December 24, 2013
© 2013, Robert J DeGray, email@example.com
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Lloyd stood at the back of the church Sunday morning greeting the congregation as they left. Many shook hands warmly and several said they looked forward to him being their minister soon. That was encouraging, but Lloyd knew the congregation would meet that afternoon to vote on calling him. After everyone left, Ned and Alice took Lloyd and Annie back to their house. Ned and Alice would grab a bite, then come back for the meeting. Lloyd and Annie would stay at the house until Ned brought back the decision; then they would take the train back to Swindon.
“Wanted to let you know that Bert, the young man who works at my place may stop in to see you while we’re gone,” Ned said. “Bert Simmonds?” Lloyd asked. “Aye. He’s my father’s grand-nephew, but he calls me Uncle Ned. He was at church yesterday, but didn’t get talk to you. He’s got a question for you he doesn’t feel can wait until you come back.”
“If I come back. Can you give me a clue?” “No,” Ned allowed, “you’ll figure it out. But don’t believe a word he says about me.”
An hour later, Lizzie was down for her nap and Lloyd and Annie were taking tea at the kitchen table. There was a knock, and Lloyd opened the kitchen door to find Bert Simmonds standing there, but not alone. He had a sweet looking young lady on his arm. “Come in,” Lloyd said, “introduce me.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Robins, this is Meg Wheeler, my fiancé. I’m sure you’ve me her parents, John and Phyllis Wheeler at Stokely Free.”
Lloyd invited the young couple in and Annie brought them tea. After a few pleasantries, and Meg’s assertion that they were sure Lloyd would be called to Stokely Free, Bert got to the point: “Meg and I were engaged last Christmas, and we want to be married this Christmas. You may not move down here until September, maybe later. I wanted to ask you now if you would do our wedding.”
“Well, I appreciate your confidence, and you’re certainly thinking ahead. Can you tell us a little bit of your story?”
Bert and Meg looked at each other, each wanting the other to begin. Finally Bert said, “Go ahead Meg; yours is the easier story.”
“Well, it’s short anyway. I grew up here in Stokely, and attended Stokely Free my whole life. I’m sure you met my parents yesterday. I’m the youngest of four, but the oldest, my brother Tom, was killed in the war. My sisters are both married. Truth tell I’m the old maid. I’m 26. Let’s see; I’ve loved Jesus as long as I can remember, and considered going as a missionary to Africa. But the mission board wanted a teaching degree, so I went out to Bristol to the University.
I got involved with a good church there. I made some close friends in the Salvation Army, and often went with them to give out donuts at the shipyards and hold services in the gaols. I saw many men come to faith. When I finished my degree in ’25 I didn’t sense the Lord calling me to Africa right away. So I came back to Stokely and the headmaster of the grammar school gave me the year 3 class. I’ve been there ever since and I love teaching, though I’m not opposed to Africa or any place else the Lord might lead. I met Bert . . . Well, I’ll let him tell that story.”
Bert sighed as Lloyd and Annie looked at him expectantly. “My story isn’t near so pretty or neat as Meg’s. Let’s see . . . I was born in Dunsford. My dad raised sheep. My earliest memories are of sheep lambing in the spring and the little Dartmoor hill pony my dad got me when I was just small. I never got to know dad, really, because when the war started he was called to his regiment, and went to France in 1915. We never saw him again. He was killed on the Somme in 1916.”
“I was only 12 years old, not big enough to care for the flock. Grandad couldn’t walk much after his accident, so my Mum, who was not really a farm girl ended up doing most of the work. The flock suffered, but we got by. Then in November 1918 Mum got the influenza, and like so many, it took her. I was 14.”
“I’m so sorry,” Annie sighed, “So many died that year.”
Bert collected his thoughts. “Mum and Dad had both been very religious, and we were faithful in attending the church in Dunsford. I have the impression they were not very happy with the rector who served there in those years. I know I wasn’t. He treated all us lads with distrust, and even in catechism he would not answer any of our questions, but told us that we must accept what the church said about God.”
“But my rejection of religion only started when Dad died. I could not begin to understand why it happened, and I responded with an anger that seared my soul. The rector would only say it was God’s will. Mum could only weep. So I blamed God. Then Mum died, and that sealed it for me. To me, God died the same day.
The farm was deeply in debt, and after it was sold there was nothing left. Great-uncle Frank, Ned’s father offered to have me come up here, but my Dad’s brother, a coal miner in Radstock said that I should come there and get real work. I worked at the tailings mill for two years, and then the coal face beginning in 1920.
In Radstock I learned of a new religion sweeping the coal towns. Of course we didn’t call it religion. We called Trade Unionism, or Socialism, or Communism. To a boy angry with God and just beginning to see the injustice of man, it was compelling. I willingly took up hatred of the rich owners, the imperialist tyrants who, I said, killed my parents. I was too young to be involved in the leadership, but every movement needs ready hands. In the hours I wasn’t actually down at the coal face, I carried pamphlets from meeting to meeting, accompanied socialist speakers to the mine gates, and did some of the dirty work the leaders couldn’t get caught at.
I was in Radstock in 1921 when the miner’s strike failed, and I watched conditions worsen and unrest increase. In 1922 I was recruited to the Communist Party of Great Britain, which openly called for a workers revolution, at least until Lenin wrote from Moscow telling us to hide that kind of talk. He argued that we should start by winning communist seats in Parliament, which we did that year.
If the movement had been pure, I would have been entirely zealous. But I could see that there was no real concern for the miners. The leaders were corrupt, mean-spirited, and personally opportunistic. My father’s brother, it became clear, did not want to do away with the ruling class, but to take what they had for himself. The in-fighting was fierce among the factions and parties. In the end there were only a few I trusted. One was an inspiring communist named Dick Forshaw from Bristol, who was radically committed to the distribution of the nation’s wealth to the workers. In my eyes, he was the great leader, even though he was ruthless; I often heard him condoning violence against anyone who stood in the way.
It came to a head in 1926 when the miners were faced with wage cuts and longer hours mandated by a parliamentary commission. On May 1st, 1926, the lockout of the miners escalated into a general strike – I’m sure you remember it. But the less revolutionary elements of the party wanted to negotiate with the owners and politicians. Dick Forshaw wanted the strike to escalate into revolution.
On the fifth day of the strike, Forshaw and I went to party headquarters to pick up copies of the strike newspaper. Just then we saw two union leaders returning from a meeting. I don’t know what words passed between them and Forshaw, but after a few moments of rising agitation, he drew back his arm and struck the union official full in the face. I had to hold Forshaw back while the officials left in their big car.
Fifteen minutes later, as we were about to leave the building, the police arrived. They showed a search warrant and arrested everyone in the building. Forshaw and I were roughly handled and thrown into the Bristol Gaol, where we were kept in a cold cell. The others who were arrested were released on bond, but no one paid bond for Forshaw or me. And he was a diabetic; the starchy food affected him badly. By the third day he was often unconscious and hot to the touch. I tried to keep him cool with the little bit of drinking water they gave us. I called and called for the guards to do something for him, but I was told nothing could be done until his hearing. Two days later he died on the cell floor. I was taken to the hearing alone. None of the trade unionists or communist comrades were there. No one spoke on my behalf. I was sentenced to six months for “seditious conspiracy.”
And so I sat in the gaol. At first I was outraged at the authorities, but then as I thought about it I realized that Forshaw and I had been betrayed by the unionists. Someone had told the police we were there. And no one had stepped forward to speak for us. Still later I realized that Forshaw, with his uncompromising and violent revolutionary ideal, would have been just as coldly willing to sacrifice the unionists as they had been him. In truth, I would have done so. I worshipped the cause because I believed its ideals, but in the end they were rubbish. Every leader I followed was flawed and even the idealists like Forshaw, were heartless.
I say no one visited me in gaol, and that was true, with two exceptions. One was the Salvation Army, who held services for the prisoners. From them I first heard the clear Gospel of Jesus Christ: that he came to set the prisoners of sin free; that he did not exalt himself, but as the good shepherd laid down his life for his sheep; that he paid the price of my sins. These salvationists said I needed only to give up my own ways and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and I would be saved.
The other person who visited me was Uncle Ned. He had learned of my prison sentence from the papers, and came all the way from Stokely to visit me, not once but repeatedly. He listened to me rant and rave at all my enemies, took in my bitterness toward God and man, and in his slow way he began to speak the same truth to me that the Salvation Army taught. He helped me see that I had rejected God out of anger at my losses, at being left adrift in a cruel and broken world.
He also teased out of me the absolute realization that the men I had tried to follow were false leaders taking me to a dead end – that if individual men were flawed and broken, no system of men could create a paradise on earth. Jesus, Uncle Ned insisted, was the only man who had ever lived who was worth following. He was the only Shepherd who could give peace and security because he was the only shepherd who had ever laid down his life for the sake of his sheep. He put it to me plainly – would I follow the Good Shepherd or the false shepherds?
That was just before Christmas, 1926. Uncle Ned was back at the farm for the holiday, but promised to come get me when my sentence ended, the 27th. But the Salvation Army held a service on Christmas Eve. It was a mixed group of Salvationists, some in uniform, some not, men and women. And I noticed one young woman in particular, not leading the group but participating in the singing and giving out really good donuts. I later learned that Meg had come to Bristol that Christmas to spend time with a school chum who was a Salvationist
When the service began, they talked, naturally enough about the shepherds of Bethlehem, and the good news of a Savior who had come to rescue them from their sin, and the promise of peace. They pointed out that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem had been prophesied 700 years before, and that prophecy even included the fact that he would be a good shepherd and would bring his people peace. And they said that anyone in that room who was broken, directionless and lost, a prisoner in spirit as well as in fact, could turn to this same shepherd for rescue.
Then they asked if anyone want to pray. On earlier visits I had been too enraged at God and men to take hold of this good news, but that Christmas Eve I did. I suppose, Reverend Robins, that all the Salvationists gave me a hug when I finished praying that night, but I only remember one. He looked over at Meg, who blushed.
Well, that’s been more than three years, and I hope under Uncle Ned’s guidance, and the care of Aunt Alice, and because of the ministry of Stokely Free I’ve grown from a baby Christian to something more. I’ve finally found people who live out what they believe. I suspect Mum and Dad were like that, but I’ve grown up enough now to see it. Uncle Ned has provided all kinds of guidance and help, and I’ve fallen in love with God’s word. Jesus is easier to understand than Marx and Engels; he has become very real to me - the only one really worth following.
I was in love with Meg from that first Christmas in gaol, but Uncle Ned wisely counseled me to focus on my own spiritual growth for a while – like maybe two years, before I tried to grow closer to Meg.
Well, I didn’t quite make two years, but at Christmas 1928 I spoke to her parents about courtship, and at Christmas last year – everything happens at Christmas – I asked if she would marry me. I’ve gotten a job at the new service station on the road to Reading, and by Christmas I’ll have saved enough to rent a little house. So will you marry us?
“If the Lord allows me to be here, I would feel it a privilege to do so,”
At that moment Ned and Alice came into the house. “Halooo” Ned called, “I heard that this was the place to find the new minister at Stokely Free Church.”