A Century of Service From the Last Empress

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A Century of Service From the Last Empress

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It was one of those small incidents I shall always remember, a fleeting moment that left a lasting impression.

The date: July 29, 1981. Many of you will remember it too. That was the day Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer. So much hope for the future was in the air that day. No one could have foreseen the tragic events that were to follow.

My lasting impression of the day had little or nothing to do with the wedding itself.

My wife and I were in England attending a church conference. The day of the wedding was the day before we were due to return to our church pastorates in Africa. I had just purchased a video recorder so I could record the royal wedding to show church members in West Africa, none of whom had television.

That lasting memory was to come after the wedding itself, when the members of the British royal family returned to Buckingham Palace in their fairy-tale, horse-drawn carriages. As the queen mother stepped down from her carriage helped by the traditional footman, she thanked him for his help. She then walked to the front of the carriage and noticeably thanked the drivers for their work.

Here was, in terms of protocol, one of the most important and respected persons in the land pausing to thank people who, in previous ages, would have been dismissed as mere servants.

The television commentator commented that the queen mother has always been noted for her courtesy and expressions of appreciation for others, for her incredible ability to make everyone around her feel he was the center of attention.

Perhaps the most highly regarded person in the land, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II (both she and her daughter are named Elizabeth) turned 100 Aug. 4.

Her formal title throughout the Commonwealth is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Millions of people refer to her affectionately as the queen mum.

What has made her so popular? The answer is quite simple: her attitude of service—not always exemplified in Britain’s long history of kings and queens.

A classic lesson about leadership

An instructive account of Jesus Christ and His disciples is recorded for us in Matthew 20. It shows us the disciples were not immune to the ambitions that plague many leaders today.

The mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, made a request of Jesus. She asked that her two sons be given the top two places in His Kingdom (verses 20-21).

Try for a moment to imagine the reaction of the other disciples. What arrogance! What gall! What an outrageous request! (Perhaps some of the others had had the same thoughts or wished they had asked first.)

In verse 24 we learn that “when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers.” From their reaction it is clear they perceived that the two brothers themselves had initiated their request, using their mother for their own selfish ends.

Jesus was faced with discord among the disciples and quickly dealt with it.

His response conveys a lesson I have often reflected upon. My wife and I have lived in various countries and have observed several approaches to government. We have lived under the American and British forms of democracy as well as dictatorships in underdeveloped nations. These words of Jesus are as applicable to our world as they were 2,000 years ago.

In verse 25 He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.”

Here Jesus reminded His followers of the order of government they were all too familiar with, the Roman system of despotic and tyrannical emperors who abused their authority, often badly treating the people. Sadly, this was the only government the disciples had known, so it was not surprising they knew little about how to govern and coveted the loftiest positions.

Jesus continued in verse 26: “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant” (emphasis added throughout).

Here Jesus taught a new concept in rulership―serving. Whoever desired positions of power and authority, He said, should first learn to serve others. Leadership positions, according to this Jewish Teacher, are opportunities to serve others.

Ironically, many leaders begin this way—whether they are royal personages, elected officials or military men who have overthrown a corrupt government. They may have the best intentions in the world, but frequently their desire to serve soon changes into a self-serving wielding of power.

King Solomon, who reigned as king of Israel for 40 years, observed in Ecclesiastes 10:16: “Alas for you, O land, when your king is a servant, and your princes feast in the morning!” (New Revised Standard Version).

Solomon noticed that when people unused to rulership suddenly become powerful the power went to their heads—and their stomachs. After decades of deprivation they would spend much time eating and drinking, making up for the years of going without. I do not exaggerate when I say that often my wife and I saw new leaders take power and add substantially to their weight during their first six months in office.

Solomon records an advantage of leaders who are trained from birth: “Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles, and your princes feast at the proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness!” (verse 17).

A true leader, a real Christian leader, will remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 20: “And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave [servant]—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (verses 27-28). Christ set all leaders an example of sacrifice, a willingness to die for those He served.

100 years of service

In a much smaller way the queen mother, deeply religious, was willing to sacrifice herself for the British people.

During what has become known as Britain’s finest hour, the country was faced with the seemingly imminent invasion by Hitler’s forces. The British government recommended she and her husband, King George VI, together with their two daughters, go to Canada. Other monarchs and political leaders had opted to flee their countries as the führer’s blitzkrieg overwhelmed their nations in just a few days.

When the king insisted on staying with his people, advisers suggested the children go while so many other British children were leaving. The queen’s response: “They could not go without me, and I could not possibly leave the king.”

So they stayed and endured the horror of the blitz. When the German Luftwaffe bombed their royal residence, her response was, “I’m glad ... It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

The people in London’s lower-class East End had taken the brunt of the bombing because London’s port facilities and industries were concentrated there. Daily the king and queen would meet and encourage the people during the most difficult time in their history. Realizing the intense bombing was a prelude to invasion, the queen practiced the use of firearms on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, prepared to fight and possibly die like anyone else if the invader should come.

Even their clothes and food were rationed the same as they were for everyone else. After the war, when the royal family embarked on a thank-you tour of southern Africa, they asked for smaller portions at the official banquets. After years of rationing they could not eat the big meals set before them.

The queen mother’s devotion to service began in World War I when she was a teenager at home in Scotland. With her brothers away at the front, the young Elizabeth and her mother turned part of their home into a hospital for wounded soldiers, running it themselves. There she met many soldiers from distant parts of the empire and for many years kept up a lively correspondence with some of them. Here, too, her parents entertained officers from Australia and New Zealand, giving them a break from the harshness of war.

In 1923, five years after the war was over, she married into the royal family when she wed the duke of York, the second son of King George V. She had turned down his proposals twice, not wanting to be in the limelight as a member of the royal family. She eventually accepted, consoling herself with the knowledge that his older brother David would be king when their father died.

A reluctant king and queen

But in 1936 their lives changed dramatically. In January, on the death of his father, David became king with the title of Edward VIII. By the end of the year, before his coronation, he had abdicated in favor of marrying the woman he loved (the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson) rather than accepting the awesome responsibility of kingship.

Before the end of that same year the duke of York had ascended the throne as King George VI. He and his wife were crowned, in May of 1937, king and queen of the various countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth and emperor and empress of India, a title they were to lose when India became independent 10 years later. Her role was not to rule but to be a consort to her husband. She soon realized that the best role for a queen consort was defined as “the power of doing good.”

Her husband, George VI, became known as “the reluctant king.” He grew up in the shadow of his elder brother and lacked confidence. He was reserved and had a stammer, making it difficult for him to speak in public.

The only way he could take up the heavy task of kingship that befell him was “with my wife and helpmeet by my side.” Throughout his reign, his wife, Elizabeth, helped him with his speech impediment, listening to him practicing his addresses and accompanying him to official functions. Her encouragement and constant presence enabled him to fulfill his responsibilities. Even so, the stress of his role and the pressures of war aged him greatly, and he died in 1952 at age 56.

At his death the firstborn of his two daughters assumed the throne as Queen Elizabeth II, and his widow stepped into her role as queen mother.

A lesson for future monarchs

A respectful country honored the queen mother during the days and weeks leading up to her 100th birthday on August 4, 2000. Her example of steady and humble leadership is all too lacking in today’s world, just as the kind of leadership Jesus advocated was sadly missing in His day.

But this kind of servant leadership is destined to become the rule rather than the exception. The Bible foretells a time when a group of people who have been trained in the leadership Christ described will receive positions of divine authority. Revelation 5:10 tells us they will be “kings and priests to our God, and [they] shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 20:4 further describes this as a time when the true followers of God will sit on thrones, reigning with Christ over the nations for 1,000 years.

This same Jesus, our elder brother, has revealed right principles of ruling—not as tyrannical, authoritarian dictators, nor as corrupt politicians striving for the preeminence, but as servants, helping the people we are given authority over, just as He served us.

Recommended reading

To learn more about the kind of leadership Jesus Christ advocated, and the principles on which it is based, be sure to request your free copies of the booklets Making Life Work and The Ten Commandments. To understand how the prophesied time of godly leadership will become a reality, ask for The Gospel of the Kingdom and You Can Understand the Bible, also free for the asking.

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