Mother’s Day

I’ve seen many posts on Facebook today, people honoring their mothers and motherhood in general. I don’t want to take away anything from the sentiments there expressed, but I do feel the need to say something about my own feelings.

My parents brought us to Canada from England in 1952, seeking a better life than they thought they would get at home at the time. In many ways, they found what they were looking for, but they still resisted many of the customs of the land they had come to. One of those was Mothers Day. Even in the 50’s, when I was in elementary school, we had some societal pressure to celebrate this day. My parents thought it was just “American stuff and nonsense,” and forbade us to observe the event. Nonetheless, my mother sometimes got a bit shirty with us on the day if we didn’t acknowledge it. Against her upbringing, it seems she had absorbed some of the local culture, and hoped that her children would have done the same.

Every Mothers Day reminds me of my mother, and the contradictions I experienced around it as a child. Every Mothers Day recalls for me a woman who helped to make me who I am today. Every Mothers Day fills me with both thanksgiving and regret.

I had an interesting relationship with both of my parents. Can we use the word “complicated?” I never had any doubt that they cared for me and wanted the best for me, but it sometimes seemed that they had an odd way of expressing it. I don’t remember ever hugging my mother, and my father only once, when I was installed as a Canon of the Diocese of Edmonton. He was never sure about my career as a priest, but becoming a Canon meant something important to him, and he showed it.

As for my mother (after all, this is Mothers Day), she was a person whose life had largely been determined by other people’s ideas. I’m not going to trot out a lot of family history here, but suffice it to say that if she had done what she felt called to do, I would probably not be here today. She met my father when he was a medical student and she a student nurse, something she never wanted to do, but it was “the family business.”

Life with my mother could be interesting. I recall many wonderful times with her, and I also recall other not so wonderful times. When other people post laudatory things about their mothers, it raises in me a welter of very mixed emotions.

My mother died almost 22 years ago, in June of 1998. I still think of her often, remembering especially how difficult her last years were. Even without the illness that claimed her, it is very unlikely that she would still be with us. After all, she was born in 1917. Nonetheless, I still miss her, with all the tensions that my memories of her bring to mind — the good, the loving, and all the other things.

One of the things that has helped to redeem this day for me is learning of its early history. The first Mothers Day was the result of the work of Julia Ward Howe, who wanted a day for mothers to pray for the day when mothers would not have to send their sons off to die, as had happened so much in the American Civil War. My mother was resolutely opposed to war (more family history here…). During the Viet Nam era, when many young American men were coming to Canada, she had told my father that if we had gone to the US (a possibility in 1952), she would have expected my brother and me to come to Canada. She wouldn’t ever have sacrificed her sons to the cause of war. It was a cause of deep disagreement between her and my father, but I celebrate her for her stand, which resonates with the original movement. It’s too bad that Mothers Day has become such a “Hallmark event.”

Thank you, my dear Mother. I remember you with deep love.
….. but it’s still complicated.

Give this poem a rest?

What I am about to write will be seen by some as a “secular heresy.” I will no doubt outrage some of my readers, but please know that I am not trying to hurt anyone, simply to express my conflicted feelings, which I started to deal with in my previous post.

As a Christian with a theological training, I am well acquainted with the concept of heresy, which for most people means something akin to believing an untruth. The word comes from the Greek root meaning “to choose,” telling us that a heretic is someone who has chosen a different path from the so-called orthodox one.

The heresy I am proposing here is that we should give “In Flanders Fields” a decent funeral (or least an extended rest), and find another poem to read on November 11. John McCrae’s poem has been read at every Remembrance Day event I have ever attended. I have become used to hearing it read, often by a young person who has little connection to its roots, and even less understanding of the flow of the words. In particular, there should be no break between “we throw” and “the torch,” but because these usually lie on separate lines, the young readers break at the line change. If you’re going to read a poem in public, you could at least take pains to make sure that the language makes sense.

But that’s not my real point, and that’s not the heresy. My heresy (if you’ll allow the word in this context) is that I believe it’s time to stop reading this poem on this day. It has had its time. It has run its course. Its message is no longer appropriate for our times.

There are three verses in the poem. I have no argument with the first two, which are an elegy for those who have died in the course of war. As my previous post (I hope!) made clear, I have good reason to resonate with that sentiment. But then comes the third verse…

The elegiac tone gives way to the call to those who remain to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” The words were written in 1915, in the relatively early years of WWI, and the war may have seemed a good thing to pursue. The years to come would see the massive slaughters in the Somme, at Passchendaele, at many other places where so many people would die. For what? Who were the villains in this battle? WWI was fought for little reason, but it indelibly changed the face of Europe and much of the rest of the world. The armistice on 1918 ended the fighting, but the following years were times of huge upheaval and suffering in many places. It is safe to say that WWII, when civilians died in unprecedented numbers, was a direct consequence of the unresolved issues created by the first great war.

Back to the poem. Is it appropriate to reiterate a call to arms 114 years after it was written? To be sure, it reminds us of the reason for the deaths of the soldiers it recalls. But now we are in a different age, with a different set of issues, and a different sense of what must be done. The foes of 1915 have not been our foes for the past seventy or more years. They are our allies, co-creators of a future far different from what Col. McCrae could have imagined when he put pen to paper.

If we are going to remember the dead of past wars, as indeed we should, I would hope it would not be to remember in anger, and to continue the quarrel with the foes of yesteryear. I would rather hope that we could remember the dead both with sorrow and with the hope that the world of the future will be a world of peace.

Peace? I hold firm to the hope for peace on earth. But I struggle with the knowledge that the years since V-J Day in 1945 have rarely been blessed with peace. If anything, things seem to be getting worse.

When we gather on November 11 to remember those who gave their lives in the wars of the past century, I hope and pray that we may do so in the spirit of helping God to build that peace which is God’s desire for all people.

Can we still sound a call to arms? Or should we give “In Flanders Fields” a rest? What might we use instead? What poem expresses a call to build peace? The searing poetry of Wilfred Owen might be a place to start. Here is one of his most powerful poems, “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old,” a modern re-imagining of the story found in Genesis 22:1-14.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I read this poem once in a church service on the Sunday before Remembrance Day. I can still hear the collective gasp from the congregation as I read the last two lines. I have no regrets, but rather I continue to believe we should gasp at the horror of the inhumanity of war.


I was recently invited to take services at another parish on Nov. 10. For those of you outside Canada, this is the Sunday right before Remembrance Day, Nov. 11. It’s a major secular observance, recognized differently in various parts of our country, but nonetheless a significant annual event. As it happens, I won’t be taking these services, but that doesn’t change my feelings about the day.

The date goes back 101 years, to the declaring of the Armistice that ended World War I. It was known as Armistice Day for some years. After WWII, the new name was necessary, because the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice was no longer the date when peace came to the world. The second world war had put paid to that notion, in spades.

The day became particularly known for remembering the “ultimate sacrifice” paid by men (and women) who had given their lives in the two wars. I will never disparage what that may mean to anyone. As I will relate later, one war death touched my family very greatly. What I have long felt about the day is that it tends to look backward, mourning what was, rather than looking forward, seeking to build the peaceable society for which our war dead died.

Why do people wage war? It seems to me that warfare and the things that make for warfare are signs of our fallen nature. I believe that God intended that people would live in peace and harmony. War is a sign that humankind has failed to live up to God’s wishes for creation. We arm ourselves against enemies, not because God desires it, but because we and our enemies have failed to live as we ought. War may sometimes be necessary, because evil sometimes seems to get the upper hand. But war is only a way of stemming the tide of evil, not of building the peace which is God’s plan for all humankind.

William Boyd Jack, M.C.

My grandfather went to war in the early years of WWI, a medical officer attached to the Royal Leicester Regiment. He was known for his good humor and his ability to bring hope to every situation. About six weeks before the 1918 Armistice, he went forward to help rescue a wounded soldier. He and another man were pinned down by machine gun fire, and he died in the field. For his heroism he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. My grandmother wore the ribbon proudly for the rest of her life, but what a life that was! She was left with three young children, and one more born posthumously. She never remarried (which was a rare thing in those days, given the number of men who had had died in the war), and her children grew up with no father, overseen by uncles who tried to manage their lives.

The toll taken on our family is incalculable. My mother grew up with a horror of war and things military. After my father graduated from medical school in 1941, he did his duty, and enlisted in the army, going overseas while my mother was pregnant with my older sister. My mother lived the the rest of the war years in terror of being left alone as her own mother had been. I didn’t understand much of this until the sixties, when I was at university and the Viet Nam war was underway. I had been aware as a child that Remembrance Day was difficult in our house, but I had never realized why.

During the Viet Nam war, many draft-age men came to Canada from the US, because they could not or would not agree to fighting in that conflict. I learned around that time that my father had considered taking a medical position in the US when we were planning on emigrating from the UK. My mother told my father that if we had ended up in that country, she would have expected my brother and me to come to Canada. My father’s position, quite consistent with why he went overseas in 1942, was that he would have expected us to do our duty. It was not a happy time for them — or for me, once I realized what the story was.

I was involved in the ’60’s student peace movement. I became used to being attacked for being a Communist, a pacifist weakling, an enemy of our people. I reject all of those: what I am and what I remain is a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace. In the ensuing half-century, I haven’t changed my position in any material way. I still believe that peace is what God intends for God’s people. I still believe that peace is built through people acting peaceably, not in anger. I still believe that war, however necessary it may seem at times, is not part of God’s wishes for us.

We rightly remember on November 11. Many sacrifices were made in the wars of the last century, and we have much for which to give thanks in that regard. Nonetheless, this giving of thanks is done is sadness, remembering the loss of so much human life, the disordering of so many families, and the waste laid to so much human accomplishment.

When we remember on November 11, let it be with a ever-new commitment to building a society in which God’s peace is real and visible in all things.

We remember best by working for peace.

Thanks be to God for those who died to make this world a better place. We owe a great debt to them.

Thanks be to God for those who continue to work to keep that hope alive. Our children will be in their debt.