animal Farm’ died. In that book, Orwell tells an almost parable-like story that has echoes of the messages of Jesus on the street. Both of them exposed the hypocrisy of cruel and oppressive structures. Orwell’s masterpiece and the epic Bible accounts of Jesus also address the issues of scapegoating, gaslighting and deception. 

When things go wrong, it’s in our nature to look for someone to blame. In Animal Farm, Snowball is falsely accused of losing the key to the shed and thrown down a well. If we’re honest most of us are also capable of blaming others for what’s essentially our own fault. There’s only one cure for the ‘Snowball Syndrome’ and Jesus nailed it once and for all. His timeless message challenges us to turn to God and have our lives restored in relationship with him.

On January 10th 2016, one of the seminal music artists of the last few decades passed away. Fourteen years earlier David Bowie had said “The transformation of everything we ever thought about music will take place within ten years. Music will become like running water, it won’t work by labels and distribution anymore.” 

Previously he’d predicted the future of the internet with remarkable accuracy. Bowie consulted a psychic in the 1970’s who told him he would die at precisely the age he did. Without question there’s power in occult and psychic practises, the question is about whether it does us good or ill. 

The Bible says our eternal future is determined not by knowledge but simply by our response to the person of Jesus. When the son of God stood before the Roman governor, who would condemn him to death, he asked the crowd a question “What will you do with Jesus?” That same question sounds out into the world to this day.

On New Year’s Day 1940, this nation was at war and a sense of dread was in the hearts of the people. And so, into that crisis, King George VI addressed an anxious nation with this heartfelt New Year’s prayer “Give me your light 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 forget 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 still hangs on the gates of the chapel at Windsor Castle to this day.

The Bible tells us 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!

On December 5th 1933, Prohibition ended, lifting the ban on the sale of alcohol in America. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was put in place because many people, especially men, were battling with the effects of the booze and millions of families were affected. Many angrily resisted the often pious religious movements behind Prohibition, condemning it as an inappropriate attempt by the church to police the lives of ordinary people by banning the ‘demon drink’. 

Rather than an outright ban, the Bible says we shouldn’t get drunk, it doesn’t tell us to ban it.  Jesus spoke about living as the children of God in relationship with him. In his first recorded miracle he replenished the bar at a wedding, hardly the actions of one who wanted wine outlawed. Christ came to ‘call time’ on religious rules announcing a new and living way of relating to God. 

As one who grew up with an alcoholic father, I understand more than some what the booze can do. But I believe God wants people to live in freedom whilst exercising restraint in this and many other areas of human activity. Having said that, I deeply respect those who take a different view.

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