You don’t come home all jolly and happy from a visit of battlefields, museums, and cemeteries or walking through towns and country sides that are rebuilt yet have scars for those who look closely. We stayed at Talbot House in Poperinge (Belgium) precisely because its World War 1 links and so we were immersed in a little way with the ghosts of the past as we met people most of whom were from around the world doing the same thing we were … not so much remembering, I think, as not forgetting. The timing of our trip was the centenary of Charlotte’s great uncle’s death – the man after whom her father, born a few weeks later, was named. We paid our respects on the day.
Numbers, statistics, details such as distance covered in an attack or retreat blurred in my mind. I found the numbers are too big to comprehend – this day 4 times the total ELCE membership died; that campaign took out more than 10,000 (!) Ascensions; it all blurred into a numerical numbness and a sense of futility and waste. Charlotte read many excerpts from the material she had and one statistic ‘stuck’ – just as remembering one person can help bring the past to an imagined reality and understanding today – and that was that by the time the Allied Forces reached Passchendaele in November 1917 – for 5 miles of land – it has been estimated that for every square metre gained 435 men died*.
What do we do with this sort of past? Where does the rage, the sadness, the despair go? Do we just compartmentalise our history – our lives – and get on as best we can? Does a knowledge of this sort history or an awareness of human nature just create fatalism? I’m sure it can. When parallels emerge do we just sigh and start getting ready for the worst? Again, in the world that might be prudent.
But I was struck on this trip at Talbot House – a place set up by two Army chaplains to provide rest and recreation away from the front lines – how one’s perspective really does shape one’s view of reality. A listening ear, a kind word, solace, prayer, daily services gave to countless soldiers the view that there was more to life than mud, maiming or death. A hundred years ago the Church and religion in general might have had more ‘sway’ – but the truth remains along the lines of Winston Churchill who once said, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’ – that in the crucified man, Jesus, we have someone who never abandons his people no matter what hell they are in. Of course this is easier to type – and you to read – than to go through.
Charlotte and I were back in 1917 and we knew the war would end a year later. But they didn’t. And today in our situations – especially the tough ones – we don’t know when they will end either. But that doesn’t stop Jesus being with us for today. And he will be with us tomorrow because not even death can stop him. So whether we are in war or conflict or trouble or ‘hell’, whether it be among family, at school or work, in society or whether our country is at war – we are called to follow Jesus – trust him and attend to the tasks at hand convinced that we are serving those around us. And we might pause and remember what Micah said to the people, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 ESV). GS (*John Ruler & Emma Thomson (2014). WW1 Battlefields. p.22.)