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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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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.”

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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.”