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!”

Amazing Grace!

Amazing Grace is one of the best-known Christian hymns. It was written by John Newton and is a testimony of his own experience of God’s grace. John’s father was the captain of a merchant ship and, when he was just 11 years old, John made his first sea voyage with his father. His mother was a Christian and prayed that John would come to know Jesus as his Saviour. She died when John was still a child.

When he was 19 years old, John was forced into serving on a man-of-war ship. He found the conditions on board intolerable. He deserted, but was recaptured and publicly flogged. Later he volunteered to serve on a slave ship sailing to Sierra Leone, in West Africa. There he sank even deeper into degradation when he became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. When he was 23 years old he was rescued by a friend of his father. He became the captain of his own ship and was involved in the slave trade.

On 10 March 1748 John’s ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Donegal and almost sank. John woke in the middle of the night and, realising that the ship was filled with water, called out to God. He promised that if God would spare his life he would spend the rest of his life serving God. Amazingly the cargo shifted and sealed the hole in the ship which drifted to safety. John knew that God had heard his prayer and saved his life. Later he became an Anglican minister and collaborated with William Wilberforce in seeking the abolition of the slave trade.

John never stopped being amazed at God’s grace to him. He had lived a very wicked life, but God had not treated him as he deserved. God had watched over him and had saved “a wretch” like him. He was amazed that Jesus came not to call righteous people but sinners, like him, to repentance. He knew that God would always be with him and had given him a certain hope for the future. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.”

12 Years a Slave

The deeply moving story of Solomon Northup is told in the prize-winning film “12 Years a Slave”. Solomon was a Negro free man who lived in Saratoga, New York. He was a skilled carpenter and violinist and was happily married with 2 children. When he was 32 years old he was cruelly deceived by two men who offered him a highly paid job as a musician with their travelling circus. Without telling his wife, who was working away in a nearby town, he travelled with them to Washington, D.C.

Soon after arriving there Solomon awoke to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When he asserted his rights as a free man, he was savagely beaten and warned never again to mention his past life. He was taken by ship to New Orleans where he was sold as a slave. He managed to send a letter to his family with a sympathetic sailor, but because his family did not know where he was they were unable to rescue him.

Solomon’s first owner was a cotton planter who treated him fairly well. After two years, however, he was sold to a notoriously cruel planter whom he served for 10 years. During that time Solomon suffered great cruelty and was also required to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them when they misbehaved. Eventually Solomon met Samuel Bass, a white abolitionist from Canada. Bass, at great risk to himself, sent letters to Solomon’s wife and friends in Saratoga. As a result Solomon was found and liberated from slavery and was able to return to his family.

The love and grace of God can change people who have been guilty of great evil and give hope to all who are oppressed. John Newton, the hymn writer, was the captain of a slave ship. When he was in a terrible Atlantic storm, which threatened the ship and his life, he cried out to God for mercy and put his trust in Jesus. In his best-known hymn he speaks of the “Amazing Grace” that “saved a wretch like me.” In later years when he was a minister in London he encouraged the young William Wilberforce in his successful campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Newton never forgot God’s amazing kindness to him. He put a text over the mantelpiece in his study which read, “Remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”

Eric Lomax – “The Railway Man”

Eric Lomax, “The Railway Man”, served with the British Army during World War II. When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 Eric, then aged 22, became a prisoner of war. He worked on the Burma-Siam railway which was known as the “Death Railway.” More than 16,000 men died in the construction of that railway mainly from sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion.

In August 1943, a radio Eric had built was discovered. He and 6 others were severely punished. Two died, but Eric survived, remembering the crack of his own bones snapping and teeth breaking. As the ringleader, he was taken to another camp where he was water boarded and left to die in a small cage. One young officer, Takashi Nagase, stayed in Eric’s mind. He was an interpreter and told Eric, “You will be killed whatever happens.”

After the war Eric suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He married Patti in 1983 and she encouraged him to seek help. Halfway through his counselling sessions, Eric received a letter from a friend with a cutting from a Japanese newspaper. There was a photograph of Takashi Nagase and an article describing Eric’s tortures, and an experience Nagase had had that made him feel he had been forgiven for his sins. Eric was very angry.

Patti, with Eric’s permission, wrote a letter to Takashi asking him how he could possibly think he was forgiven. To her surprise, Nagase replied, expressing deep apologies and asking if he and Eric could meet. After 2 years Eric felt able to do this and, in 1993, went back to Thailand. On the bridge over the River Kwai two grey-haired men met and tentatively shook hands. Nagase bowed and humbly apologized for the suffering he had caused Eric, who simply nodded and said, “Thank you, thank you.” Up to that time Eric had not intended to forgive Nagase, but to kill him. He was still fighting the war and wanted revenge. Eric and Nagase became friends. The final words of Eric’s autobiography, published in 1995, are, “Sometimes the hating has to stop.”

We are all capable of committing evil acts which cause great pain to others. Guilt, anger and bitterness can consume us. In Jesus God, against whom we have sinned, draws near and offers forgiveness and reconciliation. John Newton, who had experienced God’s forgiveness for his wicked life, wrote, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear, it soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drive away his fear.”