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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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God hears our prayers

There was a sense of deep shock for the players and everyone in the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, and millions around the world watching on television, when Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s star player, suffered a cardiac arrest during the Euro 2020 match against Finland. Denmark’s team doctor and the medical team ran to treat him as players and fans stood helplessly by. Dr Boesen said, “He was gone. I don’t know how close we were to losing him, but we got him back after one defibrillation, so that’s quite fast.” Millions of people prayed for Christian as the medical team treated him and God graciously heard those prayers. Christian is now recovering in Rigshospitalet. Many people said that what happened to Christian puts everything into perspective because there are much more important things than football.

Seeing Christian Eriksen collapse brought back deeply emotional memories for former footballer Fabrice Muamba. In March 2012 Fabrice suddenly collapsed during an FA Cup match between Bolton and Tottenham Hotspur. His heart stopped for 78 minutes. His life was saved by Dr Andrew Deaner, a cardiologist and Tottenham fan, who rushed from his seat in the stand to help. Dr Deaner organised paramedics resuscitating him before rushing him to the London Chest Hospital. It took 15 defibrillator shocks, 2 on the pitch and 13 in the ambulance, to bring Fabrice back to life. He said, “I owe him everything. He is the reason I have been able to hold my son again and continue my life. I would not be alive today if he’d not been at the game.”

Fabrice is a Christian and has spoken about his faith in God, “I am walking proof of the power of prayer. For 78 minutes I was dead and, even if I lived, was expected to have suffered brain damage. But I’m very much alive and sitting here talking now. On the morning of the game, I prayed with my father and asked God to protect me, and he didn’t let me down.”

Fabrice’s father, Marcel, came to Britain from Congo in 1994 during the terrible civil war which claimed 4 million lives. While Fabrice lay unconscious in hospital his father prayed for him. Marcel said, “I was obviously very concerned that Fabrice would not make it, but our faith is very strong, and I really believed God would answer my prayer to save him. Somehow, I just knew Fabrice would be safe in God’s hands. I said to God, ‘You are the one who resurrected Lazarus from the dead. Now in this moment glorify yourself.’ We rejoice that Fabrice made a full recovery and pray that Christian will too.

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Love and life in Jesus

On Easter Sunday terror came to Sri Lanka. Coordinated bomb attacks on churches in the capital Colombo, and other towns, killed and seriously injured many people. Hotels were also attacked. The bombs were timed to go off when the churches were packed with worshippers rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. At least 290 people have died, and more than 500 have been injured. Those who died include people from at least 8 other nations. These bombings are the deadliest violence since the end of the civil war in 2009 and the whole country is in shock. In many churches around the world people prayed for those caught up in these atrocities.

The Easter message speaks very powerfully into the tragic events in Sri Lanka. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he prayed for those who were responsible for his death, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He had taught his disciples to love their enemies and demonstrated this in the midst of his own profound sufferings. He told his disciples that they would be hated for his name’s sake but said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

On Easter Day Christians rejoice that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died. His resurrection was witnessed by many of his disciples, both men and women, and transformed them. When he died their hopes had died but when they saw their risen Lord they were filled with joy. Jesus sent them out into the world to proclaim to all people the good news of his resurrection and the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross.

The hope that Christians have of being raised to eternal life is based on the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus. His promise is “because I live you also will live.” He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So, the Easter message of love and life in Jesus declares that evil and hatred will not ultimately triumph. As one Easter hymn proclaims, “death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered!”

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Saving lives in Yemen

For more than 3 years Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, has been devastated by a civil war between Houthi rebels and the supporters of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Children are paying the heaviest price as they face the threat of bombs, hunger and disease. Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 and that more than 11 million children now need humanitarian assistance. A recent airstrike hit a school bus carrying children under the age of 10 on a summer school trip: 40 children died, and dozens were injured.

Cholera is a major threat because the sewage and sanitation systems have been destroyed during the civil war. In 2017 there were more than 1 million cholera cases in Yemen. More than 2000 people died, many of them children. However, a new international initiative has reduced the number of new cases by 95%.

Using NASA satellite technology, the Met Office in the UK produces a rainfall forecast for Yemen 4 weeks ahead of time which pinpoints areas likely to be hit by heavy rain. This is important because downpours overwhelm the sewage system leading to a spread of cholera. The forecasts are analysed by a team of scientists in the USA to predict the areas where outbreaks of cholera are likely to occur. They use information such as population density, access to clean water and seasonal temperatures. The information is passed to the UN’s children’s charity, UNICEF, which then deploys resources to prevent the spread of the disease. Simple sanitation advice, such as washing hands and drawing water from safe sources saves thousands of lives.

The situation in Yemen illustrates our human predicament. On the one hand human beings are capable of great evil, leading to the death of many people, and on the other hand our God-given intelligence and skill can save many lives. In Yemen both facets are seen side by side. In our personal lives we also struggle with our natural inclination to selfishness and our ability to express love and kindness.

The apostle Paul vividly described his own struggle; “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Paul and many other people have found the answer to this struggle in Jesus Christ through whom they have experienced forgiveness for their sins and have been given strength to live a new life.

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Sacrificial love in DR Congo

Last week the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo declared an outbreak of Ebola. Two cases have been confirmed in the northwest of the country. Ebola was first identified in DR Congo in 1976. The virus can be transmitted from wild animals to people and spreads through human-to-human transmission. The average fatality rate is 50%. The World Health organisation has made $1 million available to contain the outbreak.

DR Congo is two-thirds the size of Western Europe and is potentially one of the richest countries in the world. It has an abundant water supply from the world’s second-largest river, a benign climate, fertile soil and abundant deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium and oil. Yet its 79 million people have experienced great suffering through corrupt government and a long running civil war in which more than 5 million people have died. Millions of people now live in extreme poverty.

Yet there are also bright lights of love and hope that shine in DR Congo. A friend of mine, who lives and works in Shalom University in Bunia, recently wrote to me. In February and March violence flared in the area near Bunia and over a two-week period 50,000 people fled into the city. They arrived on foot with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My friend described the response of Christians to the needs of these displaced people.

“On the first Sunday after the displaced began arriving, it was blazing hot. The pastor of the main church in Bunia preached on Abraham’s hospitality of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God himself. The pastor invited a refugee family up to the front to tell their story. At the end of their story the pastor started singing and the people began to stream forward to give a love offering for the displaced. Soon a large pink laundry basket was overflowing with bundles of money. This came from the people of a city where £70 a month is a good salary.”

The pastor then asked the Christians to prepare for a bigger offering the next Sunday. He told them they should bring their best food and clothes. The following Sunday, the offering was even larger and large bags of clothes were donated. For a month, the Christians throughout Bunia provided the main support for the displaced people. The loving actions of these Christians was inspired by their own experience of God’s love in Jesus who, “though he was rich, yet for their sake became poor, so that you through his poverty they might become rich.”