"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

A Sermon of Remembrance

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Remembrance Sunday, 8 November 2015, SJE

Daniel 2:1, 26-28, 31-45; Psalm 2; John 18:33-19:11

We are pausing for a moment today as a community of faith to consider those who have suffered the violence of conflict.  Our national day of Remembrance, November 11, is specifically focused on the memory of soldiers, but as Christians our call is broader as we are to intercede for the entire suffering of the creation.  I usually preach on this day, partly because of twenty years of service as a soldier (not a chaplain), but also because of my own life-long engagement with the intersection between faith and violence and the cost of that violence.  Through the grace of God and this community, I’ve also been progressively working through the impact of military service on my life, as I seek God’s grace in that question of how violence shaped me.  These are never easy to deliver, because it involves me opening parts of my life I would rather not deal with.  We have cause to be thankful for a personal story of soldiering this day, from the Horncastle family, as we look on these two chandeliers in a new way.

We start with Daniel’s prophetic revelation to King Nebuchadnezzar about a dream that has caused the king much troubled thought and no small degree of insomnia.  Nebuchadnezzar has seen an image of a remarkable statue: huge, brilliant and extraordinary.  The statue is made of all the known metals from precious to plain, with feet made partly of clay.  It is a strange thing to see as the feet of a metallic statue, but more on that in a moment.  A stone is cut out by God, which strikes this extraordinary statue and destroys it so that no trace of any of the metals can be found.  What is left is the stone which became a great mountain that filled the whole earth. This is a prophetic unveiling of what is to come, the rise and fall of kingdoms and kings, ultimately to be replaced with God’s kingdom that will never be destroyed.  God will prevail.

Ultimately all the kingdoms of the earth have clay feet, and as magnificent as we see the great things that we can do, these will fall.  I’m keenly aware of this as an engineer, as I have already seen in my short years the passing of things which were great, to something forgotten and abandoned.  Daniel’s retelling of the vision is a reminder to us that our ultimate hope rests not in the smarts of humankind, but in a lonely God who died on a lonely hill in the Middle East, only to rise again as the saviour of all.  It is easy now, with Daniel’s vision in mind, to perhaps simply dispense with all of the wars and rumors of wars as the feet of clay of humanity, knowing that it will all become as chaff on the threshing floor.  I’ll suggest that we, as Christians, are called to more than a simple forgetting.  Because we follow a suffering Christ, we are also called to engage the suffering of the world in a way that is as radically different as all aspects of our faith.

Unfortunately, the church’s relationship with soldiers have varied from the one extreme where the church endorses all the military does (thinking here of the consenting Lutheran church in Germany just prior to WWII), to rejecting all soldiers as un-redeemable because they have chosen a path of violence.  Neither fulfills the call of Christ.  In the past I’ve talked about how my faith was formed primarily through my training as a soldier…sure I’ve done a bunch of schooling and learned lots of fancy terms and theology, but the actual day-to-day hard work of being a Christian in a sometimes hostile world and of being a priest…well, that I learned through my formation as a soldier.  It may be a very challenging thing for you to hear if you’ve never thought about the military as a crucible of faith.  In particular, my time in uniform left me with a visceral theology of suffering, in fact, it is what keeps me going as a person who still bears the pain of military injuries.  Those military things, redeemed by Christ, have made me the person of faith I am today.

I’ve also talked about our calling as professional rememberers.  One calling of the church is to remember the sacrifices of others, and the cost of violence, and to call our nation to recollect those things.  But what are we supposed to make of these soldiers?  By stereotype, these are rough men and women, who do things that we would not dream of doing.  We are also called to a place of prayer for all those who suffer, which includes not only the victims of violence, but also those who are undone through exposure to that violence.

But, we are uncomfortable with these people of violence, and so we remake soldiers into people that are easier to deal with by removing the blood and the mud.  A fine example of this is John McCrae, the author of In Flanders Fields, a famous Canadian soldier that has almost been completely sanitized in our remembrance.  McCrae served with the artillery in the Boer war, and attempted to enlist for the First World War as a gunner.  When he was told that physicians were in greater demand, he arranged to join an artillery unit as the deputy commanding officer and as battalion surgeon.  This is very unusual.  Just to be clear, what this means is that McCrae was also second-in-command of an artillery unit.  This is maybe not the perspective we have come to know about this iconic Canadian poet.  Reading more of McCrae’s history it becomes clear that he saw himself first as a soldier, and second as a physician.  McCrae commented at one point, “All the g-d doctors in the world will not win this bloody war: what we need is more and more fighting men.”  At another time when a recovering military patient referred to him as “doctor”, McCrae was said to reply, “Don’t call me doctor, I’m as much a soldier as you”.

In an interesting book of essays for the 100th anniversary of McCrae’s poem, there is an essay by Canadian author Kevin Patterson.  Kevin served as a military physician and later volunteered to work as a civilian physician in Afghanistan.  In the essay titled, “Soldier Surgeon, Soldier Poet” Patterson comments that “Contemporary readers avert their eyes from the third stanza [of In Flanders Fields]…preferring to concentrate on the first two and drink the melancholy and grief within them.  Some people even imagine that this in an anti-war poem — just as they imagine that professional soldiers fight reluctantly.”  As with most things in life, McCrae is far more complicated that our often two-dimensional images reflect.

In an essay in the same book, Romeo Dallaire speaks about the significance of the poem for all Canadians, and not just those in uniform.  “It is up to us Canadians, and not just to our military men and women, to take up McCrae’s torch.  Not only to fight against sworn enemies but to protect innocents – even when no self-interest guides us. […] Perhaps the torch we are passed can be more about spreading the light than taking up arms.”  These words from another solider, and an artillery officer, sound surprisingly at home in a Christian sermon.

The week coming into Remembrance Day is always a difficult one for me, and the writing of these reflections involve a fair amount of tears.  I’ll admit to being a bit more undone than usual this week, partly because of a visit with an old friend last week.  As we were walking she commented about “our friend”…now we had lots of friends in common, but I knew exactly who she was speaking about.  Our one common friend who had died in an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2010, Geoff Parker.  I was about to comment to her that it was significant that she did not name him, when I realized that I didn’t want to speak his name aloud either.  At that moment it struck me that that was something I have never really worked through.  One of my jobs as a retired soldier is to remember Geoff, and my other colleagues who didn’t come home, because remembering is a way of recollecting what others have been willing to give and resolving that I will live my life in a way that honours their sacrifice.  This is answering the challenge of another soldier, poet Siegfried Sassoon, who ends the poem “Aftermath” with these words: “Have you forgotten yet?…Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.” Geoff and others are part of my never forgetting.

One of the questions I’m frequently asked is if I think that Afghanistan was “worth” it.  I’ve never given a straight answer to that question yet, because I really don’t know.  What is worth the cost of a single life on the field of battle?  Is it worth it to show a nation living in tyranny that there is a different way?  Nicola Goddard served in Afghanistan and demonstrated to many Afghan National Army soldiers in a way that nothing else could that there was this transcendent idea of gender equality.  I’m also aware that the question of worth is one that a soldier rarely attempts to answer.  A soldier hopes their sacrifice will have some positive effect on the world, but a soldier also knows, better than most, that the world can be a nasty place.  As an example, consider Robert Semrau’s recent book, The Taliban Don’t Wave.  Semrau commanded a 4-person team that mentored an Afghan National Army company in combat.  He writes of a dream he had one night:

“That night, I dreamed of small children playing on a haystack, having fun and laughing in the bright sun under a pale blue, cloudless sky. I was in uniform, but with no gear or weapons. I was watching them from a ditch when suddenly a massive explosion from inside the haystack ripped them apart and launched their shredded bodies high into the air. I stared as their little body parts started to fall all around me like rain…and then I fell to my knees and started screaming.”

Semrau, at least in the tone of his book, has weathered these challenges.  I have no doubt that such things have left a mark on him that he will carry for life.

One of the other reasons we are called to witness to the cost of warfare is because of the damage that violence does to the human soul.  If you’re been exposed to violence in any form, it leaves behind a mark that becomes a part of you from that day forward.  You may learn to deal with it really well, and life may become very normal again, but it will be there in the quiet of the night.

That quiet of the night is not always weathered well, and service in Afghanistan continues to claim lives.  The father of Corporal Jamie McMullin said of his son, “He went through things a lot worse than I went through, and I did a tour in Croatia. I did Bosnia,” Mr. McMullin says. “Jamie didn’t come home. Jamie left his soul in Afghanistan.”  Corporal McMullin committed suicide on June 17, 2011.  The death of his son led his father Darrell McMullin, who had served in Bosnia in the 1990’s, to seek treatment for his PTSD. (Globe & Mail)

We see this cost in the continuing deaths of soldiers even though we are no longer conducting a mission in Afghanistan.  The Globe and Mail published the results of a challenging investigation it conducted into the deaths of Canadian Forces soldiers…challenging because the reality is that no one actually knows how many soldiers that served overseas have taken their lives, as no one is tracking them once they leave service in uniform.  So we have no idea what the real number of deaths might be.  The Globe’s results initially contrasted 158 deaths in theatre with a subsequent 54 deaths by suicide, a number that changed to 59 suicides within days of the first article being published.  Duty in combat continues to kill even after the shooting stops.

Our Gospel reading today is the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus that contains Pilate’s rather infamous reply, “What is truth?”  Jesus had just said to Pilate, “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  If you want an interesting exercise someday, go through John’s Gospel and note all the times that Jesus speaks of truth.  Right from the start of John’s Gospel you hear this clearly: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  John brings this aspect forward, including identifying the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth.  Jesus is truth.

That’s a frightening idea.  I would much rather Jesus was about peace, or social justice, or pretty Christmas lights, or pretty well anything but the truth.  Almost any other Jesus I can craft into supporting my own idea about what He was about…which allows me to slip into a comfortable idolatry that serves nothing except to reinforce my own need to feel like I’m a good and holy person.  But truth?  Well, know I move to a place where I actually need to look deeply into my own motivations and brokenness to understand why it is I do certain things.  There is no bending a Jesus of truth to my ideas, because the truth of the Spirit stands apart from all of my too-human notions about righteousness.  So what does truth mean to us in light of 59 soldiers who have taken their lives after serving their nation?  What about all those who are slowly killing themselves in addictions that will never be counted in that number?  What is the call of Christ to us, as we consider all those who have lost so much to relentless violence?

Truth is something else that soldiers are well acquainted with.  Having people shooting at you tends to reduce your comfortable dispensations to much simpler reality.  Living without all the things you come to expect: more food than you can eat, long hot showers, smart phones, freedom from risk of violence, clean clothes, and sheets that are not encased in nylon, brings a certain clarity to reality.  This clarity is something that first-world Christians should pay attention to, as it is something our brothers and sisters in the faith who are presently facing ISIL understand better than us.  It all sounds rather hopeless.  But, I’m reminded that we are a people who understand what hopelessness really looks like: God on the cross, seemingly defeated by death.  As GK Chesterton wrote in “The Ballad of the White Horse”,

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Our joy does not rest in a cause, and we remain in the faith even when all seems hopeless, because we know that this is the place where God can truly begin His incarnational work.  This is not a nice place to be, but it is our calling.  I’ll close with a short poem from English author Malcolm Guite, “Silence”:

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.  Amen.


Written by sameo416

November 8, 2015 at 12:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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