Stronghold isn’t a word that’s in my everyday vocabulary, but it carries an immensity of meaning that lives up to its name.
The Round Tower at Windsor Castle, the Keep at Dover Castle, the huge walls of Caernarfon Castle… All those fortresses were built to keep people safe inside and keep unwelcome invaders out. That the castles still stand, hundreds of years after being built, is testament to their solidness, strategic position, and the vision and leadership of William the Conqueror and Edward I.
The dictionary defines a stronghold as a place that has been fortified to protect it against attack. True, but I like to think of it also as a place of sanctuary.
A friend was going through the pain of a terminal illness. She asked that part of Psalm 27 be read at her funeral service. This was her testimony, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”
A Christian rock group sang, “Oh Jesus, you’ve got a good strong hold on me.” Whatever a Christian believer’s circumstances, they can echo those words. God is a solid fortress that protects, and provides sanctuary, against whatever attacks – physical, mental, spiritual – come a believer’s way. He is a stronghold and he has a loving and strong hold on their life.
Ken Rosewall was at the French Open final today and presented the trophy to… yes, Rafael Nadal. It was Rafa’s 11th French Open title. Ken Rosewall, who won the French Open Singles twice, first played at Roland Garros aged 17 and was there 63 years later to give the cup to Nadal. Runner-up, Dominic Thiem, first went to Roland Garros aged 11 to watch… Rafael Nadal! There was something rather wonderful about seeing the different generations of tennis come together, united in their love and prowess for the game.
I first saw Ken Rosewall at Wimbledon in the 1960s. I interviewed him some three decades later at Hurlingham in a pre-Wimbledon special event and he was kind enough to let me pose for a photo with him. At that event the upcoming newcomer on the tennis scene was Greg Rusedski who, today, was in the TV studio giving expert analysis on the match between Nadal and Thiem.
How fascinating it is to see the respect that successive generations of players have for each other. I wonder whether there is that same respect, generosity, kindness and love within our families across the generations. It may be challenging at times, just as tennis matches are challenging, but it’s surely worth working at. Just as each tennis player in every generation has a unique personality and style and skills, so each member of a family has something to contribute which commands the respect and love of everyone else.
Love and peace. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” goes the song. Laudable though that sentiment is, putting it into practice is a challenge.
Yesterday, on Test Match Special, a young lad was interviewed. If you didn’t hear it, Google Test Match Special, click on Podcasts and you can listen now or download it. 16 year old Waleed Khan describes how he was left for dead after a terrorist attack in Peshawar four years ago which killed 135 of his school friends and 20 teachers. His injuries were multiple and severe. His face had to have major reconstruction surgery and some of his treatment was carried out in Birmingham where he now lives.
He shows no hatred towards the perpetrators; rather he concentrates on leading a positive life, helping others to see that peace and love can prevail over evil. His is a remarkable story. Needless to say, he is cricket-mad and keen on other sports too, participating in as many as possible!
Waleed Khan’s testimony is powerful. Though his circumstances are somewhat unique, the message of peace and love isn’t new. Listening to an interview such as this may shame us into realising that many of us have little to grouse about and much to be thankful for – so what’s stopping us from sharing those two virtues? Think how someone might be encouraged by your kind word, listening ear or gentle smile.
Last night’s electric storms over the south of England demonstrated how little control we humans have over nature. Noisy, bright, spectacular, terrifying… Whether you stand at the window in wonder or dive under the duvet in fear, one thing is certain: there’s nothing you can do to stop a storm. If ever there was evidence that human beings aren’t in control of the universe, a storm such as yesterday’s surely provides it.
All seems stable in life until the unexpected hits. The storms of life take different forms: illness, bereavement, job loss, a breakdown in relationships, burglary, debt… Nothing stays the same for very long and we have to learn how to manage different and evolving scenarios. How do we do that?
Jesus’ disciples got caught up in a storm when out fishing in their boat. They were terrified. What was worse, Jesus their leader and friend, was asleep! They shook him awake. “We’re going to die!” they yelled. Jesus got up and ordered the storm to stop. It did, and all became calm. Jesus, as God, was in control of the universe he’d created. We can’t stop storms but if Jesus is in our ‘boat’ we don’t face the storms alone.
Love has been in the air this weekend. The weather came up trumps, making everything bright and beautiful – for the wedding of Harry and Meghan and for the festival of Pentecost.
Love is like a diamond – multi-faceted, sparkling, enduring and tough. It has its source in God, as Bishop Michael Curry reminded his world-wide audience yesterday. From God’s solid and lasting love all other loves branch out. Love can be shared through our eyes, thoughts, words and actions. We don’t always get it right and our love can never match God’s love in his perfection. But that’s where Pentecost comes in.
There was consternation when Jesus told his disciples he’d be leaving them to return to heaven – until he reassured them that the Holy Spirit would come into their lives. God would actually live in every believer. Such was God’s love that he wasn’t prepared to leave human beings to soldier on in their own strength. God is love. His Spirit would reveal the truth about God, act as a teacher and helper and give comfort. What’s more, the Spirit works at producing fruit in Christ’s followers – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. Love comes first. Love God; love each other, was Jesus’ message. The good news of Pentecost, celebrated today, is that the Spirit has come and is at work, helping Christ’s followers to reach up and out, albeit slowly and with stumbles, to God and to our fellow human beings.
A passerby chucked a dog poo bag under a hedge, cheerily called out ‘Good morning’ to me, and walked on, his dog trotting along a few yards behind him. I was too much of a wimp to say, ‘Oi! What are you doing throwing that down there?’ or even a more polite, ‘Excuse me, I think you’ve dropped something.’
That plastic poo bag wasn’t the only plastic litter I saw on my early morning walk. Plastic, as we’re all aware, thanks to Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, is causing huge damage all over the globe yet it’s difficult to live daily life without it. Back in the dark ages sixty or seventy years ago, chocolate bars were wrapped in foil and paper, food at the shops was put into paper bags or straight into a wicker shopping basket, we drank out of china cups or glass glasses and put our rubbish into metal dustbins.
Our efforts to be responsible stewards of Earth can resemble the movement of a plastic bottle that I saw spinning out of control in the eddying water by a sluice gate. Day after day, out of reach, the bottle maintained its futile movement, busy but purposeless, striving but getting nowhere.
We mustn’t give up on the stewardship of Earth! Beach clean-up days and litter-pick days help, especially if you’re working together as a team of responsible citizens. There’s strength and a visible example in numbers. But does that excuse me from being a wimp this morning with the Poo Bag Incident? I don’t think so.
Web chats are weird, but then I suppose other modern communication tools are too. Back in the olden days of handwritten letters, it might take a minimum of several days before receiving a reply to my letter. In today’s fast-paced world, we have come to expect instant responses to our communications. Hence my weird web chat with an unknown person at a well-known company. The chat achieved a result but was very impersonal.
You really can’t beat a face to face conversation. You could say, like Parliamentarians using different spelling, “The eyes have it.” On my desk there are a dozen pairs of eyes smiling at me, so when I’m on the phone to one of the family, I have their photo in front of me. Lovely though it would be, it’s not always practical to be face to face with family members who live at a distance. The photos help.
Each face is different and each pair of eyes represents a unique person who is of great value to me, but also of great value to God. A smile, a kind word, a listening ear, can all help someone feel affirmed – so important and necessary in an impersonal and often lonely world. If God recognises me amongst his billions and knows me by name, I should make the effort to affirm others – including that unseen face on the other end of the web chat.