Far Beyond Human Happiness
In 1934, aged 18, I joined the RAF. The Methodist chapel that my Christian mother attended presented me with a Bible. I said I would not be reading it, but my Mother persuaded me to take it with me. Jesus at that time was to me only vague head knowledge. Being in a barrack room with twenty others, it was easy to continue in an ungodly lifestyle.
After training I was sent overseas, to Iraq, the old Bible land of Mesopotamia. As the troopship was about to sail from Southampton someone gave me a Gospel tract, “The Way of Salvation”. I read it as we sailed into the English Channel. Many on that troopship, because of World War II, would never return home, their earthly remains would be buried in British war graves overseas. As we sailed into the sunny Mediterranean, casually walking on the crowded upper troop deck, I noticed something I had not seen during training – an airman reading his Bible. I watched, not wishing to be involved, but fascinated. After some time, the troopship sailed up the Persian Gulf to Basra.
I and many others disembarked before being sent to different places throughout Iraq. A few hundred of us were lined up with our kit bags along the quayside at Basra including the airman I had seen reading his Bible. Not knowing his name at that time I wondered where he was being sent. I walked into my new barrack room, with my kitbag and unread Bible in the bottom, to find, only two bed spaces from mine, the Bible reader. It was LAC Alfred Knowles, whose name I noticed printed on his kitbag. His Bible would not be at the bottom! It was no coincidence that we were in the same barrack room. It was the result of a praying Mother. The first night in the Iraq barrack room came another surprise. Alfred kneeling at his bedside! I watched his life and compared it with mine and others. Alfred was a brilliant technician in charge of aircraft maintenance; top of academic exams and heading for promotion. Therefore he was respected. Yet, behind his back, I would hear him called “Bible puncher”, “holy Joe” etc.
Through work Alfred and I got to know each other. My vague head knowledge of Jesus was nothing compared with Alfred’s personal experience of knowing Jesus as his Saviour and the Lord of his whole life. Alfred became the SASRA secretary (then known as SACA – Soldier’s, Airmen’s, Christian Association). He invited me to the SACA weekly blackboard meetings. This meant reading a portion of Scripture daily and speaking about it at the weekly meeting and choosing favourite texts. There were a number of other Christians who could personally testify of what those Scriptures meant to them. On that RAF Station near Baghdad, Rev Dick Rees was the Chaplain and faithfully preached the Gospel at Sunday services which Alfred encouraged me to attend. Rev Dick Rees arranged for a group to stay with American Missionaries near Babylon during Easter 1937. Whilst there, we visited the old ruins of Babylon, enjoying a picnic by “The Waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137). Later Rev. Dick Rees preached from Daniel 5:27: “Weighed in the balances and found wanting.” That challenged me – associating with Christians outwardly appearing to be one of them, but it wasn’t real from my heart. I talked with Rev Dick Rees who knew from my life and conversation that I had not been truly “Born Again”. “The fear of man” (Prov 29:25), I thought I could never be like Alfred – kneeling at my bed so openly and sharing with others the reality of personal faith in Jesus.
Then, on Sunday evening May 27th 1937 at a Gospel Service in the YMCA in Baghdad I heard the Gospel preached by an American Missionary. I knew I had to get right with God through Jesus. So outside, because of the summer heat in Iraq, I knelt at my bed and surrendered my whole life to the claims of Jesus. For the first time I experienced “joy unspeakable and full of glory” – far beyond any human happiness I had known before. The next morning in accordance with “Romans 10:9”, I confessed with my mouth to Alfred, having believed in my heart. He simply said that he and Rev. Dick Rees had prayed for me to be “Born Again”. Then they and others rejoiced with me and encouraged me to grow spiritually.
Returning to England in 1941 after five years overseas (Iraq, Egypt, the North African Desert war in Libya and beyond) an Army Scripture Reader prayed for a number of us that we would have a safe unescorted troopship journey via South Africa to war-time England. German U Boats were sinking much of our shipping. How different that journey was compared with five years before. No longer a spectator, but very much involved with the SASRA fellowship and witnessing to others on board the ship. In 1945 I arrived at RAF Kirkham the same day as another active SASRA member, Mary Northrop, who, in the following year, became my wife for almost 60 years until her home call to heaven in January 2005.
During 28 years in the RAF, followed by 19 as a civilian instructor, in cooperation with many Chaplains, and SASRA Scripture Readers, Mary and I were always actively involved with SASRA on many different RAF Stations at home and abroad. Before my retirement in 1981 (the last year of apprentice training at RAF Hereford) SASRA meetings became more outreach to non Christians. About 40 regularly attended on the night before apprentice pay day, when they were without money. The baking of SASRA wives drew them in! During the last month of the meetings, in answer to prayer many apprentices responded to the Gospel invitation. On the same day as a SASRA meeting in the last year, ASR Cudmore made a casual, unplanned visit. I asked him to stay and help with the counselling. Seeing the response he returned the following week with ASR Hepworth. One apprentice later testified that he came for the “loaves and fishes” and found the true “bread of life”. As I near my 90th Birthday, thankful for continued health in Body, Soul and Spirit, I pray that SASRA will continue to be the means of introducing many to personal faith in Jesus, helping them to grow spiritually.
Incidentally, humble LAC Alfred Knowles became Group Captain and was Chairman of the SASRA Council with a heart for souls until his home call to heaven to receive his crown and reward.
[With permission from the Journal of the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association No. 9 Jan- June 2006] www.sasra.org.uk
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