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The world’s most astonished atheist

Memorial events have been held in Hiroshima to mark the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945 a US bomber dropped a uranium bomb above the city killing 140,000 people. At least 70,000 people were killed immediately and in the following weeks and months tens of thousands died from radiation poisoning. On 9 August 1945 a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing at least 74,000 people. Two weeks later Japan surrendered, bringing an end to World War Two. These bombs are the only nuclear weapons ever to be deployed in war and showed their terrifying destructive power. Today Hiroshima is a City of Peace promoting nuclear disarmament in a world where an increasing number of nations have a nuclear capability.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Joy Davidman, who later married C.S. Lewis, was living in New York with her first husband Bill Gresham and was expecting her second son. Joy was from a Jewish family and grew up in the Bronx. From her childhood she had been an atheist and, in her early 20s, became a member of the Communist Party.

When Joy saw the devastation and deaths cause by the atomic bombs, she suddenly realised that civilisation could be obliterated. Her whole worldview was shaken. She was bringing her second child into a world where, she wrote in a poem, “ashes that were babies blew among the bamboo trees.” She had always believed that science would be society’s salvation but now she realised that it might be the world’s damnation.

Joy’s philosophy had always been “rigid and admitted no thought of God, of religion, of anything outside of dialectic materialism.” A self-assured woman who believed she had all the answers, she was now forced to admit helplessness. One night, alone in her room, everything changed. “All my defences – the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily. And God came in.” Joy later described that experience: “There was a Person with me in the room, a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison mere shadow play. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute, but when it was over, I found myself on my knees, praying. I think I must have been the world’s most astonished atheist.” It was a moment of grace when God revealed himself to Joy leading her to a sure future hope for herself, her children and God’s world.

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Remembering God

Spring is coming. It’s a lovely time of the year. The dark drab days of winter are beginning to recede and the days are getting longer. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are blooming; birds are beginning to build nests; lawns are being cut for the first time. This year, however, there are real problems to face. In Britain hundreds of people are clearing up after the floods and it may be months before they can move back into their homes. The coronavirus continues to spread with almost 90,000 confirmed cases worldwide and more than 3000 deaths. Medical services in many countries are working hard to contain the spread of the virus.

Today, we live in a secular society in which the spiritual dimension has been specifically excluded. In times of crisis we hear of the need for “political” and “military” solutions. Our only hope is in people and their limited wisdom and skills. This was not always the case. Since at least the 9th century monarchs have ordered petitionary prayers to be said in the event of national disasters – such as bad weather or plague – as well as for man-made threats, such as war. In the past people believed in the overruling providence of God in all situations of life and prayed to God for help. In times of personal crisis today many ordinary people still cry out to God for help.

In May 1940, when the German High Command was preparing to “annihilate the British Army”, King George VI requested that a National Day of Prayer be convened on Sunday 26 May for God’s gracious intervention. On that day the nation, in an unprecedented way, devoted itself to prayer. Churches and cathedrals were overflowing with people. With the Allied forces at his mercy Hitler, for some unknown reason, ordered his army to halt for three days and bad weather grounded the Luftwaffe. In those days 338,000 Allied troops were evacuated in a flotilla of boats. On Sunday 9 June a National Day of Thanksgiving was called and Churchill spoke of “the miracle of Dunkirk”.

The creation itself testifies to the power and goodness of God. The earth is unique in the known universe: with the abundance of water and life of all kinds. As we face an environmental crisis, and some people talk of the “extinction” of the human race, how reassuring it is to know that the God who created all things also upholds and sustains all things. We are frail and vulnerable but there is an almighty hand that graciously guides the course of history.

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Saved to serve

The obituaries that are printed in national newspapers provide a brief summary of a person’s life. How did the person spend their life? What were their main priorities and achievements? It is a good for each of us to ask ourselves what we are doing with the precious life God has given us? I recently read a short account of the life of Michael Lapage, who died in July at the age of 94. His father was the vicar of Shaftesbury and Michael went to Monkton Coombe School, near Bath, where he became an accomplished rower.

In 1942 Michael left school and, deferring his place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm. After training he joined 807 Naval Air Squadron and flew Seafire planes from the escort carrier Hunter. Later he flew reconnaissance and air-to-ground strafing missions during the Allied landings in southern France. Towards the end of the war he was deployed to the Far East where he was nearly shot down while on patrol off the coast of Malaya. The tailpiece of his plane was seriously damaged, but he managed to get back safely to his carrier. Michael knew that he could easily have lost his life that day.

After the war was over, Michael went to Cambridge University and was a member of the crew that won the 1948 Boat Race. That same year he rowed for Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games in London and won a silver medal. In 1950 he won a bronze medal in the, then, Empire Games. In 2012, at the age of 88, he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the 2012 London Olympic Games!

After leaving university Michael taught at Winchester College until, in the late 1950s, he went to Kenya to serve as a missionary. He was a schools’ inspector during the Mau Mau uprising and was later ordained in Kenya as a minister of the Gospel. Michael’s Christian faith, and the experience of nearly being shot down in 1945, convinced him that he had been “saved to serve”.

Michael’s life was shaped partly by the challenges of the days through which he lived but mainly by his love for his saviour Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus came from heaven to this earth not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. So Michael gladly dedicated his life to serving others and to telling them the good news about Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.

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Who is my neighbour?

Through the news media and internet we receive amazing insights into events around the world. On-the-spot reports and photographs enable us to see the people and their situations closeup. Sometimes the newsreader gives a warning that some of the images may be distressing. This weekend I saw a photograph of Rohingya Muslims crossing the Naf river to escape from Myanmar into Bangladesh. About fifty desperate men, women and children were crowded on a raft made of plastic containers that looked as if it was almost sinking.

Other photographs showed Rohingya women and children with wounds and burns received when they were attacked by soldiers and their houses were set on fire. They had escaped, but husbands and brothers had been killed. It is estimated that there are 1 million Rohingya Muslims refugees in Bangladesh in need of food, shelter and medical care.

Recent media reports from Yemen also show a terrible humanitarian crisis. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis rebels has caused massive shortages of food and water. It is estimated that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. In both Myanmar and Yemen the conflict is caused by people who hate their fellow human beings.

An expert in the law once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered the man by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. There was a long standing bitter rift between Jews and Samaritans. They had nothing to do with each other. In the parable a Jewish man was attacked and robbed on a lonely road and was left half dead. Two Jewish religious leaders passed the man and did nothing to help him. Then a Samaritan saw the man and took pity on him. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him. The next day he left the man in the care of the innkeeper and promised to pay whatever it cost.

Then Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” God commands us all to “love our neighbour as we love ourselves.” God expects us to love all people, even those who may be our natural enemies, and to show that love in a practical way.

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I am making everything new!

We are living in very uncertain times. Climate change is causing great concern. Economic instability threatens our future prosperity with unsustainable levels of national and personal debt. Unemployment is increasing, especially amongst the young. Progressive social policies are establishing a new morality with, as yet, unknown consequences. Political extremism of both left and right is becoming more active. Nuclear proliferation raises the real possibility of international conflict. Terrorist movements have proved impossible to defeat even by the massive military strength of the “super powers”. Mass migration is causing social tension and instability. Political leaders are either weak and ineffective or strong and erratic. Hope is in desperately short supply.

The Bible teaches that world history is in God’s hands. From beginning to end it is “his story.” He is the One who created the amazing universe around us and this beautiful, tiny, planet on which we live. The whole creation points to him from the simplest life forms to the complex laws of physics. Is it possible that all these things could have come about by pure chance? God created this world, and gave life to each one of us, for a purpose.

Jesus spoke about future world history. He said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, also promises a new creation. The apostle John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”

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Put your trust in God

One hundred years ago this week the Battle of the Somme ended. The Battle started on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. The British soldiers fighting in the Battle belonged to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s volunteer “New Armies”. This included “Pals” battalions made up of men who were friends, relatives and workmates recruited from the same communities. The Battle of the Somme was the first time this volunteer army had taken the leading role in a major battle on the Western Front.

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle, there were 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 who were killed. These were the heaviest losses ever sustained in one day by the British Army. By the time the Battle of the Somme came to an end, 5 months later, the British had gained a strip of territory 6 miles deep and 20 miles long. There were more than a million casualties from both sides, including more than 300,000 who died.

Many of the soldiers who fought at the Somme were young men who volunteered to serve their country. Villages and towns lost a generation of men and many mothers, wives, sisters, children and girlfriends lost the man they loved. The sheer scale of the losses was overwhelming and some communities never fully recovered.

But how did the men themselves cope with being taken from their communities and daily employment to fight an attritional war in a strange place far from home? In World War I British soldiers on active service were given “The Daily Portion Testament.” Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, wrote an inscription in the Testaments that said, “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.”

On the evening before battle many soldiers in the trenches, knowing that the next day they may well die, probably read their Daily Portion Testaments. They read wonderful promises from God including the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Whether we are soldiers facing great danger or people facing the uncertainties of life, we can all find strength for today and bright hope for the future in the promises of God’s Word.

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Two courageous doctors

Dr David Nott is a remarkable doctor. He is a consultant surgeon at Royal Marsden, St Mary’s and Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals. For more than 20 years he has spent several months each year working as a volunteer war surgeon with Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Syria and Yemen. This year he was presented with the Robert Burns’ Humanitarian Award that recognizes those who help to change people’s lives for the better.

As well as treating victims of conflict and catastrophe, Dr Nott teaches advanced surgical skills to local medics and surgeons. One of the doctors he helps and encourages is Dr Hamza al-Khatib, who lives and works in war-torn Aleppo in Syria. Dr Khatib moved back to his home in rebel-held eastern Aleppo four years ago. He made the journey on foot with his wife and 6-month-old daughter. The journey was very dangerous and he was afraid for their safety.

Aleppo used to have 9 hospitals. All have been bombed by government and Russian forces. The situation in Aleppo is a daily nightmare for medics and the people because of barrel bombs and Russian fighter jets’ missiles. Recently a 9-year-old boy brought his 7-year-old brother to the hospital. The younger boy died and they had to give his body to his brother to take away. Every day Dr Khatib survives is a victory, yet he never regrets returning to Aleppo. He said, “The presence of every single one of us is important. We help each other. If I went back in time I would do the same again.”

One of the two great commandments God has given us is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spoke of a Samaritan man who helped a Jewish man who had been robbed and beaten by thieves who left him half dead. Two priests saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side. The Samaritan, at risk to his own life, stopped, treated the man’s wounds and took him to a place of safety. After telling the parable Jesus said to the people, “Go and do likewise.” We can pray for people like David Nott and Hamza al-Khatib as they seek to save the lives of people terribly injured in today’s conflicts. We can also ask ourselves what we can do to truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

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Love your neighbour as you love yourself

The picture of Turkish police officer Mehmet Ciplak carrying the lifeless body of little Aylan Kurdi from the beach at Bodrum has touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. When Mehmet saw the little body floating at the water’s edge he said, “Dear God, I hope he’s alive.” When he found that Aylan had died he said he felt crushed deep down inside. Aylan’s mother, Rehan, and brother, Gylip, had also died. Only his father, Abdullah, survived and he has now returned to his home town of Kobane in Syria to bury his loved ones in the “Martyrs’ Cemetery.”

The tragic pictures of one little boy who died have made real to many people the desperate plight of thousands of families who have left their homes to set off on a long and dangerous journey to find a place of safety. The town of Kobane has been reduced to rubble and the people have witnessed the barbarism of IS who have killed hundreds of men, women and children in their homes and in the streets. Abdullah, like many others, wanted to protect his wife and two little boys and to take them to a place where they could live in peace. Tragically, in the attempt to do this, he has lost them all.

How do we respond to this situation? Our news reports tell us about anonymous and faceless “migrants”. Some simply see them as just a big problem. In reality most of them are people like Abdullah and his family. They are our fellow human beings; people like us who, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in a terrible war that has destroyed their homes and communities and put their very lives at risk? When one young man was asked why he wanted to come to Britain he said, “Because the people there are kind and good.”

God has given us two great commandments. The first is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The second is, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Jesus taught that all our fellow human beings are our neighbours. So when we ask how we should respond to the many families desperately fleeing for safety, God’s answer is straightforward. He tells us to put ourselves in their situation and ask, “If I and my family were in that situation, how would I want people to help me?” Then it is very clear what we must do.

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The Forgotten Army

It was a very moving occasion when the veterans of the war in the Far East paraded through central London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that finally brought World War II to an end. These men and women were known as “The Forgotten Army” because their war ended three months after the victory in Europe. Some of them had experienced the appalling cruelty of the Japanese prisoner of war camps; others had worked on the infamous Burma-Siam “Death Railway.”

Thousands of people lined the route from Horse Guards Parade to Westminster Abbey to cheer the veterans, some being pushed in wheel chairs by family members. There was real sadness in remembering those who died so long ago, but also great joy that so many people had joined them to remember what happened and to affirm their love and appreciation for all the veterans and their comrades had suffered to secure victory in the Far East. In Japan, Emperor Akihito expressed “deep remorse” for his country’s wartime actions and the earnest hope “that the ravages of war will never be repeated.”

The war in the Far East left deep mental scars on many who survived. One of my aunts, who died a few years ago, was a member of the Burma Star Association. As a young woman she served in the Far East with the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. She found it very difficult to forget the things she had witnessed when she saw many young soldiers being killed or terribly wounded, both physically and emotionally. The horrors of war remained with her for the rest of her life.

To whom can we turn for comfort when we, or those who we love, suffer through great human evil and wickedness? As we bring our pain and questions to God he will give us his peace. In Psalm 27 David, who fought many battles against fierce enemies, writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.”

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Remembering the Simba Rebellion

Fifty years ago the Democratic Republic of Congo was embroiled in a violent civil war. In 1964, just 4 years after independence, many Congolese people died as Simba rebels tried to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Moise Tshombe. One of the tactics of the Simbas was to take white people hostage. In November 1964 19 members of the Unevangelised Fields Mission were killed in the area around Stanleyville. The missionaries came from the USA, Canada, Australia and Great Britain and had been teaching in schools and running hospitals and dispensaries. Some of the Simbas who killed them were still in their teens.

Yet even in those dark days the light of God’s presence and grace shone through. The courage and kindness of the Congolese Christians was clearly seen. Although food was scarce they quietly left rice and plantains at the door of the house where their missionary friends were being held. When the Simbas threatened the missionaries the Church leaders, at great risk to their lives, stood up to the rebels. One pastor accompanied and protected a young English nurse for 4 weeks as she fled to the jungle to escape the rebels.

Some people, who are still alive today, were remarkably delivered from danger. Olive was a prisoner at Banalia with 8 other missionaries and children and 7 priests and 11 nuns. She describes what happened on 27 November 1964, “Simbas fleeing from Stanleyville brought the order that we were all to be killed. We were marched towards the river along a road lined with Simbas baying for our death. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of peace, knowing that, whatever we faced, God’s grace would be sufficient. Inexplicably half way to the river I and two of the ladies were turned back. We heard gunfire in the distance and were told that all the others had been killed. We could only silently commit them to the Lord.”

Congo has experienced other terrible wars. The civil war between 1998 and 2003 claimed up to 6 million lives. Yet through it all the churches have grown so much that today there are literally thousands of churches and hundreds of thousands of Christians. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”