Todays Christmas Eve Service features a Nativity Christmas Puppet Show entitled "Beanie's Christmas Rap".
For those who were unable to attend, a recording of the Puppet Show was kindly made by Gareth Greenfield -
For those who missed the Carol Service, below is a recording of the Carol Service from Banbridge, led by Rev. Moodie and with Julie Black on the organ and piano. The service follows the same prayers, readings and poems that were used at the Dromore Service.
Rev. Brian is unwell today hence Rev. Campbell kindly conducted the service. Thank you to Drew McWilliam's for recording the service this morning.
ADVENT, HOPE & VICTOR FRANKL
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, best known for his existentialist approach to psychology. His life was profoundly shaped by his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, particularly Auschwitz, where he endured immense suffering and loss.
Before the war, Frankl had already established himself as a prominent psychiatrist, however, his life took a drastic turn when he, along with his family, was arrested by the Nazis in 1942. Frankl lost his parents, brother, and pregnant wife in the Holocaust.
During his time in the concentration camps, Frankl observed the impact of extreme suffering on individuals and he noticed that those who were able to find meaning and purpose in their lives were more likely to endure and therefore survive the harsh conditions. While those who could not find meaning or purpose tended to die much sooner. He realized that even in the face of unimaginable suffering, individuals could maintain their human dignity by choosing their attitude toward their circumstances.
Victor Frankl's experiences in the concentration camps became the foundation for his most famous work, "Man's Search for Meaning," which was published in 1946 as well as his approach to psychology which he called logotherapy. In the book, he detailed his observations and reflections on human nature, resilience, and the quest for meaning in the midst of suffering. One of his key insights was that even in the most brutal and dehumanizing situations, individuals retained the freedom to choose their response and that this was a crucial human freedom that could never be taken away.
In his therapeutic approach, logotherapy, Victor Frankl emphasized the importance of finding meaning in one's life. He argued that the primary human drive is not the pursuit of pleasure (as Freud proposed) or the quest for power (as Adler suggested), but rather the search for meaning.
He believed that individuals can find meaning and purpose in life through their relationships, their creative endeavours, and by accepting the responsibilities and challenges that come their way.
Now today is the first Sunday in Advent. On this Sunday, all around the world, churches will begin their services as we did this morning by lighting the first candle of their Advent wreathe. And the first candle of the advent wreathe is normally the Candle of Hope.
Hope is a theme that is very much present in the season of Advent leading up to Christmas. The Christmas Story is very much a story of hope. In the Biblical story in Luke 2:10-11 we read that "And the angel said to the shepherds, 'Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.'"
It is a passage that expresses hope, hope that life can change, hope that life can be different.
This theme of Hope is also found woven throughout the Christmas Carols we sing:
In O Holy Night, we sing:
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”
As we explore the meaning of the word hope, I believe that Viktor Frankl’s experience of Aushwitz provides us with some helpful and important perspectives.
Firstly, he spoke of “Meaning as the Source of Hope”: Victor Frankl believed that hope arises from a sense of meaning in life. When people are able to discover a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives it energises them and gives motivation and hope for the future.
A second key to hope for Frankl, is what might be called “a Freedom to Choose Attitude”.
Central to his philosophy was the idea that even in the most challenging circumstances, individuals possess the freedom to choose their attitude. A freedom that can never be taken away. This includes how we choose to respond to suffering. By exercising this freedom-to-choose-attitude, hope arises when it is recognised that no-one can ever take this freedom from us. If we can always choose how we will respond, Victor Frankl believed that the human spirit can therefore never in fact be defeated, and thus hope can be found even in the most difficult of circumstances.
He spoke therefore of what he called ‘tragic optimism’ because from his own experience he had seen that even in the darkest moments, challenges and suffering could serve as opportunities for growth and therefore for the discovery of meaning.
Thirdly Victor Frankl believed that meaningful connections and relationships with others play a crucial role hope. In Auschwitz he observed that the camaraderie and mutual support among prisoners fostered a sense of solidarity. The shared experiences and connections with fellow inmates helped individuals endure the hardships of the camp. The feeling of not being alone in their suffering created a sense of belonging and purpose and therefore a sense of hope.
Lastly, Victor Frankl stressed the significance of having goals and a future-oriented outlook. Hope, in his view, is closely tied to having a positive vision for the future and actively working toward meaningful objectives. He believed that the anticipation of a fulfilling future contributes to a sense of purpose and hope in the present.
Getting back to the Advent Journey towards the Hope of Christmas, in what ways does the Jesus story invite us to become people of hope? I wonder if part of the answer comes in one of the names that is ascribed to Jesus in the Christmas story. In Matthew’s story, when the angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, the angel says: “...and he will be called Immanuel which means God is with us.” Matthew 1:23.
Now most Christians would understand that to mean that somehow Jesus was uniquely Divine and that in Jesus, God decided to make a 33 year visit to earth after which he got zapped back up to heaven. But that is surely a simplistic understanding. Even the Psalmist in Psalm 139 believed that God was and is an ever present reality and that there are no God-forsaken places on earth or in the universe “Where can I flee from Your Spirit” the psalmist asks.
Is it possible that the Advent hope in the coming of Jesus is the coming of one whose purpose was to remind us of this wonderful truth that God is always with us. And not just that God is with us, but rather there is an indestructible divine presence within each one of us. There is a son and a daughter of God in each of us that can never be destroyed or overcome. And it is this divine presence and identity within that is the very thing that enables and strengthens us to exercise this freedom to choose attitude that Victor Frankl speaks of. It is this Divine Presence and Identity within that is able to reach out and find meaning in relationships with others and finding solidarity in the midst of difficult and trying times. It is this divine presence and identity within that enables us to find ultimate meaning in life and the ability to work towards a positive vision for the future.
I close with a few quotes from Victor Frankl:
“When a person can't find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” I wonder if that is the problem with much of Western Society today. People no longer know where to find a deep sense of meaning and so they end up distracting themselves with pleasure.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men [and women] who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
And it is because of this that he could also say: “Whoever was still alive had reason for hope.”
May God bless you and you consider this advent what hope means for you? Where do you find your meaning and purpose in life. What is the source of your hope? How might we become beacons of hope for others who are in danger of losing hope?
This Sunday's Sermon was delivered by Rev. Moodie at the Dublin Unitarian Church.
Links for the sermon, and for the entire service can be found below
Beauty, Goodness & Truth
Rev. Moodie's Address at the Dublin Unitarian Church.
The title of my address today is Beauty Goodness & Truth, although I think the more correct order should be Goodness, Truth & Beauty.
Today, I put Beauty first because it is probably the more accessible word, and a little less open to abuse than the words Goodness and Truth.
And today, I would like to reflect on those words in the context of my own spiritual-pilgrimage-and-life-journey which will hopefully make me a little less of a stranger standing in front of you as I speak to you today.
And so I begin this address in 1999 as a young 24 year old in my first year as a Minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. It was just 5 years after the first Democratic Elections of 1994. Nelson Mandela was President and there was a real sense of hope for change with the ending of Apartheid.
As part of the Methodist Church’s program to embrace and facilitate the process of reconciliation in the country and in the church itself, they had begun placing many of their new ministers in cross cultural appointments, so we could begin to bridge the cultural divide after decades of racial segregation in the country.
And so in my first year of ministry I was sent to Soweto the largest African Township in the country. It was both exciting and challenging. Exciting because it felt like I was playing my part, however small in building a new South Africa. Challenging, because I was thrown into the midst of another culture that was so different from my own, surrounded by a variety of languages that I did not speak or understand. Challenging also, because I was brought face to face with levels of poverty I had never seen before. It had always been kept somewhat at a distance.
About two or three months in, the senior minister I was working under, assigned me to lead a Wednesday evening healing service at one of our churches deep in the township. After some beautiful and moving hymn singing, in which the congregation of about 50 people swayed and danced in true African style, Bible readings were read and a short sermon delivered myself, and opportunity was then given for people in the congregation to come forward for prayer and healing. This was a first for me. As I descended the pulpit, feeling a little anxious about what would happen next, pews were shuffled around, and very soon I found myself sitting in front of a row of about 20-30 people all seeking prayer. The majority of them were young mothers with little babies strapped to their backs or sitting on their knees. And as I listened to-each-one, before praying for each of them individually, a common theme began to be expressed by almost all of them. ‘I am unemployed. We don’t have enough money at home. Please pray for me that I will be able to get a job.’
I left that service quite shaken that day. Filled with questions and a gnawing doubt. Even while listening and praying for each of the 20-30 people who had come up for prayer I had found myself questioning how on earth my prayer would make any difference in their lives, questioning how on earth my prayer would miraculously get jobs for each of those people in a country which had one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and where the very structure of the economy was working against them.
It was a kind of shattering experience. In that moment, I found that whatever had remained of my naïve Sunday School faith, which had already been deeply challenged by 4 years of theological study, collapsing around me. Who or what was God? How was God at work in the world? What difference if any did my prayers make?
A few days later, I remember writing a letter to my parents. And in that letter I expressed something of the inner struggles I was facing. And I remember writing the following words: “I don’t know what I believe any more, but I know that I still believe in Goodness, Beauty and Truth”.
I am not exactly sure where those words came from, because at the time I had not heard of the Three Transcendentals in my Theological Studies. It was only later, that I came to read that those three words are known in Philosophy and Scholastic Theology as the Transcendentals, The Good, The True and The Beautiful.
Some philosophers and theologians would add a few extra 'transcendentals' to the list. Philosophically speaking, The Good the True and the Beautiful were regarded as The Transcendentals, because they were said to Transcend our ordinary experience of form in this world, and at the same time, everything in this ordinary world of form was understood to be expressions, in one way or another, of The Good, The True and The Beautiful.
I am still not an expert in the Philosophy of the Transcendentals. But it was helpful to discover later on that those three words that I identified in 1999 as being essential to my own personal value system and faith, have a deep and venerable history in the realm of philosophy going back to the time of Plato as pointing to the essential nature of the Divine or Reality Itself. For me, it felt like I had stumbled upon those words intuitively and by accident as I had found myself flailing about as a young minister struggling to make sense of my faith, my calling and my vocation.
Goodness, Truth and Beauty. At the time I never tried to define those words. My engagement with them was at a more visceral and intuitive level, but they became three essential words that enabled me to continue as a Christian minister when I found myself doubting almost everything else. They became like a touchstone to me, a tool for spiritual discernment. A bit like the bread-crumbs in the story of Hans and Gretal, they became like clues with which I could begin to navigate myself back Home wherever Home was. And as a Christian minister, as I reflected on the life of Jesus in the Gospels, in many of the stories I felt I could still discern something of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, in some stories more brightly than others, but there nonetheless.
Before coming here to preach today, I listened to quite a number of the sermons on the Dublin Unitarian Website. I found there a wonderful array of thought provoking reflections on a wide variety of really challenging topics, reflections on the possibility of reincarnation, reflections on the migrant crisis facing Europe and Ireland, reflections on the changing nature of sexual mores in a post-Christian society. There was also a challenging reflection entitled “Can we trust the New Testament” in which Dr. Martin Pulbrook raised important and challenging questions about the historicity of the New Testament. I would have to agree with him. There are major question marks that surround the historical details of the Gospels.
If the New Testament cannot be trusted from an historical perspective, what value if any remains in it one might ask? My own answer to that question lies in part in those three words: Goodness, Truth and Beauty. If there is value in the New Testament, then its value exists to the extent that it is able point us in the direction of Goodness, Truth and Beauty… Truth, not in the sense of absolute propositions and doctrines that are then proclaimed to be ‘The Infallible Truth’, but rather intimations, and archetypal stories that have the ability to inspire us to become True, Wholesome (‘Good’) and Beautiful and human beings.
I think for example of the story of Jesus and the Woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ incisive and compassionate response, “Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone”. It is a moving story because the Jesus whom it depicts embodies and and radiates a deep sense of The Good, The True and The Beautiful in contrast to the self-righteousness, the judging and condemnation of the religious Pharisees. Even if there emerged some absolute proof that Jesus never in fact existed, the Beauty, Goodness and Truth of that story would remain and would still have the ability to inspire us to become more compassionate human beings.
Going back to 1999, a few months after that shattering experience leading that healing service, I was out shopping and found myself drawn into a Bargain Bookshop. I’m sure some of you might identify with the experience. And there in the bookshop, I found a copy of a book by the Vietnamese Zen Teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn entitled: “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”. Paging through it, even in the shop, I knew I had found a treasure, because almost immediately I could discern signs within it of the same Goodness, Beauty and Truth that I had could see and discern in the stories and teachings of Jesus. And as I arrived back to the Youth Centre where I was living, as I got out the car, I felt my heart expanding with a sense of joy and gratitude as I soaked in the beauty of the sky and the clouds above me.
And so I discovered that those three words had given me a set of intuitive tools which enabled me to read and appreciate the writings and scriptures of other faiths too, The Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, and Upanishads, the Chinese Tao Te Ching which soon became a favourite and the many Buddhist writings and scriptures.
It is something that Unitarians have known for a large part of their history, that the Scriptures of other faiths also have value to the extent that they can inspire and move us, helping us to become ever more deeply True, Wholesome (‘Good’) and Beautiful and human beings.
In Closing I offer you three quotes from Khalil Gibran that might invite us to reflect a little more deeply on each of those three words:
On Goodness - he writes: In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.
On Truth he writes: “Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
“Truth is a deep kindness that teaches us to be content in our everyday life and share with the people the same happiness.”
And on Beauty, he writes:
Beauty is life, when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.
Step 5 We admitted to God, to Ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
A year or two before I arrived in Northern Ireland, I received a call from an elderly congregation member from a previous church that I had ministered at. She asked if she could meet with me and to hear her confession.
I was a bit nervous about it as I had never done such a thing before. So I met with her at her home in a retirement village and there in her lounge over a cup of tea, she shared with me something she had done probably over 30 – 40 years before that she had never shared with anyone before. For 30 or 40 years she had kept this as a secret. But now, sharing the full nature of what she had done with another person, and holding what she had shared in prayer with the assurance of God’s forgiveness, it was as though a great burden had been lifted from her.
It was a very moving experience for me, not only because it was the first time I had been asked to hear someone else’s confession, but most especially because she was someone I held in the highest regard because of her saintliness, humility, her overflowing kindness towards others, and her faithful service in the church over decades. In that conversation it had felt like I was standing on sacred ground. If anything, it felt as though that day, I should have been making my confession to her and not the other way around.
I share this story with you, because Step 5 on the 12 Step Programme can indeed be seen as a kind of confession. In Step 5 we are encouraged to admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
In Step 1 we were invited to identify that one issue or struggle in our lives that we feel powerless over and that makes our lives feel unmanageable.
In Step 2 we were invited to consider the possibility of a Higher Power.
In Step 3 we were invited to hand over the care of our wills and our lives to that Higher Power, or God, as we understand God.
In Step 4 we were invited to take a moral inventory of ourselves, listing as honestly as possible our virtues as well as our weaknesses.
Today in Step 5 we are invited to admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
Trevor Hudson in his book One Day at a Time suggests that Step 5 is more than just a confession. He says it is a time for coming out of hiding, sharing our secrets, bringing the skeletons out of the cupboard, taking off our masks and finding and new freedom and peace. He says it is the invitation, to come clean, to the best of our ability.
For Protestants this step might be for some a bit of a stumbling block, because it sounds rather like going into the Catholic confessional. Isn’t that something that Protestants have left behind. Isn’t it enough to make my own private confession to God?
It is important to remember that what the Protestant Reformation did was to challenge the Roman Catholic claim that to be forgiven you had to confess your sins to a priest as the representative of the church. The Protestant Reformation however never denied that there might at some point in our lives be benefit in confessing our sins to another human being for to do so would have been to go against scripture. The practice of confessing one’s sins to another is in fact quite Biblical. We find it in James 5:16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
The book of James suggests that confessing one’s sins to another person can be a good thing and can help us to find healing. It does not specify however that such confession needs to be made to a priest or a clergy person, and neither does it say that you won’t be forgiven. But it does suggest that it can be very helpful for our healing.
Getting back to Step 5, Trevor Hudson says that the fifth step has three parts:
1. Firstly we must admit our wrongs to God. He suggests that when we seek to be honest with God about our failings, it reopens the channels between us and God or The Sacred and we discover the cleansing power of Divine mercy flowing deeply into our lives.
2. Secondly, we must admit our wrongs to ourselves. He says this means looking at our moral inventory again and acknowledging ‘This is who I am’. There are no excuses for what I have done. I am not going to blame my upbringing, my genes or my circumstances. I am willing to take full responsibility for them. Trevor suggests that when we are willing to face ourselves honestly in this way, we open the way for positive change to take place in our lives.
3. Thirdly, we must admit our wrongs to one other human being. Trevor suggests that this is the scary part of the fifth step. It is a very difficult thing to be this honest with another human being. We would much rather remain in hiding, and have our secrets go to the grave with us, chain up the ghosts of the past and keep our masks firmly in place, than come clean in the presence of another human being.
Trevor Hudson writes that he knows the resistance to doing this. He says that he put off doing the 5th Step for several years, coming up with a whole host of reasons not to.
Bit he says we avoid this part of Step 5 to our own detriment. He suggests that there are a whole host of enormous spiritual and emotional benefits when we do so. And so he lists for major benefits that come to us when we admit our wrongs to God, ourselves and to another human being:
1. Firstly we receive a stronger self-worth. We seldom feel good about ourselves when we do wrong. Often we carry a huge burden of guilt and shame and which makes it hard for us to respect ourselves. But coming clean requires bravery and courage and when we do brave and courageous things, helps us to feel better about ourselves.
2. Secondly we receive a release from guilt. Nearly all of us carry some kind of guilt around with us. And some people tell us we should not feel guilty about our deeds of selfishness, anger and prejudice, but Trevor Hudson says he couldn’t disagree more. Guilt shows that we have at least some moral awareness of what is right and wrong. It is like a moral alarm bell. The question is whether we will allow our guilt to motivate us to become better persons. But naming honestly and confessing our moral failures can open us to receiving forgiveness which helps us to be released from the burden of guilt.
3. Thirdly, we receive the gift of a deepening of our relationships. When we keep our shameful deeds hidden, and end up wearing masks of pretence, we end up cutting ourselves off from others preventing deep and honest relationships. Coming clean helps break the awful sense of isolation we feel as it opens us to experiencing a deeper connection with others.
4. Lastly, it invites us into genuine spirituality. Trevor Hudson says that a common criticism thrown at religious people is that they are not sincere. The word usually used is hypocrite. And if truth be told it is not always an unfair criticism. Too often in the church we give the impression of being better people than we are. Church attendance can very easily become part of presenting a polished version of ourselves to the world, when below the surface we know that all is not quite as it seems.
But when we come clean, Trevor suggests that it is precisely where we have most deeply failed that we experience most deeply a sense of God, grace and love in our lives. It also enables us to be a little less condemning of others. When we can more freely admit our own faults, we become less defensive helping us to live with a freer spirit and a lighter heart.
Those people in life that are easiest to get on with are not those who are perfect in every way. In fact they are often the most difficult to get on with. One has a constant feeling of being judged. On the contrary, those who are easiest to get on with are those who are freely able to admit their own faults and don’t try to pretend to be better than they are.
I found the story of a young man who with the help of his sponsor was able to take this step. Even though his sponsor was someone he had grown to trust, it still took an enormous courage to confess to him the exact nature of his wrongs. Afterwards he felt quite exhausted but he knew something had changed. And in the weeks ahead he realised what a life-changing experience Step 5 had been for him. For the first time in a long time, he could look at people and smile, and be happy when people looked happy to see him, instead of feeling burdened by the baggage he had been carrying.
I end with a few quotes from Scripture -
James 5:16 So confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another so that you might be healed. The prayer of a godly person is powerful. Things happen because of it.
Psalm 32:3-5 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Don Ward – Rather than admit a mistake, nations have gone to war, families have separated, and good people have sacrificed everything dear to them. Admitting that you were wrong is just another way of saying that you are wiser today than yesterday.
He Ain’t Heavy - Remembrance Sunday Reflection
In 1917, the year before the ending of World War 1, a certain Father Edward Flanagan founded an orphanage for boys in Omaha, Nebraska, called Boys Town. They now operate all over the world.
In around 1918 the story goes that, the founder of Boy’s Town, Father Edward Flanagan, saw a boy named Reuben Granger, carrying another boy, Howard Loomis, up a flight of stairs at the orphanage. Howard Loomis had polio and wore leg braces, and so needed assistance in making his way up the stairs. The story goes that Fr. Flanagan asked Reuben Granger if carrying little Howard was hard. To which the young Reuben replied, “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s m’ brother.”
The Boys Town website tells how following that incident, the phrase, ‘He Ain't Heavy, He’s my brother’ was adopted as the motto of Boys’ Town. And in time a statue was erected at the entrance of the original Boys’ Town orphanage in Omaha, depicting the scene of young Reuben Granger carrying Howard Loomis with the words inscribed below: “He ain't heavy, he’s my brother”.
In the early 1960’s a short film was made about Boys’ Town, which had grown, and by that time had orphanages all around America and even in other parts of the world. The film featured the statue with the motto: He Ain't Heavy, He’s My Brother. When the songwriters, Bobby Scott and Bob Russell saw the film and heard the phrase, they were inspired to write the song. At the time one of the songs writers, Bob Russell was dying of cancer while he was writing the song, which adds to the poignancy of the lyrics, because he died without ever really knowing just how popular the song would become and what an impact it would make on so many people.
It was in the late 1960’s that the guitarist for the band ‘The Hollies’, Tony Hicks, first heard what is described as a very poor demo recording of the song. Despite the poor quality of the demo, there was something in the song that took hold of him and he saw the potential in it. And so it was that in 1969, the song became a number 1 hit for the Hollies all around the world.
It is a heart warming song of brotherly or sisterly love, that in a very moving way, expresses some deeply religious sentiments reminding us of one of the central Christian themes of sacrificial love. It contains some beautiful and moving phrases:
“But I'm strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain't heavy, he's my brother…”
“...So on we go
His welfare is my concern...” (It’s a phrase that reminds us of Cain’s answer to God when God asks him the whereabouts of his murdered brother Abel, and he retorts back to to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper”.)
The song continues…
“No burden is he to bear
We'll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain't heavy, he's my brother.”
The song then goes on to express a wider message of love:
“….If I'm laden at all
I'm laden with sadness
That everyone's heart
Isn't filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
It's a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we're on the way to there
Why not share?
And the load
Doesn't weigh me down at all
He ain't heavy, he's my brother”
The words of the song, also feel especially pertinent on Remembrance Sunday as we remember the heroic way servicemen and women have in moving and sacrificial ways acted out the meaning of the song. A few months ago I found in the following story on the internet:
It is entitled: Friends in Peace and in War
Though Jim was just a little older than Phillip and often assumed the role of leader, they did everything together. They even went to high school and University together. After University they signed up for military service ending up being sent to Germany together where they fought side by side in one of history’s ugliest wars.
One sweltering day during a fierce battle, amid heavy gunfire, bombing, and close-quarters combat, they were given the command to retreat.
As the men were running back, Jim noticed that Phillip had not returned with the others. Panic gripped his heart. Jim knew if Phillip was not back in another minute or two, then he wouldn’t make it.
Jim begged the lieutenant to let him go after his friend, but the officer forbade the request, saying it would be suicide. Risking his own life, Jim disobeyed and went after Phillip. His heart pounding, he ran into the gunfire, calling out for Phillip. A short time later, his platoon saw him hobbling across the field carrying a limp body in his arms.
Jim’s lieutenant upbraided him, shouting that it was a foolish waste of time and an outrageous risk “Your friend is dead’’ he added, “and there was nothing you could do.’
“No sir, you’re wrong,” Jim replied. “I got there just in time. Before he died, his last words were “I knew you would come.”
It is a moving story, but one that doesn’t always end that way. In the church that I grew up in, our ministers son, when conscripted into the Army, served as a paratrooper. When caught in Battle on the border with Angola, his friend was shot and fell on the battlefield. Although it was against the rules, Raymond turned back to help his friend and he himself was shot and killed. It was devastating for his family and for the whole church community.
There are many stories of amazing heroicism on the battlefield where soldiers have indeed paid the ultimate sacrifice.
But lest we too easily romanticize the heroicism of war it is important to remember that there is nothing romantic about war. People’s lives are shattered and sometimes die in the most tragic and awful ways. Siegfried Sassoon was an English poet and novelist, who served in the First World War. Having been sent out to France to fight on the Western Front and was shocked by his experiences there. In the course of the war his own brother was killed while serving in France. Influenced by another poet also serving on the Western Front, in order to process what he was experiencing he was encouraged to write poems that expressed honestly what he was experiencing.
And so he began to write in a more realistic way about the things he saw and experienced in France. I came across the following poem, called ‘The Hero’ that expresses the starkness of his experience:
"Jack fell as he'd have wished," the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read.
"The Colonel writes so nicely." Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. "We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers." Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how "Jack," cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home; and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
It makes me think of a quote I heard from someone just this week from Abraham Lincoln who himself would have been very familiar with the devastation that war can bring. The quote comes from a heart broken by knowledge of the 100’s of thousands of lives lost in the American Civil war, many of whom were sent into battle by himself. He says:
“There’s no honourable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending”.
And so while we honour the true heroicism of so many who have fought in times of war, we might also lament also at the very existence of war, lamenting with the song writers as they write:
“….If I'm laden at all
I'm laden with sadness
That everyone's heart
Isn't filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
It's a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we're on the way to there
Why not share?
And the load
Doesn't weigh me down at all
He ain't heavy, he's my brother”