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A Voice in the Wilderness
Stones of memory


The sermon at the Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle, on the sixtieth anniversary of its dedication, 27th Mary 1987.

When your children ask their father in time to come
What mean ye by these stones?
Then ye shall answer them ...,
These stones shall be for a memorial ... forever.
Joshua. 4.7.

Memory is a remarkable human Faculty. It brings enrichment to our contemporary life by reminding us of moments of the past which were meaningful and important. Some are only momentous for ourselves while others are cataclysmic world events which have left their mark on our personalities for ever.

Remembrances is therefore no mere escape from today into a happy or exciting yesterday but remembrance is the capacity to bring into the present something decisive from yester years.

This mental grip on a memory always happens because of its significance for us now. The emotional, the sentimental, the romantic have their own private place. However, at this time, we are called to participate in a corporate recollection which takes hold of us and directs to the dynamic in remembering.

This demands insight and understanding. What does each of us remember beyond the faces, the words, the actions, beyond the binding ties of love and kinship, beyond the dependability and the comradeship? Is it not the intentions which impelled men and women to risk their all for some ideal, even although never clearly expressed? Is it not the hopes which came in a murmuring word or in the lines of some old sweet song? Is it not the dream of a future - a land fit for heroes to live in, a world at peace with itself, or a return to values and an integrity to shape a new world to be actualised from some dim, distant dream?

To remember such expectations, to which the brave bore witness, is to appropriate to ourselves those highest aspirations and to be challenged afresh by our memories of those whose words are evergreen.

Yet, as we look around us in this hallowed place, each individual voice which sounds out so clearly to us for fresh commitment to make such heart yearnings our own, we today are drawn together to hear the immense, united, challenging corporate voice of expectation which comes to us as we are asked, 'What mean ye by these stones?'

This memorial was not erected sixty years ago merely to remind the nation of the myriad of sacrifices that were made. It was conceived as a testimony to the nation's convictions, now spanning several generations, that the values, traditions and the way of life of the nation represented something of great worth which could not be surrendered at the whim of those who looked upon it with supercilious disdain.

To that generation, into which I was born sixty years ago, there was a belief that there was a Christian interpretation of the terrible, bloody, costly struggles of the first world war. Some of the more callous of today may not even stop to sneer but the words of David Lloyd George of 19th September, 1914, found an echo in the hearts and minds of the decimated remnants four years later of which my father was one. He said, The stern hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation when we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation'.

While some may write this off as Welsh rhetorical hyperbole, we see here the politician dwarfed by the awesome powers which the war had unleashed and over which, on all sides, they realised they had no control. The darkened, demonic powers of this world seemed to hurl European civilisation into oblivion. While in the second world war, we seemed to catch a glimpse of ultimate total annihilation. Yet beyond it all, there was given the hope that the everlasting things that matter for a nation would continue to be.

What were those everlasting things that matter for a nation? Where were they to be found? Could such everlasting things always survive? The affirmative answer came not in the durability of buildings, not in the safeguarding of possessions, not in the strength of an economy, not even in the size of a nation's population but somewhere in the heart and mind and spirit of humanity itself. Such things were understood long, long ago when all one's possessions were in a kit bag and, apart from a photograph or two and a few addresses, the everlasting things remained stored in the mind and in the heart.

What mean ye by these stones? This memorial was built not primarily to remind us of disablement, death and destruction. It was erected making claim to an insight that in all the events of human history, whether expressed in thoughtful construction or mindless destruction, there is a word of God to assure us that even in the most terror-filled moments, God can bring good out of evil.

Whatever interpretations we may put on the current defence debates, we all realise that even the most paranoiac of politicians has had to think more than twice before releasing a war upon the contemporary world. The whole world now recognises that there can never be a master race nor an Untermensch.

While we treasure our national traditions and our mountains and valleys, land and sea, we realise all arrogant, nationalistic claims at the expense of others are foolish.

Yet, these voices from beyond call us to make our own generation more fully aware of the everlasting things that matter for a nation as this memorial reminds us of the importance of such things for them. The comradeship which grew strong so quickly, often in the few months we were together, challenges us to a new openness to the needs of others and a preparedness to share with one another, with the same unselfish, unsophisticated grace which we knew in those far-off days. The unity of the nation under God can only be achieved if we appreciate the humanity of Christ who calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves. We must also make a strong effort to recover an understanding of God as the lord of history and the controller of the world's destiny, which to some extent, we understood almost half a century ago. We, who are but pigmies in the thousands upon thousands of years of human history, have sought to make God smaller than ourselves - no wonder he appears to often to have disappeared from our sight!

What mean ye by these stones? They bear witness to the lord of history who has taken to himself all the strivings, struggles, intentions and expectations of those whose names are written here. The onward sweep of purposeful human history bears witness also to that lord of history who has incorporated us all into a meaningful and fulfilling destiny in Him. So they, in whose memorial we meet, are part of that destiny and finally all his mysterious, gracious purposes will be revealed.

Until then, we must ever be ready with our answer to that question, What mean ye by these stones?


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