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.”

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.”

The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

Remembering Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. The British generals were confident of success as they sent 100,000 men over the top to attack the German positions. But on the first day the British army suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed. The Battle of the Somme lasted 5 months and more than a million soldiers from the British, German and French armies were wounded or killed.

One of the young men in the trenches was 23 years old Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson. He had graduated from Oxford University with first class honours and was a fine athlete. His father was the Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich. William was known as “Smiler” to his friends. When war broke out he volunteered for the British Army. He had already fought in the Battle of Loos and had been awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. He was killed in action at Mametz by a single bullet to the neck on 1 July 1916.

He wrote a poem, entitled “Before Action”, which was published two days before he died. It gives a powerful and deeply moving insight into the hearts of the men in the trenches.

“By all the glories of the day and the cool evening’s benison. By that last sunset touch that lay upon the hills when day was done. By beauty lavishly outpoured and blessings carelessly received. By all the days that I have lived, make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears and all the wonders poets sing. The laughter of unclouded years, and every sad and lovely thing; By the romantic ages stored with high endeavour that was his. By all his mad catastrophes, make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill saw with uncomprehending eyes a hundred of thy sunsets spill their fresh and sanguine sacrifice, ere the sun swings his noonday sword, must say good-bye to all of this. By all delights that I shall miss, help me to die, O Lord.”

Like William Hodgson, many men in the trenches in the Somme must have prayed to God for help as they faced imminent death. God always hears such prayers and, in Jesus, speaks comfort to our hearts. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The March of the Living

Jewish people from Britain have taken part in the “March of the Living” event in Krakow, Poland, to mark the 70 years since, on 15 April 1945, British troops liberated the people in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover, was a place where tens of thousands of people died in horrific circumstances. Those who died, many of them women and children, included Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals and Roma gypsies.

There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen. The people died of disease: particularly typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition. Margot and Ann Frank died there just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. It is estimated that as many as 28,000 of the 38,500 prisoners in the camp when it was liberated, subsequently died.

At the “March of the Living” some of the survivors told their stories. Mala Tribich, then known as Mala Helfgott, arrived at Bergen-Belsen with her cousin, Ann, in February 1945. Mala was 14 years old and Ann was 7. She said, “It was like something out of hell. There was a kind of heavy smog, and a foul smell, with skeletal figures shuffling everywhere like zombies. The camp was built for 3,000 but, when we arrived, there were 69,000 there.”

After leaving Bergen-Belsen Mala spent 2 years in Sweden and then came to Britain where she was reunited with her brother, Ben Helfgott, who is thought to be the only Holocaust survivor to win an Olympic medal for Britain. He was a weightlifter. Mala married and rebuilt her family.

The history of Bergen-Belsen reminds us of the depths of wickedness to which human beings can descend. The callousness of those who ran the camps and their indifference to the suffering of their fellow human beings is chilling. Bergen-Belsen also reminds us of the strength and help that only God can give us. Many of those who suffered and died in the camp were familiar with the words of the Jewish Scriptures in Psalm 23. Out of the deep darkness of the horrors they were experiencing they held on to the hope promised to them in God’s Word. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

I will fear no evil, for you are with me

The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was a very moving event. Almost 2000 veterans were there, as well as many world leaders. They gathered at Sword beach in Normandy on a beautiful sunny day, under blue skies, to remember a very dark day when many soldiers died in terrible circumstances. The dignity of the veterans was striking as they stood by the graves of their fallen friends, shed tears, and spoke of their experiences. For many this would be their last visit to Normandy.

The soldiers in the Allied forces were part of the D-Day landings because they had been called up to serve in the armed forces. They were doing their duty to their country alongside friends from their communities and those with whom they had trained. Whilst they could not really envisage what the landings would be like, they knew they were facing great danger. They, and their comrades, were facing death or serious injury. Many would never return. They had to be brave and courageous, and to overcome their understandable fears. It was clear that, 70 years later, the painful memories of that day are still deeply etched on their memories.

David, who wrote Psalm 23, was a shepherd. He was the youngest of seven brothers and looked after his father’s sheep. One of his jobs was to protect the sheep from wild animals, like lions and bears. When Israel was being dominated by a neighbouring nation, the Philistines, David was called into action to fight the giant Goliath. Because the Lord was with him, David killed Goliath and delivered his people.

In Psalm 23 David reflects on the wonderful love of the Lord. He knew that life is not always “green pastures” and “still waters”. There are also dark days. So he wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Fear is a powerful influence on us all, and our greatest fear is death. The veterans, who saw their young comrades die in Normandy, have lived another 70 years, but they, and we all, must still walk through that dark valley. As we face “the last enemy” we need someone to be with us and to take away our fears. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only One who is great enough and kind enough to accompany us on that last journey of life and to bring us safely to his Father’s house in heaven.

Remembering The Great War

This year we are remembering the beginning of The Great War in 1914. It was a global war centred in Europe and lasted more than 4 years. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. During the war 9 million soldiers and 28 million civilians were killed. It was called “the war to end all wars”, but sadly this did not prove to be true.

The war touched many families as ordinary men answered the call to arms to serve their King and country. Some had never travelled far from their homes and had no idea of the human slaughter that was to unfold before their eyes. They were fit and enthusiastic, but were inexperienced as soldiers. Many never returned. In the Battle of the Somme in 1916 more than 1,000,000 died in 5 months of fighting. British casualties on the first day of the battle were the worst in the history of the British army, with 38,000 injured and 19000 killed.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who fought in the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Their courage and sacrifice provided a stable and secure society for future generations. The words inscribed on war memorials around the world express the spirit in which they served and, in many cases, died. “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.” Those who fought in The Great War knew they were caught up in something very big over which they had no control. They saw their friends and comrades killed and knew that at any time they, too, might die. To whom could they turn in such terrible circumstances?

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”. There was 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.”

The Lord is my Shepherd

The Bible is a source of comfort and strength to people all over the world. In the Bible God speaks to us. He reveals his own heart and character and speaks to our hearts. Psalm 23 was written by David and is one of the best known passages in the Bible. It has been a help to people in many of the experiences of life. As a young boy, before he became king, David was a shepherd. He looked after his father’s sheep and knew times of great personal danger. At those times he experienced God’s care and protection even from lions and bears.

In the psalm David affirms his personal relationship with the Lord – “the Lord is my shepherd.” He rejoices in God’s love for him and responds with all his heart in love for God. Every day of his life he walked in conscious trust in the Lord, his God. He knew that the Lord would supply all his needs – “I shall not want.” The Lord guided him and provided food and water and peace and tranquillity – “he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.” David’s deepest needs and longings were fully met – “he restores my soul.” The Lord led David in righteous and godly ways, keeping him from sin and wickedness – “he guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

Even in the darkest experiences of life, including the approach of death, David knew that the Lord would be with him. David was a courageous soldier. His life was often in danger as he fought battles against his enemies, yet he knew that God was with him in life and in death. There was nothing to fear because the Lord was always with him – “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

The Lord gave David great victories, brought him through every trial, and abundantly blessed him – “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” The Lord blessed David every day of his life and also guaranteed his eternal future – “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” What a wonderful thing it is that we, like David, can say “the Lord is my shepherd.”