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Holidays and holy days

The holiday season this year is different. For some months many people have not been going to their place work either because they were on furlough or were working at home. Schools and universities have been closed. Until recently, travel restrictions have made it difficult to book a holiday. As restrictions have been eased there has been a rush to book self-catering in the UK. Some have travelled to Europe on holiday, but now face an unexpected period of quarantine when they return.

The word holiday comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. Many holidays were linked to special religious days. This is still true of Christmas and Easter. In the Old Testament the great annual feasts were times to remember great events in the spiritual history of the nation. The Feast of Passover remembered the Exodus from Egypt when God delivered his people from slavery. The Feast of Tabernacles remembered God’s provision for and protection of his people during the 40 years in the wilderness.

In our increasingly secular society, our essentially spiritual nature as human beings has been marginalised. During the Covid-19 pandemic church buildings have been closed and spiritual leaders have been all but invisible. A notice on the locked door of a rural church in England informed people that the church building was closed and that they could pray to God anywhere “but not here.” People dying in hospital have often had no visits from a chaplain and funeral services have been attended by only a handful of family members and the funeral director and his staff.

We all need times for rest and reflection that holidays provide. From the beginning of time God provided a weekly day of rest for all people and commanded us “to keep the sabbath day holy.” Sadly, in the Western world Sunday is now “just another day.” When our children were growing up Sunday was their favourite day because we all went to church together and enjoyed a different kind of day with time to be together and to rest.

At a time when every day we are told about our fellow human beings who have died it’s also important to take time to reflect on eternity. The Bible describes heaven as a place of rest in the presence of God. In the book of Revelation John writes, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.’”

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The faith of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was a great French military general and statesman. He played a key role in the French Revolution and became the first emperor of France. His armies conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. After a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba. In 1815 he briefly returned to power but suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died at the age of 51.

Near the end of his life, the exiled Napoleon expressed his convictions about Jesus. He wrote, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ was not a mere man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity.”

Napoleon knew the difference between the empire he had established, and all other human empires, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated. He wrote, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon sheer force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men will die for him. In every other existence but that of Christ how many imperfections! From the first day to the last he is the same; majestic and simple; infinitely firm and infinitely gentle. He proposes to our faith a series of mysteries and commands with authority that we should believe them, giving no other reason than those tremendous words, ‘I am God.’”

As he read the Bible, Napoleon, who had himself exercised great authority over men, recognised its divine authority and entrusted his own eternal destiny to Jesus Christ. He wrote, “The Bible contains a complete series of acts and of historical men to explain time and eternity, such as no other religion has to offer. If it is not the true religion, one is very excusable in being deceived; for everything in it is grand and worthy of God. The more I consider the Gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there which is not beyond the march of events and above the human mind. Even the impious themselves have never dared to deny the sublimity of the Gospel, which inspires them with a sort of compulsory veneration. What happiness that Book procures for those who believe it!”

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Remembering VE Day

This weekend there will be an international celebration of the 75th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. On 8 May 1945 there was a great joy when the Allied Forces announced the surrender of Germany; World War II in Europe was over. More than a million people celebrated in the streets, including the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”

A Service of Thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey gratefully acknowledging that God had heard the many prayers offered through the dark years of the war. The service opened with these words, “The Lord has done great things for us, which ought to be remembered. Let us, therefore, offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which he has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through years of danger and suffering: for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen: for the hope that we are about to enter upon a righteous and abiding peace: for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.”

The planned VE Day celebrations will be severely curtailed because of the coronavirus restrictions. Today the peoples of the world are involved in a different kind of deadly conflict. We are under threat from an unseen enemy and many have already died. The courage and skill of medical teams and carers have been an inspiration to us all. Victory over the virus is still in the future as great efforts are made to develop an effective vaccine.

At Easter we remembered the greatest victory ever accomplished when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, confronted our greatest enemies of sin and death. Human sinfulness causes untold misery and suffering and every day many face the last enemy, death. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty our sins deserve. His death was a great victory. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” His resurrection on the third day showed he had broken the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality. As we pray for those seriously ill with coronavirus, and those who have lost loved ones, we can rejoice in the hope Jesus gives; “for those who die believing die safely through his love.”

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Finding peace and hope

Plagues and epidemics have ravaged human beings throughout history. Between 1347 and 1351 the Black Death, the most fatal pandemic, resulted in the deaths of between 75-200 million people in Eurasia, North Africa and Europe. The plague created religious, social and economic upheavals with profound effects on the course of European history. Between 30% and 60% of the people in Europe died and it took 200 years for the population of Europe to recover.

Influenza is a major cause of death. During the 20th century, three flu pandemics caused many deaths in Britain: 200,000 died in 1918-1919 from Spanish flu; 33,000 died in 1957-1958 from Asian flu; and 80,000 died in 1968-1969 from Hong Kong flu. Between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide die every year from flu. Between 2014 and 2019 an average of 17,000 people died each year from flu in England.

How did former generations respond to plagues? In the 16th century, when there was a serious plague, Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, wrote, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he shall surely find me, and I have done what is expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely.”

Pat Allerton the vicar at St Peter’s Church, Notting Hill, has been visiting streets in his parish to pray and play the hymn “Amazing Grace” through a speaker. He holds a 10-minute service in a different place each day, sometimes outside major hospitals. He wants to give people hope. One lady wrote to him saying, “Hello, I’m not a religious person, but I want to thank you for what you did on Thursday night outside Charing Cross Hospital. My uncle was in there at the time and passed away alone the following morning due to coronavirus. Knowing he could have heard this song on his last night on this planet brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart.” A nurse who was treating a patient who was fighting the virus, and later died of it, said that hearing the hymn brought “a peace to her heart and to the patient she will never forget.”

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We went there to save lives

The recent historical drama television series “Chernobyl” tells the story of the nuclear plant disaster which happened on 26 April 1986. It was the world’s worst nuclear accident. The Wladimir Iljitsch Lenin Atomic Power Station, near the town of Chernobyl in modern Ukraine, experienced what the authorities called a “minor accident.” The reactor experienced a catastrophic core meltdown, exploded and parts of the nuclear fuel were released into the atmosphere.

The effects of the disaster were felt over a wide area. In the first days after the accident 31 people were confirmed to have died from radiation sickness. In the years since the disaster there has been a significant increase in the number of people suffering from cancer. Some 100,000 people from the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat were evacuated. People will probably never live in Pripyat again. As the wind carried the gigantic plume over Europe radioactive particles contaminated wide areas. In Britain bans were placed on the sale of sheep in Cumbria, Scotland and Wales. In some areas the restrictions remained in place until 2012. Mikhail Gorbachev said that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the real reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union as people lost confidence in the authorities.

As the extent of the catastrophe became clear, more than 16,000 policemen and military personnel were deployed to extinguish the fire, remove the radioactive debris and enclose the ruin in a protective shell of steel and concrete. About 400 miners were brought in to dig a tunnel underneath the power plant to contain the contaminated material. As many as one in four miners may have died from cancer or radiation sickness. In the end, the core of the reactor cooled, and the tunnel wasn’t needed. All the people who tried to contain the Chernobyl disaster risked their lives that other might live. One miner, Vladimir Naumov said, “Who else but us? Me and my fellow worked were brought up that way. Not that we went there to die, we went there to save lives.”

At the heart of the Christian message is the good news that God, through his Son, Jesus, has intervened to save us from disaster. The great problem we all have is our sinful hearts. We live in rebellion against God and are powerless to change. We need someone to save us from the eternal consequences of our sin. One hymn writer wrote, “Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God, he to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.”

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When God graciously intervened

The ceremonies marking the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings were very significant occasions. It was moving to see the humility of the veterans as they spoke, with tears, of their experiences and of their friends and colleagues who died who were, they said, the true heroes. It was right that tribute was paid by world leaders to the courage of those who took part in the landings.

Theresa May said, “Many were terribly wounded, and many made the ultimate sacrifice that day, and in the fierce battle that followed, as together our Allied nations sought to release Europe from the grip of fascism. These young men belonged to a very special generation, the greatest generation, a generation whose incomparable spirit shaped our post-war world. They didn’t boast. They didn’t fuss. They served.”

However, there was something missing that highlighted the difference between our present leaders and those who led our nation during World War II. No reference was made by the political leaders to the gracious intervention of God in delivering Britain and Europe from a cruel tyranny. The generation who fought in World War II were very conscious of their dependence on God.

Soldiers who fought in World War II were given a copy of John’s Gospel, inscribed with these words: “We commend the Gospel of Christ our Saviour for it alone can effectively mould character, control conduct and solve the problems of men and nations, and thus make life what it should be.” The statement was signed by the Commanders in Chief of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force.

Seven times during World War II the King and Parliament called the whole nation to prayer. On each occasion God answered by a remarkable act of deliverance. The first National Day of Prayer was on 26 May 1940 when the entire British Army, of 350,000 soldiers, was about to be wiped out in Dunkirk. God answered prayer, the Channel became a millpond and more than 330,000 soldiers got home safely.

Another National Day of Prayer was called for 8 September 1940 when Britain’s air force was vastly outnumbered by the Nazi bombers and fighter planes. Against all the odds the British air force won the air battle. Air Chief Marshall Dowding said: “I will say with absolute conviction that I can trace the intervention of God … humanly speaking victory was impossible!” Today we face different kinds of threat and our leaders are obviously struggling. It’s a time for us all to humbly acknowledge our desperate need for God to graciously intervene.

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Remembering D-Day

The Normandy Landings began on 6 June 1944, known as D-Day. They were the largest seaborne invasion in history. On D-Day a flotilla of ships took 130,000 Allied soldiers over the English Channel to Normandy, they were joined by 24,000 airborne troops. Within a week more than 325,000 Allied soldiers had landed in Normandy and by the end of the month the number had risen to 850,000. They sustained very heavy casualties; 10,000 on D-Day itself and over 200,000 in the whole Battle of Normandy. The German army also sustained heavy losses.

Many brave young men perished on the beaches of Normandy. Some were killed within minutes of landing. My father-in-law, who was 27 years old, was one of the Allied soldiers who landed on D-Day. He survived but he saw many of his friends and fellow-soldiers die. When he returned home after the war, he didn’t talk about it for 60 years until his grandson and great-grandson visited Normandy and told him where they had gone. Many of the soldiers who returned from the Battle of Normandy were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but this wasn’t recognised, and they received no help.

D-Day was a decisive moment in the progress of the Allied campaign. The success of D-Day ensured that within a year the war in Europe would be over. On VE Day, 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. There was a very heavy cost in winning the victory. It is important that we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice when they gave their lives to secure the freedoms we still enjoy.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He is the supreme example of someone who laid down his life that others might live. When he died on the cross, he won the decisive victory over sin, death and hell. By his sufferings he took to himself the punishment we deserve so that we might be forgiven and be free from fear and condemnation. When he rose from the dead, he gave us a living hope. His ultimate victory lies in the future when he will return in glory and power and the kingdoms of this world will become his kingdom and he will reign forever. He taught his disciples to always keep his ultimate victory in mind and to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.”

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We will remember them

At 11am on 11 November 1918 -“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”- a ceasefire came into effect. World War I, “the war to end all wars”, had finally come to an end. Across Europe, 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. In Britain one in three men aged 19 to 22 were killed. In the largest battle of WWI, the Battle of the Somme, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded.

This war was very different from past conflicts. Powerful new weapons were used for the first time resulting in many deaths and injuries. The big guns on the Western Front could be heard across the English Channel. 75% of all men who died in WWI were killed by artillery. The opposing armies dug long trenches, sometimes only 30 metres apart. The narrow trenches of the Western Front stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland. Many men, on both sides, died in those grim trenches. Tanks, biplanes and the gigantic Zeppelin airships were used for the first time. Large battleships shelled towns on the east coast killing many civilians.

In 2018, 100 years after the end of WWI, special services of remembrance are being held to remember those who gave their lives that others might live free from tyranny. A few weeks after the start of WWI, when heavy casualties had already been suffered, Laurence Binyon wrote a poem, “For the Fallen.” Words from the poem have been adopted by the Royal British Legion as an exhortation at ceremonies of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

In 1977 a Bible was discovered which had belonged to Private George Ford. He was killed in 1918, at the age of 20. British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament” with an inscription inside from Lord Roberts, “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.” In the trenches many men found strength in the words of David in Psalm 23. As a young man David learned to trust God in times of danger and wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

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Remembering Martin Luther

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther, until then a little-known monk, nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther’s intention was to initiate a debate within the Church of his time about how people come to know peace with God. However, for Luther personally his action led to his excommunication by the Church in 1521 when he refused to recant his views saying, “Here I stand. I can do no other, God help me!” His rediscovery of the Gospel message led to the Protestant Reformation that changed the history of Europe and the Western World.

At the age of 13 Martin Luther went to the University of Erfurt to study law. He earned both his baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the shortest possible time. In 1505, when he was 21, he was nearly struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm. He cried out in fear to St. Anne for help and promised to become a monk. He kept his vow and gave away all his possessions before entering a monastery.

Luther became a totally dedicated monk plunging himself into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices, including going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. He later wrote, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was me.” Yet he did not find peace with God and was increasingly terrified by the wrath of God. Whenever he thought of the righteousness of God he felt condemned because he knew the sinfulness of his own heart.

After completing a doctorate in theology Luther became a professor in Wittenberg Cathedral and gave lectures on the Book of Romans in the New Testament. During this time, he came to understand the meaning of the righteousness of God through reading Romans, Chapter 1, verse 17; “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” He realised that, as we put our faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us his righteousness based on the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus.

Luther found peace with God and wrote, “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”