They will beat their swords into ploughshares

The Union Flag has been lowered for the last time at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. After 13 years British troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan and Bastion has been handed over to Afghans. Bastion was once the largest British military base in the world housing up to 14000 troops with a 20 miles long perimeter wall and up to 600 aircraft movements a day. Bastion’s memorial wall, which bears the names of the 453 British military personnel killed in the conflict, has been removed and will be rebuilt at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire.

The conflict in Afghanistan has been long and costly. Thousands have died, both military personnel and civilians, and many more have suffered life-changing injuries. The British military personnel have been a great example of courage and commitment as they have fought alongside others to give the Afghan people a chance of a better life. The conflict is not over but, across the country, 6.7 million children now attend school, nearly 50% of them girls. This would have been unthinkable under Taliban rule. Healthcare has improved and life expectancy has increased.

The history of the world is scarred by wars and armed conflicts. In their lust for power and domination nations and individuals have been willing to sacrifice the lives of countless people. The military personnel in Afghanistan have stood between evil men and ordinary people who lived every day in fear and oppression. As they have served in a very difficult place far from their own homes, their presence has given hope to many. We pray that the Afghan people will find peace and security and that those who have lost loved ones, or suffered serious physical and psychological injuries, will know God’s comfort and his love for them.

What is the future for our world where seemingly irresolvable conflicts abound? The prophet Micah spoke of a coming day when God will intervene decisively in his world. “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

My help comes from the Lord

Tragically 39 trekkers have died in the Himalayas. 400 others have been rescued. They were trekking with local guides in the Thorong Pass, which is one of the final stages of the “Annapurna Circuit”, a 200 mile route around Annapurna 1. This is the 10th highest mountain in the world standing at 26,500 feet. It takes two to three weeks to complete the circuit which attracts more than 100,000 trekkers each year. The route comprises footpaths between villages and teashops and does not require great hill walking experience.

October is the peak season for trekkers because the weather is normally good and the views of the mountains are majestic. This year, however, a cyclone in India moved quickly into Nepal. At altitudes of more than 15000 feet the biting winds and severe cold engulfed the trekkers. Few were equipped to cope with the extreme conditions which were so cold that people’s eyelids were frozen. In April this year 16 people died on Mount Everest and the world’s highest mountain was shut down for the first time.

Those who walk in the Himalayas are attracted by their spectacular grandeur and beauty. Those who complete the Annapurna Circuit, or climb a great mountain, have a real sense of achievement. Yet the sight of towering mountain peaks also makes you aware of your smallness. The Himalayas have stood through the millennia and have been left unmoved by countless severe storms, but we are far more vulnerable. In times of trouble the mountains, for all their greatness, cannot help us, but there is One who hears our cry.

All of us experience the storms of life, which often come suddenly and unexpectedly. To whom can we turn for help? In Psalm 121 the psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.” It is wise to turn to the Lord before the storms come. In one of his hymns Charles Wesley speaks of the safety and security he found in Jesus Christ. “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly, while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high. Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; Oh receive my soul at last.”

The God who reconciles us to himself

At 2.54am on 12 October 1984 an IRA bomb exploded in The Grand Hotel, Brighton. It was the week of the Conservative Party Conference and the intended target was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was not injured, but 5 people were killed and 34 were taken to hospital. Margaret Tebbit, the wife of Norman, was left paralysed. She spent nearly a year being treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and another year at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore before returning to her home. For the past 30 years she and her husband have lived daily with the devastating personal consequences of that bomb.

The Brighton bombing and more recent events in Iraq and Syria remind us of the potential for great evil in human beings. The bombers carefully planned the atrocity in cold blood; just as Alan Henning was executed by IS militants in cold blood. The IRA statement claiming responsibility for the Brighton bombing said, “Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war.”

The reference to “getting away with it” implies that people have a right to commit any kind of atrocity as “pay back” for the actions of those whom they hate and in pursuit of their cause. It fails, however, to recognise that God has created us all as morally accountable beings. None of us ultimately “gets away with it.” Death does not pay all debts. The New Testament says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

The survivors of acts of atrocity are sometimes asked whether they can forgive the perpetrators. Norman Tebbit, in a very moving article about his and his wife’s experience over the past 30 years, has said that forgiveness is not possible because the bombers have not repented and justice has not been done. This takes us to the heart of the Christian message. In his Son, Jesus, God reconciled a sinful world to himself. His divine justice was satisfied when his Son died for our sins and so opened the way for each of us to repent and be forgiven. As one hymn says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed a wonderful summer and so the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks?

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, Thank you for every fresh new day, Thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, Thank you for everyone I know, Thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, Thank you for every heartfelt joy, Thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, Thank you for grace to hold it fast, Thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well we can gladly thank him and when hard times come we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”

To have and to hold

My wife and I have just celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. 50 years is a long time and yet the years have passed so quickly. It has been good to look back and to remember the many things that have happened and the many people who have been important to us in our marriage. We invited family and friends to join us for a celebration and many people came. Some had known us from childhood, others were friends and neighbours.

Marriage is the most significant life commitment we ever make and we were young when we made our vows. We promised “to live together according to God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honour and cherish until God separates us by death.” On the day of our wedding we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and how much we would need the help and encouragement of family and friends, and the love and grace of God, if we were to keep our vows.

The traditional marriage vows are very realistic and true to life. There are good times and bad times. Sometimes we have had very little and at others more than we need. There have been some times of sickness and, as we get older, we know there will be more such times. The challenge to continue loving, honouring and cherishing each other, as we struggle with our own self-centredness, is very real. And we know that one day our marriage will end when “God separates us by death.” We cannot know which of us will be the first to go to heaven and which of us will be left, for a time, here on earth.

As I look back on the years we have shared together I am conscious most of all of the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. The marriage relationship is very close. The Bible says that we become “one flesh.” In part this is a reference to the physical intimacy of marriage, but it is more than that. Our lives and our joy and sorrows are intertwined. This is why marital breakdown is so painful. There are many times when I have said things and done things which have caused sadness and pain. At such times I have needed to be forgiven just as we have both experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus.

For the love of Jesus

The conflict in Iraq and Syria is having very serious consequences for Christians. The Christian message came to both countries in the 1st century and there has been a significant population of Christians ever since then. Now Christians are suffering along with other minorities. Many have been driven from their homes and communities and some have been killed. In recent weeks I have received news directly from those I know in Northern Iraq.

A Canadian Christian man sent news of what is happening in the town where he lives. IS has taken over the town and has gone to every Christian home demanding that the children denounce Jesus or be killed. None of the children has denounced their Saviour and so have been killed. The children’s courage and love for Jesus is deeply moving. They and their parents believe the promise Jesus made to persecuted Christians in the first century, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Canadian man has remained in the town, at great risk to his life, to be with and comfort the Christian families.

A friend visiting Kurdistan has sent news from a town where there are more than 100,000 refugees from the conflict. The total number of refugees in Kurdistan, from both Syria and Iraq, is estimated at 1 million. They are in desperate need of housing and food. The unsanitary conditions mean that an epidemic is highly likely. My friend wrote, “I rejoice to see Christian people distributing food in small vehicles, but it’s a drop in the ocean. Muslim Kurds are helping as well and the government gave each family $800, but what of the future? Seeing the little portions there are to go around here made me think: can we not as Christians, whose Saviour gave up everything for us, simplify our menus a little and send the spare cash to the Yezidis?”

Jesus spoke about a day when all nations will be gathered before God’s throne. The King will separate the people into two groups and say to those on his right, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Richard Kiel – the “Gentle Giant.”

Richard Kiel died last week at the age of 74. Very few people recognise him from his own name, but remember him very well as “Jaws” in the James Bond films. Richard was 7 feet 2 inches tall and played the part of the metal-mouthed assassin in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker”. “Jaws” was a giant man with steel teeth who was employed by the bad men with whom James Bond was in conflict. He seemed to be invincible. Roger Moore’s punches had no effect. A construction site fell on him, and he survived. He drove a boat off a waterfall, and survived. He stopped a bullet with his metal teeth and bit through locks and wires.

The real Richard Kiel was very different from the role he is remembered for. Those who knew him well describe him as a sweet man and a gentle and generous giant. He was born in Detroit in 1939 and grew tall as a result of acromegaly, a hormonal condition that causes giantism. Richard said that by the time he was 12 years old his father became slightly concerned “because I started to wear all his clothes.” At the age of 14 he was 6 feet 7 inches tall.

For Richard, however, the most important part of his life was that he was a born-again Christian. He had been an alcoholic and came to personal faith in Jesus Christ. The phrase “born again” is often used to describe Christians who have found new life in Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, we read of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a Jewish religious leader. Nicodemus was a very religious man. He knew the Old Testament Scriptures well and lived a very strict life according to the teaching of the Pharisees. He prayed 18 times every day and fasted 2 days every week. The first thing Jesus said to him was, “I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

This is a wonderfully encouraging truth because it means that any of us can find new life in Jesus. This is what happened to Richard. He came to a point when he knew he needed to know God and to find forgiveness for his sins. As he trusted in Jesus as his Saviour he became a new man and was “born again”. Now the gentle giant is in heaven with the gracious Saviour who “loved him and gave himself for him.”

A very special visit

Last Thursday we had a very special visit to our local primary school. The two day NATO summit at the Celtic Manor in Newport was the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain. On the first day of the summit President Barak Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron visited Mount Pleasant Primary School.

The US Presidential Cavalcade of more than 20 vehicles swept at speed into our community, flanked by police motor cycle outriders. Many police men and women were on duty, some of them armed. Some of the children met the most powerful man in the world, who sat on a small chair and talked with them for a few minutes, and saw the pictures they had drawn. Then after 20 minutes the President and his cavalcade swept out and life in our community returned to normal. It was a day the children and their parents and teachers will never forget.

This special visit made me think of another very special visit a long time ago. In his account of the life of Jesus John writes, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes. The one-of-a kind glory; like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” The Bible tells us that Jesus, who had always been in heaven with his Father, came into our world and became a real man. He was the best man who ever lived. For most of his short life he lived in Nazareth with his parents and brothers and sisters and shared in the life of the community. Then, at the age of 33, he was falsely accused and condemned to die on a cross. On the third day he rose from the dead.

The visit of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, to our world decisively changed things. They will never be the same again. His death in our place, and for our sins, has brought life transforming grace to millions of people from every nation in the world. He came from heaven to give us eternal life. He came that we might experience his love now and then, when we die; go to be with him forever in heaven. In one of his hymns William Walsham How wrote, “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be, that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”

The vulnerability of children

The report of the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has highlighted the vulnerability of children and teenagers in our society. The inquiry found that as many as 1400 children had been sexually exploited in the town between 1997 and 2013. The abuses included abduction, rape and sex trafficking of children. In other parts of the world children are also suffering greatly. We have seen pictures of children in hospitals who have been seriously injured by the conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Iraq. Children have also been killed and many have lost their parents and families.

Children and young people in Britain today are more vulnerable to exploitation than any previous generation. The media generally and social media in particular are exposing children to ideas and influences which are detrimental to their wellbeing and development. There is a right concern that we look after the earth and the environment for the benefit of our children and their children, but we seem to show very little concern for the moral pollution which is so damaging to them.

Jesus loved children and spoke very strongly about the need to protect them. One day his disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to stand among them and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Childlikeness is something to be cherished and protected. Children are naturally trusting and long to be loved. This makes them vulnerable to evil people, whose only concerned is to exploit them and satisfy their own evil lusts. Our failure to protect children from harmful influences is causing serious damage to many of them. Their childlikeness needs to be fostered and encouraged. In doing this we may also realise our own need to become like little children in our relationship with God. He is the only One who can satisfy our deep inner longing to be loved. He is, in Jesus, a heavenly Father who always gives good gifts to his children.

Maria Lyle wins gold

At a time when the news is dominated by bad news stories the International Paralympics Committee Athletics European Championships in Swansea have been a wonderful example of people achieving great things. The story of Maria Lyle, from Dunbar in Scotland, is so encouraging. Maria has Cerebral Palsy which causes muscle weakness and stiffness, and balance and coordination problems. Maria, who is just 14 years old, won the T35 100 metres gold medal, a category for those with Cerebral Palsy. She also broke the world record. Two days later she won the T35 200 metres gold medal.

When she was a child Maria needed splints to help her to walk. She found sport hard because of her tight muscles caused by Cerebral Palsy. When she was 10 years old she went to the local running club and found she could keep up with and beat many of her friends. She began competing in able-bodied competitions and later in disability athletics. Just 4 years later she has won two European gold medals! She enjoys setting goals and challenges for herself to see if she can achieve them. She said, “It’s a good feeling to know you have a purpose and feel rewarded for the hard work and effort you put in.” Her sporting hero is Usain Bolt, not only because of his speed, but because he so obviously enjoys what he does.

In Psalm 139 David reflects on the fact that God knows him personally and intimately. It was God who had made him the person he was. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God has created each of us with the potential to overcome adversity and to accomplish really good things. What matters most is the kind of people we are in our hearts, our inner self. We all need a goal and a sense of purpose in our lives. Our ultimate goal is heaven, where God dwells. Jesus is the way to that wonderful place where there will be no disabilities, but unending joy and fulfilment in the presence of God.