The inspiration of the Invictus Games

The 2017 Invictus Games are being held in Toronto. Invictus means unconquered. The Games were created by Prince Harry for former military personnel who have been wounded or injured in action as they have served their countries. Invictus is about the dedication of men and women who have confronted hardship and refused to be defined by their injuries. They and their families and friends have faced the shock of life-changing injuries and have together faced the long road to recovery.

In his opening speech, Prince Harry spoke of seeing three severely injured British soldiers while waiting to deploy to Afghanistan. He said, “The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it. I knew it was my responsibility to use a great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform. In the world where so many have reasons to feel cynical, and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light and show us all that we have a role to play.”

He went on the speak of the impact the Games would have on those who came to watch, “I hope you are ready for some fierce competition. I hope you are ready to see the meaning of teamwork, the proof that anything is possible when we work together. I hope you are ready to see courage and determination that will inspire you to power through the challenges in your own life. I hope you are ready to see the role models in action that any parent would want their children to look up to. And I hope you’re ready to see lives changing in front of your eyes.”

The Gospel story is about love and sacrifice. Jesus is God’s Son and the King of kings. He came from heaven to earth not to be served but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many. He was ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice in order to redeem people like you and me. On the cross he paid the price of our sins and experienced a depth of suffering we can never fully comprehend. On the third day he rose from the dead. He is the supreme conqueror. Understanding what he did and experiencing his love is life transforming. He lifts us from our own struggles and sorrows and fills our hearts with hope.

She has saved me

Sergeant Alexander Blackman has been released from prison and has been reunited with his wife, Claire, who tirelessly campaigned for him to be freed. On being reunited with his wife, Sgt Blackman said, “She has saved me. Her determination to keep on fighting for me has been incredible. You just can’t imagine anyone cares for you that much.” Sgt Blackman was a Royal Marine and served in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He and his troops manned an outpost deep in hostile territory that has been described as “the most dangerous square mile on earth.” They served in stifling temperatures of 50C, under intense psychological pressure, knowing every step might trigger a land mine.

One day Sgt Blackman shot a severely wounded Taliban fighter whom they had captured. What he said and did was recorded on video. In December 2013, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. It was the first time a British soldier had been convicted of murder on the battlefield. Last month, after a sustained campaign spearheaded by his wife, Sgt Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The appeal judges recognised he had combat stress and reduced his sentence to 7 years, paving the way for his release.

It will take some time to adjust to his new life. He has been dismissed from his beloved Royal Marines and has been offered a civilian job. He said, “Being out of prison is an immense feeling, but I am very conscious that my sentence is not complete. I have been released on licence, and there are certain conditions which I must – and I will – respect.”

All of us have done things that we deeply regret, but cannot change. We feel guilty and long to find forgiveness. The Christian Gospel tells how Jesus, God’s Son, came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins. He lived the perfect life we have failed to live and died on the cross bearing the punishment we deserve. How amazing that anyone could love us so much as to die in our place! When we know Jesus as our Saviour, we are set free from guilt and experience the joy of being forgiven. God’s forgiveness is complete and final; there are no conditions. When we experience God’s love in Jesus we, for the first time, truly love God from our hearts and cannot stop thanking him for what he has done for us; in Jesus, he has saved us!

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” display at the Tower of London has caught the public imagination. More than 4 million people have visited the display which marks the centenary of Britain’s involvement in World War I. From 5 August to 11 November the moat of the Tower of London has been progressively filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies. Each poppy represents one of the British and Colonial soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in the Great War. The scale of the display visibly and powerfully commemorates the massive loss of life which happened 100 years ago. More than 16 million people, military and civilians, died and 20 million were wounded.

When war broke out the British Army desperately needed to recruit more soldiers because the German Army was five times larger. Among those who volunteered were 250,000 boys and young men under the age of 19, the legal limit for armed service overseas. Most of them had little idea of what they would face. It is estimated that half of those who fought on the front line were wounded, died or taken prisoner.

Our commemoration of the centenary of World War I coincides with the withdrawal of British service personnel from Afghanistan. The conflict in Afghanistan has vividly reminded us of the great human cost of war. Many young men and women have died. Many others have suffered life-changing injuries. Many families have lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters. Long after the Union Flag was lowered at Camp Bastion injured soldiers will struggle to cope with the rest of their lives and families will grieve the loss of deeply loved family members. There will be official help and support for a time, but the sense of pain and loss is deep and profound.

The message of the Gospel speaks to our deepest heart needs. Jesus was a young man who dedicated his life to seeking the eternal happiness of others. As God’s eternal Son he was entitled to enjoy all the privileges which were rightfully his, but he voluntarily came into this broken world “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” His death and resurrection stand as a beacon of hope to people of all nations. He understands our deepest pain and loss because he has personally experienced profound pain and loss, and in great love and compassion he comes alongside us in our darkest times to give us comfort, strength and hope.

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.”

The selfless courage of Andy Peat

In a unique ceremony Warrant Officer Andy Peat, a British soldier, was recently awarded the Anders Lassen Award by Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. The Award recognised Andy’s extraordinary courage while serving alongside Danish colleagues in Afghanistan. It is the first time any solider outside the Danish military has received the honour. Andy is a credit to the British Army and the brave men who are serving alongside him in Afghanistan.

In January 2013 Andy, of 33 EOD Regiment, was supporting a Danish task force patrol. In the early hours of the morning they entered a compound in the Upper Gereshk Valley which was being used for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices. As the team moved into the compound an IED was triggered on the roof, severely injuring Oversergeant Rene Brink Jakobsen. At the time of the explosion Andy was only five metres away. He immediately went to provide medical assistance to Rene. However, there was the threat of more IEDs close by, one of which lay underneath Rene. Andy painstakingly searched under Rene cutting two wires to disarm the IED. As Rene was being stretchered off the roof Andy lay across the path of another IED using himself and his body armour as a shield to protect the stretcher party. Andy’s selfless actions saved several lives that night but, sadly, Rene, aged 39, died of his wounds, leaving behind a wife and three children.

At the Award Ceremony Andy and his wife, Candice, and their 3 year old daughter, Sophie, met Rene’s wife, Camilla, and her children, Sara, Maia and Thor. Andy donated the £3000 awarded to him to Rene and her family. He spoke with striking modesty about his surprise at receiving the award, “To be honest it’s just about doing your job and thinking about what you’ve got in front of you and trying your best to get out of that predicament as quickly as possible. If you take any IED operator and put him in front of the same predicament, all the guys would have done exactly the same thing.”

Andy’s actions remind me of another young man, Jesus of Nazareth, who told his disciples, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” By laying down his life on the Cross Jesus secured forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life for people from all nations who trust in him.

We will remember them

Remembrance Day is a deeply significant day as people around the world stand in silence to remember the millions of people who died in the great wars of the 20th century. The First World War ended at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1918. It was hoped that this would be “the war to end all wars”, but sadly this was not fulfilled. Because it was felt that the dead should be honoured, King George V initiated a two minute silence at exactly 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month to commemorate those who had died for their country.

In recent years we have also remembered the service men and women who are still dying in conflicts around the world. A short time after Remembrance Day services had been held in Afghanistan another British soldier was killed. 438 British soldiers have died in that campaign. 2012 also marks the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, when 255 armed forces and Merchant Navy personnel died, as well as 649 Argentinians and 3 islanders. Because many who die in war are young people, at Remembrance services someone says, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

In a world in which war and conflict, death and bereavement are daily realities, many people seek for comfort, strength and hope. In a wonderful way Jesus Christ is able to meet us at our point of deepest need. He was a young man who was committed to winning a great victory, whatever the personal cost to himself. He told his disciples, “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus knew that he could only win life and peace for people from all nations by dying on the Cross. He offered his life willingly. He said, “No-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” On the third day after he died, he rose from the dead.

Remembering can be very painful and even traumatic, especially for those who have survived. We need someone who is great enough and good enough to help us. We must never forget that Jesus is a living Lord. He comes alongside us in our sadness and, through his resurrection triumph, offers us comfort, strength and hope.

There are no atheists on the battle field

In the past month more coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in any previous month. Many of them are young men. They died in a foreign land far from their families and home country. Our soldiers, alongside others, are seeking to protect the Afghan people from the Taliban and the world from terrorism.

As you read these words British soldiers will be on duty in Afghanistan putting their lives on the line again from snipers bullets and roadside bombs. All the soldiers I have heard interviewed have spoken with great dignity about their determination to do their duty. They know the dangers. They have seen some of their colleagues killed and maimed and know that one day the same thing may happen to them. Their courage is a great example to us all.

In a recent interview a senior soldier said, “There are no atheists on the battle field.” When men and women face the real possibility of death they inevitably ask vital questions which the rest of us seek to avoid. Many of us try to escape from reality and give little thought to the future and to eternity. When you carry the bodies of your fellow soldiers back to camp and know that you might be next it is important to find answers to the big questions.

The hope we all need is found in Jesus Christ. He died as a young man at the hands of those who hated him enough to want to kill him. Their hatred was irrational, but they saw him as a threat to their interests and their way of life. As he died he prayed, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Those who loved him took his body down from the Cross and lovingly laid him in the tomb.

On the third day Jesus rose from the dead! The tomb was empty and he appeared many times to his disciples. He gives a living hope to all who trust in him. The “intellectuals” of every age, in their comfortable little world, have scoffed at the idea and declared resurrection cannot happen. What do they know? Those who live in the real world, like the soldiers in Afghanistan, pray to the living God and commit their lives to Jesus. He always hears such prayers and promises that though we die yet shall we live.