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.”

Giving thanks for the NHS

On 5 July 1948 the National Health Service in Britain was launched by Aneurin Bevan, the then minister of health. The NHS is based on 3 core principles: that it meets the needs of everyone, is free at the point of delivery and is based on clinical need, not the ability to pay. For 70 years the people of Britain have benefited greatly from the skills and dedication of the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff who have treated them and cared for them.

I recently watched a programme about the work of junior doctors in a busy Accident and Emergency department. They were in their early 20s and worked long hours alongside their senior colleagues dealing with a wide range of conditions, some of which stretched their knowledge and skills to the limit. At one point the department was overwhelmed with patients, with beds in the corridors and patients waiting in ambulances outside. Yet the staff maintained a highly professional and caring attitude, taking time with each patient to carefully assess their needs. I was very impressed by their dedication and thankful that such amazing care is available to us all without the anxiety of wondering if we can afford the cost.

During his 3-year ministry Jesus healed many people of all kinds of diseases. Crowds of people came to him, sometimes late in the day, and he healed them all. Blind people received their sight, deaf people their hearing, dumb people were able to speak, lame people were able to walk, and lepers were cleansed. On at least 3 occasions he raised people back to life. The people who witnessed the healing ministry of Jesus were filled with awe and said, “A great prophet has appeared among us, God has come to help his people.”

God is deeply concerned with our physical needs and well-being. In Psalm 103 David wrote, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” In their daily work doctors and nurses face complex medical conditions and are often conscious of their limitations. Some patients die suddenly and unexpectedly, others, with a very poor prognosis, recover. A good friend of ours is a doctor in a rural Christian hospital in Kiwoko in Uganda. She is responsible for the neonatal department which treats hundreds of mothers and babies every year. The motto of the hospital is “We treat, Jesus heals.”

The peace of God

A few years ago we were given a red mug with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On” on it. The design of the mug is based on a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II. The aim of the poster was to raise public morale in anticipation of the mass air attacks on major British cities. In 1940 and 1941 the Blitz killed more than 40,000 civilians and destroyed more than 1 million houses in major cities around Britain, but the 2.5 million copies of the poster were never used. However, the British people, especially those living in London, show amazing courage and resilience in the face of the terrible bombing they endured.

The motto on the poster was an appeal for stoicism – a “stiff upper lip” and calm resolve in the face of adversity. Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy which encourages people to subdue their emotions through self-control and fortitude. Today, a stoic is seen as an unemotional person who seems to be indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and who accepts hardship without any display of feelings or complaint. In hard times a stoic does not look for, or expect, love and comfort, but simply accepts what life throws at them.

In his letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul presents another approach to the challenges of life. He wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When he was in Philippi Paul had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned. At midnight, when he and his companion Silas were in prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God. Their response to suffering was to rejoice in the Lord remembering his love for them in Jesus and thanking him for the many times he had blessed them in their lives. They knew that, even in prison, the Lord was with them. So they prayed to him and gave thanks to him and asked him to help them and give them his peace. When we experience adversity, as we all do, it is good to pray to God and rejoice in who he is. He hears our prayers and will give us his peace.

Give us today our daily bread

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples important principles about daily living. He was preparing them for their future life’s work when they would be sent out into the Roman world to proclaim the good news about the forgiveness of sins through his death and resurrection. Daily life for them was going to be very difficult as they experienced persecution and great hardship. So, it was important for them to know how to cope with these challenges. The life principles Jesus taught his disciples are also important for us.

Jesus told them, “Do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.” He reminded them how God provides for the birds every day, “They do not sow or reap or store away into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable that they?” He also spoke of how God clothes the ordinary flowers of the field whose beauty exceeds even the splendour of King Solomon’s fabulous wardrobe. The same God who clothes the flowers would also provide for the disciples as they learned to trust in him.

Worry and anxiety are common experiences for us all. Many of our worries centre around the daily necessities of life – having enough to eat and drink and clothes to wear. Parents bringing up their children worry about having food to feed them and money for their dinner in school. They worry about having enough money to buy the “designer” clothes their children feel they need if they are not to be made fun of by their friends, as well as the latest mobile phone.

Worry wears us out and wears us down. It takes the joy out of life. It’s made worse by the many authoritative voices that repeatedly tell us there is no God but that one day, maybe, we will discover life on some distant planet. How much better to listen to Jesus and to look at God’s beautiful creation that unmistakably tells us that He is and that He cares for us. Then we can tell Him all our worries and ask Him to help us as we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Give us today our daily bread.”

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah

This month rugby fans around Britain have gathered for the Autumn International matches. One of the features of matches played in Cardiff is that the Welsh supporters sing hymns, especially “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.” In the past male voice choirs would stand together on the terraces to ensure the singing was high quality. Most of those who sing the hymns don’t attend church services yet the power of the words seems to move them.

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah was written by William Williams Pantycelyn, who was born in 1717. He is Wales most famous hymn writer and was called “the sweet singer of Wales.” Williams was one of the leaders of the Calvinistic Methodists during the 18th century revival and wrote more than 900 hymns in either Welsh or English. A memorial plaque at Pantycelyn farm, where he lived, records that during his life he travelled 111,800 miles on foot or by horse visiting societies of Christians in every part of Wales. The tune Cwm Rhondda was written soon after the 1904-05 revival. The words and tune brought great strength and encouragement to the mining communities of the South Wales Valleys where life was hard.

Life is a journey and Williams hymn is a prayer based on the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They spent 40 years in the desert and felt a deep need to know the presence of their God, Jehovah, being with them on their difficult journey. They were small and weak, but he was great and powerful. The words of the hymn resonate with us today because, although outwardly our lives are very different, inwardly we have the same need to know that this all-powerful God is with us. “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou are mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand: bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”

The last verse speaks of dying. As the Israelites had to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land so all of us will one day face death, the last enemy. Then, more than ever, we will need God to be with us and the victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection to be ours. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side: songs of praises I will ever give to thee.”

Look at the birds

The nights are dark and we have had the first frosts of winter. We may envy the birds that have begun to migrate to sunnier and warmer places. Bird migration is an amazing phenomenon. Scientists have recently studied the Alpine swift, a swallow-like bird found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Some of the swifts breed in Switzerland and then fly across the Sahara to West Africa. A team of scientists caught six Alpine swifts in Switzerland and tagged them with data loggers which enabled them to track the birds’ migration.

When the swifts returned to Switzerland three were caught and the data was analysed. It revealed that the swifts can fly for 200 days consecutively, eating and sleeping on the wing. They eat insects in mid-air and seem to be able to control their flying even when sleeping. The scientists concluded that it is possible that some swifts stay on the wing for their whole lifetime, except for breeding.

Jesus taught that we can learn an important lesson from the birds. He said, “I tell you not to worry about everyday life – whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?”

We all worry about everyday things and how we will find the money we need to buy the necessities of life. Poor people worry about finding the food they need for each day. Unemployed people worry about how they will be able to live on the lower allowances they are receiving. Students and young people worry about how they will repay their loans and save up a deposit to buy their own home. People nearing retirement worry about whether they will be able to live on their pension. Pensioners worry about how they will pay big bills and have enough money to pay for the care they may need in later years.

When we worry it’s so important to remember God, our heavenly Father, and to tell him about our anxieties. He feeds the Alpine swifts on the wing. He feeds the birds in our gardens through the food we put out for them. We are much more valuable to him than the birds. So valuable that, out of love for us, he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins, that we might receive eternal life through him.

When mind and memory flee

More people than ever before are facing the challenge of dementia, either in themselves or in someone they love. There are around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and it is estimated that 225,000 will develop dementia this year. The increase in the number of people suffering from dementia is linked to the fact that we are living longer than ever before. The risk of dementia increases with age. One-in-three of those over 85 years old have dementia.

The demands on the immediate family of caring for a loved one with dementia are very great and sometimes there is limited support. It is very distressing when someone we love seems to have become a different person and doesn’t recognise us or other family members and close friends. Carers, often a husband or wife, become very tired and may find it difficult to think positively about the person with dementia. Caring can be a lonely task when you can’t go out and fewer people call in because they don’t know how to react. Carers experience a living grief because they feel they have lost the person they love and may feel guilty if they experience relief when the person dies.

My wife’s mother suffered from dementia and she and her husband lived with us until she died. It was very sad when she couldn’t recognise her family, whom she loved deeply. She was often anxious and fearful, especially when her husband went out, even for a short time. Sometimes she misunderstood situations and could become difficult to deal with. Yet, it was encouraging that she remembered some things very clearly. When I read Psalm 23 to her she would say the words with me which she had memorised when she was a child. When my wife sang familiar hymns to her it comforted her.

As we face the challenges of life we need the comfort and help that God alone gives. Even when we forget him, he never forgets us. One hymn says, “And when these failing lips grow dumb, and mind and memory flee, when Thou shalt in Thy kingdom come, Jesus, remember me.” A modern hymn writer, Mary Louise Bringle, wrote a hymn for a friend whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, “When memory fades and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused, speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts by pain and fear abused. O God of life and healing peace, empower us with patient courage, by your grace infused.”

In times of emergency

As I was driving home one evening on the motorway I was passed by a paramedic vehicle travelling at high speed with its emergency lights flashing. I wondered to what kind of emergency they were responding and prayed that they would arrive in time and that the person’s life would be saved. I also thanked God that I was safe and well.

It is a great blessing to live in a country where, in a medical emergency, we can dial 999 and know that a paramedic team and ambulance will immediately be dispatched to help us. We will be given immediate treatment. Early treatment by paramedics saves many lives. Then we will be taken by ambulance, or sometimes even by helicopter, to the A&E department at the nearest hospital to be treated by a highly skilled medical team with the best available equipment. For all this skilled care we will pay nothing! What an amazing privilege!

In some years the number of life-threatening calls reaches more than 3 million. The aim is to reach 75% of those calls within 8 minutes and for a vehicle that will take the patient to hospital to arrive in 19 minutes. In most cases this is achieved. What a massive relief it is when we speak to the emergency operator and they tell us a paramedic team and ambulance are on their way to help us!

There are many other kinds of emergencies we experience in life. All of us experience fears and anxieties. We have problems in our relationships; with our marriage partners or with our children. We may lose our job or get into debt. We may lose our homes. Someone we love may die; a parent, a partner, a child, or a close friend. We may feel very alone. At such times to whom can we turn for help?

David wrote Psalm 34 at a very difficult time in his life and remembered the way God had helped him. He said, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” What an encouragement David’s experience of God’s help is for us to pray to him when we, too, are in great need!

Do not be anxious about anything

A report from The Mental Health Foundation provides an insight into the extent of depressive illness in Britain today. 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety and depression being the most common. 1 in 10 children have a mental health problem, and depression affects 1 in 5 older people. Women are more prone to anxiety and depression than men, but suicide rates are 3 times higher amongst men than they are amongst women.

The Bible provides real help to those who are anxious and depressed. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul knew that it is not helpful to simply tell people not to worry, so he gave good advice about what we should do. When we are anxious or afraid we should pray to God. We should talk to God about “everything” – big things and small things. When we pray, we should give thanks, remembering all the good things God has given us. We can thank him for the gift of life, a beautiful world, our family and friends, food and clothing, and his amazing love shown in the gift of his Son, Jesus. This puts our situation into a proper perspective, because when we are anxious and depressed we tend to forget all the wonderful blessings God has given us.

Then we can ask him for his help and strength to face our problems. Anxiety and fear can paralyse us, but God can help us to overcome them. When we pray, God also gives us his peace, which transcends all understanding. Some years ago I visited a friend who had suffered a heart attack. He was in the coronary care unit and I could see his monitor. I asked him whether the doctors had told him when he would be able to go back to work. Immediately his heart rate jumped to double the rate it had been, although there was no apparent change in his face. He was obviously very anxious about the future. We read together Psalm 56, verse 3, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” Then we prayed and asked God to take away his anxiety about the future and to give him his peace.

Your heavenly Father knows

Someone has calculated that the third Monday in January each year is the most depressing day of the year. The date is calculated through combining various factors including the weather, the level of our debt and our ability to take positive action. I’m not convinced that one day is more depressing than any other but there is no doubt that many of us feel low in spirits in January. How can we find the strength to cope with such times whenever they come?

It makes all the difference when we trust in God and his care for us. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, give us each day our daily bread.” They lived in a subsistence society in which people were dependent on the crops which they grew on their land. They needed to find their food each day. Every day the men would go out hunting or fishing and return with something for the family to eat. The women would bake bread and cook the meal. As the family ate their food they gave thanks to God for supplying their needs for another day.

It is good to bring all our worries and anxieties to God. Jesus told the people they could learn valuable lessons from the birds and the flowers. He said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour and spin. Yet I tell you not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

So when we feel low in spirits it is good to pray to God and to ask him to help us by providing all our needs. We can ask him to help us not to worry about tomorrow but to do what we have to do today. As each day comes to an end we can thank him for bringing us safely through the day. I still pray a prayer I learned in infant school, “Lord keep us safe this night, secure from all our fears, may angels guard us while we sleep till morning light appears.”