Preached at Grace Bible Chapel, Sunday, November 10, 2013
I was invited to preach by Pastor Steve Brown, who went to college with my chaplain friend Howard Rittenhouse. I thank Steve and his congregation for their warm welcome. MP+
I am very thankful for the invitation to come and be with you today, and I bring greetings from my fellow chaplains in the Canadian Armed Forces. We are always grateful for the many congregations across Canada that are interested in and support our ministry. As I said to Pastor Steve in our email correspondence, my wife Kay and I know this area well from our time when I was the Anglican priest in Ilderton and Denfield,and it’s a pleasure to come back.
As we approach Remembrance Day each year, I think it’s important that we to ask ourselves, what exactly are we remembering, and why are we remembering? If the poppies that we pin to our clothes are to have any meaning other than as fashion accessories, I think we have to ask ourselves these questions. Because memory works best when we recall specific things, let me start with three scenes, three vignettes of remembrance.
At some time during World War One, the son of the minister of Grace Anglican Church in Ilderton enlisted and went to serve in France. He never came home, and his name was engraved on a brass stand that holds the large prayer book or missal for the minister’s use. That book stand is still there on the altar at Grace Church today. Reverend Shore served Grace Church and the people of Ilderton as minister well into the 1920s. Many years later, as I stood in his place and led worship there each Sunday, I would see his son’s name on that brass stand and I would sometimes think about my predecessor. Did it comfort Reverend Shore to know that his son was remembered in this way? Did he ever wonder if his son, and all those boys who never returned to the peaceful fields of Middlesex County, had died for anything good? Were his prayers and his ministry a source of comfort to him, or did he wrestle with God? I don’t know the answers to these questions. All I know is that it was important to Reverend Shore and his congregation that they remember this boy, even if, a century later, they are all just names in the past to us.
A few years ago, when I served in Alberta, I became friends with Tom, a young officer, who like many young soldiers is heavily tattooed. On one of his arms there is an elaborate tattoo showing the names of two soldiers under his command in Afghanistan, who were both killed there When I first met Tom I could tell he was angry. He had had a rough deployment where he had lost men, his marriage had failed while he was overseas, and he clearly had some issues with the army. Over time, I am happy to say, he worked things out, he is now happily remarried, and has a promising future, but I know that war changed him. I know that this Remembrance Day Tom, like every one of our Afghanistan veterans, will be thinking of friends who never came home. Tomorrow, he and his comrades will take their places at cenotaphs and memorials across Canada, like the generations of veterans before them, and they will remember their friends. The papers and TV news shows may show the faces of the 158 young Canadians who died in Afghanistan, and we will do our best to remember them, even if they are just a sad blur of young men and women who died far too early.
For my colleagues who are military chaplains, called to serve those who serve, Remembrance Day is also challenging for us. We know these soldiers, we are friends to them, we understand them as few others do. While we try to be spiritual guides and leaders to them, we know that many of them profess other faiths, or none at all, and yet in some way we are shepherds to them. Because we as their chaplains train with soldiers, share their hardships, and walk with them, we respect their dedication and professionalism. Because we too leave our families and loved ones for long periods, we know the cost that soldiers’ families have to pay. Sometimes we have had to bury them, or sit beside their shattered bodies in hospital. Often we witness the damage to their minds and souls, and see the cost of that damage to them and to their loved ones, and we grieve for them. I know chaplains who have paid a price for being so close to such suffering, and I know that tomorrow they too will struggle with their own thoughts and emotions as they remember.
At this time of year I think a lot about my military friends, soldiers and chaplains, and about the names we all remember. On today, the Sunday before Remembrance Day, what should I preach about? What should I say? You and Pastor Steve have invited me hear, I presume, to hear me connect our Christian faith with the subject of Remembrance Day. How does one connect God with the subject of war and destruction. What does the name of God mean when spoken together with the names of young men and women who died too soon? What comfort can the name of God offer to those who remember the names of the dead and wounded?
The first thing I would say is that all of us, as Canadians and as Christians, wear two hats on a day like this. The Canadian bit is fairly straightforward. As Canadians, I think we all feel sorrow and pride. We feel sorrow because of the lives that were taken or ruined in places like Passchendaele, or Normandy, or Kandahar. We mourn the waste of it all, but we take some pride in what our veterans did. We remember the sense of Canadian identity that was reinforced in the trenches of Flanders. We remember the people of Holland we saved from tyranny and starvation. We think of how South Korea is a modern, prosperous country because Canadians were helped defend it. We are thankful that our veterans earned us the freedom to wear a red poppy, or even a white one, or none at all. Lately I spend a lot of time on a university campus, wear I see young Canadians of all races and faiths wearing the red poppy, and that makes me proud to be Canadian.
As Canadians who are also Christians, however, I think that Remembrance Day is not so straightforward. We are a distinct people, called to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and to share his gospel with the world in our words and in our actions. Yes, there is violence and conflict in the Old Testament, and many Christians find this part of the bible to be difficult, but there are also Old Testament voices such as the prophet Hosea, who tells us that God desires “steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), or Micah who looks forward to when God brings in an era of peace (Micah 4.3). In the preaching and parables of Jesus we find a consistent message of love and peace, including the famous verse from Matthew, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). For the early church, non-violent resistance was the only response to the power of Rome. It was only when Christianity was the faith of both rulers and ruled that Christians began to struggle with how we could make war on neighbours that Jesus had called us to love. For most Christians throughout the ages, there has been some idea of justifiable war, such as wars of self-defense or wars to stop aggression. Other Christians, however, such as the Amish and some Mennonites, felt strongly that they were called by God to lives of non-violence. Both views are respectable parts of the Christian tradition. Both views live in tension with one another.
As a Christian who wears a uniform, I have obviously made a choice as to where I stand in this debate. I do think there are times when soldiers are necessary, just as police are necessary, and I do think there are times when both soldiers and police alike are called to use violence. But do I think that it soldiers and armies please God? No, I don’t. I would never encourage a soldier to think that he or she was a Christian warrior. In 1914, when Reverend Shore’s son left Ilderton to go to war, he and his generation were told that they were fighting for God, King and country. The generation of German youth who fought against them were also told the same thing, and wore belt buckles stamped with the words “Got Mit Uns”, meaning “God Is With Us”. The Christian countries of Europe butchered their children for four years in the name of God, and created the conditions for the Second World War a generation later. Even today there are those who wage war in God’s name. As a young soldier asked me after Afghanistan, “The Taliban were told that God was on their side, so I didn’t want my chaplain praying for victory as well. I don’t think God is on anyone’s side.”
As Christians, the one thing we can agree on with our non-Christian friends is that evil exists. We have a specific word for evil, that we call sin, and war by its nature is sinful. There are very few wars that could not have been prevented by wiser and cooler heads. Reverend Shore’s son and his generation need not have died in France - if you read Max Hasting’s new book on World War One, Catastrophe, it is amazing and infuriating to learn how many bad and stupid decisions led to the start of that war. War creates conditions for sin - for anger and hatred, for rape and theft, for the murder of prisoners and civilians, for human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing and genocide, from the past to the present. Furthermore, we know that God hates sin and has promised, in Romans 8 and Revelation 21, that God’s work to rescue and perfect the world is not yet complete. When that work is finished, war and death will be defeated. So I don’t see how any Christian can argue that God approves of war
As Christians, I think we can also agree that while war is sinful, sin also exists in the world we live in, and because we live in the world, there are also times when we have to fight, however reluctantly. The World War Two generation is sometimes called the greatest generation because they resisted the great evil of Hitler and the Nazis. I referred earlier to the Liberation of Holland as a great moment of Canadian pride, and that would not have happened if Hitler had not been defeated, at great cost. There are other moments in history where evil has not been resisted so forcefully. In Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, for example, we sent too few soldiers to do too little, and so a great many people suffered and died without being rescued the way we rescued the Dutch in 1945. The few Canadians that went to Rwanda and Bosnia as peacekeepers, where there was no peace to keep, often came home haunted and broken by their experiences of evil. Many of our soldiers came home from Afghanistan suffering in mind and spirit, injuries that we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unlike the World War Two generation, the Afghanistan vets didn’t have a clear victory. They came home wondering if any good came from the suffering that they saw there, or from the suffering they saw by the things they themselves had to do in combat. So our soldiers and veterans have spiritual needs that may need more than just a poppy or a yellow ribbon. They need to be reminded of God’s love, they may need God’s forgiveness for the terrible things they may have been required to do in wartime. Here are three things we can do to support them.
The first is that we can continue to pray for peace. Here I mean something more than a simple bedtime prayer. Praying for peace means caring about the world and world politics. It means following the news and digging into the news. It means asking hard questions to our elected leaders about what role Canada is playing in the world, and whether they are concerned about just about trade and profit, or about justice, about war crimes, about refugees? And always, as we pray for peace, we need to pray that God will be at work in world affairs, bringing good out of evil, for as Paul tells us, the world, all of creation is groaning for its rescue in Christ (Rom 8:24).
The second thing we can do is pray for our soldiers. Here I mean something that’s harder than just thinking of them as heroes. Our soldiers are complicated, ordinary, frail and sinful human beings. They are just like us, except that they are sometimes called on to do terrible things. So really pray for them. Pray that that they get the strength they need to fight well, and for the wisdom they need to see and do the right thing. Pray for those who have seen combat, that they receive the healing and even the forgiveness they need if they have had to fight and to take life. Pray for their families, for strong marriages and loving spouses. Pray for those soldiers who do not yet know God. Pray for our politicians who have responsibility for our Armed Forces and for our veterans. Ask your politicians what they are doing for our veterans in the way of pensions, education, benefits, and job retraining.
Finally, the third thing we can do is pray for ourselves. As human beings we are subject to all the sins which cause war - vengeance, anger, prejudice, fear of the other, unthinking and shallow patriotism. Pray for the courage to reach out to others, for the strength to forgive and for the courage to do the hard work of love that Christ calls us to. Let’s thank God that we live in a rich and peaceful place, untouched by war. Let’s pray for a spirit of generosity and love to share what we have, the example of Canada, with others. In the complicated and dangerous world of the future, let’s pray for courage and wisdom to do the right things. And let us pray that tomorrow, and every day thereafter, we may always remember, and never forget.