Passing the Torch

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, Remembrance Day, November 9, 2014

Is 9:2-6, John 1:1-5

As we approach Remembrance Day, what do we remember? Some think I should first ask, “Do we remember?” Nov. 11 is more than a holiday, but as each year further removes Canada from memory of WWI & II, our task of memory becomes increasingly hazy and less urgent. Presuming that we will at least have a nudge towards pause on Nov. 11, what will we remember?

Some of us will acknowledge the lives of soldiers lost in the wars. We pause to give thanks for their sacrifices made on our behalf, that we may live in freedom and in peace. But is this enough? Is this what those who died would have wanted? Last June, I was surprised to read the reflections of a veteran, who said that this isn’t the world they fought for. Larry Wulff, now 92 years old, said that he misses the purpose that the war gave his generation. People stood together to bring better living conditions to all. Now, the purpose of living tends to be more related to personal gain. Wulff is particularly troubled by the political morass we’re in, characterized by political in-fighting and attacks between political parties. He also points with despair to the continuing occurrences of genocide in the world, which he hoped the Allied victory would end.

Canadian historian Desmond Morton interviewed a number of vets and found a similar sentiment. “The old soldiers rightly feel that the gains they made… [are] slipping away and it may be because most people today don’t understand what they should be fighting for.”

This tells me that we are not only to remember the deaths of soldiers and to be grateful for our freedom and democracy. The vets also want us to remember why they fought. They sacrificed their lives, their physical and mental health because they believed that human rights, that communal welfare, that peace and justice were worth the sacrifice. Even more, they are counting on us to carry on this fight against hate and fear of anyone who is different, against selfish gain that erodes the communal spirit of care.

Listen to the last two verses of “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in 1915.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

We have been thrown a torch; it is ours to catch, to hold up high, to shed light in the midst of darkness. The people of Cold Lake, Alberta, caught that torch a couple of weeks ago. Someone had vandalized the mosque and painted “Go Home” across the front wall. Mahmoud Elkadri, a mosque board member, found the vandalism when he opened the doors early Friday morning for prayers. When his children saw it, they began to cry, saying, “We were born here and raised here and this is our home.” Only a few hours later, other residents rallied together and posted colourful signs reading, “You are Home! We stand united as Canadians.”

Isaiah predicts a day when the darkness of oppression shall be broken by the rays of light; when the boots of the tramping soldiers and all of the garments soaked in blood shall be burned as fuel for a blazing fire. We usually hear this passage from Isaiah on Christmas Eve, but it speaks well to us in our service of remembrance with its vivid imagery of a child born in the darkness of oppression and war—a child that will become our Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. Darkness and light—they move together across the pages of history; across the pages of the Christian journey.

If you speak with any vet who served on the front lines, they will tell you that they fought not only against the darkness of hate and tyranny, but they also fought against the darkness within themselves—a darkness of fear, of pain, of loneliness, of betrayal, of weakness, of heart-wrenching sorrow as they watched a beloved comrade die in agony.

We know this darkness. We know the intense grief and loneliness of watching a beloved suffer and seeing their light gradually diminish. We know the battle of depression that cloaks brilliant rainbows with a dull grey. We know the wearying, nerve-fraying toll of constant pain that robs us of a lightness of being. We know our shadow sides, which are fully capable of causing others pain.

How can we carry the torch of light when we carry such darkness?

God carries darkness. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Jesus, the Word, Holy Wisdom was in the beginning with God in the dark, not the light. Darkness preceded the light in our first creation story. God then created the light—the greater to rule the day and the lesser to rule the night. The light of Jesus shines in the dark and the darkness does not overcome it. But neither does the light overcome the darkness—they co-exist as night and day. God carries both.

If we fail to carry the torch of light, perhaps it’s because we fail to carry our darkness. We turn away from the darkness of others, dismissing them either in judgement or in defence. It is difficult to look at their darkness, to hold it as God’s pain-bearers. We turn away from our own darkness, either in denial or guilt-paralysis. It is difficult to look at our darkness, to hold it, even as God holds us, with all of our shadow sides.

When I served a United Church in the village of Punnichy, Saskatchewan, there was an RCMP officer in that little congregation who shone with kindness and compassion. I think that he was able to let his light shine so brilliantly because he was also able to acknowledge and hold his darkness. He was a recovering alcoholic and did not hide this. Instead, he had the courage to lead an AA group in that village. At these meetings, people who were professionals, on welfare, living on the nearby reserves or in town, were all treated equally. Each one held their own light and their own darkness, as God held them.

Perhaps this is how we can best remember those who sacrificed themselves in the wars. If we can learn to walk in the dark with God, to look at our own darkness and hold it, it will be less likely to overcome us. Then, we might have the courage to hold the darkness of others, even as we reach for that torch that is thrown our way and add our light of Jesus’ love and compassion to the torches of others.

A 16th century poet captured this strange dance of darkness and light:
For whatever from one place doth fall
Is with the tide unto another brought
For there is nothing lost that may be found if sought…