By John R. Wilson
It’s still very traditional in most corners of our land that we do observe Remembrance Sunday. We might visit a grave – because there are still plenty of servicemen’s graves in our cemeteries, not everyone died abroad. We might go and stand at the Cenotaph. I remember, when I was in the Territorial Army, parading at the one in front of Paragon Railway Station, here in Hull. It was absolutely freezing that day. We might just watch the London Remembrance ritual on the television. We might even simply just privately observe the two minute silence on our own, taking a minute to ponder on those who gave their lives so that we can live free. I wonder what some of those heroes would think if they looked at today’s society. Would they think to themselves’ “Did I lay down my life for that?” It is a sobering thought.
And of course they all weren’t heroes were they? Many, like my father, signed on the day war was declared because there was no work to be had and a Sergeant’s pay was better than the dole. Many simply went because that’s how it was, you were conscripted and you went wherever your unit was told to go. And you may not have died doing something terribly courageous. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, hero or not, you are still worth remembering.
And it is good that we take the time to remember them. On a recent visit to France, just near Pons in the Bordeaux region, I stumbled upon a German WW2 Cemetery. 8,300 men were in there. It was different to the way the Allies War Graves are set out. No crosses, no headstone, just a stone tablet laid flat with the details of the men who lay beneath. And it seemed strange to me that there were four men in each grave. Reading some of the tablets as I walked along the rows, it became apparent to me that most of those men were in their forties, so I assume most would have been married. That’s a lot of widows––a lot of fatherless children left in Germany. But what greatly impressed me was how many fresh wreaths were still on some graves. People were still taking the trouble to remember after all this time. These men might have been the enemy then, but they were absolutely no different, deep down, to us.
Memories – important aren’t they? The irony is that they become increasingly important during those years of life when we become less good at them. I’m not sure if I am less able to remember or whether I simply have so much more to remember. I have noticed with my computer that the more stored in memory, the longer it takes to pull something up. Do minds work the same?
And names, they are the real challenge, aren’t they. Ever had trouble with the name of someone you have known for years. I’ve found myself seeing some person on the television and trying to recall their name. I can struggle for a long time but it does seem eventually to come back – often when I’ve given up trying to remember.
Certainly when it really begins to go, it is no joke. Nothing is sadder than the elderly relative confused and failing, who cannot remember who you are, disturbed, dislocated because of loss of capacity for memory.
But there are at least two critical dimensions of memory that are essential to life. First of all, our memories, so far as they remain vivid and lively, tell us who we are, as members of families, of this nation, of our faith. It is an illusion of modernity that we have any real identity and meaning as individuals outside the context of historic communities that have shaped us and which bind us to one another and our past. A community of national heritage and history, communities of blood and long-term friendship, faith commitments extending back through the years, communities built on memory, and when we belong to them and share in them we know who we are and why we are here. That is why we need memories and remembering those who have gone before, who sacrificed for us, is part of that memory process.
Memory gives not only a sense of meaning and belonging; it evokes a sense of obligation for who we are and what we owe. Read an interesting article… about an old man who used to visit an old broken pier on the seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night until his death in 1973, he would go there slowly and slightly stooped, carrying a bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would come to this old man and he would feed them from his bucket.
Many years before in 1942, Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur. Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost. Fuel dangerously low, the men ditched their plane in the ocean. For over a month Rickenbacker and his companions would fight the water and the scorching sun, spending many sleepless nights as giant waves threatened their raft. But of all, their most formidable enemy proved to be starvation. Their rations were long gone. It would take a miracle to sustain them.
These are the Rickenbacker’s own words: “Our pilot William Cherry read a service from the Book of Common Prayer, a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. In the oppressive heat with my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep off the glare, I dozed off. Something landed on my head and I knew that it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. Everyone’s eyes were on that seagull. Food, if only I could catch it. And the bird sat there calm and still as I slowly reached up and captured it in my hands. And the rest is history. We ate the flesh and we used the intestines for bait to catch fish. Our bodies were sustained and our hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically, hundreds of miles from land, had offered itself as a sacrifice.”
Rickenbacker never forgot. Ever since, about sunset, on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, until he died in 1973 you could see an old man, white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent, his bucket full of shrimp, remembering and giving thanks, in his own way, for the one who gave itself without a struggle. Like manna in the wilderness, a gift from God.
Only as we remember mother and father, teachers and mentors, friends now gone, and all those unknown ones who gave their lives that our life might go on, do we sense the deep indebtedness that goes with life. Memories bind us, obligate us.
And so we find, as Christians that we are obligated to Jesus, who sacrificed his life for us. We are obligated to remember.
But how do we remember to remember. That seems to be the problem in our time. The modern idea is that we can ignore historic communities, family, church, nation and the rituals of remembrance which create and sustain them. But that is a dangerous illusion.
Paul writes to his friends in Thessalonica, who are struggling with life in an alien environment, where the world around them seems on a slippery slope into debauchery and ruin. And they feel like outcasts, nobodies, and are tempted to give up in despair. “So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Tradition? The collective communal memory of where we came from and therefore who we are and to whom we belong.
This is why in church and Sunday school and family we basically rehearse stories and retell them, Christian stories, family stories, handing them on as mind-shaping memories for our children to live in and from. Because it is the size of the memories we live in that determines our ongoing sense of identity and importance and purpose. If you live only in the little transient memories of yesterday’s argument, or the last reality TV show, or the market on Friday, you will be as small as your world. But if you live in the large world of God’s story of his incredible love for us, for me and for you, then you will grow as great as the story.
“Do this in memory of me me,” Jesus said at his meal (Luke 22:19). Don’t just wait for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Any time, just simply use time and quiet, now and again, from time to time to remember our Lord––and indeed all those who laid down their lives for us. Remember them, his and their sacrifice, and give thanks that they did. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014 John R. Wilson. Used by permission.