Remembrance Sunday – Hambleden
1 John 3: 16-23
Moina Michael’s Poem ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
The British Legion’s theme for Remembrance this year is focused on service through commemorating military and civilian service through a variety of anniversaries and events. The Legion writes, ‘Service, the act of defending and protecting the nation’s democratic freedoms and way of life, is rarely without cost for those who serve. Physical, mental or emotional injury or trauma; the absence of time with family; or the pressures and dangers that come from serving, highlight why the Remembrance of service is so important.’
The anniversaries and events being remembered include the 40th anniversary of the Falklands Conflict, the 78th anniversary of D-Day, as well as Commonwealth Day, South Asian Heritage Month and Black History Month. Each of these events highlight the service of people who are often overlooked and whose stories are not told. However, their service is commendable and needs to be recognised. None of us have a monopoly on service.
I wonder what your first experience of community or public service was beyond your family? Mine came through the Guiding movement; and as a good Canadian Brownie and Girl Guide, I spent many a November 11th shivering in my uniform at the local Cenotaph. November can be a rather frigid month in Alberta! It had to be a full-on blizzard with sub-arctic temperatures (hell would have to freeze over first) before any consideration would be given to moving indoors. Those old Canadian Legion members were a tough bunch!
I remember thinking about what was happening on Remembrance Day in other countries and feeling that somehow the world was joined on that day. And it is.
It is important to consider the cost of service, the cost to those who serve and the cost to those who support those who serve. Although the cost is often high, it is undervalued. Some pay the ultimate price and that is what we, of course, remember today. We should not discount the service of others in current times such as military and civilian service during Covid.
This past summer I had a very interesting conversation with a young, serving (3 years in) officer in the British Army who was a wedding guest here. I asked him about the current state of the army. He started by telling me about the ‘civil’ work that the forces have been undertaking. He told me about his driving NHS ambulances in Manchester during Covid and relief work in areas of the country that experienced terrible flooding.
His pride in these jobs was evident. He acknowledged that some members of the public felt this is not what the armed services should be doing. However, he pointed out that 20-30 years ago, almost everyone would know someone in the armed services but this is no longer the case. The majority of people now do not know anyone in the forces given the reduction in the number of serving personnel. His view is that the public seeing the army serving the nation is actually a good thing. There is also a very low public appetite for sending personnel into active combat.
There has been a change in societal attitudes to service, both civilian and military. Government spending cuts, the rise of social media, the pursuit of one’s personal comfort and convenience over the collective good have all contributed. Covid can be partially to blame as everything stopped. But activities/events have restarted but many volunteers, those who serve, have not come back. There are many good reasons for this and I am not seeking to blame or guilt anyone into service. Let us be honest about the changes and seek to find solutions rather than only lament.
Moina Michael’s poem ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’ is a beautiful response to John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’. Just as an aside: you probably know McCrae was a Canadian soldier, doctor and poet and there is a strong national sense of pride towards him. As a Canadian, you cannot leave primary school until you have memorised this poem, given a public recitation while demonstrating correct punctuation usage.
Anyway, Moina Michaels came across ‘In Flanders Fields’ in 1918 and hastily wrote this response on the back of an envelope. She was not the only one to pen a reply to the McCrae poem. A quick Google search and many others can be found. Her words still present a challenge to us. If we do not want the past to be forgotten and this day to fall off the calendar; have we caught the torch that they threw? Have we cherished the poppy red? Have future generations been taught the lessons that ye wrought?
Why do people serve? Think of a few words or phrases about the why.
Loyalty, commitment, purpose, meaning, desire to help or care for others, sense of justice, the greater good. Love.
How do we respond to those who serve? Admiration, respect, awe, but above all I would hope with love.
This is what St John is trying to get across in his three letters at the end of the New Testament. John is thought to have written his letters as a very old man not long before his death. The end of John’s life was hard. All of his friends (including Jesus) had been killed or crucified in horrendous ways; he was probably present at their deaths. John had been exiled to the Greek island of Patmos under extreme conditions. John had dedicated his life to the service of others by telling the Good News of Jesus and was now being punished for it. Despite the hardships, pain and grief, at the end of his life John knows that it is love that got him through. He was extraordinarily dedicated to his cause (as many people can be), his passion is evident in his writings. And at the end, it was all done for love. Love for God and God’s love for John.
As we remember again today those who have died in the theatre of war, we can be reassured that because of the resurrection of Jesus, it wasn’t for nothing. The love, the life, the sharing of burden and suffering, the service required to work together for a greater good is not lost in death.
I want to finish with some words from Sue Ryder. There is a great connection between Sue Ryder and the Hambleden Valley which is St Katharine’s Parmoor.
Sue Ryder lived a life of service both in this country and in Europe. She joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in 1940 before being ordered to report to the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive in London to work on secret operations for the remainder of the war. Sue was a teenage girl working with men and women who knew they faced grave danger and possibly death.
It was the courage and service of these people that would inspire Sue, not only during the war, but in the following decades as she sought to catch the torch they threw. Sue Ryder spent the rest of her life perpetuating their memories and honouring their sacrifices with her work.
In old age she wrote: ‘I am conscious of my own immortality, and that whatever we do, does count, not only here and now but in that great future for which we have all been created. It may sometimes be that we are given that certain opportunity only once and if we fail to respond it will not be given to us again. But if we seize the opportunity, even if we should not succeed in achieving our goal, the effort involved can be offered up to God who is our judge and who is able to turn every defeat into victory.’
(Sue Ryder: A Life Lived for Others, Joanna Bogle (pg. 100))
We need to tell the stories and keep the memories alive as a warning to present and future generations to avoid the mistakes of the past. Catch the torch that was thrown and throw it forward! Prepare the next generation to catch it. Continue to cherish the poppy red. It is one of the greatest acts of service we can undertake. Do it for love.