Voices from the Deep
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 8, 2020
Reading: Psalm 130
The flags have been put in their stands. The Book of Remembrance has been opened. The names of the dead have been read. The Last Post has been played. The reveille has sounded. We have honoured our nation and stood as one. In current times, tradition and remembering that tradition become even more important than usual. If there is a Remembrance Day in recent memory that could conjure up in our hearts a sense of gratitude, it is this one. Although we are few in number relative to what we normally have in attendance, we are strong of heart and we remember.
It seems to me there is a correlation between remembrance and tradition. They go hand in hand to make a profound difference in our lives. Remembering and tradition also speak to us of values, virtues, and things recognised in the past that are meaningful to us: Courage, sacrifice, dedication, the common good, faith, suffering, and glory. If there was a time in our history where we need those virtues to come to the fore, it is now. We are taking on an unseen, viral enemy that is destroying human life, taking from us the people and things we love and cherish.
It is also true that in times of remembrance and in times of tradition, we turn to the Word of God for help. We do so in today’s passage from Psalm 130. You can't have a remembrance tradition if you do not have worship, which constitutes the framework for that remembrance. Psalm 130 speaks to that remembrance, but also to us in our current situation. “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, oh Lord. Lord, hear my voice and let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, oh Lord.”
How many times in history when we have faced conflicts and problems, been beset by sin and violence, and have encountered ill health and challenges, have we not cried, “Out of the depths we cry unto You, oh Lord. Lord, hear our voice.” In Hebrew the word “depths” refers to the depths of the ocean, of the sea. In the Book of Jonah, when Jonah goes into the whale and goes to the depths, a place where you wonder if God actually hears you, and whether God can go to those depths. “From out of the depths we cry. We cry, Lord, hear our voice.” It is from those depths, say many of the greatest Christian writers, like St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, John Wesley, Martin Luther, and Richard Baxter, who have always said, this is one of the psalms of all psalms, because it is a cry from the heart, a cri de coeur to Almighty God. Hear our prayer.
I’ve thought over the years, when I’ve read this scripture in the face of challenges that we have encountered, whether it was in Soweto in ’76, when young people were killed in South Africa, Psalm 130 was read; the Westray mine disaster in Pictou County in Nova Scotia in 1992, it was out of the depths we cried; the Swissair 111 disaster off Peggy’s Cove, it was out of the depths we cried; or 9/11 and the devastation in New York City and elsewhere, it was out of the depths I cried, Lord, hear our voice. When the terrible earthquake took place in Haiti in 2010, Psalm 130 was read all over the world. “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, oh Lord. Lord, hear my voice.”
Here at Mount Pleasant Cemetery last Friday, with one of our beloved members, we read Psalm 130 together, “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, oh Lord. Lord, hear my voice and let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” We turn to this psalm when we remember, or when we are challenged.
Out of the depths is a phrase that calls us from remembrance of times past and events that have taken place. It is why Remembrance Day is so important, and it is why I believe it is still one of the single most important days in a culture’s calendar.” Lest we forget” is a call for us to remember someone and something that is worthy of our remembrance.
As Canadians, we invoke names that cause us to remember. Not names of people, but names of events, and we realise that we are here, standing on the shoulders of those who lived those events, whether it was Vimy, Passchendaele, the Battle of the Somme, Dieppe, the Battle of the Atlantic, or Juno Beach, we remember them. And we say what is often put on a headstone: “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.” In other words, remembering is important. Remembering that we are not here of our own volition, we are not here in a place of freedom, as constrained as we are by viruses that beset us. We are in a free land precisely because of those names, those battles, those places. When they were going through those things, you know what they cried: “Out of the depths, Lord hear our voice.” When we remember them, we recognise the voice and the freedom that God has given us because of them.
I realised, perhaps reading more broadly recently, that the notion of having a victory over an enemy, of taking on tyranny, and being challenged by things, requires a collective response. Those in the military were on the frontlines; they were the ones who bore the brunt of much of the violence and death. But there were many others who also made sacrifices for the greater good. Herein lies a message for us now.
I was listening to a passage of music that was sent to me by a Nova Scotian friend, (I have deep roots there). They sent me a copy of the Men of the Deeps, those famous coalminers from Nova Scotia, who sing gloriously. I played it and I thought about the extent to which they go to deep places to provide energy for the rest of us, and we don’t often think about that. In World Wars I and II, we forget the cost the miners had to pay, to power the war venture. There were miners in Alberta in the 1940s who were prohibited from enlisting in the service, because they were deemed too important to the war effort, and had to stay down the mines, whether they wanted to or not.
The same happened in Wales, the home of my grandfather, where the miners again were forced to work in terrible conditions often, many of them older, because young ones had gone to war, finding themselves back down in the pits again, because the coal was needed. It required a collective to take on an enemy. But it wasn’t just limited to the miners. There were also, in World War I, the Canary Girls, the women who worked in munitions factories. They took on a great danger; they took on the colour of yellow, hence “canary” because of their handling of the gunpowder. They had to work long hours, there was extreme noise from the machines. There was the potential for death should an explosion occur when handling munitions. There was the sexism of men feeling that their jobs had been taken by these women, who were in fact, in many ways, on the frontlines. Without them and their commitment and dedication, those who were on the battlefields of Vimy and Passchendaele and the Somme, would not have had the munitions that they needed to fight the battles. To take on difficulties, enemies, and struggles is a collective thing and we need to remember that. Many of them had gone to the very depths to make sure that we had that.
Out the depths, not only remembers it echoes. There’s an echo from the depth, as if voices are speaking from that place where you wonder if God is present, voices nonetheless speak.
I was reminded not long ago of how – and I addressed it a couple of Sundays ago –posttraumatic stress disorder can have a profound effect on those who have had to engage in war, or conflict, or faced traumatic difficulties. In the wonderful book Battle Lines by Thomas Allen Publishing, related to our church, there are some incredible letters. One of those letters comes from squadron leader, Ted Alpin, who in 1945 was there to help liberate Belsen.
When he went into Belsen and the concentration camps, this is one of the letters that he sent home:
Today was moving day. Patients or inmates are being segregated into barrack blocks according to nationality. It seems that actual fighting has taken place between certain groups recently – what a tragic sequel to such an experience as theirs.
The horror of camp itself, of course, has been burned down and presents a picture of complete desolation. Bulldozers have been to work, scraped out the remaining embers of the vile wooden brick buildings, but all the essential features are there – the thick barbed wire fences, dotted with guard towers, the incinerator, the mass graves, the piles of burned and broken shoes, and bits of clothing, the bones, the identification tags. Over the whole place there is the still of death and the sweet, sickly scent of human flesh.
When the army arrived here, there were ten thousand unburied bodies on the ground, and thirteen thousand more have died since then. This of course only represents the toll of recent months. The camp was a prison before the war. Most of these deaths resulted from typhus and starvation.
These dead have been buried by the British authorities in huge rectangular graves, giving the dates and the numbers. No one will ever know the true numbers that this fiendish place has really accounted for.
Can you imagine what Ted Alpin saw? Can you imagine the distress and the memories that have lingered? “Out of our depths, oh Lord, I have cried.” It echoes.
It echoes even though the second world war really should have ended all the major wars but didn’t. Canadians have continued to put themselves in the line of fire, continued to be in places of danger. What you thought would be enough of a carnage to warrant a peaceful decision by all the nations of the earth, did not lead to that. Still humanity continues to practice its injustices and its hatreds.
In 1993 a young Canadian went to Kigali in Rwanda and visited a refugee camp. He said:
I was subjected to machine-gun fire and crowds of refugees poured into the building nearby. As I turned to follow the crowd and seek protection, an eight to ten-year-old boy standing next to me, was shot in the leg. I remember him flipping over and collapsing on the ground and yelling in pain for help.
On another occasion my vehicle was stopped by a Hutu militia group at a checkpoint. The soldiers did not want to let us through the checkpoint. One of the soldiers reached in through the window of the vehicle and placed a machete in front of my face, and asked me in Swahili or Kinyarwandan, something to the effect, ‘are you Belgian?’ Insisting that I was from Belgium and that I get out of the car. I'm Canadian.
After twenty or thirty seconds of this, the driver hit the gas, our convoy broke through the barricades and as we were accelerating, some soldiers opened fire on our vehicle.
On another day I was arrested by a teenage soldier of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army, and as I attempted to figure out the reason for my arrest, he became agitated and pointed his AK47 in my face and pressed the barrel of the weapon in my nose. When I backed up, he pressed harder. One of the civilians I was with spoke Swahili and eventually diffused the situation.
But this went on. Young children fighting.
This is what one of our young Canadians saw. There is an echo of out of the depths. It reverberates. We might not like these stories from Belsen. We might not appreciate what happened in Rwanda, nevertheless, in remembering, in maintaining the tradition of remembering, we learn, do we not? We learn that out of the depths we need also to cry to our Lord, that out of the depths is ultimately an inspiration.
Yesterday, a wonderful man died. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi in London, England. For many of us, he was a voice of reason during the conflicts between people. He has been strong in his faith and compassionate in his desire to see God revered. He once wrote in the Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, these words:
I fear for the future of the West if it loses its faith. You cannot defend Western freedom on the basis of moral relativism. The only morality left when we lose our mooring in a sacred ontology, or a divine human covenant. No secular morality withstood Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russian. No secular morality today has the force to withstand the sustained onslaught of ruthless religious extremism. Neither market economics or liberal democracy has the power in and of itself to inspire people to make sacrifices for the common good.
May Jonathan Sacks be heard because he captures the essence of the psalmist. Oh, sure, there is, “Out of the depths I have cried unto Thee, oh Lord. Lord, hear my voice.” But there is more. He says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait. In his words do I hope. For with the Lord there is forgiveness. For Israel will be redeemed.” The people of God, in other words, will be saved. We will sing in a moment’s time, “Oh God, our help in ages past.” What’s the next line? “Our hope for years to come.”
Remembrance Day is not simply about the past. It is about recognising the past, learning from the past, and honouring the past. But it’s also about living in the present. This Remembrance Day, perhaps more than many of us have recognised in a generation, living in the present and learning from the past is so vital. We turn to God and we ask for him, hear our prayers from our depths.
Our frontline workers today are not in the trenches of World War I, they're not on the seas in World War II, they are in hospitals, in nursing homes, places where people suffer. It requires a collective, the common good that has been referred to by Jonathan Sacks. We should be praying for the common good. To look out not only for ourselves, but for the other. To sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the other; to look with vigilance, discipline, and with compassion on the world, and seek to be faithful in the way that we deal with it. And, in our hearts and our lives, like all of those who have been to the depths, to hear above all, the voice of God.
“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, oh Lord. Lord, hear my voice and let Thine ear be attentive to our prayers as we remember.”