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 After 13 years British troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan and Bastion has been handed over to Afghans.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.”