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Thought

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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Thought

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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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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Thought

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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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.