Caring about those in danger – the Titanic disaster
Other themes: sacrifice, generosity, Easter
Listen to this. What would you do in this situation?
Colin wasn’t surprised when it happened. His best mate Billy had been looking pale since lunch. So as soon as Billy put his hands to his mouth Colin was shouting down the coach, “Mrs James, Billy’s being sick.”
Mrs James got there with the sickbag just in time. Colin watched it fill up with a mixture of horror and relief. What a time for it to happen though, he thought, Billy’s going to miss the fun. It was the last night of the residential school trip and they were going to be in a big fun pool with flumes and chutes. It’d be great, surrounded by their mates – Colin couldn’t wait to show off a bit.
He saw Mrs James in the hostel corridor after tea. “Is he okay now?”
“Far from it, I’m afraid. Good for him we’re going home tomorrow. Oh, Colin, he’s asked if you could stay with him this evening. He said your awful jokes were the only things that would cheer him up.”
“But…it’s the swimming tonight.”
“Yes, it’s a sacrifice, I know. Anyway, think about it. There’ll be a couple of teachers here, so don’t feel you have to.”
Then she smiled and turned away, leaving Colin biting his lip in the corridor.
What should Colin do? What if he stays back and Billy just falls asleep? But they are best friends…
(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)
It’s hard to give something up. But I want to tell you about someone who gave up far more than one evening, and for someone he didn’t even know.
As they reached the bottom of the ship’s gangway, it would be impossible to say who was the more excited – John Harper or his six-year-old daughter, Nan – for neither of them had experienced anything like this. They were about to board the largest, the most luxurious ship ever built, the ship everyone had been talking about. It was the first one with a swimming pool, and there were Turkish baths, even four-poster beds on board – and fantastic meals to look forward to.
John Harper was a church minister from Scotland. He’d now been invited to preach in the States. And this marvellous ship was sailing to New York on just the right day. What an opportunity!
But the great thing about this shop was its safety – the hull was divided into sixteen watertight compartments. If there was a collision the worst that could happen was that one compartment, or two at the most, would be cracked open. But the ship could still float if four were smashed. In fact, the ship was nicknamed “The Unsinkable”. Its real name was impressive too – it meant mighty and enormous. It was called…the Titanic.
Midday, April 10th, 1912. The tugs began pulling the ship away from Southampton docks. Soon, under its own steam, the Titanic was surging majestically toward the open sea. The great adventure had begun!
What no-one on board knew was that a huge chain of icebergs was lying across their path to New York. And only a few officers knew two other facts – that the binoculars used for spotting icebergs had gone missing from the crow’s nest, the lookout point, and that there were only enough lifeboats for one thousand two hundred people. There were over two thousand two hundred on board.
John and Nan were having a wonderful time. John had always enjoyed the water, even though he had come close to drowning not once, not twice, but three times: first when he fell down a well when he was two – his mother had to hold him upside down while the water poured out; then in his twenties: while taking a dip a strong current almost dragged him out to sea; then in his thirties a boat he was on sprung a leak. Perhaps these events were to prepare him for what was to come.
John had become a Christian when he was thirteen by hearing a Bible verse, John 3:16 – perhaps you know it – “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son”. So John understood straightaway that the Christian life was about giving – God gave, now he should give. And he did, giving time, energy and love to the poor and needy around Glasgow. He became a famous preacher too.
He had been in America before, but not with Nan. They were over halfway there now.
Almost midnight on April 14th. The men in the crow’s nest were finding it difficult to see. There was no moon and the binoculars had not been found. There – was that an iceberg ahead? Yes! “Hard a’starboard!” Yes…yes, just made it. Lumps of ice fell on the decks as the ship brushed past. Phew! That was a close one! Then came a crunching, grinding sound from below. The ship seemed to be trembling as if in fear or pain. For ten seconds, that was all.
But in those ten seconds the part of the iceberg they couldn’t see had smashed open six of the watertight compartments.
More than two. More than four.
The Titanic was doomed.
There came a knock on John’s cabin door, on every door. “Put your life-jackets on. Go to Boat Deck.” When he and Nan got there, he saw the crew hurrying to take the covers off the lifeboats. Then the boats were lowered and the cry went out: “Women and children first!” John hugged his daughter and made sure she got into a lifeboat. Nan did not know that was the last time she would see her father.
Now the third class passengers, with much further to come, began crowding onto the deck. And then the panic began. People could see the Titanic was going down quickly, could see that there weren’t enough lifeboats for them all.
John saw that many of them did not even have a life-jacket. He knew what God wanted him to do. He took off his own and gave it to a stranger. He knew he was probably giving his life as well.
Waves were washing over the deck now and the ship was tilting more and more. John had no choice. Like many others, he clambered onto the railings and dropped into the freezing sea.
As he entered the water perhaps he remembered the three times he had been rescued from drowning. But he knew this was different. Around him he could hear screams, cries of despair. And he thought, Do they know about heaven? He bagan calling out, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be safe for ever.” A man desperately clinging to a piece of wreckage heard those words and remembered them. John went on shouting the same words. Until the cold overpowered him and he slipped beneath the waves.
1502 people died that night. But that man clinging to the wreckage was picked up by a rescue boat and later told how he had become a Christian through John’s last words.
And Nan? She was rescued, returned to Scotland and eventually married a church minister.
But what about the person to whom John gave his life-jacket – and his life? We’ve no idea. But John knew that he was doing what God wanted him to do, and for him that would have been enough.
Time of Reflection
Think now. God wants us to be not just takers but givers too. Probably we won’t be asked to give our life for someone, but would we be willing to give an afternoon or an evening, to help someone, to cheer someone up? Or perhaps we own something that someone else needs more than us. Are we givers or just takers? Let’s think about ourselves for a moment…
Now let’s think of those who’ve given so much to us, families, friends, strangers.
Listen to what the Bible says:
“Look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own. The attitude you should have is the one that Jesus Christ had.” (Philippians 2:4,5)
“Be generous and ready to share with others.” (1 Timothy 6:18)
Thank you, Jesus, that you gave your life. You could have called on angels to get you down from the cross, but you didn’t. Thank you for John Harper. And thank you for those who have seen what we need and have given it to us. Help us to appreciate more, and to give more. Amen
Variations on a Theme
At some point near the end of the assembly, it could be effective if several pupils told of times when someone gave up something for them. Aim for a wide range of “sacrifices” – the mundane to the vitally important, and a wide range of “givers” too – not just the children’s best friends.
Alternatively, if the time is right, the Harper story could lead into the story of the crucifixion and the events leading up to it. The episode of Jesus praying in Gethsemane brings out the idea of willingness no matter what the cost.