When I was a child at Primary School in the nineteen sixties, I remember gangs of small boys linking arms and walking round the playground, singing “Are you ready for a fight? We are the English.” On hearing this another lot of boys would link arms, get themselves into a gang and respond, “Yes, we’re ready for a fight! We are the Germans.” Then they would have a fight…..
It was then twenty years since the end of the Second World War. None of us had been born when England and Germany fought each other. Even our parents had been only children, not on active service. Yet playground memories linger long. The games played by children in the nineteen forties had been unwittingly passed on to the children of the nineteen sixties. I suppose the game did die out eventually. It would certainly not be permitted in our politically-correct playgrounds today.
There was a time when people started to say that Remembrance Day was not only unnecessary (as the number of war veterans diminished) but actually harmful to World Peace. For if we keep harbouring memories of conflicts, we shall surely continue to nurture hatred and resentment against those who killed or injured our ancestors? And does not Remembrance Day “glorify” war, making it not just OK but even great to go out and drop bombs that will kill hundreds of people? Would it not be better to forget the whole thing and move on?
In the Bible, the people of God were big on “memories.” It was vitally important that they remembered their past history and told it to their children. Of course, in ancient times, people relied mostly on oral tradition, so the telling and re-telling of stories was the only way you learned your history. But there were also important lessons to be learned from history, many of which would have a beneficial effect on the present generation. Once the people of Israel were settled in their own country they were told never to forget that they had once been slaves and migrants, in the hopes that this would make them more generous and compassionate to those in similar situations. They were told to hold annual festivals to remind them of the times when God had delivered them from danger, so that they would keep looking to God for help and not get tangled up in their own pride. Even the tales of seriously dysfunctional families in the book of Genesis were not “whitewashed” but re-told as they were, in the hopes that future generations would take warning from the mistakes made in the past.
Somewhat to my surprise, I have seen public loyalty to Remembrance Day diminish and then rise again during the course of my (33 years) ministry. A lot of this is due to the conflicts in the Falkland Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq, as new generations realise that war, alas, is not a thing of the past after all. It remains a threat to every life. And when you are confronted with the sheer horror of organized warfare or acts of ruthless terrorism, you look wildly around for help and hope and the human race alone is not strong enough to give it. People cling together and even the vaguest of prayers to a God they can hardly conceive of brings a little comfort.
And as for moving on? Sooner or later we learn that wherever we travel, our past goes with us. We cannot leave it behind. It has shaped us into what we are. The challenge is to turn it into a stepping stone rather than keep it as a stumbling-block. And this is what the Bible teaches us about memories: that God brings fresh springs of water out of what were once stony places; He makes flowers grow where there were once only weeds; he turns the humiliation of the cross into the joy of resurrection.
November is very much a month of memories as we celebrate the season of All Saints, create a space for Time to Remember our loved ones no longer with us, and celebrate Remembrance Sunday. Offer to God your memories and pray for healing where they bring pain, renewal where they bring regret, forgiveness where they bring anger and new light where they have held us in darkness.
With love and good wishes to you all,