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Give us this day our daily bread

The fine weather in September helped farmers to clear the fields of the final crops and finish harvest. The warm, late summer sunshine meant that the crops were in good condition for storage. We all benefit from the hard work of farmers throughout the year that ensures we have the food we need. There have been complaints that some supermarket shelves have been empty, but the reality is that they have been less full than usual. We enjoy an abundance of good food at reasonable prices.

Some countries have serious problems because of a shortage of water. In Ethiopia, rising temperatures are making it harder and harder to grow food. If the rains don’t come, farmers have no option but to watch their crops wither and die. In Uganda, the poorest families face a daily struggle without clean water and decent sanitation and food supplies are uncertain. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that 14 million people, including 2 million children, about one in three of the population, are food insecure and food prices are rising.

Many churches and schools hold Harvest Thanksgiving services at this time of year. The familiar harvest hymns remind us of the goodness of God: “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes, and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain. The winds and waves obey him, by him the birds are fed; much more to us, his children, he gives our daily bread. We thank Thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seedtime, and the harvest, our life, our health, our food. No gifts have we to offer for all Thy love imparts, but that which Thou desirest, our humble, thankful hearts. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.”

As we give thanks for God’s bountiful provision for us for another year, let’s remember those in our own country and in other countries who are in need. Planet earth is unique. It produces an abundance of food, enough to feed everyone on the planet and up to 10 billion people. As we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” let’s remember the millions of people in our world, men, women, and children, who, because of poverty and human greed, don’t know where their next meal is coming from and let’s do what we can to help them.

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Perfect love drives out fear

The desperate and tragic scenes at the Hamad Karzai International Airport in Kabul have vividly portrayed what terrorism is all about: producing terror in men, women, and children. The ordinary people in Afghanistan are in profound fear of the Taliban and thousands want to flee from their home country to avoid savage punishments or death for alleged offences against Sharia law. Taliban means “students”, who have been schooled in conservative Islamic teaching and are committed to militant Islam. The development of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been encouraged and financed from outside the country.

One of the accusations Jesus faced was from conservative Jewish leaders who alleged that he and his disciples didn’t keep the “traditions of the elders.” Over the centuries various Jewish religious leaders had added to God’s Law hundreds of their interpretations of that law so that keeping their “traditions” had become more important than the Law itself. Jesus said their “traditions’ contradicted God’s Law and made it null and void. The conservative religious leaders hated him for this. All religions are liable to such gross distortions and become especially dangerous when imposed on people by religious zealots.

Early one morning Jesus was teaching a crowd in the Temple at Jerusalem when a group of strict religious leaders appeared. It was one of the great annual pilgrimage feasts and they brought with them a woman they said they had caught in the act of adultery. They told Jesus that the law of Moses said that such women should be stoned and asked him, “What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into either contradicting the law of Moses or offending the Roman authorities who didn’t allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment.

Jesus knew these men were hypocrites. They had brought the woman, but had let the man go free, and were pointing their fingers at the woman to conceal their own sinfulness. So, he said, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” God’s love in sending his Son to pay the price of our sins creates in the hearts of all who experience it a profound gratitude and a deep love for God.

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My joy in the way God has made me

This week the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games begins. More than 4500 athletes from 163 countries will compete in 539 events in 22 sports. Sadly, the two athletes from Afghanistan have not been able to travel because of the political turmoil in the country. Zakia Khudadadi, who competes in taekwondo, would have been the first female athlete ever to represent the country at the Paralympic Games. The Paralympic Games is a very special event at which people with disabilities demonstrate amazing skills and the way they have overcome adversity.

Anna Tipton represented Great Britain in goalball at the London Paralympics in 2012, where she was the highest scorer for Team GB. Anna was born with a retina cell disorder which meant she had tunnel vision and found playing sport a nightmare. She couldn’t see either the ball or her teammates clearly and often felt she was the weakest link in the team. PE lessons in school were very stressful.

When she was in her early teens Anna and her visually impaired brother, Michael, were introduced to the sport of goalball. The game is played with three players on each side all wearing blind folds and attempting to throw the ball into a goal the width of the court. The ball has a bell in it so that players can use the sound of the bell to judge the position and movement of the ball. Able-bodied athletes are also blindfolded when playing goalball.

When Anna was in her mid-teens, she became a Christian. She understood how Jesus’ death on the cross gave her a personal relationship with God by taking away the barrier of her sin. This led to a wonderful closeness with her heavenly Father as Anna integrated her sport and her faith. Anna says, “Being a Christian is about the ins and outs of your life, including sport. God is there with you. Every time I play it’s like my worship to God. If I can do my best on a goalball court, then that’s my joy in the way that God has made me.” 

Anna is now a mother with a young son. She no longer competes in elite sport but continues to know God’s nearness and unchanging love. She prays that those who know her, including her former teammates, will also experience God’s love in Jesus. She says, “My teammates have seen the best and worst of me and all my emotions as we’ve competed together. I’ve always been open about my faith and the fact that God is at the heart of everything I do.”

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I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing

On 4 July the last 750 regular British soldiers left Afghanistan, bringing to an end 20 years of military deployment in the country. Since the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, following the 2001 September 11 terror attacks, 454 British soldiers and civilians have died in Afghanistan. Some 2300 US personnel have also been killed and 50,000 Afghan civilians. The future of the country is very uncertain as the Taliban advances in many parts of the country, sparking fears of a new civil war.

The withdrawal of British soldiers from Afghanistan has brought back very painful memories for soldiers who still remember the sacrifice made by some of their friends. In the early hours of 10 July 2009, Rifleman Peter Sherlock was woken on his camp-bed at Wishtan forward operating base in Helmand’s Sangin district by his fellow troops preparing for their dawn patrol. Peter, then 21, should have been among the men heading out that morning but had been struck down by severe heatstroke the previous day and had been ordered to remain in the base. Peter chatted with the men getting ready, one of whom, 20-year-old Rifleman Danny Simpson, was his best friend in C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles.

As the men said goodbye and filed out of the front gates, Peter went to sit with the medics wondering who had taken his place in the patrol. Within minutes, there were two loud explosions in quick succession, about 500m from the base. Eight members of the 30-man patrol died and more than a dozen suffered life-changing injuries. The first death Peter heard confirmed over the radio was his best friend Danny, who had an eight-month-old son at home. Peter says, “The guilt of not having gone out with them was instant and has haunted me ever since.”

It is important that we remember and give thanks for the people, many of them young men, who have died serving in Afghanistan. They laid down their lives in a foreign land far from home seeking to bring peace to that troubled nation. Peter says, “I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing.” We pray for those like him, still living with the trauma of what he experienced, and others with life-changing injuries, and for the future of the Afghan people. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus is the supreme example of self-sacrifice. His death and resurrection have brought hope to our sad and suffering world. His love in dying for our sins has brought peace to many people burdened with guilt and comfort to those with profoundly sad memories.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.