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Thought

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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Thought

Finding God in the Depths

During his life Jonathan Aitken has risen to great heights and also plumbed the depths. He was a Cabinet member and member of the Privy Council, but was found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice and was given a prison sentence. Because of the pressure of the case his first wife later left him and he was also declared bankrupt. Through these events Jonathan began to seek God and became a Christian. He preached a sermon in July 2008 entitled “Finding God in the Depths.” In July 2003 he married his second wife, Elizabeth.

On 1 July 2013 Elizabeth suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, which often proves fatal. Those who survive may suffer brain impairment and lifelong disability. The medical team at Charing Cross Hospital told Jonathan that urgent major surgery would be needed to save Elizabeth’s life. As Jonathan listened to the doctors his eyes began filling with tears. One young doctor said, “Our professor tells us we haven’t done our job properly if our briefings don’t make the patient’s family cry.” Before taking Elizabeth to the operating theatre the consultant told Jonathan, “It is a simple procedure, but it carries high risk. The brain does not give second chances.”

As the family waited they were conscious of the prayers of many people. The congregation at St Matthew’s Church, Westminster, where Jonathan and Elizabeth had married, were praying. The chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs, where Jonathan had preached the previous Sunday, sent a message to say the chapel-going prisoners were praying for Elizabeth. They also sent a giant-sized card to the hospital signed by 60 prisoners saying, “We are praying for you.” God wonderfully answered these prayers and brought Elizabeth safely through a successful operation and then the long period of convalescence.

Reflecting on the past year Jonathan recognises how various factors all came together. One was the skill and dedication of the medical team at Charing Cross, who work at the cutting edge of neurosurgery. The loving support of the family was also important as they were alongside Elizabeth through the time of crisis, and after, encouraging her in her will to live. Then there were the prayers of thousands of people from all over the world, which God graciously answered. Jonathan wrote, “As a husband I love Elizabeth all the more after walking with her through the valley of the shadow of death.” It is clear that in that darkest valley the Lord was with them, as he promised he would be.