November was a time of remembrance. The Feast of All Saints, the Feast of All Souls, and we also remembered the end of the First World War.
There was not a single family in Britain, France and Germany unacquainted with grief; nor a corner of life unaffected. I was in Boston Stump for a festival of remembrance that included several exhibits about the impact of the war on the lives of the people of Boston.
For me the most graphic image was a street map of Boston in 1918 on which a black dot had been placed on each house where a family member had died in that conflict. Boston was much smaller then, but there was hardly a house without one or more dots – 200 in all.
Rather than people returning to a land fit for heroes, the soldiers who returned came home to unemployment and to a nation that did not show gratitude to those who fought for it. We have begun to learn this lesson.
War also led us to understand the nature of God in a different way.
During the war itself and in the decades that followed we uncovered something new in our understanding of God. Put simply: if God is loving and all-powerful, how could evil be allowed to flourish on this devastating scale? And why would we continue to trust in a God indifferent to our fate?
One person who wrestled with these questions was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. He was an army chaplain who earned the nickname Woodbine Willie for handing out cigarettes to the troops at the same time as copies of the New Testament.
Woodbine Willie insisted on being on the front line with the troops whenever he could. Those battlefield experiences forced him to confront depths of evil and suffering which few of us will ever see.
Having entered the war with a secure faith in God and an abstract notion of evil, he ended it being absolutely certain of the existence of evil as a real force at work in the world. The challenge, then, was to find a way to reconcile all that he had seen in the trenches with the existence of a God who was worth believing in.
For Woodbine Willie, hope came with an understanding that God was no longer the almighty force of his pre-war understanding, able to prevent humans from harming one another if he so chose. Instead, God was present in the heat of battle, suffering along with humanity, in the intolerable conditions of the trenches, in the endless slaughter of young lives. God was characterised not by force and power, but by love; no longer remote from all that was going on, but intimately connected with it and suffering through it.
God has planted in each one of us the greatest potential for love; and yet, evil exists and because evil often expresses itself in violence it has to be confronted with force and violence, whether between nations or within a nation.
After the war, despite everything he had seen, Woodbine Willie was able to write, ‘The universe is as an “unfinished movement” in which the underlying melody is love.’
The God we believe in brings love out of hate; light out of darkness; justice out of oppression; good out of evil; life out of death. This is our God, and his name is Love. Our acts of remembrance during November helped us to prepare for the season of advent as we remember the first coming of Christ and prepare for his second coming. To remember helps us to be mindful of what it means for Christ to be born in us today.
With every blessing,