Malala – an inspiring example of courage

The story of 15 year old Malala Yousafzai has touched the hearts of many people around the world. Malala lives in the Swat Valley in north Pakistan. In defiance of the rules imposed by the Taliban, Malala attended her father’s school, and encouraged other girls to do the same. On 9 October a Taliban gunman attempted to assassinate Malala as she was returning home on the school bus. She was very seriously injured and received emergency surgery in Pakistan before being flown to England. As a result of the expert care she has received at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham she is making an amazing recovery. We pray she will be fully restored.

For some years Malala has spoken for women’s rights within her community, and especially the right of girls to receive a school education. She is a remarkable example of outstanding ability and courage. Malala knew the risks she faced from violent men in her remote community yet she refused to be intimidated by them and be silent. She has spoken publicly, written a blog for the BBC and made a film to highlight the plight of girls growing up in the Swat Valley. This has brought her national and international recognition. The man who shot her was determined to silence her but, hopefully, his evil action will only hasten the day when all girls in Pakistan will be free to go to school and enjoy other freedoms.

During his ministry Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day who were also imposing man made rules on people. They were more concerned about their own power and prosperity than they were about the people. Jesus was very different. Great crowds came to listen to him and he healed many people. Seeing his popularity growing the religious leaders decided to silence him. They brought false charges against him and handed him over to the Romans who ordered that he should be crucified.

How did Jesus respond to his enemies? He did not gather his followers together to fight and defend him. Instead he continued to speak the truth and did not retaliate. When he was dying on the Cross he prayed for his enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The Roman Empire fell many years ago, but today people of many nations continue to find new life through Jesus as they receive him as their Saviour and Lord.

Love that makes an enemy a friend

World War II was the deadliest conflict in history. Some 100 million people were actively involved and more than 50 million people were killed. Many died in the most appalling circumstances including Jewish men, women and children who died in the Nazi concentration camps and those killed by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were, however, some striking examples of human kindess. They remind us of God’s amazing mercy to us in Jesus. Out of love for us he died to make us, who are by nature God’s enemies, his friends.

Charlie Brown was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th Bomber Group at Kimbolton. His B-17 was seriously damaged, having been hit by flak and German fighters. The compass was damaged and Charlie was flying deeper into enemy territory. As he struggled to fly the B-17 he realised there was a German ME-109 fighter alongside him. When the B-17 had flown over a German airfield a pilot, Franz Steigler, was ordered to take off and shoot it down. When he got near the B-17, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He had never seen a plane so seriously damaged and still flying. The top gunner was dead and the tail gunner seriously wounded.

Franz flew alongside the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown who was scared and struggling to control his damaged and blood-stained plane. Franz knew they had no idea where they were going, so he waved at Charlie to turn 180 degrees and then escorted and guided the stricken plane as far as the North Sea. He then saluted Charlie Brown and turned away to return to his base. He told his Commanding Officer the plane had been shot down over the sea, and never told the real story to anybody.

More than 40 years later, Charlie wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who saved him and his crew. After some years he traced Franz. They met at a 379th Bomber Group reunion in the USA, together with 25 people who were alive because Franz didn’t fire fired his guns that day. When asked why he didn’t shoot them down, he said, “I didn’t have the heart to finish those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute.” Both men died in 2008.

All things bright and beautiful

We have recently enjoyed some beautiful autumn days. The summer was not great but the seasons move on. The beauty of autumn is striking as the leaves change to reds, yellows and browns and the low sun brings out the depth of their colours. The early morning mists clothe the world in a gentle mantle of beauty. Autumn is one stage in the annual cycle of this beautiful planet on which we live. Earth is a tiny speck in a massive universe, but is uniquely beautiful.

Many of us today live in urban areas in which the beauty of creation is not so easy to see. We are surrounded by buildings and roads, traffic and noise. Life is busy and frantic. One of the blessings of some big cities, like London, is the parks to which office workers can escape for a few minutes at lunch time and mothers can take their children to play. The parks are oases of peace and beauty in the concrete jungles men have created. Parks and fields and hills and streams remind us of God. Wherever we live it is important to find time to be still and to look up and around.

The hymns we learned as children in school or Sunday school have a profound simplicity and speak into our adult world. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” God’s creative power embraces all things. He is the source of all that is bright and beautiful in a world in which, sadly, many things are dark and ugly. He made the great things and the small things. None of us is so small that we are insignificant to him. This amazingly complex world reveals the perfect wisdom of God’s heart and mind.

When we catch glimpses of God’s glory revealed in his creation we spontaneously respond with awe and worship. We are responding to the One who gave us life. “He gave us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell, how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well!” He is the same God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, his Son. During his ministry Jesus showed his love for people as he healed and restored all who came to him. We, too, can come to him in our pain and despair and experience his wonderful love for us.

Let the little children come to me

The abduction of 5 year old April Jones has shocked the nation. Bryn-y-Gog estate is a quiet residential area in Machynlleth, a small town in North Wales. We have friends who live in Bryn-y-Gog. It is a place where you would assume it was safe for young children to play outside. The realisation that their daughter had been abducted devastated her parents and sister and brother. The immediate response of neighbours and friends was to join in the search for her. By the next day hundreds of volunteers from many places had joined with the police and mountain rescue teams to scour the town and countryside.

On Sunday 700 people gathered at St Peters Parish Church for a service of prayers and readings. There are times in life when many of us feel a deep sense of our need for God’s help. Desperately sad things happen, which we are powerless to change. Very bad things happen, which reveal the inner struggle we all experience with our sinful nature. In our helplessness we need to know that there is someone who sees and knows, who loves and cares, and who is able to help.

In Psalm 121 the psalmist asks, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?” His answer is, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Machynlleth is surrounded by beautiful mountains. The mountains have stood as silent witnesses to the desperate search for April. They have no power to help, but remind us of God himself. The help we need comes from the One who created the mountains, the omnipotent, all-powerful Lord. He always watches and cares and he is able to help us in our sadness and grief.

Jesus showed a deep love and care for little children. When mothers brought their children to him he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. Little children are very trusting, and sometimes people wickedly betray that trust. But childlike trust in Jesus is something we all need. We don’t understand the sad and tragic things that happen, but we can bring our sadness and grief to him and know that he cares and will help us.

Discovering and enjoying real life

None of us knows what any day of our life may bring. A few weeks ago our neighbour died suddenly. Friends noticed that his curtains had not been drawn and one, who had a key, went into the house and found he had died. We had been neighbours for nearly 20 years. His wife died just 18 months earlier and since then he had not been well and was lonely. They had no children. The house has been inherited by a nephew. He and his wife have been preparing the house to be sold. They have taken the more valuable things, but many things have been put into a skip on the driveway. It has been sad to see those personal possessions, which once had value for our neighbours, now discarded as of no worth.

Jesus once gave a warning to the people he was teaching. “Beware! Don’t be greedy for what you don’t have. Real life is not measured by how much we own.” We live in a materialistic society in which possessions are prized. We are bombarded by adverts telling us that if we buy certain things our lives will be enriched; the latest smart phone, a new car, electronic devices and designer clothes. But fashion is fickle and moves on. In a very short time all these things are out of date and are discarded.

One of the greatest blessings we can know is contentment. The apostle Paul wrote, “For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Each one of us is infinitely more valuable than our possessions. We were created by God and have a wonderful capacity to relate personally to him. We are not simply the product of an evolutionary process, but are God’s special creation. We have both a body and a soul. When we die our bodies remain, but our souls pass into the presence of God. The life for which we were created can be experienced here on earth and continues into eternity, which is why it is so important to begin to think about it now. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and enjoy it to the full.”