In the days leading up to Remembrance Sunday two contrasting pieces in the media stopped me in my tracks because of how differently they interpreted the annual Remembrance commemorations, writes Spurgeons Chief Executive Ross Hendry.
At the heart of both is a diverse experience of what remembrance leads to. One serves as a warning, the other an encouragement to charities like Spurgeons and churches across the country that work with the vulnerable, broken and hope-less.
The first piece was an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. Her call was to draw a line under the Remembrance commemorations. Disheartened by flag waving jingoism, the ‘tyranny’ and pressure people feel to wear a poppy, and the use of past victories in battle to fill us with pride and optimism about future challenges, Toynbee thinks it’s time to let the past fade.
Contrast that with the interview with World War II veteran Harry Billinge on BBC Breakfast. An extremely moving piece ended with Harry linking his act of remembering to a greater hope for the future.
“Love is stronger than death”
Reflecting on the horrors of war Harry wanted the younger generation to, “… learn to love one another. There is a lot of hate and greed in the world, a lot of nonsense… George VI used to have a day of prayer. It’s a pity really we don’t have a month of prayer because we have got so much to thank God for. Turn back o man and forswear thy foolish ways. We’ve been stupid. We think we are so clever. We can blow one another up but we don’t love one another. Love is stronger than death. And he is coming back. Our Lord Jesus said he was coming back and he will. It says in the book of Revelation that, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth”, and that’s what I believe too.”
My experience of working with children and young people is that they have a voracious appetite for the past. This is not a point about making history real but the reality that vulnerable children and young people need hope; not vague, unfounded optimism but confidence in promises that will be kept.
Value of hope
One of Spurgeons’ three values that we expect all of our staff and volunteers to embody is hope. It is hope as defined by the bible. As we work with families that seem chaotic and incapable of change we explain that there is confidence in our hope. It is certain. It is a promise we intend to keep. An expectation-based remembrance. Remembering what has gone wrong but also what has been accomplished with others. We say that we are hopeful because we can point to promises made to other families like them that we have kept.
So, for a young boy like Reuben, 8, who saw Daddy trying to kill Mummy when he was three, we could say to him that the future did not need to be filled with violence and fear. Over the following months we helped Reuben and his mum find a refuge and rebuild their lives. They became part of a community based around a Spurgeons children’s centre so that when Reuben’s nan died of cancer the family had the resilience and love to work through the rough times.
Remembering Reuben’s story helps our staff, volunteers and future families, who are like Reuben and his mum, have a real hope for the future. That’s an incredibly important lesson when working with families who are often labelled and stigmatised. Many feel their past has already determined their future.
The bible warns about ‘looking back’. It is full of dangers. A quick search of bible references to ‘looking back’ returns nearly entirely negative stories full of warnings. ‘Remember’ is very different. It is something God frequently instructs and commands us to do. I think that is because ‘looking back’ means facing backwards; longing for a time long gone, re-living old victories and constructing a world edited around our own desires. ‘Remembering’ must always be rooted in truth. That is why, for us, remembering is an act of truth-telling with evidence… of God’s goodness and our sin; of God’s faithfulness and our rebellion; of God’s generosity and our selfishness.
This is clearly how Harry Billinge ‘remembers’. It’s what frames Christ-centred social action. The good news is hope-filled; a hope we can base on Remembrance.
This blog first appeared as Ross Hendry’s monthly column in The Church of England Newspaper.