Let's honour our shared loss and pray for a better future
This weekend marks the beginning of the centenary commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War, and there will be services in many churches, including one in St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on Monday evening.
The First World War was such a cataclysmic event that, even 100 years later, we are still trying to come to terms with its implications.
Apart from the re-shaping of Europe, which led almost inevitably to the Second World War, almost everyone on this island has a personal connection, through family commitments from previous generations.
My grandfather Tommy McCreary joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers as a young man from south Armagh, and he became a stretcher-bearer at the Somme. He never talked about it much, like most veterans of that horrible conflict, but his war medals are proudly displayed in our living-room, and they have become a family heirloom.
The First World War serves to remind us that history is not quite what we thought it was, and that the conflict crossed over many borders and sectarian and religious barriers in Ireland.
The Belfast Telegraph's Saturday Review carried a fascinating article last weekend which revealed that the first British (and German) victims who died were not soldiers, as we might have supposed, but a group of sailors who perished in an encounter just 32 hours after the official outbreak.
Four of these came from Ulster, including Donegal, and one man from Ballymena had been baptised in St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Donegall Street, Belfast. This church has become a focal point for loyalist sectarianism in recent years, but I wonder how many of the young people who show such disrespect for that church are aware that the brave Ulsterman who was one of the first to die was actually baptised there.
In recent times Irish republicans and nationalists have been forced to re-think their history, in the knowledge that some of their ancestors, too, fought on the British side in the First World War.
One of the things we have all discovered, slowly, is that the Germans were just as much the victims of power politics as their British counterparts. One of the great classics of First World War literature, which I am now re-reading, is All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, who was a young soldier in the Kaiser's Army.
In the frontispiece it describes its purpose which is "to try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war".
I would not like to have to preach a sermon at any of the church services which are being held to commemorate the war. Was God on our side, or the German side, or does God countenance war of any kind?
At the moment the news from the Middle East and nearer home confirms my long-held view that our generation is now facing a world conquest from militant Islam, and also the virtual erosion of most Christian standards by the immoral, indisciplined, self-indulgent and secular West which is sleepwalking into disaster.
One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War we are still embroiled in the most awful conflicts which we see nightly on our TV screens. We should commemorate the dignity and sacrifice on all sides from 1914-1918, and also pray hard that a century from now, the new generations – if they still exist – will look back on the folly of the past and continue to work for peace and understanding across all the divides.