When disaster strikes

Last week mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed 400 people, with 600 still missing. Homes in the hilltop community of Regent were covered after part of Sugar Loaf mountain collapsed following heavy rain. Many victims were asleep in bed when the disaster struck. August is the height of the rainy season when the average rainfall is 21”. A mass burial of 300 people has been held on the outskirts of Freetown. The cemetery is known as the Ebola cemetery because many of the 4000 people who died in 2014 are buried there.

Freetown, a city of 1 million people, is squeezed into a small space between heavily-forested mountains and the sea, in a country with the highest rainfall in Africa. It was first established in the late 1700s as a home for freed slaves from the US and UK. It has the world’s third largest natural harbour. The population of the city grew significantly during the brutal civil war between 1991 and 2002 in which 250,000 people died and many more were maimed. I visited Sierra Leone in 1998 and met some of the 18,000 refugees living in a camp at Hastings. Many men had lost hands, legs or ears, which the rebels had amputated with machetes.

Humanly speaking, the people of Sierra Leone have little hope for the future. They live in a desperately poor country with a dilapidated infrastructure. The wealthy nations of the world show little interest in helping them, even though the country is rich in natural resources. So where can the poor people of Sierra Leone, and the world, look for future hope? Many people in Sierra Leone are Christians and are sustained in the struggle of their daily lives, and as they face natural disasters, by their faith in Jesus.

The hymns of John Newton, who, before he came to faith in Jesus, visited Freetown as the captain of a slave ship, express the faith and hope in which Christians in Sierra Leone find real comfort. Newton wrote, “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear. It makes the wounded spirit whole, and calms the troubled breast; ‘tis manna to the hungry soul, and to the weary rest. Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see you as you are, I’ll praise you as I ought. Till then I would your love proclaim with every fleeting breath; and may the music of your Name refresh my soul in death!”

The Lord God omnipotent reigns!

Following their latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, there is growing concern around the world about North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, claims that the entire US is now within striking range of his missiles. The North Koreans are also working on a project to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to fit on their long-range missiles. The leaders of South Korea, Japan and the USA are not sure how to respond. China is a key player in influencing Kim Jong-un, but is reluctant to act.

Throughout history there have been leaders who have been ambitious to extend and display their power. The Bible tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon that was the world super-power of that day. One night Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that deeply disturbed him. He saw a large tree in the middle of the earth that reached high into the heavens for all the world to see. Then a messenger shouted, “Cut down the tree and lop off its branches! But leave the stump and the roots in the ground, bound with a band of iron and bronze. Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the wild animals among the plants of the field. Let him have the mind of a wild animal instead of the mind of a man.”

King Nebuchadnezzar asked Daniel to interpret his dream. He told Nebuchadnezzar that the tree represented him. Nebuchadnezzar had grown strong and great; his rule reached up to heaven and to the ends of the earth. Through the dream, God was telling Nebuchadnezzar that he would be driven from human society and would live in the fields with the wild animals until he learned “that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.” Nebuchadnezzar would receive his kingdom back when he learned that heaven rules. Then Daniel gave the King some advice, “Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor.”

The dream God gave Nebuchadnezzar came to pass. After his sanity returned he praised and worshipped God and said, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honour the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble the proud.” Today the leaders of the nations, and those who aspire to great power, should humbly remember that heaven rules. All of us can also find great comfort in knowing that the Lord God omnipotent reigns!

When tragedy strikes

The Manchester bombing atrocity has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. Thousands attended the Ariana Grande concert, including many children and young people. They had been looking forward to the event for months. As the crowds were leaving the Manchester Arena, the suicide bomber detonated his device killing 22, maiming 64, and traumatizing many more. One of the most poignant images was of a 12-year-old girl being looked after and comforted by police officers. She had gone to the concert with her mother and a friend. Now her mother was dead and she, and those helping her, were struggling to take it in.

Reporting of the bombing has been extensive over the past week, but already things are moving on and life for most people is returning to normal. But what about those who have been most tragically affected because they have lost mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and friends? Or those who have suffered life-changing injuries? Emergency and medical staff have also been traumatized by the things they have seen as they have heroically used their skills to help those devastated by the atrocity. Those of us not directly involved can only try to understand a little of what they are experiencing.

When tragedy strikes the help of other people is a great source of comfort and strength. As we struggle with our questions and numbing sadness we can also find help in God. Psalm 46 affirms, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. The Lord Almighty is with us. Be still, and know that I am God.” Those who come alongside us in the dark days immediately after a tragedy must inevitably return to their own lives and we may be left to struggle with our loss, or cope with our new limitations, alone. But God is always with us. In him we can find solace and strength.

God understands our sadness. His Son, Jesus, was just 33 years old when he was killed by wicked men. During his ministry, Jesus had brought great blessing to many people: he healed people from all kinds of diseases, set people free from the power of evil spirits, and even raised people from the dead. Yet, irrationally, he was hated by the religious leaders who were determined to kill him. He didn’t deserve to die. When we experience overwhelming tragedy and deep sadness we can pray to God. He understands what we are experiencing and will gives us his strength in our time of greatest need.

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

Put your trust in God

One hundred years ago this week the Battle of the Somme ended. The Battle started on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. The British soldiers fighting in the Battle belonged to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s volunteer “New Armies”. This included “Pals” battalions made up of men who were friends, relatives and workmates recruited from the same communities. The Battle of the Somme was the first time this volunteer army had taken the leading role in a major battle on the Western Front.

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle, there were 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 who were killed. These were the heaviest losses ever sustained in one day by the British Army. By the time the Battle of the Somme came to an end, 5 months later, the British had gained a strip of territory 6 miles deep and 20 miles long. There were more than a million casualties from both sides, including more than 300,000 who died.

Many of the soldiers who fought at the Somme were young men who volunteered to serve their country. Villages and towns lost a generation of men and many mothers, wives, sisters, children and girlfriends lost the man they loved. The sheer scale of the losses was overwhelming and some communities never fully recovered.

But how did the men themselves cope with being taken from their communities and daily employment to fight an attritional war in a strange place far from home? In World War I British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament.” Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, wrote an inscription in the Testaments that said, “I ask you to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness and strength when you are in adversity.”

On the evening before battle many soldiers in the trenches, knowing that the next day they may well die, probably read their Daily Portion Testaments. They read wonderful promises from God including the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Whether we are soldiers facing great danger or people facing the uncertainties of life, we can all find strength for today and bright hope for the future in the promises of God’s Word.

Remembering Aberfan

On 21 October 1966 I was at work in Cardiff when we heard there had been a disaster in a small valley community near Merthyr Tydfil. We assumed it must have happened underground and that miners had probably been injured or killed. Such tragic events had happened before in the South Wales valleys. Later that day, however, as we watched the evening news on our black and white televisions, we realised that a disaster like no other had struck the small mining village of Aberfan.

By 9 o’clock that Friday morning 240 children and 9 teachers had arrived at Pantglas Junior School for the last day of school before the half-term holiday. It was a damp and misty morning after a week of heavy rain. At 9.15 the school was engulfed by an avalanche of 100,000 tons of black slurry. The school building was demolished, as were some houses. Many of the men of the community were at work in the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. When they heard about the disaster they rushed to the school to try to help. The women went to the school and felt utterly helpless as they saw the devastating scene. Their children were in that school. Were they alive or dead?

The Aberfan disaster claimed 128 lives – 116 children, 4 teachers, the headmistress and 23 local people. The following Thursday there was a mass funeral when the bodies of many who had died were buried side by side in one long grave over which a beautiful memorial was later built. The Aberfan Disaster touched the hearts of people around the world and £1,750,000 was donated to the Disaster Fund.

Aberfan was a man-made disaster and, eventually, the National Coal Board accepted their responsibility. The tip had been sited on a spring and had been poorly managed. Warnings about what could happen had been ignored. Eventually the Board paid families £500 compensation for each child who had died and the Disaster Fund gave them £5000.

To whom can we turn when tragedy strikes? At the heart of the Christian Gospel is a young man called Jesus, the only Son of his heavenly Father, who died a cruel death on a Roman Cross. He died in our place and for our sins. On the third day he rose again. He is uniquely able to help us in the darkest experiences of life because he understands our deepest grief, comforts us when our hearts are broken and gives us a sure hope of eternal life.

God will wipe every tear from their eyes

Many people in our world experience deep sadness and weep. A mother from an Italian mountain village weeps as she carries the body of her 8-year-old daughter who died in the earthquake. In the same village, a woman weeps as she looks at the ruins of her house; in a moment she has lost everything she possessed. A father weeps beside the body of his 10-year-old son in a hospital in war-torn Aleppo. A young mother, who has always loved and cared for her 3-year-old-daughter and 2-year-old-son, weeps as she sees them for the last time before they are adopted by order of a Family Court. A mother weeps as she and her family live in a refugee camp in Greece. A wife weeps as she cares for her husband who has dementia and realizes he no longer recognizes her or knows her name.

The Bible speaks comfort to people everywhere who are experiencing deep and devastating sadness. The God who speaks to us in the Bible is not the “unmoved Mover” of the Deists, who is untouched by the pain and sadness of those he has created. The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” When the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of Jesus he said, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with grief.”

In his Son, Jesus, God came alongside a suffering world and showed love and compassion to people experiencing grief and sorrow. When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he wept. When he saw the city of Jerusalem, and understood the devastation that would come upon it at the hands of the Romans, he “burst into tears.” He personally experienced betrayal and false accusations when he was condemned to be crucified. The depth of pain he endured as he died, in our place and for our sins, is impossible for us fully to understand. Because he has personally experienced profound suffering, he is able to empathise with us when we suffer.

So today, in Jesus, God comes alongside us as we weep. He understands what it feels like when our hearts are breaking. He also gives us “strength for today and bright hope for the future.” In the book of Revelation there is a beautiful picture of heaven. Those who are there have suffered in this world, but in heaven God himself will lead them to springs of living water and “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Remembering Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. The British generals were confident of success as they sent 100,000 men over the top to attack the German positions. But on the first day the British army suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed. The Battle of the Somme lasted 5 months and more than a million soldiers from the British, German and French armies were wounded or killed.

One of the young men in the trenches was 23 years old Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson. He had graduated from Oxford University with first class honours and was a fine athlete. His father was the Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich. William was known as “Smiler” to his friends. When war broke out he volunteered for the British Army. He had already fought in the Battle of Loos and had been awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. He was killed in action at Mametz by a single bullet to the neck on 1 July 1916.

He wrote a poem, entitled “Before Action”, which was published two days before he died. It gives a powerful and deeply moving insight into the hearts of the men in the trenches.

“By all the glories of the day and the cool evening’s benison. By that last sunset touch that lay upon the hills when day was done. By beauty lavishly outpoured and blessings carelessly received. By all the days that I have lived, make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears and all the wonders poets sing. The laughter of unclouded years, and every sad and lovely thing; By the romantic ages stored with high endeavour that was his. By all his mad catastrophes, make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill saw with uncomprehending eyes a hundred of thy sunsets spill their fresh and sanguine sacrifice, ere the sun swings his noonday sword, must say good-bye to all of this. By all delights that I shall miss, help me to die, O Lord.”

Like William Hodgson, many men in the trenches in the Somme must have prayed to God for help as they faced imminent death. God always hears such prayers and, in Jesus, speaks comfort to our hearts. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Queen Elizabeth II is 90

Queen Elizabeth II has celebrated her 90th birthday and there have been many television programmes, articles and photographs of her long life and reign. The Queen is much loved, not only in Britain, but also in the 53 countries that belong to the Commonwealth. She is the Queen of 16 of those nations. When Australia held a referendum in 1999 about becoming a Republic, with an appointed President as the head of state instead of the Queen, 55% of the people voted to continue as a Constitutional Monarchy.

One of the outstanding features of Queen Elizabeth’s reign has been her total commitment to fulfilling the oaths she made at her Coronation in 1952. Throughout her long reign she has maintained a busy schedule of commitments and travelled extensively. One of her oaths was, “Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?” Her clear moral convictions, gracious character and evident love for her people have characterised her reign.

The Queen has also spoken of her personal faith in Jesus Christ. In her Christmas Day message in 2000 she said, “To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me, the teachings of Christ, and my own personal accountability before God, provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.” It is very unusual today to hear great leaders acknowledging that they, like us all, are personally accountable to God.

We all need consciously to live under the gracious rule of a divine monarch. In the Bible Jesus is called “the King of kings and the Lord of lords.” A children’s catechism asks, “How is Christ a king?” The answer is, “He rules over us and defends us.” The next question is, “Why do you need Christ as a king?” The answer is, “Because I am weak and helpless.”

Living under the kingship of Jesus is a great blessing. Obeying his teaching brings true happiness. His divine power also defends and protects us. We are weak and helpless and there are many dangers, both physical and spiritual. A translation of a Welsh hymn says, “Lead, Lord Jesus, my frail spirit to that Rock so strong and high, standing sure midst surging tempest, safe when pounding waves are nigh. In the Rock of Ages hiding, come there flood or fiery blaze, when the whole creation crumbles, Rock of Ages, Thee I’ll praise.”

The Forgotten Army

It was a very moving occasion when the veterans of the war in the Far East paraded through central London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that finally brought World War II to an end. These men and women were known as “The Forgotten Army” because their war ended three months after the victory in Europe. Some of them had experienced the appalling cruelty of the Japanese prisoner of war camps; others had worked on the infamous Burma-Siam “Death Railway.”

Thousands of people lined the route from Horse Guards Parade to Westminster Abbey to cheer the veterans, some being pushed in wheel chairs by family members. There was real sadness in remembering those who died so long ago, but also great joy that so many people had joined them to remember what happened and to affirm their love and appreciation for all the veterans and their comrades had suffered to secure victory in the Far East. In Japan, Emperor Akihito expressed “deep remorse” for his country’s wartime actions and the earnest hope “that the ravages of war will never be repeated.”

The war in the Far East left deep mental scars on many who survived. One of my aunts, who died a few years ago, was a member of the Burma Star Association. As a young woman she served in the Far East with the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. She found it very difficult to forget the things she had witnessed when she saw many young soldiers being killed or terribly wounded, both physically and emotionally. The horrors of war remained with her for the rest of her life.

To whom can we turn for comfort when we, or those who we love, suffer through great human evil and wickedness? As we bring our pain and questions to God he will give us his peace. In Psalm 27 David, who fought many battles against fierce enemies, writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.”