Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.

The Garden of Eden

A research study undertaken by the universities of Westminster and Essex has concluded that tending an allotment is good for our mental health. Just 30 minutes a week spent digging and weeding can improve our mood and sense of self-esteem by reducing tension, depression, anger and confusion. People who work on an allotment also tend to be more physically fit.

One reason why tending an allotment may be a blessing to people is that it takes us back to our origins. The book of Genesis tells us that the first man, Adam, lived in the Garden of Eden. The garden was fertile with many beautiful plants and trees. God gave Adam the task of working in the garden and keeping it. His work was a delight and he and his wife were able to eat the fruit of the trees. Eating the fruit of his work gave Adam great pleasure and satisfaction. Our roots are not in the modern urban sprawl but in the rich abundance of God’s creation.

Tragically the delightful relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was lost when they disobeyed his command and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were sent from the Garden of Eden and from the presence of God. Because of their disobedience they would die and so would every other human being born into this world. Adam’s work became wearying toil. God told him, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

However, it was in another garden that hope dawned when Jesus rose from the dead. After Jesus died on the Cross two of his disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, tenderly laid his body in Joseph’s garden tomb. Early in the morning of the third day Mary Magdalene came to the garden and discovered that the tomb was empty! Jesus had risen from the dead! The tragedy of Eden had been reversed by the victory Jesus won over sin and death. His resurrection offers hope to all in our sad world. In him we find eternal life that will never end. He gives us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

The God of Hope

The news that someone we love has taken their own life is devastating. I have ministered to families facing such a tragic loss. Some had been aware that the one who died was depressed, but, for others, there had been no indications. Some felt a sense of guilt because they had not been able to help. Others felt angry that the one who died didn’t think of the consequences their loved ones would have to face. All feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss they have experienced and a sense of the helplessness of being unable to do anything to change the situation.

In the past 45 years suicide rates worldwide have increased by 60%. The World Health Organisation estimates that one million people die by suicide every year – one person every 40 seconds. By 2020 this rate may have doubled. In the USA suicide is the third highest cause of death for young people between 15 and 24. The Samaritans report that suicide rates in the UK are increasing amongst men born in the 1960s and 70s and suggest that the changing role of men in our society may be a contributing factor.

When the apostle Paul was in Philippi he and Silas were severely flogged and put in prison. The jailer was told to guard them carefully, so he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. If his prisoners escaped, he would be executed. At midnight, while Paul and Silas we’re singing hymns to God, there was a violent earthquake. The prison doors flew open and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up and, thinking his prisoners had escaped, drew his sword to kill himself.

Paul shouted to him, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” The jailer brought Paul and Silas into his house, bathed their wounds, and gave them food. Then he was baptised and was full of joy because he had believed in Jesus.

This story shows that when we come to the point of utter despair we are not seeing things clearly. When it seems there is no hope, there always is. God is the God of hope. He saves from death, destruction and despair. He can give us joy again even out of the deepest darkness.

Nicky’s Story

Last week my wife and I went to a wedding in Killarney. It was a joyful occasion as the families and friends gathered to share the day with the happy couple. On the Sunday we went to a small church in a nearby town. Towards the end of the service a man told us how he had recently become a Christian. Nicky, who is now in his 40’s, was born with a serious physical handicap. He has never been able to walk and has limited use of his hands. He has always needed a wheel chair and now has an electric wheel chair which gives him the freedom to go to get around on his own.

Nicky told us that his early life had been very difficult because he was treated badly and was never able to do the things his friends did. In order to survive these experiences he became hard and told himself that it didn’t matter what other people thought of him. His life continued to be a difficult. Inside he was hurt and angry. He had attended church from time to time, but God meant nothing to him.

A few months ago he met a Christian who spoke to him about Jesus Christ and told him that through Jesus he could be forgiven and start a new life. Nicky started thinking about what the Christian had told him but continued his old life. Then 3 weeks ago he realised he needed to know God and went to talk to the Christian. That day he prayed and received Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. He said, “For the first time in my life I knew that if I died that day I would go to heaven!”

Nicky has begun a new life. He knows that there are many things that still have to change. He still needs his wheel chair and daily life is not easy, but inside he has become a new man. The anger has gone. He knows real joy and peace because he has experienced God’s love for him in Jesus. He reads the Bible every day and is learning more about God. He knows that his future is certain. One day he will see God in heaven and will live forever in his presence. Then he will have a new body and an overwhelming sense of God’s love for him.