Decisions by nightfall
Sunday, November 5, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00
If ever you have been in the position where you are at a funeral waiting to see the family or have attended a service and are at a reception waiting to speak to a grieving family member, you know how difficult it is to find the right words to say. Oftentimes, when faced with the grief of others our words seem hollow and with little or no meaning, so we turn to the tried and true. We think if we say something like, “She is in a better place” the grieving family will feel comforted, but they are not! Or, we say, “At least now the suffering is over”. It might be a truism, but it is of little comfort to those who have lost someone they love. If you try to personalize it by saying “They meant a great deal to me, he was such a good friend!” it often pales compared to the real relationships that meant the most in his life. We struggle to find words because we think words are something that we should offer, but the reality is that no matter how good our words, how sincere our feelings of sorrow might be, they are hollow. When I think back to my own mother’s funeral and remember the reception afterwards, I cannot recall one word spoken by a single person there, but I remember the faces and that they were there. That is what I remember. It is not the words that are tremendously liberating at a time like that; it is just simply presence. Presence is sometimes all that is needed, because presence conveys love.
I think it is the same when as a society or a nation we grieve. We remember sorrows of the past, we remember the names read, as David Temple read them as he does every year. They are names that we might not recall ourselves, people we might never have met, nevertheless, when their names are read, they are one with us and we are one with them. We might know those who are related to them and understand their grief, but even then our grief cannot capture in words the depths of the sentiment we feel for them. Oftentimes, all we can do is remember them. While there are countless millions who have given their lives over the years, who have laid them down in service in order that we might have our freedom to be here today, we do not know them by name, but we remember them simply because we care. Sometimes, remembrance is the only word that can be spoken in the face of such enormous grief. Sometimes, it is the only thing that we can say: “We remember them.”
I have gone back, as I do most years, and read the original sources of times in our history when people laid down their lives for the sake of us. The letters written, often from the very depths of the world of sorrow and grief. When I reach down and I pull those words from the pages, it is not us who have the words to say, but rather those who have died. Their letters speak much more profoundly than our words of comfort ever could. I have found that there is a commonality to a lot of these letters, and that is one word: “nightfall”. At night, so much of what happens in war, so many of the sorrows that are found, come to the forefront. There have been so many letters written from the battlefield that talk about night-time, because night-time is the time of suffering and uncertainty. At night-time, they do not know what dawn will reveal. At night-time, there is this profound uncertainty. As I have read letters, particularly from the trenches in World War I, I was struck by how terrifying nightfall can be: the smell of mud, gas, and blood, death and war. The hunger and the uncertainty as to whether or not supplies will arrive, the pounding of artillery day and night, the incessant sound of crying, the need to bury the dead. The letters terrify me; nightfall and the grief and the sorrow that comes with it, has such a profound impact.
This is the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele. The battle had been going on for three months when a writer, an infantryman named Keith McGowan wrote to his mother about what had transpired in Belgium on those days at the end of October and the beginning of November. It is only a hundred years ago:
We got to our area in the trenches in the evening, and for the next few days we were there and the weather was frightful. There was wind and there was rain. Knowing there would be trouble getting supplies forward, I got everything well in hand, had all the ammunition correct and water bottles filled and managed to carry thirty tins of water. All this time there was heavy artillery fire and our transport roads were being heavily shelled. The work went on steadily: streams of men, horses, mules, motor transports and limbers moved up and back on the double, but no trenches. Everything done overland! We could be seen. We moved further forward the evening of the 25th of October, and it was quite clear and bright that night. There was to be a show early the next morning, so we dug ourselves in, as we were support troops.
Bailey and I dug a hole about five feet in diameter, put a tarpaulin over it, and during the night the rain came. From the time we arrived in Belgium, our artillery had kept up an incessant roar, day and night it went. It became very tiresome, as the vibration in our little place was a corker. The gunners were having their troubles pushing forward in the open, no emplacements or cover, and the mud was bad and the smell was terrible. We were both held up by zero hour, and I just managed to get a little better than half rations for my men, and then we were hit by shells. We watched the show until the smoke hid all movement. The enemy filled the air with fireworks and his artillery and machine guns was beyond description that night.
The enemy became stronger every minute as the bombardment went on. When the rain cleared away, there was a very bright moon behind it, with a distinct skyline that I could not avoid. But then, there was sniping machine gun fire in the dark, so we had to jump from one place to another. We had a lot of men killed. The OCB Hinchman, his second and I had a consultation, and they left me. Poor Hinchman was killed going back to the company. Midnight came, and the enemy became stronger, and I got a report that he was coming over on one of my posts. I knew that by daylight we would be picked off one by one.
I got my officers together and arranged with B Company so that we could cover each other, and we got back after losing a few. But, just before we started Bailey came back to me, and from that time until the end of the tour, he acted like a little boy. It was the first time ever I was disgusted with him in the line. I could not get him to attend to things, and while he was there I had no authority. However, we got back to a trench line behind a ridge, but really too low on it. I saw one chap shot in the head on the way back. One of our company officers and I were both watching him go back, and the bullet actually sparked in the dark of night when it hit him on the head. We had to run and take cover and run again. We were twisted, and it was impossible to say where we were in the dark. The moon had gone down and the country was a sea of mud holes. We found a piece of trench at four-thirty in the morning and slept under a ground sheet until six, when finally I got my bearings and arrived at my destination at seven, found my rations, made the front line again, and jumped into war in the middle of the light.
We stayed with the remainder. It was simply Hell! There was nothing to do, and we just sat and talked, wondering whether the next bullet had our name on it. Lowe was partly buried and we had to dig a couple of others out. But on the whole, I was lucky. But no money could get me to go through such hell in an afternoon again!
Passchendaele 1917! When you read this can feel the incredible fear, and while it is hard to hear it was real! These were our boys and girls, our men and women in these situations! By nightfall, they lived with the uncertainty of what the next day would bring. The only thing we can say is “We remember them.”
Nightfall is also a time of profound decision. Our passage from the Book of Samuel 2 is one of the most emotional passages in the whole of The Old Testament. Here again was a moment of battle, grief and profound sadness. It was the moment when King David experienced the death of his son, Absalom. Absalom, who was his third son, had a very mixed life. He decided with others in Israel that they were going to usurp the authority of his father, King David, go into battle and take Israel for the newly formed army under Absalom. David got some soldiers together under a man called Joab, and there was a conflict: the conflict at Ephraimwood, which goes down in the history of Israel as one of the ignominious battles. Absalom led into war against David, the father. Absalom, David pleaded to his troops, was not to be killed in battle, but was in fact killed in battle. Joab, the leader of David’s forces, had killed him himself. There was this horrendous scene, when David and his soldiers had won against Absalom and yet David had lost one of the most precious people in his whole life. In immortal words, he said, “Oh, my son Absalom, if only I had died in your place!” David was so overwhelmed by his grief, so struck by the fact that his son Absalom was dead. This was captured immortally by the words of William Faulkner in O Absalom! Absalom! And brilliantly by Alan Paton in that wonderful South African book, Cry the Beloved Country.
David lost his bearings because he was overwhelmed with grief. He forgot that there were soldiers who had gone to war to fight for him. There were those who laid down their lives in honour of him. Joab comes back to him and, in one of the most cataclysmic moments in all of The Old Testament, takes King David to one side and says:
Today, you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines. For the love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you, you have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you, for I perceive that if Absalom was alive and all of us dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants, for I swear by the Lord our God, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night, and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.
Joab was reminding David that, having been caught up in his own sorrow, he had forgotten his commanders and the warriors and the soldiers. He had turned his back on them as if they were not important. They were important, for they too had offered to give their lives. And, while he was a grieving father, and there is nothing more painful than the loss of a child, he had to remember all those who were around him.
When we get so caught up in our own concerns, like David, so concerned for our own well-being or the well-being of those around us that we forget those who have given their lives in order that we might have life ourselves, what do we learn? What do the letters of Passcheddaele and the grief of a soldier, and the pain and the grief of a parent in David mean for us? The lesson it seems to me, is clear and loud: sometimes it can be too late to tell people that we love them. For the parents who sent their children to war, only to find that they were not to come back, it was often too late to tell them that they loved them. Every single day we are faced with the challenges of life, it matters not where you are. Sometimes if we do not express our love for those who mean the most to us, the opportunity passes by. I wonder whether this happened to the runners and the cyclists on the west side of New York this past week. I wonder if it happened to those at a concert at Las Vegas or in Manchester or in Orlando. In the midst of wars and conflicts, there have been so many missed opportunities to tell people that we love them. It may sound trite, it may sound as if it is unimportant, but if we had told people we loved them, in the midst of grief and sorrow that is the most important thing in life. We have said it, and we have meant it, and so when the grieving comes, our words are not necessary. Love has been given and spoken.
So it is with all those who have gone before us: we will remember them and we say so now. But this is the time for us to learn from them. It is time to listen to the letters from Passchendaele, to hear the stories of those who have given their lives, because so often it seems as if it is unreal. At times, people’s tongues are far too loose in talking about war, as if it is something sanitized and glib and lacking in cost, not realizing the pain, the sorrow, the grief that war brings. We talk too freely about war, as if it is an easy thing. Passchendaele and David and Absalom remind us that it isn’t. It is not something that is switched on and off. It is not written by those who write fiction; it is written by those who have given their lives in blood. We need to learn from them.
So, what can we do? Well, it is never too late to remember. This week, I received a beautiful piece of poetry written by someone from our own church who listens on the radio – Evelyn Stagg. It is a simple poem, but it is a poem that says so much:
They were always happy and energetic children
Laughing and running through the fields or playing in the park
And I remember them every day
They were always serious young people
Paying attention to their studies, working hard and enjoying life
I remember them every day
As they grew up they had concern for others in their neighborhood and in their country
The threat of losing their homeland worried them
I remember them every day
They were always good soldiers,
too young they fought and died for their country
We remember them every day
It is good that some people take one day
every year to remember them
For they are children of God and He remembers them every day
I often feel that God, at times, must be like David with Absalom, and say, “Oh, my humanity, I would have died instead of you!” Then I remember that he did, through his Son on a Cross, and there He remembers us all. Those who have gone before await through him for the daylight and the new dawn. We will remember them! Amen.