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The Grave of the Unknown Warrior

Services and acts of Remembrance have been severely restricted this year, but last week Queen Elizabeth went to Westminster Abbey for a deeply personal service at the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The Queen laid a floral tribute based on her wedding bouquet on the grave. After their weddings both she and her mother had laid their wedding bouquets on the grave.

The Grave of the Unknown Warrior was inspired by the Rev. David Railton, who, while serving as a chaplain on the Western Front during the First World War, saw a grave marked by a rough cross and a pencil-written note saying: ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’ After the war he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle, proposing that a memorial to the fallen with no known grave should lie among the kings and national heroes in the Abbey. King George V and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George supported the proposal. The body was chosen from unknown British servicemen who had been exhumed from four battle areas, the Somme, the Aisne, Arras and Ypres. On 11 November 1920 the coffin, draped with a Union Flag, was taken to Westminster Abbey where, as it was buried, King George V dropped a handful of earth from France on it.

The grave was topped with a tombstone in black Belgian marble. The inscription on the tombstone reads, “Beneath this stone rests the body of a British Warrior unknown by name or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land and buried here on Armistice Day 1920. Thus, are commemorated the many multitudes who during the Great War of 1914-1918 gave the most that man can give, life itself, for God, for King and country, for loved ones, home and empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world. They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house.”

Around the main inscription are four verses from the New Testament. “The Lord knoweth them that are his.” “Greater love hath no man than this.” “Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live.” “In Christ shall all be made alive.” These verses remind us that no-one is unknown to God. Tragically, some great and celebrated people seem to give little thought to God. But apparently insignificant of people, from all nations, who call on him will one day hear the King of kings say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

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Great is your faithfulness

The last autumn leaves will soon have fallen. Once again, we have witnessed the spectacular autumn colours – yellows, browns and red. On bright sunny mornings the kaleidoscope of colour has been glorious. This is one of the ways in which the great God of creation tells us that he is there, and that this is his world. Even in the process of dying there is beauty in his world and as the trees stand stark and bare through winter there is the promise that they will spring to life again.

The passing seasons are a testimony to the order God has established in his world. His creation is never random and accidental, but always purposeful. As the years pass God is accomplishing his purposes for his creation and all of us who live in it. One well known hymn says, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above, join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand has provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

We all need to know and rest in the faithfulness of God. He is both the great God of creation and the One who knows and cares for us in a very personal way. Every human being is precious in his sight. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So, don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” So, as we continue to live under the long shadow of Covid-19, and share the sadness of those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic, we and they can find comfort, strength and hope in the living God who cares for us.

We are more precious to God than the amazing creation in which we live. King Solomon wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” This is why the things we have in this world can never satisfy our deepest longings. God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy him forever. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

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The next life is better than this life

A good friend of mine has just died from cancer. A few weeks ago, he saw his consultant who told him he could give him no more treatment. My friend realised it was not easy for any doctor to give someone that kind of news. He thanked the consultant for all he and his staff had done in treating him and said, “I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I believe that the next life is better than this life.”

During the pandemic we have been very thankful for the doctors and nurses who have shown great dedication and skill in caring for the sick and dying. In care homes, staff have provided excellent care to their elderly residents. However, there has been a serious absence of spiritual ministry in hospitals and care homes. Such ministry is very important for both patients and staff. Ministers and other religious leaders have been unable to visit their people at a time when they were experiencing fear and deep anxiety as they faced the prospect of dying. Many have experienced profound isolation and loneliness.

In my ministry one of the great privileges has been to visit people who are seriously ill and to comfort them through reading the Bible and praying for them. I have sat with families at the bedside of a dying relative. We have read the Bible and prayed and quietly sung hymns as the loved one has passed into eternity. As they fell asleep in Jesus, we were comforted in knowing that they had woken up in the very presence of God and were more alive than ever.

When he was in lonely exile for his faithfulness to Jesus the elderly Apostle John was given a beautiful vision of heaven. He wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ They are before the throne of God and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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Murder on Christmas Eve

Late on Christmas Eve 2012 Alan Greaves kissed his wife, Maureen, as he left the house to go to his local church in High Green, Sheffield, to play the organ at the midnight service. It was a special Christmas for Alan and Maureen because their youngest daughter, a missionary working in Mozambique, was home for the first time in several years. It was a bitterly cold night.

Alan never got to the church because he was attacked by two young men with pickaxe handles who savagely beat him around the head leaving him unconscious. Maureen, who had gone to bed to wait for Alan’s return, heard an ambulance go past their house and quietly prayed that God would help whoever needed medical help

Two Police officers rang Maureen’s doorbell just after midnight to tell her Alan had had an accident. Not knowing how serious Alan’s injuries were, Maureen drove to the hospital expecting to be able to bring him home to share Christmas Day with the family. As soon as the consultant walked into the room Maureen knew it was bad news. She asked, “Is he dying?” and the consultant said, “I’m afraid so.”

On the way to the room where Alan was Maureen prayed, “Please Heavenly Father, be with me on this very unexpected journey and may this great heartache I am going through be for your glory.” When she got to the room, she couldn’t recognise her beloved husband because his injuries were so horrific. She knew he was dying. She sat with him for two and a half days until he went to heaven to be with Jesus. Maureen and their 4 children were truly heartbroken and felt the loss of Alan deeply.

When, a few days later, Maureen spoke to reporters they asked her why she still believed in God if he had allowed this to happen? She replied, “I can sincerely say that I have never felt angry with God. Ever since becoming a Christian I have believed, read and loved the Bible. It is God’s message to humanity and explains so much of what is going on in this world. Terrible things happen because people have turned their backs on God. Instead of asking ‘Why?’ I ask, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ As a Christian, I have Someone who is walking the journey with me. God is there, and he makes all the difference. Whoever I meet knows that I have suffered, but I can share with them that God’s peace and presence with me has been real throughout the years.”

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Pauline Cafferkey recovers from Ebola

The interview with nurse Pauline Cafferkey, now recovered from the Ebola which nearly took her life, was cause for great joy. This courageous lady went to Sierra Leone to help save lives amidst the deadly Ebola outbreak that continues to ravage that country and others nearby. Out of love for other people she put her own life at risk. There are, no doubt, people in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, alive today because of the dedication of Pauline and her colleagues working with Save the Children.

On her return, soon after Christmas, she was unwell and was, eventually, diagnosed with Ebola. She was taken to a specialist isolation unit in the Royal Free Hospital in Barnet. There a highly skilled medical team used their skills and the available resources to save Pauline’s life. Having seen patients dying in Sierra Leone she said she was “definitely frightened.” She remembers one point, when she was critically ill and it seemed she might die, when she said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough.” But she came through that crisis and is now clear of Ebola. She is looking forward to going back to her family and her normal life and normal job.

Today good news stories are like oases in the desert. We are bombarded by accounts of the wicked deeds of evil people and the dreary preoccupations of our political leaders. It is no wonder that many suffer from some degree of depression. So the story of a Scottish lady who loves and cares for others at great personal cost is refreshing and heartwarming. We rejoice that her life has been spared and wish her well for the future.

The Christian message is good news. It tells us of Jesus who, motivated by a deep love, came into this world so that through him we might find abundant life. When he was unjustly sentenced to death and crucified his disciples were devastated. They felt as if there was no hope for the future. On the third day, however, everything changed when they saw their risen Lord and their hearts were filled with joy. Jesus had triumphed over sin and death and had given them a sure and certain hope. His promise to them was, “Because I live, you will also live.” He can also give us hope in the darkest experiences of life. One hymn says, “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer.”

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Finding Forgiveness

Mikhail Kalashnikov died on 23 December 2013 at the age of 94. He designed the legendary AK-47 assault rifle. He began designing weapons after he was wounded during the Second World War. He designed the AK-47 rifle for use in defending Russia against the Nazis. Since then the Kalashnikov AK-47 has been the weapon of choice for many around the world, including terrorists. It is a lethal weapon and has killed hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.

Kalashnikov was the son of a Russian peasant family who loved his nation. He became a national hero in the fiercely secular Communist state. For most of his life he was not a religious man. In the last few years of his life, however, he experienced great spiritual concern as he thought of the carnage the AK-47 rifle had wreaked around the world.

At the age of 91 Kalashnikov turned to God. When he first entered an Orthodox church he experienced a sense of “excitement.” Later he was baptised in the Orthodox Church, professing his faith in Jesus Christ as his Saviour, but still did not find the peace he was seeking. Six months before he died he wrote a long letter to Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in which he wrote, “My spiritual torment is unbearable. I keep having the same unsolved question: If my rifle killed people does that mean that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, am responsible for people’s deaths, even if they were enemies?”

The experience of Mikhail Kalashnikov reminds us that if we are to be ready to die and appear before God we need to experience his forgiveness. We, too, can reflect on our lives and all we have done. We may not have designed a lethal rifle, but all of us have done many wrong things which we cannot change. Our words and actions have broken God’s moral law and have often caused pain and sorrow to others.

Kalashnikov could not simply forget what he had done. He needed to find forgiveness. He turned to the only One who can and will forgive. In Jesus, God makes wonderful promises. “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, purifies us from all sin.” It is never too late, or too soon, to come to him and experience the forgiveness Kalashnikov sought and we all also need to find.

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Titus Oates – a Brave Man

On 16 March 1912 Antarctic explorer Lawrence “Titus” Oates made a very big decision. He was one of the party led by Captain Scott who wanted to be the first men to reach the South Pole. They had succeeded in reaching the Pole only to discover that a team led by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had beaten them by 35 days.

On the return journey Scott’s party faced extremely difficult conditions. One man had already died, and Oates’ feet were severely frostbitten, which meant the whole part was making slow progress. This, and the shortage of food, was endangering all their lives, but the rest of the party refused to leave Oates behind. When he woke on the morning of 16 March Oates knew he had to sacrifice himself in order to give the others a chance of survival. Scott wrote that Oates said to them; “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He walked out of the tent into a blizzard. His body has never been found. Sadly the rest of the party also died just 9 days later, 11 miles from safety.

Captain Scott wrote in his diary, “We knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.” Titus Oates’ biographer said “Titus Oates was an ordinary man who was made extraordinary by the circumstances he faced at the end of his life”. The words and example of Titus Oates have been an inspiration to many.

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” None of us needs to be taught to love ourselves, it comes naturally, but to love someone else with that same intensity of love is not so easy. Titus Oates’ actions are an example of what it means to obey God’s command. Oates desperately wanted to live, but his weakness was endangering the lives of his companions, so he did for them what he would have wanted them to do for him.

The supreme example of self-sacrifice is seen in the death of Jesus Christ. He said, “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The apostle Paul wrote, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

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I am with you always

David, the King of Israel, wrote many psalms in which he reflected on his relationship with God. He rejoiced that the Lord was his shepherd, cared deeply for him and met all his needs. The words of David have brought comfort and strength to generations of people around the world. In Psalm 139 David speaks of God’s intimate, personal knowledge of him. “O Lord you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”

David was conscious that he, and everyone else in this world, lives in the presence of the living God. He knew that God had given him life. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because am fearfully and wonderfully made. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

When we lose touch with God it is difficult to face the big issues that life brings to us. Today some people are advocating the legalisation of assisted suicide. They want the National Health Service to provide medical help for people to end their lives. They say that, because assisted suicide is illegal, some terminally people are being denied “freedom of choice” and “autonomy.” These proposals are presented in the name of compassion but really are very serious.

Our laws are based on a high view of the value of every human life. Our society is committed to providing loving care for those suffering from debilitating, terminal illnesses. As doctors and nurses surround terminally ill patients with loving care and expert medical treatment, they affirm the value of every human life.

It is very hard indeed to watch someone we love suffering from a terminal illness, but we do not have the right to take their life or to encourage them to take their own life. If our laws are changed, many people will have to live with the fact that they took an active role in the death of a loved one. It is so much better to find the strength we, and they, need in the promises of God. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”