War, peace and faith

Peter Seal, 12 November 2017

Ecclesiastes 3: 1–15; John 15: 11–17

On this Remembrance Sunday 2017 we pay tribute to the courage, bravery and selfless dedication of all who served in the two World Wars; and, since then, in Palestine, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Cyprus, Suez, Borneo, Aden, Oman and the Radfan, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan.

I invite you to hold in your minds, and hearts, the red poppy of Remembrance and the white poppy, symbol of hope for a world with a culture of peace.

Our remembering reminds us of the huge cost of war: the human cost in the loss of military personnel; and recalling that 90% of those who died were civilians. And then there’s the loss and damage to the natural world: animals, flora, fauna and land. Added to this is our growing awareness of how military conflict and terrorism add to pollution, which increasingly affects everybody, and especially today’s children.

To help us in our thinking about war, peace and the Christian faith I want to share with you the stories of two men. The first is my wife Julia’s paternal grandfather, Edward Squire. Known as Ted, he was the ninth child of seventeen. Just 5’9” tall, he played football for Cambridge, gaining his blue in 1910.

Twice wounded in World War I, Teddy was awarded the military cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’. He went on to be ordained priest, serving as a missionary in India and Nigeria, a headmaster on the Isle of Wight and then a parish priest in Kent and Norfolk.

When going through her father’s papers last autumn following his death, Julia found this letter. It’s written in pencil. Dated 13 April 1917, it’s to Ted’s sister, Helen. I want to read you some extracts. The address is the Charrington Ward of the London Hospital.

My dear Helen,

Your birthday! Many happy returns! It is a long time since I have had the pleasure of remembering your birthday.

I trust that you are keeping well and that the arrangements for the move will go smoothly …. I should love to see you and have a quiet talk. How many things there are in these days to distract our attention from the things that really matter and, in the long run, alone count. We are so often, and so easily, deceived by the newspapers and the excited friends and acquaintances around us.

How many things there are in these days to distract our attention from the things that really matter and, in the long run, alone count.

However serious may be the situation in France, if we attach overwhelming importance to it, it only reveals to us anew the falseness of our grounds of confidence. We are trusting, it’s true, to our army and our physical strength, but only humanly speaking … If our ultimate ground of confidence rests upon human success, and if our faith does not therefore rest upon larger principles and Someone deeper, we shall not be steady in a crisis, we shall get alarmed.

These critical days are a real test to each of us as to what our ultimate faith is resting on. If we believe in God then logically we must believe that he has a purpose in all these critical events … If we believe that God’s purpose will best be served by our victory in the field … we fight on till the last and refuse the thought of defeat because our duty is clear …

In other words … anyone whose habit it is to let his faith rest on nothing smaller or less permanent than God himself, and his personal love; for him, whatever happens in human affairs, he will not be shaken by his steady view of life.

Anyone whose habit it is to let his faith rest on nothing smaller or less permanent than God himself, and his personal love; for him, whatever happens in human affairs, he will not be shaken.

He will retain a trust … in spite of the worst disasters in national affairs, or the most overwhelming sorrow and tragic loss in our own personal affairs …

… by this I do not mean, a perpetual smile upon everybody, but something which is there when the severe tests come along, something unshakeable when every prop seems to have gone.

Jesus said so little about many sides of life which we often crave to know what he thought about. He said nothing about politics or soldiering or music or art, etc., because he had so much to say about the fundamental things …

Ted concludes: When I began this letter I did not mean to write all this, but as my attention concentrated upon you, you drew it out of me. You are one of the few people to whom I write who does this, and that is friendship. It is a satisfying joy to speak to someone of the deepest things. It is the communion of the spirit, I suppose.

Your loving brother, Ted

I found myself deeply moved by that letter from Ted. It brought the First World War and its human realities very close, and all in the context of the Christian faith.

I want now to share another true story which is unfolding within our church community. Many of you will know Ben Stannard, son of Tim and Liz, brother of Seb and Mollie, and Nan Deedes’ grandson.

Ben grew up in Winchester. His faith was nurtured in this parish. Ben is now 26. For the last year he’s been training to be a marine officer. On 7 December the family will gather in Lympstone, near Exeter, for his passing-out parade. Ben will be presented with his sword and become a lieutenant in the Royal Marines; and then he’ll be stationed with the 40 Commando in Taunton.

Ben and his family live with both their appropriate pride in what Ben has achieved and their sharp awareness of what he may be called to do, in the course of duty, for queen and country.

In kindly allowing me to speak of Ben, Liz and Tim are acutely conscious of not wanting to single him out in any particular way. From their respective professional experience, they are only too aware of the achievements of so many young adults in our communities, often in the face of great challenges.

The other week Liz was looking in the window of the charity shop in Stoney Lane. She spotted an old, tarnished tin. On closer inspection it turned out to be one of the tins given by Princess Mary to the troops at Christmas in 1914. The family have polished it up and are going to put messages of encouragement in it for Ben as he embarks on active service. They invite you to write one too if you might like to. Ted was probably given a similar tin all those years ago.

So, the stories of two men born 100 years apart: 1891 and 1991. We remember and give thanks for Ted and all whom he represents for us; we rightly honour them. We give thanks and we pray for Ben, and all whom he represents for us, as they carry out their duties.

In conclusion: all our remembering of the past, all our hopes for the future find their enduring perspective in the framework of the Christian faith.