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When sorrows like sea billows roll

Many people find great help and comfort in the words of well-known hymns. They express the experience of the hymn writers and are memorable because they are written in poetry and set to music. Hymns enable us to express our faith in God and to rest in his wonderful promises in Jesus Christ.

One much loved hymn is “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford who had experienced several traumatic events in his life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of 4. Soon after that the great Chicago Fire ruined him financially. He was a successful lawyer and had made big investments in property in the Chicago area.

In 1873 Horatio made plans to visit Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. At the last minute, however, he was unable to accompany them and sent them on ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic the ship collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and quickly sank. Horatio’s 4 daughters died but his wife, Anna, survived. She sent him a telegram which simply said, “Saved alone.” Horatio made arrangements immediately to travel to see his grieving wife. As his ship passed near the place where his daughters had died, he wrote the hymn.

Horatio knew that in times of tragedy and sadness it is important to remember God’s love revealed in the Cross of Jesus, his Son, who “shed his own blood for my soul.” Through Jesus we experience God’s amazing forgiveness, “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

Jesus also gives us hope in the darkest times. Passing the place where his daughters had died Horatio wrote, “For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: if Jordan above me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal, O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul.”

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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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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.”