In many parts of the world, this weekend has been one to remember those who have fallen in war. Perhaps part of the challenge and the opportunity of being church in Second Life is that our traditions are not all the same in our real life churches and nations. Celebrating Remembrance Sunday might have seemed odd to some for whom this is not their normal tradition. However, people from around the world attended and read at the two Remembrance services which we held, one at 10pm SLT on Saturday for the Pacific Rim (and insomniacs elsewhere!) and one at noon SLT on Sunday for the UK, Europe and America. Many took the opportunity to wear a poppy on their lapel and to light a candle as a sign of their response to the sacrifice of many for our sakes. However unusual the service might have been for some, comments suggested that it spoke to many of those there in a very personal way and gave them food for thought. There is definitely value in sharing and learning from the traditions of others.
The readings were Psalm 62:5-end, Hebrews 9:24-end, Mark 1:14-20. The reflection follows.
On November 11th 2008 the 90th anniversary of the ending of the First World War, The Great War, was marked. Present at the ceremony taking place at the Cenotaph in London were three veterans, the last surviving from that war. Their combined ages totalled 330 years.
The leader of the group was Henry Allingham, Britain’s oldest man at the time, aged 112. He was an aircraft mechanic who was in action at sea in the Battle of Jutland and also on land on the Western Front. Being an international church here at Epiphany, it’s interesting to note that Henry completed his training in Sheerness with 14 others who included two Australians, a New Zealander and an American.
Harry Patch, aged 110, was a survivor of Passchendaele, a battle which claimed the lives of 70,000 men. He and Henry Allingham both had experience of the trenches. The third was Bill Stone, aged 108, who fought for the Royal Navy in both World War I and World War II.
It’s estimated that 20 million people died in the First World War, 9.7 million of them being young servicemen. The staggering loss of life led many to believe that the Great War of 1914-18 should be ‘the war to end all wars’. Sadly, many who fought in it saw the next generation of young people plunged into war again only 20 years later.
Henry, Harry and Bill have all died in the year since that special anniversary was marked. Harry Patch was the last to die, on 25th July this year, just a week after Henry Allingham. They were our last link in Britain to the first hand memories of that war, the last people who were able to really know what it was like, though there are still a handful of survivors in the world as a whole. The author Max Arthur, who wrote a book in 2005 called ‘Last Post’ which documented the words of the last 21 survivors of the war, said, “Now there is no one alive who has seen what Harry saw in the trenches. Harry said it was just the most depressing place on earth, hell with a lid on.”
Despite living such extraordinarily long lives, Henry, Harry and Bill didn’t see the end of war in the world. Those who study such things say that war has existed between people groups since around 4000 BC. From 2925 BC there has been nearly continuous conflict in the world. For just 26 days since the Second World War ended in 1945, there has been no war. In the 20th Century alone over 100 million deaths were attributed to war. Harry Patch believed that war was “organised murder”. He said, “It was not worth it. It was not worth one, let alone all the millions.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the statistics and the apparent inevitability of war. What can we, ordinary individuals, do in the face of such facts? First of all we can do what Henry Allingham wished. He said, “I hope people realise what my pals sacrificed on their behalf. May they never be forgotten.” We remember in part by wearing poppies. Cady has gathered some fascinating information about why the poppy is used on these occasions, and it’s a truly international story. If you want all the details there are notecards under the wreath to my right or with the box of poppies at the back of the Cathedral.
Briefly, poppies grow on disturbed land in Western Europe. Where the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century disturbed the earth, soon there were fields of blood red poppies growing where soldiers had fallen. The same fields were disturbed in late 1914 in Northern France and Flanders and became covered with poppies when the war ended. A Canadian surgeon, John McCrae, realised how significant the poppy was as a memorial to those who had fallen in war. He wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ which inspired others to use the poppy as a symbol of the sacrifice of people in conflicts.
We as Christians are familiar with a symbol of sacrifice in the cross of Jesus. As we are told in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus ‘has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself’. Many of us wear that symbol both here and in RL to show that we are Christians, that we remember what Jesus did for us. Jesus understood sacrifice; he understands what those who have fought in war have done in sacrificing themselves for others. Jesus is recorded as saying, ‘Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ Both the poppy and the cross are great symbols of sacrifice.
Sacrifice deserves a response. Remembering is not enough. We need to change as people and work to change our society so that it becomes more and more like the Kingdom of God, so that peace is a reality and not just a nice ideal. The peace we’re aiming for is not just the absence of war; it’s shalom – health, wholeness, well being. The peace that Jesus brings is not like that which the world looks to provide; it’s an altogether greater concept.
I’ve just left a company after 16 years. There are many reasons why it now seems the right thing to do. One is their vision. The company provides maths and English materials for after-school education for children. They believe that education is the route to world peace. I believe passionately that every child deserves a good education but I do not believe that in providing that I am necessarily helping to usher in a golden age of world peace. Some of the best educated people have been cruel dictators, bringing anything but peace to their own people and others. Peace will come about as a result of a change of heart, not an improvement of the mind.
Each of us needs to answer the call of Jesus to follow him, just as he called his first disciples. In following they became transformed from simple fishermen to a group of empowered men who changed the world. They learnt from Jesus and in turn they passed on what they learnt to others, how to live counter-culturally, to dare to challenge the way things have always been done, the beliefs that have always been held. They dared to be different, as Jesus was, and in the process they made the world a better place. We too can experience a similar transformation and play our part in transforming the world.
An integral part of our Christian faith is hope. As the psalmist says: ‘God spoke once, and twice have I heard the same, that power belongs to God’. However powerless we may feel to change things, to even change ourselves, we can know that God is in charge and has the power necessary to bring about change. One day God will recreate the world and we too will be made new. Meanwhile let’s take to heart what Vice Admiral Sir Louis Le Bailly (aged 89) had to say in the online archive, WW2 People’s War:
“They gave their all that we might live in freedom and liberty, but as long as there is hunger, poverty, disease, corruption, hatred, warfare, lies, spin and despair, the debt we owe them is not being repaid. The freedom and liberty they entailed to us is being betrayed. They gave their lives and they were so young, most of them.
Surely those names on our war memorial are speaking to us in the words of the poet:
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure is nothing much to lose:
But young men think it is, and we were young.”
‘WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor