Grace is such a wonderful and amazing conundrum (and I don’t use these terms loosely!). Throughout history, since the beginning of time itself, God has guided and protected us, through trials and tribulations, as well as bestowing upon the world His greatest gift. Every breath we take is another gift from God. How often do we stop to think of His amazing and immeasurable grace in all these many ways?
The Great War (WW1) was billed as the ‘war to end all wars’. How wrong that was! Less than twenty-five years later, the world was plunged into chaos once again (the same old story since the Fall of Man)…
God’s grace during the Second World War
I had the opportunity recently to avail myself of two great little books. War and Grace by Don Stephens published in 2005 by Evangelical Press (EP) and the recent follow-up War and Faith published in 2015. They are short but nonetheless powerful collections of testimonies of the Lord’s grace to a number of people from the Second World War. These range from fighter pilots and submarine commanders to chaplains and ordinary men and women caught up in the whirlwind of the War. Their stories really took my breath away.
Often, it seems, certainly in my circles anyway, we hear much from the great revivals and stories from before the turn of the 20th century and not so much from afterwards, when equally as great works of God continue to abound. Another book I recommend, while I’m at it, also by EP is The Power to Save: A History of the Gospel in China by Bob Davey; we often talk vaguely of ‘things happening in China’, this goes into specifics about the world’s largest country (population-wise) and is an encouraging read for the Christian.
The fact is God was at work in many different amazing ways during the Second World War. Not just in the momentous battles in the sky, the sea, in the country, in cities, in the Cabinet War Rooms or the ‘Wolf’s Lair’, nay God was just as much at work amongst the families and individuals thrown hither and thither by the great conflict; the poor starving Russian peasants, fighting for their lives; the civilians upon whom bombs rained down; the forgotten millions dying in concentration camps; and the masses blindly following Hitler and his Nazi ideology. We ask: how was God at work in such a great manifestation of sin and man’s wickedness?
He was at work in small ways and in big ways. Many tales can be told of remarkable escapes and deliverances, in which God’s hand is clearly seen. Many died for their faith, many cried out to God in their distress (even the most ardent atheists turn to God in times of trouble). As a whole, we can see God’s fingerprints on the way events played out and justice was served.
Two tales I know of, firsthand from those who experienced it, go like this:
Somewhere in the desert, British soldier Les Walker and his jeep were stuck the wrong side of a minefield. He needed to cross this field, to join his comrades on the other side, before Axis forces overtook him. He didn’t really believe in God, but he prayed simply, “Lord, if you’ll get me through this minefield, then I’ll serve you.” Having done so, without any further thought, he put the jeep into gear and drove on, straight through the minefield. God listened to his prayer and he emerged from the minefield unscathed, to the astonishment of his compatriots.
True to his word, once the War was over and he was demobbed, he served in the Lord’s army, being put to good use in the spiritual war that is all-around us.
Even into his nineties he served the Lord, seeking to show people Christ, in his own unique way. Once when on the beach, witnessing to a group of rowdy lads, they began to get ugly at this old man talking such drivel. “I’m gonna beat you up,” said one of them, towering over the elderly figure.
Les looked him in the eye and smiled, “Well, judging by the looks of you and the looks of me, I shouldn’t think you’ll have much trouble.”
“You know what, I like you,” grinned the lad, antagonism gone. And Les had an opportunity to tell them of Christ the Rock of ages, who had been with him throughout his long life.
Another remarkable deliverance, I know of, a world apart from desert minefields, happened on the little island of Malta: The small island with a fascinating history, well worth looking into, from the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked there (the archaeological records of which make for interesting reading) to the Great Siege of the 16th century against a handful of knights called the order of St John, to German and Italian attempts to obliterate the place and doing their utmost to prevent British convoys getting through during the Siege of Malta in the War.
During this last siege (1940-42), a dear lady in our church (a teenager at the time) was with her father, a harbour-master stationed in Malta, taking refuge in a single room with some other civilians. The bombs rained down, heavier and closer at hand than they had experienced before. They crouched under a table nervously waiting and listening, until the all-clear sounded. Her father cautiously opened the door and stepped out, “I think you should see this,” he said shortly. Looking out, the entire area was flattened, obliterated. The building they had been taking refuge in was devastated, but for the room they had been hiding in. The full weight of this remarkable deliverance only struck home later on in her life, when she realised this was the ‘unseen hand of providence’ clearly at work. She can tell of many such experiences.
Discovering forgotten tales of providence
To all you young men and women keeping yourselves to yourselves in your own little corner of the church, playing Pokemon Go on your smartphones: have a natter with some of the older members of the church, and ask them to tell you a story! Once you get past the ‘new technology-can’t-keep-up’ versus ‘old fuddy-duddy’ generational barrier, and laugh off the “How you’ve grown!” comments (their way of breaking the ice), they’ll not only amaze you with how like-minded they are but will be able to relate amazing tales of the Lord’s providence throughout their lives, perhaps stretching back to the War. These might otherwise remain unknown and thereby sadly forgotten. The experience will leave you buzzing, and they’ll be delighted to tell you about the ‘old days’. There’s a challenge for you… do it! Pray about it and for blessing in your conversations. Get a notebook and pen or bring a friend, if it helps. Either way, do write it down!
War and Grace
Don Stephens wrote many of these accounts, in just such a manner, through personal correspondence with those who experienced them.
The first book features some key players’ personal testimonies, from all sides, including: the lead Japanese pilot in the infamous Pearl Harbor raid; the US airman (and former athlete) adrift at sea for weeks before being captured by the Japanese and tortured, the exploits of whom were recently portrayed in the 2014 film Unbroken; the prayerful Royal Navy submarine commander stuck on the bottom of the ocean; the US chaplain who witnessed to Hermann Goering and other leading Nazi war criminals; and a German pastor who gave his life in the Lord’s service.
They are all amazing stories of the Lord’s grace, irrespective of any of the divisions, cultural and diplomatic during that period. He was at work amongst the Allies and the Axis.
War and Faith
Smaller things and little people matter as well as big things and big people. They can all encourage us equally. This is the focus of the second book. Individuals from various backgrounds and ‘denominations’ caught up in the war, including a test pilot, holocaust survivor and a martyr in a land not her own, stubbornly refusing to give in, instead trusting in her Lord till the end.
Such stories are so vitally important for us today. Much is forgotten, and so little survives, so we should treasure it all the more. We can learn valuable lessons from them, as well as take encouragement from these rousing tales of God’s grace in troubling times. If we think we’ve got it bad then maybe we ought to think again! I would wholeheartedly recommend having a chat with some of the older folk, with an open mind.
I think it would be fitting to end with the hymn that was the watchword of dear Les Walker’s life on earth (as a young lad, my two memories of him were of this hymn and his love of the book of Isaiah, we always sang and read together), as well as many others:
Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:
Under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.
Before the hills in order stood
or earth received its frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.
A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
soon bears us all away;
we fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
still be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home!