Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Beside Still Waters

Gazing out from our rented cottage in the Lake District, Grasmere lake stretched out with all its glazed colours. This is a total retreat spot: No people, no cars; just deer, birds, rabbits, Mr and Mrs Duck, sheep and the occasional RAF fast jet beating up the valley on low level exercises. We have been coming her for several years now. The Lakes in all seasons look so beautiful: The wildness of Wastwater, the peace of Ennerdale Water and the isolation of Buttermere.

Just in front of our little cottage, on the lawn overlooking the lake, is a seat in desperate need of varnishing and weatherproofing. Here, Jenny and I have sat on many occasions, praying about various things. On the last day, as we sat admiring the view before the long journey home, we were praying when suddenly, out of nowhere and for the first time, a young deer sprinted across in front of us left to right. But as he reached the middle of our view he leapt! It was a most wonderful sight, one I have never seen before. It reminded me of the words:

'Then shall the lame man leap as the deer' (Isaiah 35:6).

It was a wonderful sign. How carefully God chooses His images through His Word and how in the West we often do not see the full significance of these pictures.

Last Saturday I was at the Biggin Hill Airshow. We are looking to put on a concert sometime in mid September to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. It was a marvelous sunny day and, standing right at the end of the runway, I was able to get some good images of Spitifires and Hurricanes dancing the sky. How easily we forget the price of freedom, and what an analogy for the Gospel! There is a very thought-provoking book called The Trumpet Calls for Britain which speaks about our Christian heritage and how, over hundreds of years, this country has been miraculously delivered from invasion.

Hearing the sound of the Merlin engines as they passed over the old World War Two airfield, I thought again of the sacrifice of war in the summer skies over Kent in 1940. We need to cherish our history and thank God for our deliverance. I commend again the book I mentioned in a previous blog - Rees Howells: Intercessor.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Oxford Sunshine

Saturday 12th June found me basking in the glorious Oxfordshire sunshine at RAF Brize Norton. It was their Families Day and it was an opportunity to catch up with a very brave man: Rusty Waughman. The name doesn't mean much, I know, but he is one of a unique group of men: One of the 40 members of 101 Squadron left alive who served during the Second World War. He is also part of the only remaining almost complete crew; 6 of the original 8 are still alive. I had the privilege of meeting 5 of them three years ago in Ludford Magna, north Lincolnshire. Here, every first Sunday in September, they meet together with their elderly colleagues and past and present members of the Squadron, to remember the many men who died flying from the nearby bomber base during the War.

Ludford Magna was an operational bomber squadron during the Second World War and the home of 101 Squadron. It carried out special intelligence missions, as well as bombing. My uncle, Sergeant Randle Roy Etherton was a tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber, which flew from Ludford in the early months of 1945. He was shot down on his seventh mission: He was only 20. I grew up hearing a lot about my Uncle. I was born a year after he was killed. He was my hero. I guess from him came my love of flying and watching aircraft dance the sky. Those who have seen our musicals will understand why there's always an aircraft in there somewhere!

Losses for this Squadron were higher than the average for Bomber Command; you stood a 50/50 chance of survival. Rusty's crew were the only crew left alive 6 months after they had joined the Squadron. In that time hundreds of men had died. Sometimes we take our freedom for granted. Most have forgotten the dedicated men and women who prayed for miracle after miracle - Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, D-Day. If you get the chance, get hold of a book called 'Intercessor' by Reece Howells. It tells the remarkable story of the answers to prayer they received as the prayed for the nation during the War.

Rusty left the Squadron 6 months before my Uncle joined. I never met my Uncle. In October 1989 I decided to find out more about his last days and my enquiries eventually led me to Ludford, which I visited together with my wife, daughters and mother on a cool, blustery day in October 1989 (Wed. 25th). It was late afternoon. Then, two years ago, I visited his grave near Bad Toltz, south of Munich, where the War Graves are situated amidst the glorious scenery of the German Alps.

Below is a poem I wrote when I first visited that long abandoned airfield from which my uncle flew over 65 years ago.

Ludford Magna

I stood silent
And felt the winds blow across the Wolds
Clouds fled
And their furrowed brows moved in grey procession
Across the flat fields
Far from town and city
Just open space
And here in northern Lincolnshire
Near Ludford's sleepy hamlet
Some barely twenty
Flew away into the night
And found eternity
As I stood learning against the wind
I thought I heard the sound of Merlins roar
And saw again the silhouettes of Lancasters
Riding the moon
With their young crews
Flying the Wolds, the Humber
The heaving sea
And the jaws of hell in Germany
I wasn't even born
But I would have been there if I could
But I can only stand
Amidst fields that have long buried their past
Where clover and weed and winter grass
Bend with the great wind
That once carried the giants aloft
And God alone knows
How many mothers' sons
Lie buried far from Lincolnshire
Only he knows the full folly of war
And the bravery and sacrifice it brings
As I turn my face full to the October wind
I see once again the great Lancasters
Climbing the stairway of clouds
With their pilots, gunners, bomb-aimers, navigators and secret men
All come together from England and lands far away
And who is to say what they felt
I wasn't there
What fears, what terrors, what lost aspirations
What last prayers
Were spoken or felt
So far from Ludford
Flying a carpet of fire
And spitting snaking flak
Away across the water in Germany
And as I gaze out across this place of memories
I watch my two children
Run and laugh at the field's edge
I think of the price of war
I think of the flower of service
I think of the fruit of bravery and courage
Born out of duty and fear and terror and lost aspirations
I perceive the seed of hope
Born to my children through my generation
I am so glad and rejoice in their freedom
I remember the joy when they were born
And I pause and think of my grandmother's sorrow
United with the sorrow of so many mothers
Whose sons never returned
Who fly now forever and never grow old
And as I consider these things
I turn my eyes
To the first evening star
That shyly appears from behind a cloud
A star that was there
Long before man ever went to war
A bright bauble
Hanging in eternal distance
And He who made the stars
Knows every tear
And every sad parting
Every lost, unforgotten friendship
Every dead comrade
Every last terrible moment
He says that one day
'Swords will be ploughshares
Spears will be pruning hooks
Nation will not take up sword against nation
Nor will they train for war any more.'
And I look and the star burns brighter
And I give thanks
Here in these fields of so many memories
For the brave young men
Dawn flowers that caught the sun but never became full-bloomed
Courageous in the nightmare theatre of war
Who died at a moment in time
And were gone
But who live on
In my children's freedom

Roy Etherton (Revised November 2003)

The airfield has now returned mainly to farmland. The runways were removed in the early 70's but the trained eye can still see evidence that this was once an airfield. A recent visit in Sept. 2003 revealed a number of buildings, including the camp cinema, still standing. The 'secret men' mentioned in the poem refer to the eighth member of the crew who spoke fluent German and was engaged in counter-measure operations (normally Lancasters carried a crew of 7). The 'Merlins roar' phrase refers to the Rolls Royce Merlin engines on the Lancaster, the sound of which during a full Squadron take-off must have been tremendous. The section beginning: 'Swords will be ploughshares...' is taken from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 2 verse 4.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Wading in the Water!

For an hour the rain just did not stop. But the singing didn't stop either! Fresh in their new T-shirts, the Absolute Gospel Company sang and sang in the pouring rain, so the T-shirts were symbolically baptised!

Tonbridge Christian Arts Group has officially become The Absolute Gospel Company. Our motto, printed on the back of our T-shirts, is: 'Taking the Word to the World.' And there on Tonbridge High Street, by the Big Bridge last Sunday, 6th June, we sang a selection of songs from 'Yeshua Messiah' and others from our extensive back catalogue of musicals. In July, August and September we shall transfer to the relative comfort of Christchurch in the High Street where, on one Sunday in each of those months (see the diary at http://www.absolutegospel.org), we shall be singing directly opposite MacDonald's. Food for thought...

The Company has a busy calendar ahead. As we look back, we give thanks for the great response to the four Feasts of the Lord we have already celebrated. We look forward to the final three in September. Practical considerations mean that two of these will now be celebrated at Christchurch in Tonbridge, with the final Feast (Sukkot/Tabernacles) being celebrated at Tonbridge Baptist Church. We have such a happy group of people who seem to rise to every challenge. We really do try to work at being a team and there is a fair smattering of humour.

Well, by now, everyone should have dried out and we have been given the gift of a large gazebo should the heavens decide to open again! We are also looking to purchase a portable generator for outside work. We are definitely on a learning curve.

Coming back to yesterday, people were listening: In the comfort of Pizza Express, at the bus stop (dancing was seen) and in the nearby restaurant, aptly titled the Slug and Lettuce (how did that get by health and safety?).

Now we move on to practicing for our three concerts in the Autumn. This will mean a recce to the places concerned. The adventure continues.

Watch for more news.