Remembering the Great Escape

Last weekend a service of remembrance was held in Poland to mark the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Stalag Luft III opened in Spring 1942 and was used to hold captured air forces personnel. At its height it held 10,000 prisoners of war, covered 59 acres and had 5 miles of perimeter fencing. About 600 prisoners helped dig the three tunnels which were given the names Tom, Dick and Harry.

On the night of 24-25 March 1944 two hundred men were waiting in line to escape but the alarm was raised before most could enter tunnel Harry. Seventy-six men escaped through the tunnel which was 336 feet long and 28 feet deep. Within three days seventy-three of them were recaptured by the Germans and fifty were executed on Hitler’s orders. The camp was liberated in January 1945 by Russian forces.

Flying Officer Marcel Zillessen was last in the queue. His father was German, and Marcus had studied at the University of Berlin, so he spoke German fluently. He played a key role in planning the escape as he gained the confidence of some guards and so obtained valuable items such as paper, pens and ink to help forge travel documents for the escapees. Later he survived the Long March in 1945 and died in 1999 aged 81.

His son, Tim, visited the former site of Stalag Luft III for the first time ahead of the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Speaking of his father Tim said, “Much changed after the war in the sense that it freed his mind. He was no longer materialistic and didn’t worry about the things that we would today. It must have been overwhelming for him at the end to be able to walk away a free man and alive.”

Freedom is very precious. The prisoners at Stalag Luft III made great efforts to win their freedom and some died in the attempt. Those who survived really valued freedom and life itself. Although we live in what has sometimes been called “The Free World” many people are anything but free. Ours is a materialistic society and we do worry about many things. Some are prisoners to debt. Others are addicted to drink and drugs, to gambling and pornography. Jesus came to set us free from the sins that bind us and to give us true life. He said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

“I was born again”

Patience Bradley, a former Vogue model, has written a memoir telling the story of her life. She first went to London at the age of 14 at the invitation of Vogue magazine. In her mid to late teens she met some of the biggest names in show business and saw first-hand the party scene with its heavy drinking, drug taking, and sexual immorality. Soon after she arrived in London she saw a 14-year-old male model die of an overdose at a party and she determined not to end up like him.

Patience has had a successful career but has also battled dyslexia, anorexia and the psychological effects of emotional abuse. Throughout her life, she has had a faith and believes this helped her to steer clear of some temptations. She explains, “My mum had unbelievable faith and I always had this feeling that there was something wonderful there looking out for us – you only have to look out into the world and see that there is something or someone in the background making miracles.”

“I used to say that I certainly believed in God but I had terrible trouble with Jesus. What I meant was that because of my dyslexia, I never read the Bible, and I used to go to church and just listen to ministers of different churches pounding on about one man who was killed the same way as the two men beside him. Then just over four years ago I realised that he wasn’t just going through what they went through, he was going through everything that every person in this life has ever done. He was carrying everybody’s burden and that’s how I see it now.”

At that time, Patience had been very ill and was going through a bad time. She decided she wanted to find out more about herself, who she was and why she is here? She spoke to a Christian friend who invited her to attend a six-week course on Christianity Explored. A few weeks later she was given a tract in the street which she read. That night she invited Jesus into her life and said it was like a light was switched on. She wrote, “Now I have Jesus as my friend and no matter what happens nobody can take him away. If you ask me to put it into words I would say I was saved and if you asked me to describe my life before and after being a Christian I would absolutely say I was born again.”

Remembering Joost van der Westhuizen

Last week Joost van der Westhuizen died at the age of 45. Joost played scrum half for South Africa and was one of the greatest players ever to wear a Springbok jersey. He won 89 caps and scored a record 38 tries. He was a member of the Springbok team that won the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995. Many people remember Joost’s try-saving tackle in the final on the giant All Black wing Jonah Lomu that ensured South Africa won the cup. He captained his country in the 1999 Rugby World Cup and retired in 2003 as South Africa’s most-capped player.

After he retired from rugby, Joost faced very serious problems in his life. In 2009 he was unfaithful to his wife, which led to the breakup of his marriage, and was also suspected of taking drugs. As a result, he lost his job as a television presenter. Then in 2011 he was diagnosed with moto neurone disease and was given 2 years to live. MND is a progressive muscular disease and Joost faced the greatest challenge of his life. Eventually he was confined to a wheelchair and could barely speak. Throughout the time he was ill he worked hard to raise awareness of the disease and formed the J9 charitable foundation.

How can anyone face such a desperately difficult situation? In recent years Joost spoke openly about the mistakes he had made and about his faith in God. “What I did went against all my principles – my life was controlled by my mind and I had to make my mistakes to realise what life is all about, I led my life at a hundred miles an hour. I’ve learned that there are too many things that we take for granted in life and it’s only when you lose them that you realise what it is all about. But I know that God is alive in my life and with experience you do learn. I can now talk openly about the mistakes I made because I know my faith won’t give up and it won’t diminish. It’s only when you go through what I am going through that you understand that life is generous.”

Joost found in Jesus someone who is greater than the greatest problems we may ever face. Even as he experienced the increasingly debilitating effects of MND Joost knew God’s loving presence with him. Psalm 23 really is true, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Remembering Jill Saward

Jill Saward’s funeral takes place this week at Lichfield Cathedral. Her ashes will be taken to Nefyn in North Wales, where for many years she was a member of the annual beach mission team. While she was at home with her husband, Gavin, she suffered an aneurysm, a burst blood vessel in the brain. She died two days later; she was just 51 years old. Gavin and their three adult boys have been devastated by the suddenness of her death.

In 1986, Jill was the victim of a savage rape when three men in balaclavas burst into the Ealing vicarage. They were high on drugs and drink and armed with knives. Jill’s father and boyfriend were beaten unconscious, their skulls fractured. Jill, then aged 21 with no sexual experience, was repeatedly and brutally raped by two of the men. In the months that followed Jill seemed to be coping with her ordeal wonderfully well. When the men came to trial at the Old Bailey the judge, seeing Jill’s air of calm and resilience, gave them lighter sentences because her trauma “had not been so great.” It was a great injustice.

Beneath her calm outward demeanour, however, Jill was suffering deeply. For more than three years she experienced flashbacks and nightmares and came close to suicide on three occasions. She separated from her boyfriend and was afraid no-one would ever be interested in marrying her because she was “on the shelf, soiled goods.” In 1994 she set up HURT (Help Untwist Rape Trauma), a charity to provide support for victims of sexual violence and their families, and became a counsellor.

Jill’s faith in her Saviour, Jesus Christ, was a great source of strength to her. In 1998 she came face to face with the leader of the gang, who had not been involved in the rape, and forgave him. She said, “Of course, sometimes I thought it might be quite nice to be full of hatred and revenge, but you’re the one who gets damaged in the end. So, although it makes you vulnerable, forgiving is actually a release. It’s not whether you can or can’t forgive; it’s whether you will or won’t. I don’t think I’d be here today without my Christian faith. That’s what got me through.”

Jill is now in heaven where she sees her Saviour, Jesus, face to face. There is no more crying or pain and God has wiped away every tear from her eyes. May her family, in their sadness and loss, be comforted by this at the funeral service this week.