Illustration by Michael Foreman for the book ‘Poppy Field’ by Michael Morpurgo, a story set in Flanders which tells the story of Martens family and the meaning of the poppy. It is a story which is both personal and national. If you purchase, 50% of profits go to the Royal British Legion.
I grew up in the First World War.
As we celebrate the setting up of the Royal British Legion 100 years ago today, that may seem a very strange statement to make!
I was actually born at the end of the 2nd World War and so my childhood was tinged with memories of what it was like to live in a time of austerity – reminders of which have emerged in this time of the Covid Pandemic and the suffering that we see around the world. There were, in the aftermath of war, similar inequalities to those we see today. No one wins at War: we are all defeated because war itself is the defeat of the human ability to live in peace and justice, freedom and love. War is a failure to seek peace and pursue it; it is the despairing response to negotiation which seeks to resolve disputes by other means and actions.
The British Broadcasting Corporation’s motto is: Nation shall speak peace unto Nation, and it’s a motto which strikes a deep chord within me, expressing, as it does, a hope which is also an aspiration. It is inspired by words from the Books of the Prophets Micah and Isaiah and it underlines the desire of God that His people should live in peace. This is a repeated theme in Holy Scripture, demonstrated totally in God acting through His Son, Jesus.
Whilst there is a longing for Peace amongst His children which should be expressed through love and justice, equality and kindness, we know only too well that we constantly fail to achieve that harmony which, combined with integrity, enriches our human life on earth. This harmony is never complete unless we embrace a stewardship of all creation. We do not exist on this planet for our own desires and wants to be fulfilled: we have an earth to save too – with God’s help.
As I write this, there are all sorts of battles going on between humans and humans (Israel / Palestine to name but one) and between humans and our borrowed environment with our destruction of the natural world of plants, animals, birds and creatures of the sea. (It is perhaps salutary that the latter live in the biggest area of the planet and so ought to be charging us rent!)
The world is not a great place to be at present, at least not in human terms so it is hardly surprising that you find me harking back to the First World War. Well, not to the war as such, which was such a chillingly horrific conflict, but I need to know about it because we continue to be afflicted by it.
So, I go to my grandfather’s bedside: he is dying but, despite being wounded in the First World War (one of the few survivors of the Dardanelles/Gallipoli battle) he has lived a fairly long life. And by his bedside, he tells me something of the horrors and heroics of War. He tells me too why he spent the rest of his life in Hospital service because of his war experience. Maybe it was the Irish in him but he was a good raconteur and as a boy just about to enter my teens, it was adventure and excitement as well as pain and horror. As the stories, including judgemental comments about certain politicians, filled my mind, I felt a nearness to that violent and significant crisis in the human story. For what happened in those 4 years was to shape and influence the entire 20th century.
Not least, because the botched peace at the end of World War I led to World War II. This was another conflict in which I was personally involved. I was, for example, part of the victory celebration but also, once again, I was shaped by the stories of parents, relatives, parents of friends and the extended family that formed our neighbourhood. Later, in the early 1960s Britain was at war in Aden, my cousin was involved as a member of the RAF. On at least two occasions he was almost killed. All this was part of my ‘story’ which shaped my life and who I am.
This is true of millions and like so many I have lived, too, through other conflicts such as Bosnia and Afghanistan. I have personally known some that these conflicts affected and go on affecting.
We are all shaped by the stories of others. As a Christian, of course, I have been, and go on being, shaped by the story of God in Jesus Christ and the words and deeds, the silences and the prayers of billions. With my fellow Christians today, I go on adding to that story.
And today we are celebrating the telling of the human story as it is preserved and added to by the Royal British Legion. On this day in 1921 the Legion was formed to take care of those who suffer the directness of war in battle and conflict; those whose lives have been broken by wounding or loss of loved ones; those who have fought a different battle in the aftermath of war – a battle which is physical, mental, social, practical and spiritual.
The Royal British Legion has been a Godsend in helping people to cope and I do mean Godsend because, whether the Legion sees it that way or not, it is godly work that they do.
All that is very important and we truly celebrate it. But alongside that is the importance of ‘Story’. At the heart of my faith is the story of God’s love. It is a painful love because as TS Eliot puts it, It costs ‘not less than everything’ to God’. Our Story is therefore always bound up in God’s story. It is one which needs to be re-told and lived out carefully but joyfully, if my Granddad’s story and your relatives’ stories are to help us shape the peace and justice of our world. A shaping which, as the work of the Royal British Legion shows us, should be rooted in compassion, kindness and service, engfolded by the tender and infinite Love of God.
A prayer for the Royal British Legion
As we reflect on past sacrifices in the cause of freedom,
we pray for the work of the Royal British Legion.
We give thanks for the Legion’s work in caring
for the needs of those who have served in the armed forces;
for their families and those whose lives have met with adversity
because of war and conflict.
We give thanks that those who serve the causes of the Legion,
and put that service of others before self.
We pray that in helping us to remember past and present sacrifices,
hope and inspiration may be given to present and future generations
to work for a better, more peaceful and more just future under God.
We pray this in the name of the Prince of Peace,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
[prayer Mr G edited by PGCN]