The beauty and splendour of autumn

Early on the Sunday morning after the clocks went back I drove to North Wales. It was a sunny morning and the autumn leaves were resplendent. The yellows, browns and reds were brilliant in the early morning sun. Scattered amongst them was the occasional green fir tree. It made me realise afresh that God has made our earth a very beautiful place and I thanked him for his wonderful kindness to all of us who live on this little planet.

The autumn colours remind us that the long, warm days of summer are passing and the dark days of winter lie ahead. The regularity of the seasons points us to the faithfulness of God. He has promised, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” So we know that winter will not last for ever, however dark and cold it may be, but that springtime will come and the trees and flowers will come to life again.

There are also seasons in our lives. The early years of childhood are full of hope and promise. The energy and enthusiasm of children hold out great potential for their future lives. Childhood gives way to adult years when physical and mental powers are at their height. It is a time for striving to achieve our full potential at home and work. Loving families and homes provide a secure and loving environment for the next generation to be born and thrive.

Then comes the autumn of our lives when mind and body are not so strong and grey hairs appear. In the early senior years there can be a beauty and poise that make it seem that things may continue as they are but, in our hearts, we know that our lives are moving inevitably to their appointed end.

Solomon, who was legendary for his wisdom, wrote, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.” It is best to remember God and entrust our lives to him when we are young so that he is at the centre of all we do. But we can also draw near to him in the autumn of our life and find in him the peace we need now and the hope we need for the future. His beautiful creation proclaims that he exists and encourages us to seek him and find him.

Swing low, sweet chariot

Antonín Dvořák composed the New World Symphony in 1893, when he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. It is by far his most popular symphony. In 1969 Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission and first Moon landing. During his time in the “New World” Dvořák came to admire the beauty of the African-American spirituals and plantation songs of the American South and these may have influenced his New World Symphony.

In the 17th century the Pilgrim Fathers left England and established the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. They were Christians who were seeking the freedom to practice their religion independent of the state. Their desire for freedom influenced the history and culture of the United States. Before and after the Pilgrim Fathers arrived boats brought African slaves to America to work on the plantations. The land was vast and the life of many slaves was harsh. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished and the principle was reaffirmed that all men are created with equal dignity and an equal right to liberty.

The African-American spirituals express the faith and hope of a people living as slaves. They found comfort in the Bible which tells of how God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land and how God’s Son, Jesus, came to set people free from the bondage of sin and death. The words and music of the African-American spirituals powerfully express both the present sufferings of the people and their hope of future happiness in heaven.

“Swing low, sweet chariot” speaks of the forgiveness found in Jesus and the strong hope of life beyond death, symbolised as the Jordan River. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, coming for to carry me home? A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down, but still my soul feels heavenly bound. The brightest day that I can say, when Jesus washed my sins away. If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming there too. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” In our sophisticated, yet tragically sad, modern world the joy of forgiveness and the hope of heaven speak powerfully to our deep longings to find true freedom.

Remembering Edith Cavell

On 12 October 1915 Edith Cavell stood before a German firing squad. Her “crime” was that she had sheltered British soldiers and helped them to escape to safety in neutral Holland. About 200 soldiers escaped in this way. Edith, and those with her, knew they could be shot for harbouring Allied soldiers. At the Red Cross Clinic in Brussels where she worked, Edith had impressed on the nurses that their first duty was to care for wounded soldiers irrespective of their nationality. German soldiers received the same level of care as Belgian.

Edith was the daughter of Frederick Cavell, who was the vicar of Swardeston Church in Norfolk. She trained as a nurse at the London Hospital. In 1907 she went to Brussels where she was put in charge of “L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomas”, a pioneer training school for lay nurses. She was on holiday in Norfolk when she heard that the Germans had invaded Belgium. Immediately she prepared to return to Belgium saying, “At a time like this I am more needed than ever,”

The evening before she died Stirling Gahan, a German Lutheran chaplain, visited Edith in St Gilles prison. He found her perfectly calm and resigned. Edith said, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I expected my sentence and believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

They observed the Lord’s Supper together and then the chaplain said the hymn “Abide with me.” Edith softly joined him in saying, “I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness; Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if Thou abide with me. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Edith was a Christian who loved and followed Jesus, her Saviour. The teaching of Jesus is radically different. He taught his disciples not only to love their family and friends, but also to love their enemies. As a nurse, Edith did that at great personal cost. The gracious and courageous life and death of Edith Cavell is a powerful example and challenge to us all to live “in view of God and eternity.”

Nigel Mansell reflects on his life

Nigel Mansell was a great racing driver. He won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1992. In the course of his career he broke his back, neck, legs, arms, wrists and feet. A crash at Le Mans in 2010 left him with a blood clot on the brain that caused memory loss and difficulty in talking. He feels his greatest achievement in the 62 years of his life is that he is still alive!

In a recent interview Nigel gave a fascinating insight into the kind of man he is and the things that matter most to him. He has lived with danger and knows the fragility of life. This has given him an appreciation of what is truly important in life. His family is a priority. He first met his wife when he was 17, and they have been married for 45 years. His biggest regret is that he did not spend more time with his mother, Joyce, who died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 60. He didn’t realise how ill she was and, at that time, he was busy developing his career with Lotus. He often thinks about her.

People matter to Nigel. He is a special constable and has seen how crime wrecks people’s lives. For 16 years he has been the President of the UK Youth charity that seeks to inspire young people to have greater self-esteem. He is committed to trying to make people’s lives better. He wants to think the best of everyone and never do anyone down.

When he was asked which figure of history he would most like to buy a pie and a pint his answer was, “A pint with Jesus would be interesting, if a little daunting!” Out of all the people who have ever lived Jesus stands supreme. Anyone who is really seeking to discover the meaning and purpose of life must encounter him. Jesus was both very approachable and also created a sense of awe in those who met him.

Jesus wasn’t a religious leader who lived in a palace with great riches. He lived an extraordinary life amongst ordinary people. Because Jesus mixed with all kinds of people, the religious leaders of his day accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners.” Knowing Jesus transforms our lives. He answers all the questions we have and gives real meaning to our lives. Jesus came into this world that we may have life in all its fullness.