I’ll begin this time of reflection with a poem by an unknown author, simply entitled, “Remembering”:
We all love to be remembered.
But if we want to be remembered,
we have a duty also to remember.
Memory is a powerful thing.
Wrongly used it brings death.
Rightly used it brings life,
and is a form of immortality.
It keeps the past alive.
Those we remember never die;
they continue to walk and talk to us.
We want all those who gave their lives,
so that we might live in peace and freedom,
to know that we haven’t forgotten their sacrifice.
For all those we hold dear in our memories,
and all those who remain nameless except in God’s heart,
we pray that they rest in the everlasting arms
of God’s grace and peace.
I have something I want to show you.This tiny Bible is barely holding together; in fact it is in tatters. Often when my mother saw something that was falling apart from over-use she’d say, “It looks like its been through the wars.” She never said that about this Bible even though, when it was given to me many years ago, it was falling apart. Instead when I was given this Bible I was told the story of my grandmother’s brother, Dixon, who was given this Bible by his mother to take with him when he served as a soldier in the 1st World War. My Great-Grandmother wrote a simple inscription in ink in the front of the Bible: Dixon J. Spring, June 19, 1916, Mother. Someone else had written in pencil: Return to 510 12th Street, New Westminster B C Canada. This Bible has literally been through a war, carried in my Great Uncle Dixon’s pocket and turned to often for strength and comfort during the rigours and terrors of war. This Bible returned home — my Great Uncle Dixon did not. This Bible, that he carried and that meant so much to him, carries the memories and stories of people of faith throughout the ages. In its sad and sorry state this Bible also tells another story — that of hardship and inhospitable conditions and the raggedness that comes from regular and sustained use. This Bible is nearly one hundred years old and is in such poor condition that it is of no practical use. It has been kept all these years as a reminder of a beloved family member whose faith sustained him in terrible times and whose memory is cherished by generations who never knew him.
It is important to remember and to honour those who died in service to our country — not to glorify war but to be reminded of the human cost of war. To remember — lest we forget.
The act of remembering has been essential in the continuation of our faith tradition throughout the ages. The stories contained within the Bible, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures were held in trust in the memories of people of faith for generations before they were inscribed in written form. For many more generations after that the stories were still largely repeated by memory for few had access to written documents.
Rituals that have stood the test of time are those that connect us to our past, ground us in our present, and help us to look forward with faith and hope to the future. For example, every time we share communion together we are reconnecting ourselves to those who have been strengthened and sustained as followers of Jesus throughout the ages.
Communion in itself is a reminder of the radical hospitality of Jesus whose ministry embraced and included anyone who wanted to be welcomed and to participate. It is also an act of rededication to the sharing of his ministry in the present and into the future. In our remembering the past we turn our sights forward to our actions in the present and in the decisions that will affect the future. The words of the communion liturgy vary slightly, from time to time and place to place, but the introductory words that I always say just before the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup are: “And now we gather at this table to remember and to be filled with such longing for your realm, that we may rise together to turn our worship into witness and to follow in your way.”
When we think of the word remember we often mistakenly think that it is simply about recalling the past. In our faith tradition remembering is about bringing together the wisdom of the past, incorporating our own experiences of faith and the wisdom of people of faith that we have known, and having a vision of the future that includes the values and teachings of Jesus. This act of remembering is active not passive. It is forward thinking while carrying the lessons of the past in the form of communal wisdom. It is a remembering that does not hold our community of faith as prisoners of the past but as grateful recipients of shared wisdom and experience.
Robert Bellah, author of the book Habits of the Heart, speaks of real community as a “community of memory, one that does not forget its past. In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in telling its story, its constitutive narrative, and in so doing it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community. These stories of collective history and exemplary individuals are an important part of the tradition that is so central to a community of memory.” (Quoted in Friends of God and Prophets, by Elizabeth A. Johnson, page 22)
Douglas Hall, professor of Christian Theology at McGill University put it this way, “In church tell the story; in the world live the story.” For any community of faith the act of remembering is an essential part of connecting with the wisdom of the past and moving forward into the future.
The hymn that we’ll be singing after this reflection echoes these sentiments in a way that I haven’t seen in quite the same way in any other hymn. This hymn entitled, God! As with Silent Hearts, was written by the Rev. Fred Kaan in 1989, the result of a commission by Coventry Cathedral to write a new hymn for Remembrance Sunday. It is the last verse of this hymn that caught my attention this week as I was preparing for today’s worship service:
So, Prince of Peace, disarm our trust in power,
teach us to coax the plant of peace to flower.
May we, impassioned by your living Word,
remember forward to a world restored. (Emphasis mine, Voices United 527)
Fred Kaan died in 2009 leaving a legacy of numerous hymns for present and future generations. The first paragraph in Fred’s obituary said,
“Hymns are the life-blood of Protestant spirituality. What the faithful sing is far closer to their hearts than what they read in sacred texts or hear from preachers. The Rev. Fred Kaan, who has died aged 80, was the foremost of a new generation of post-second world war hymn writers expressing the dreams of an emerging new humanity. His theology reflected a God committed to and immersed in a world crying out to be set free from every form of injustice. Fred’s poetry centred on a Jesus who embraced the whole of creation and excluded no one and nothing from his love. In Fred, the Christian peace movement found its voice.” (Paul Oestreicher, The Guardian, Sunday, 25 October 2009)
On this Sunday, when we remember with gratitude those who have gone before us, we also “remember forward” with faith and hope to a time when God’s vision of peace and justice will be realized for the whole world.
With faith and hope we pray it will one day be so.