Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Learning from the past

Remembrance Sunday Article
(featured in the Methodist Recorder)

We will remember them

On the eleventh of the eleventh, in fields, by war memorials, in churches and in homes familiar words will be spoken, “We will remember them.” Stirring hymns will be sung and silence will be observed as, for the 99thtime, the nation remembers the end of the first world war. This centenary anniversary of the Armistice has a particular poignancy – there are now no survivors of that great devastation left to remember, to tell the story, to pass on to a new generation the scale of disaster that swept across Europe.  

Special commemorations
There are some very special commemorations this year, including the ‘There but not There’ project, where acrylic or metal outlines of ‘Tommies’ are set in place in churches showing where men from that community may have sat if they had survived the War. It is moving to see the outline of soldiers on pews or chairs – present in their absence. When we see them we are sharply reminded of the human beings at the centre of war and the way whole communities are devastated by loss on such a scale. Methodist Churches are marking the centenary in creative ways, such as Penkridge Methodist Church, where people have crafted over 8,000 poppies which will be suspended in a great cascade as part of that community’s act of remembrance. 

We do not only mark the end of the ‘Great War’ on Remembrance Sunday, we remember all the battles and wars since and all who have lost their lives, serving the nation. For some Remembrance Day is a time of personal pain as they remember loved ones who have lost their lives or suffered life-changing injuries. For many it is a day to pause and reflect on the cost of peace and on the foolhardy willingness of human beings to stop talking and to start fighting. For some, a proper pride in courage and loyalty is warped into a jingoistic nationalism that threatens to shift our focus from a dignified solidarity with all who suffer in war, towards a flag-waving call to defend our borders from ‘The other’, whoever the other might be. 

Fault Lines
The way that we mark Remembrance can offer insight into some of the fault lines in our nation today; fault lines of age, faith and gender. In recent years the official liturgy used at war memorials has changed a little to reflect more modern language. It could still be argued however that the language used, the hymns sung and the formality of the events hark back to a time when the majority of citizens were assumed to be Christian and understood what they were doing when they prayed. The prayers offered remain largely Christian, yet many who are being remembered and many who attend are of other faiths and none. The military style of most memorials and those who lead them tends to a majority of male attendees at memorial events and echoes back to a time when, in traditional communities, only men attended funerals. The words used on such occasions are, for many people, comforting and familiar and to radically change what is done would cause great distress, yet the question is being asked as to whether the 100thanniversary of the end of WWI might be the point to let go and begin to do things differently. 

Comfort and Challenge
Jeremiah pointed the people of Israel towards God at a time of great upheaval and turmoil. The leaders of Israel and their families were in exile in Babylon and the future looked bleak indeed. They were living in a situation where they were ‘the other’ and fault lines of faith and nation were drawn sharply around them. Into this chaos and fear the Prophet presented the word of God, offering comfort but also a challenge. The comfort was that in the end they would be restored to their own land and be free from their captors. The challenge was that they were not to sit around waiting for it to happen, whilst nostalgically looking back to all they had lost. God called on them to settle down, marry, have children and, most strikingly, to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city to which they had been taken. (Jeremiah 29.7) 

Not ‘going back’
There is a good deal of rhetoric around at the moment about ‘going back’. In churches many long to go back to a time when the Sunday School was full and there was always a volunteer to do every job needed (nostalgia has a tendency to warp reality!). In the discourse around our nation’s place in the world there is a longing by some to ‘go back’ to being independent, in control, in charge. The present is perceived to be a Babylon into which we have been exiled and the past is a safe place and we long to return. God is not going to take us, church or nation, to a place of the past – not least as it is not the land of milk and honey that we might imagine. No nation can flourish without a complex set of relationships, we live as interdependent communities and working out how to value and honour each other is the only path to peace. God longs for us to pray for peace and for people to prosper in the place we find ourselves now. Living faithfully in God’s love is a call to love those amongst whom we live, however much we feel they are ‘the other’ or that we are. 

As we look back to the times in our history when peace has been overwhelmed by the clamour for war, for power, for the maintaining of a particular world order; may we be willing to learn the lessons of the past and pray for the peace and prosperity of all God’s children.

 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you out from captivity.” (Jeremiah 29. 11-13)

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