Then someone yelled out "Contact, front"
And the bloke behind me swore
We hooked in there for hours, then a God-almighty roar
Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon
God help me, he was going home in June
I can still see Frankie drinking tinnies in the Grand Hotel
On a thirty-six hour rec leave in Vung Tau
And I can still hear Frankie lying screaming in the jungle
'Til the morphine came and killed the bloody row
And the Anzac legends didn't mention mud and blood and tears
And the stories that my father told me never seemed quite real
I caught some pieces in my back that I didn't even feel
God help me
I was only nineteen
And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can't get to sleep?
And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what's this rash that comes and goes
Can you tell me what it means?
God help me
I was only nineteen
Many might recognise the lyrics from the Redgum song, I Was Only 19, written by John Schumann based on the experiences of veterans of the Vietnam War. The 1983 song was number one on the charts for two weeks and influential in the campaign to add a war memorial for veterans of the Vietnam war.
The song’s impact, like the poetry of Jeremiah, speaks to the necessity to publicly grieve and lament the great pain and loss brought on by war, violence, and desolation. Schumann’s song captures the scars and trauma that don’t go away. Jeremiah captures the shock, grief, and trauma that Israel faced in their defeat and exile at the hands of Babylon.
Both pieces further capture the questions that emerge in the face of such horror and crisis; in particular, the question: what are they to do now?
What Israel did in exile should never be underestimated. Defeated emphatically in battle, their temple is destroyed and people dislocated from the promised land… there is little evidence that the God of Israel is either faithful to them or powerful enough to compete with the empires of the world. Away from their land and religious system the threads holding the people together and to their God are tenuous… they would not be the first nation, in such a position, to be assimilated into the wider imperial culture and religion.
And yet, that does not happen. As we recalled at the beginning of our service, Jeremiah – honest and unflinching in lament and exile – offers a promise to the people:
“The steadfast love of God never ceases,
God’s mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Holy One is my portion…
therefore I will hope in God.’
And so the people retained their faith, identity, and hope. And they would do it again some centuries later under Roman imperial rule, when the temple is destroyed once more, and they would do it throughout history to this day… and yet, it is never done by excising the parts of scripture and religious expression which foreground lament, confrontation, grief, mess, and questions; the faith survives through those very things – for it is there that hope and trust take their most robust forms.
The Israelites in Babylon are certainly not the only people to perform such an act of survival and resilience in the face of imperial dislocation and violence. The story of these lands is one of that kind, where the Indigenous people to this day – in the face of attempted assimilation, conquest, even genocide – have held onto culture and story and connection to country, ancestors, and dreaming. Have remained the longest continuing culture – again, not by excising lament, but through the fullness of the truth.
In a similar way, Schumann and Redgum perform a kind survival through lament and public grief. They, along with others, insisted that the truth of what occurred to them both in Vietnam and on their return be acknowledged. There is an insistence that even if they carry with them a shadow of death that will not disappear, they will not be disappeared. In that conviction truth is told, and an opportunity for a nation to learn and do better is offered.
Sadly, lament, grief, questioning, and mess often get pushed aside in contemporary society and even in the church. We struggle to find ways to make space for lament, for rage and questions. Churches often neglect the need to provide avenues and encouragement for wrestling openly and corporately with what we feel God has done or failed to do. And because of this many are forced to face such storms and crises, alone. And in facing them alone, many feel they either have to hold it all together in public worship, or that there is no place for them there, slowly drifting away.
The question, then, is how do we hold onto this tradition of lament and questioning, of confrontation and wrestling with God so that we hand on a faith robust enough to weather the storms of violence, trauma, and woe?
For a robust faith is not only strong enough to survive storms, but it is strong enough to be received and wrestled into a shape that makes sense in the face of questions and storms we have never imagined… a superficial, gentle faith has to be handled with gloves and placed on a mantle where it can be brought down only in the most idyllic and controlled of circumstances, brought down as one might a nativity set at that time of year. A robust faith, formed in the crucible of existence, is a living tradition that can be received, moulded, stretched, and formed and reformed like good clay.
In today’s epistle, Paul notes that he worships, as his ancestors did. His worship is shaped by the faith of the midwives who rescued the Hebrew babies from Pharoah until God parted the seas, the faith of those Israelites in Babylon, who planted gardens until God brought them back to the land of their forebears, the faith of those Israelites, just a few generations before Paul, who revolted against Greece when their religious practices were outlawed and temple desecrated. Those who held and shaped and handed on the faith in the midst of trail and trauma, prepared an inheritance for Paul that would sustain him through his own trials and imprisonments; allowing him to hold a hope against hope that God would again bring deliverance.
Paul, with this wind at his back, reminds Timothy the sincere faith that lived first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice; is the faith that now lives in him.
The responsibility to the kind of faith we are handing on belongs to us all. Not only the ‘heroes’ of scripture, or the ordained of the church, but to the grandmothers and mothers sitting around tables sharing their life with God with those in their care. It belongs to us all to demonstrate the fullness of our lives of faith, the fullness of our prayers and questions. To allow our Christian worship to express the gamut of our angst and doubt and joy and hope and lament and praise. To show that the One in which we trust is big enough, loving enough, and understanding enough to abide with us even as we struggle and wrestle and question and cry and rage and hope and doubt and turn and turn back and not know where to turn. Because if we believe that God is big enough then we can trust that however the storm might blow and the tide might carry us, however we are battered and bruised and betrayed by the world, we will not drift away, and the faith formed in this honesty will not be found wanting in the storms to come. For God, we find, is the ocean; where steadfast love has no end. God is the sun; whose new mercies rise every morning. God is our portion; the ground of our robust hope – a hope worthy or being handed on.
image: Melancholy, a sculpture by Albert Gyorgy
Please enjoy a collection of sermons preached in recent months at the Kirk. If you have questions about the sermons, or attending a service reach out using the Contact Page.