God and Me
God and Me
I stand before you in a way that many if not most of you will never have seen me before. What is he some of you will be thinking? When I walk down Ascot High Street or stand in the school playground in uniform, people look and some even stare. You can see the questioning looks on their faces. Is he a Fireman, Policeman, Customs Officer or Airline Pilot? Well I’m none of those. I am an Officer in the Royal Navy, a Commander, and my specialist skill is an Anti-Submarine Warfare Tactician or in the language of the Fleet Air Arm, I’m an Observer. I have other skills as well these including peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, Search and Rescue and Medical evacuation. The medals I wear are not for war, but for peace, one celebrates the Golden Jubilee of our Queens reign, the other is for maintaining the peace in the Gulf in 1998. Whether I am a Warmonger or peacekeeper is for you to decide, but I strongly believe that I’m the latter.
I am delighted to be asked to be one of the lay preachers this epiphany and be invited to talk about God and Me and work. I was asked to discuss the ways in which my belief in God helps me at work and how it relates to what I do as the Commander Air at one of the world’s busiest military Airports, the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton in Somerset, where I am responsible, among other things, for the safety and conduct of flying. 118 Aircraft and over 3800 people are based there. Many there do not believe in God on a day to day basis, at least not most of the time. However, when a disaster falls most, if not all, seem to want to pay their respects to the dead or those they worked with. This was clearly evident recently when over 500 people attended funerals for work colleagues, even when three took place in one day and two were 600 miles apart. So what bonds these people together? Camaraderie, loyalty, or the sense of doing what they do well and an overwhelming sense of professionalism? I suppose it is all of these things, we serve Queen and Country, not our elected Government, yet it is they who task and decree all of our lives. But also at times we question, not that we can say no.
Sadly sometimes the hazards and additional dangers of military aviation where we fly close to the ground or sea overcome our earthly senses and knowledge and we succumb. In the USA in the early nineties I heard this glibly described as a premature air ground interface. To you and me it’s a crash. The sea is as hard and unforgiving as concrete at any speed above walking pace and as the horrors of Boxing Day showed in ASIA very very destructive. For some reason 12 Feb 1983 was not the day God had chosen for me to die and when at 12.10 the helicopter I was in ditched into the sea I escaped unhurt, as did two others. The flying pilot did not and was lost at sea in very deep water. As I made my way back through the ship, people told me how glad they were to see me; only months later did I realize that my crew position was the one that usually didn’t survive a crash into water.
At the time I believed rather weakly in God. Brought up as a Catholic the death of my devout and much loved Grandfather, who was and is much of my life’s inspiration, tore through the family. My parents moved and my regular visits to Mass and the Altar ceased without him there by my side. A year after my helicopter crash I flirted again with the church, but my faith in my childhood church was torn apart by prejudice and the arcane which time precludes from exposing now. The birth of a son and desire to baptize him as a Christian finally brought me back to God and the Church.
Throughout I strongly retained my belief and attempted to follow my Christian values. As I have been promoted through both Rank and responsibility I have tried to use values of fairness and compassion, but also never to ask others to do what I am not prepared to do –
Sometimes God especially helps us in what we do. I believe he especially looked after me in 1983 and again nearly 22 years later in the weeks before this last Christmas. I was at home in Ascot on Wednesday evening having dinner with Catherine when the phone rang. We ignored it and carried on eating, but I was niggled and concerned “number withheld” – but there was no message! A little later I wanted to show Catherine an article I’d seen on the BBC News Website, but before I could search, I was immediately confronted with the headline news that a Naval Lynx had crashed into the sea – one of the aircraft from my airfield. The phone call had been for me, work to warn me that four of our people were missing - the whole Ship’s Flights complement of Aircrew. The next day the full scale of the disaster became clear and we faced a constant challenge to let the families know before the media. Normally this responsibility would not be mine – I’m deemed too close to the cause as the Officer in charge of flying, but this time with so many casualties who all lived in the locality, I was asked to visit the partner of the Second Observer to break the sad and terrible news that there was little or no hope for his survival. Traveling alone, but in convoy with a Naval Families social worker I prayed with tears in my eyes as we drove to their home. Julia was not alone, two friends and her mother were with her. Her mother had driven at breakneck speed overnight from Dundee to be with her daughter. I had to visit twice that day, the first time to tell her we had found two bodies, the second time with the fourth-presumed dead and with that hope for Jamie was gone. I felt inspired by God, on both occasions feeling that the Holy Spirit was with me and guiding me in what I had to say and do. After the first visit I felt physically, emotionally and spiritually drained and stopped at a village church during my then lonely drive back to base. I’d been there once before and although the church was locked, I walked along the riverbank in the graveyard to pray and be filled again with God’s peace.
On Boxing Day, our planet reminded us that nature is more powerful than we dare to attempt to harness. In the trauma of disaster God presents to some the opportunity to live out their own faith. Some of you may have seen the ex Nurse Trevor Fisher, now a businessman in Thailand, who worked as a volunteer at Phuket Hospital in the aftermath. At a memorial service at New Year, he said “We who have witnessed and survived this disaster owe it to those who died to live a noble and beautiful life”. If only all of the human race could live in such a way.
WHEN EARTH'S LAST PICTURE IS PAINTED
When Earth's last picture is painted
And the tubes are twisted and dried
When the oldest colours have faded
And the youngest critic has died
We shall rest, and faith, we shall need it
Lie down for an aeon or two
'Till the Master of all good workmen
Shall put us to work anew
And those that were good shall be happy
They'll sit in a golden chair
They'll splash at a ten-league canvas
With brushes of comet's hair
They'll find real saints to draw from
Magdalene, Peter, and Paul
They'll work for an age at a sitting
And never be tired at all.
And only the Master shall praise us.
And only the Master shall blame.
And no one will work for the money.
No one will work for the fame.
But each for the joy of the working,
And each, in his separate star,
Will draw the thing as he sees it.
For the God of things as they are!
Kipling to me in this poem saw the delights of hope and a vision of heaven, the hope that God wants us to have and hold in him. In the Gospel today Matthew quotes directly from Isaiah, the very verses we had today in our 1st reading - “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and the shadow of death a light has dawned. From that time Jesus began to proclaim, repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. As I child I always imagined Heaven as being somewhere up high in the sky, somewhere beautiful with angels amongst the clouds looking down on us. Now I’ve been up to the clouds, but I’ve yet to see an angel up there, but for those who fly, every day up there is always a beautiful day and from the sky the world is a most beautiful place. I look forward to finding Heaven one day, somewhere up there.
At midnight mass two years ago Catherine and I walked arm in arm into this church for the very first time and immediately felt at home. Through the welcome we felt that night we came back the following Sunday and have done so ever since. This is a special church, which has warmth I’ve not ever come across before. Or maybe it’s me, at no time in my life have I felt more at one with my maker or at such peace. My beloved Catherine, Charlotte and Elizabeth are the family I’ve always dreamed of. Through Godly Play, Intercession and Reading, Cell Groups and Introductory Groups we’ve made friends who’ve changed our lives.
So where does that take me, but to peace, the peace I enjoy, the peace we all desire and the peace that only God can bring to our tortured planet and often difficult work or home environment. I am immensely proud to be a Christian and serve my country.