“My forgetter is better than my rememberer these days.” So says my dear 94 year old mother suffering from stroke induced dementia. “My forgetter is better than my rememberer!”
Her father my grandfather was a veteran of the First World War serving with the 170th Battalion, Mississauga Calvary until it was disbanded. He then joined the 20th Battalion as a Lieutenant Col. seeing action in places like Paschendale and Ypres. He was awarded the Military Cross by the then Prince of Wales for his fighting in Amiens. He had his own personal way of remembering which I will share with you in a moment.
My wife’s grandfather was what is known in my country Canada as an Original. That meant he was on the first ships leaving Canada to the European Theatre with the Canadian Expeditionary Force Second Battalion, part of Canada’s first infantry contributions to the War Effort. He was young, most of them were, loyal, courageous, and daring and left the country on the adventure of his life being told, of course, that the war would be won quickly and they would all be home by Christmas and not knowing that gas as a weapon of war would soon be introduced in battle. Those were days when international travel was reserved for the rich and the famous and poorer folks like this young boy, saw as so many did, the opportunity to visit exotic places while serving his country.
Remembering. No one alive on the planet today served in the First World War.
“My forgetter is better than my rememberer these days.”
I was eight or nine years old full of vim and vinegar fascinated by guns and stories of war, both the Great Wars and Korea behind us. Our family summers were spent in part visiting my grandparent’s cottage in the Muskokas of Ontario. The cottage was and is a place where memories of family, food and carefree frolic in the beauty of God’s creation were and are built. The cottage can be a place of relaxed conversation and memory sharing.
I loved my grandparents and spent as much time as I could with them. I had recently become aware that Grampy was a veteran of World War I and I asked him for his memories of the War. Now recall I was maybe nine so wisely he tempered his response. Yet even as a nine year old I could see my question caused his eyes to glaze over. He spoke about times when he was on leave, times when he and his colleagues enjoyed some R and R. “That’s great Grampy, but did you ever kill anyone?” He sighed. He told the story of coming upon an enemy machine gun nest, sneaking up behind it, ready to attack its occupants only to realize they were already dead. He shared no other stories though I suspect there were many more and we never spoke of it again.
“My forgetter is better than my rememberer these days.”
Every night at sunset, Grampy would make his way alone to the cottage dock, walk to the end where the flag pole stood, salute, solemnly and with great care lower the flag, step back and bow his head in silence. In those moments he remembered.
Did he remember the sound of bombs and machine guns that lead to his deafness, the brutal slog, the mud up to his knees, boots that never dried, the sight of the dead and the maimed, the blood and carnage, the smell of war, the weeks turning into months? Did he remember learning his kid brother had been wounded, suffered scarlet fever and dysentery, wondering if he would ever see him alive again? And did he remember the deep sense of guilt mixed with profound gratitude that he returned home safely while others, many others, lay dead on foreign soil.
I watched my Grandfather remember.
I have never in my 37 years of ordained ministry having known and buried veterans of World War I, World War II and Korea, and known men and women who served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Israel, and Palestine ever once met a veteran who spoke of the glories of war. So often I heard the real stories; rounding the corner of a battle torn city on patrol to find a soldier nailed dead, cruciform to the wall, corpses of innocent civilians lying on the floor of a church in Rwanda, failing to find the sanctuary they thought the church would provide. They remembered. And let me assure you Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a discovery of the last decade or so. Veterans in our military hospitals, whose halls I have often walked for three decades are missing legs and other body parts, have lost eyes and, like my grandfather, hearing, who are so thin as to defy imagination or who are so plagued by the gruesome reality of what they remember that they can no longer function. It ain’t all glory.
This morning’s Washington Post displayed a picture of a memorial at the Tower of London. A sea of red poppies, 888,246 poppies, one for every Commonwealth solider killed in World War I. 888,246.
Time has a way of dulling memories of recalling the good memories and suppressing the bad.
We can remember wrongly, and that warps us and ill prepares us for the journey ahead.
The Hebrew Scriptures have a story which resonates with leaders. It takes place during the Exodus from Egypt where the Israelites had lived under oppressive governance for considerable time. Moses their leader piloted them on the journey to the Promised Land during which they spent considerable time in the desert, hot, hungry and frustrated. In one story they come upon an oasis and begin to gripe and complain to Moses. “Why have you led us from Egypt to this place? At least in Egypt we had food and water and shelter.” Griping at a leader taking them to a better place! They were remembering with nostalgia. They totally forgot the feeling of the slave drivers whips against their back, the hard forced labour in which they were engaged and the degrading circumstances under which they existed. Nostalgia is not remembering.
How do we move from nostalgia to remembering?
Remembering carries with it the idea of putting back together, to re–member, put the body back together, to heal.
Every Sunday people gather in this great Cathedral to remember. They take simple elements of bread, water and wine. They approach the altar and kneel down and extend their hands. And they remember. Some I suppose remember Jesus as a great teacher in history, a moral leader, a healer, preacher, and friend. But that’s just nostalgic remembrance. What needs to be re–membered with the good is the bad, what we need to remember includes the cross, that unique, brutal, and cruel form of capital punishment in vogue in the Roman Empire of that era. People gather to remember in the Holy Eucharist, in this great iconic cathedral, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They remember Good Friday and they remember Easter Day. They remember that out of crucifixion comes resurrection, out of despair comes hope, and out death comes new life, new possibilities. They remember that there is a better way.
The technical word for that act of remembrance for “Do this in remembrance of me” is “Anamnesis.” Oddly enough the same Greek root as our word amnesia, not remembering. Anamnesis is the opposite of forgetting. “Anamnesis” is deep remembering.
Implicit in the act of “anamnesis,” for Christians, is an act of remembering who we are and whose we are. Remembering is an act of putting back together, an act of healing.
We are called to remember because not remembering brings the chance of mistakes. I remember as a child being told not to put my hand on a hot stove. After the first time I remembered! Not remembering brings the chance of mistakes.
Remembering helps us recall who we are. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. We remember that we are the children of God.
Interestingly enough remembering is an attribute of God. Throughout the scriptures we read that God remembers God’s covenant with human beings and does not destroy them in the flood. God remembers his chosen people Israel. Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.
God remembers you. God knows you by name. God counts the hairs on your head. God knows you, remembers you, and loves you. And that is well worth remembering.
God loves you. No matter who you are, what you have done, where you have been God loves you. Two of my favorite verses in all of Holy Scripture come from the last two verses of the book of Romans chapter 8. It says this. “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Even if you don’t love God, God loves you.
How do we move from nostalgia to remembering and from remembering, to a new peace?
A dear friend of mine was entertaining his granddaughter for a few days while her parents gained a respite. One day she went into the family solarium where a chess board was set up. In a sense chess is an organized war game filled with strategy aiming at destroying the opposing king. She was playing at the board when her aunt entered the room and asked what she was playing. “Oh,” she said, “those are the bad guys and these are the good guys and the good guys are going to kill the bad guys.” The aunt asked, “How do you know they are the bad guys? Did anyone ever ask them if they wanted to be the bad guys? Maybe they want to be the good guys.” Her aunt left the room. A little while later she checked in on her niece again. The little girl had taken a dinner knife, placed it under a pawn and galloped toward the other team. “Would you like to be good guys,” she asked. She told her aunt they did and offered how glad she was they she had not killed them. Out of the mouths of babes, maybe?
Naive. Of course it is but at the age of five she is not expected to run the world’s affairs. But this I know. War leads to death but it does not seem to lead to peace. The effects of the end of the Great War whose beginning we mark this day are still being felt today, are they not?
I am not certain, no I am sure, we have not yet found the better way.
“My forgetter is better than my rememberer these days.”
Our second reading from John’s gospel in part said this. Jesus said, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one’s friends.”
Today, we mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
One thing I hope and expect we can all agree upon this day, one thing we all remember are the lives lost, those dead and those wounded because they had the audacity to respond to the call of their respective governments to wage war. Members of the armed forces are not asked to comment whether or not they agree with their government’s foreign policy, whether or not they think war ought to be waged. That is never the question asked of them. They simply are asked to serve, to say yes to the call of their political masters, knowing they will be placed in harm’s way, knowing they may die. My friends whatever else you may take from these words this day take this. “Anamnesis.” We must remember. We must never forget.
I give thanks to Almighty God that I live where I live, in a democratic country and I know that my freedom is possible in no small measure due to the sacrifices of women and men, people like Grampy, who have served and continue to serve my country, our countries, so faithfully and so proudly. By the way, I am particularly aware of and salute the service of our military chaplains, who stand side by side their colleagues in battle, unarmed, often on the front lines and who place themselves in harms way to bring support to their colleagues.
Today we remember the sacrifice of those who died in war and never forget. Sometimes “my forgetter is better than my rememberer!”
Never give up the hope of God’s love and never give up the hope for peace.