Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Some of the most anticipated events in our New England town during the 1950s were patriotic observances that began on Memorial Day and stretched through the Fourth of July, especially the annual veterans' parade. We kids would string red, white and blue crepe paper strips through our bicycle spokes and attach playing card “motors” to them, held in place with clothes pins borrowed from Mom’s laundry bag. That way everybody could hear us and see us as we rode beside the participants.
We got up with the sun those days, polished off breakfast faster than you can say CHEERIOS! and, with our ribbons and noisemakers firmly in place, rode up White Church Hill to King’s Highway, where the parade got assembled at Veteran’s Park. It was fun watching people gather – from the high school band with their pretty girls twirling batons to vets from both World Wars, several from Korea and even a few ancient Spanish-American War veterans. There were boy scouts and girl scouts, civic groups and local dignitaries in convertibles. In a surprisingly short time, someone with far greater organizational skills than I’ll ever possess sorted a couple hundred milling folks into good marching order and made a parade out of them. It was thrilling to see them step off to a Souza beat and head down the road toward the center of town.
First stop was a cemetery beside the old Meeting House. That’s where things got exciting and serious just about simultaneously. The moment of silence demanded our attention, but the 21-gun salute shocked our ears, and no more had the hot shell casings spun to earth than we were on them, to the chagrin of a gaggle of oldsters standing off to the side tisk tisking about how thoughtless we were. From there, it was down the hill and past spilled-out streets of parade-goers until the assemblage finally reached the town common and disbanded following a final 21-gun salute.
What I remember most from that time is how the veterans looked and the awe they inspired. Sure, they were twice as tall as me and wore spiffy uniforms with medals on the front. Or could be I recall them in light of my own service beginning ten years hence (we trained with the same M1 carbines). I did not see combat during my three-year Army stint, although all too many young men of my generation did, fighting and dying by the unnecessary thousands in Viet Nam for reasons that seemed fuzzy at the time and even more indistinct now.
But some wars clearly are worth fighting. Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear a television interview with a gentleman who was reflecting on a day more than 70 years gone when he and a bunch of others from his generation got hold of the bold idea that they could drive 7,800 well-entrenched enemy soldiers from the cliffs overlooking what came to be called Omaha Beach during the Invasion of Normandy. The Germans held the high ground from which to put their eight artillery bunkers, four big guns, 35 pillboxes, six mortar pits, 18 anti-tank weapons, 85 machine gun nests, 45 rocket launcher sites and six tank turrets to good use. But the Allies had superior numbers and had set out on a must-win mission. The Germans were routed, but the price was catastrophic: two-thousand Allied lives lost at Omaha Beach alone (the landing point that experienced the most resistance). But within two months, all of northern France had been liberated.
It’s hard to imagine the D-Day experience from wave top height: dropping from a heaving LST into water so deep that you choked on the salt and nearly drowned before taking your first steps toward a beach that was so far away that men falling along the shoreline looked like dots in the distance. What thoughts (and heartfelt prayers!) would have worried your mind as you worked your way toward the sand that day, thankful to still be alive but burdened by so much equipment that you could barely keep your footing in the bloody surf as the heavy artillery fire from Allied ships screamed toward shore and death whispered your name from the bluffs above the beach?
“We all gave,” said the old man on TV. “Some gave all.”
By D-Day, many of my parents’ generation had already faced the cannons, leaving hundreds of thousands of them strewn dead across two theaters of battle. I was one year, one month and five days old on June 6, 1944, and my dad had been drafted that very day. He told us much later that “If you’ve never heard grown men cry, you should have heard the men around him cry that day” as they assimilated news of the invasion. It’s hard to imagine what it was like to look into the eyes of your young wife and firstborn son, wondering if you’d ever see them again. As it turned out, Dad stayed stateside and put his language aptitude to work for Uncle Sam by conversing with high level Japanese prisoners about “everyday life in this country”.
For thousands of families, however, everyday life on D-Day was filled with concern, either about sons and daughters already serving or those about to enter the war because,in those days, worry knocked on nearly everyone’s door. In the Pacific Theater by then, the Japanese had been driven at great price from places with names like Guadalcanal and New Guinea but were far from beat - although American spirits were about to be raised by a decisive naval victory in the Philippine Sea. Consider what it must have been like to be only nineteen and serving on a ship that’s the target of every enemy submariner that could find it, whether Pacific or Atlantic. Or, after only six months’ training, being asked to strap one of the world’s most powerful fighter planes around yourself and take off to meet another young man, now your enemy, who spent every moment of his flight thinking about how to shoot you down before you shot him down.
Stories from World War II now lie at the edge of our collective memory, with hundreds of its veterans passing every day. Most of those who survived the war have already gone. The stories of those that remain fade with the relentless advance of age, and yet all of these vets were incredibly, astonishingly young back between 1941 and 1945. They were sons and brothers, neighbors and friends, dads and moms. They were the kid at the corner store and somebody’s sister’s boyfriend. And America called on them for nothing less than to help save the world.
I vividly recall experiences related by a friend who enlisted in World War II. He lied about his age and then so impressed the brass with his stenographic skills that he was asked to take notes during high-level D-Day planning sessions that were so secret he was locked in his room under guard until the invasion got underway. He later served on the beach, rose to the rank of colonel, became successful in the railroad business after the war (because of his novel approach to problem solving) and went on to establish a travel company that toured aging WWII veterans to the sites of their wartime experiences in Europe and the Pacific. His name was Hal Ryder, and it’s easy to tear up thinking about him. He was a man who loved his country and the veterans who had fought for it with a passion that could not be quelled short of his own unexpected passing.
My friend Hal was only one. There were millions of Hals, Hals who came home and Hals who did not. Hals who survived and prospered, Hals physically and emotionally crippled by their war experiences.
Again, the words of Jesus in John 16:33 come to mind. You may recall them, the ones that talk of trouble in this world but also speak of Christ’s peace, a supernatural peace available to those who suffer in battle, in prison camps, in cities used as battlegrounds - or anywhere in this world where brutality and injustice prevail, a gift equally available to all. Even so, it’s hard to think about peace when hope has been crushed by sudden death, lost love, ceaseless despair or intractable illness - or when one's mind no longer seems to work right. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a God drifting somewhere above the clouds and indifferent to our needs, a God that’s hard to get a grip on (and thus is easy to ignore). It’s even more difficult to imagine a heavenly Father who stoops to lead us through our trials and sorrows, setting his glory and majesty aside in the process. But this is precisely the God we have!
During Old Testament days, God spoke through both circumstance and the Prophets. If Israel went off the rails (by worshiping other gods or going their own way instead of Yahweh’s), God’s hand always set them back on the straight and narrow, often in ways that seem especially cruel to us today (destruction by one’s enemies, plagues, cities set on fire, 40 years in the wilderness, etc.).
God requires justice! But how is His justice reconciled with His love?
The answer is imbued in the long-awaited Christ, the man Jesus who arrived on Earth as a babe some two-thousand years ago and, when his time had come, gave his all on the cross to save us from ourselves (crucifixion is a gruesome, protracted way to die). He is justice demanded and received – justice personified – and yet also a man fully human who set aside his Divine nature to experience our needs and sorrows, a man who also placed his trust completely in the Father. It is this Lord Jesus, this Christ, that opens the door to the Father. It is through faith in him that we are freed from God’s judgment and come to understand that even our trials have a purpose: to drive us back to the Father’s arms. We are invited, as heirs with Christ, to pace our burdens on his bruised back – no matter how grinding those burdens may be.
God, the “Father of lights” and the source of all wisdom, is with us “in all things,” no matter how protracted our sufferings. As James puts it in the first chapter of his letter to the churches in Asia, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
In the end, it boils down to self or self-sacrifice – follow Christ or follow your bliss. Each of us has that choice to make.
“God has charged himself with full responsibility for our eternal happiness and stands ready to take over the management of our lives,” wrote 20th century preacher A.W. Tozer, “the moment we turn in faith to Him.” What that means, in essence, is that in exchange for our commitment to follow him, God sets a course for us (he also proscribes boundaries for our behavior, which can rankle us, because we’d rather hop on our bright, noisy bikes and ride off to whatever adventure may appeal, like we did when we were ten, rather than acquiesce to a path not of our own making).
I’ll be the first to say that trusting God with your life does not come naturally. But when you finally give in and give over, it’s hard to imagine any other way.
When we were kids, one of our summertime adventures was fishing in a water hazard at the Springfield Country Club. My friends and I would grind our fat-tired, single-speed J.C. Higgins bikes up a pair of seriously steep hills and arrive at our destination late on a weekday morning when there weren’t many players on the course. There were plenty of fish in the small pond we sought out at the far edge of the property, but the perch and small mouth bass were only of passing interest. We had something more profitable in mind: the golf balls lying in the muck at the bottom. The more we could fetch, the more we could sell for dimes on the dollar.
My buds worried about club authorities catching us so kept their eagle eyes out for groundskeepers and any golfers walking up from the fairway, which I recall was hidden from the nearby hole by a slight rise. My worry was of a different sort. I feared diving into the water and not coming back up because of a near drowning experience when very small and because of the Catholic Church and its emphasis on sin. Big sins, MORTAL ones that would guarantee a one-way trip to HELL in the absence of Confession, were things like murder and robbing banks, which I decided right off would not be in my future. I must confess to obsessing about what the Church called venial sins, however. These minor transgressions were said to add up quickly and earn greater punishment in the aggregate, whether smacking your brother in the head, talking back to your mom or (I assumed) stealing golf balls from somebody else's pond. I clearly recall the trepidation that accompanied each dive, during which I could either have drowned or heaped another venial sin on myself, perhaps the very one that would vault me into mortal sin territory.
“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” Jesus declares in John 16:33, and the trials and sorrows that haunt childhood are only the beginning, given the various forms of abuse adults regularly inflict on one another. Not much has changed since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, no longer perfect creatures living in Paradise but imperfect ones trying to make their way in a broken world. Pick up a newspaper and you’ll find nation pitted against nation, religion against religion, interest group against interest group, person against person. There’s a gnawing fear these days that things are going off the rails, evidenced not only by disruptive societal change and increasingly acrid political discourse (even families are not immune from this) but also in the growing madness of school shootings by young men who think it’s OK to act out their adolescent angst with a gun.
There's no surprise that people are fearful, a condition not unique to early 21st century America but pervasive throughout history. Theologian R. C. Sproul points out “that the number one negative prohibition in the New Testament is ‘Don’t be afraid, fear not.’ Christ says it so often “we miss it,” Dr. Sproul pointed out in a radio broadcast not long ago. “It’s like hello and goodbye. Every time he shows up it’s ‘Fear not ...’”.
I recently came across an unofficial Top 40 of worries, some humorous, some life-altering serious. Concern about narrow-minded people is high on the list, followed by personal health, relationships, terrorism, bullies and war. When I was a kid, WWII had only been done for a few years, and movie and television images of theretofore unimaginable cruelties by the Axis powers still linger in this child of the ‘50s. Add to that memories of the Cold War with its A-bombs and the apocalyptic threat of today's information-driven warfare and it’s clear than only the time, place and weapons have changed. Other concerns in the unofficial Worry Top 40 include what other people think of you, pandemics, addictions, car trouble, aliens, the devil, what your teenagers are doing at night, love and sex, people looking at your diary and “peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth”.
Not long ago, two of these worries merged into one for me, a dark green Buick my father had given us when he grew too old to drive. My mechanic liked seeing the car pull up to his shop because it no doubt paid for a generous slice of his sons’ college tuition over the nine years we had it. The car was a lemon. From the start. We found it parked along the dealer’s back fence waiting to be wholesaled. But that’s the one Dad wanted. And passed on to us. Because it looked nice, was comfortable, low mileage and had belonged to my father, I kept tossing money at it when it broke hoping the car would change its miserable ways, until the engine quit and could not be redeemed short of a major infusion of cash. Sin is tenacious like that, and we can become addicted to it. That car was an addiction. My wife said we should get rid of it many times over. Even the mechanic recommended selling it while it still ran and the air conditioning worked. I didn’t listen, however, and because of my intransigence got only $300 for the thing when it conveniently wheezed to a stop on a used car lot.
Worry is a mind game that blots out common sense and keeps us awake at night. We’re aware of that, of course, but sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter. So, like me with the car, we keep plowing ahead until something breaks down - mentally, physically, emotionally or relationally and life gets really tough. Sometimes so tough there seems no way around whatever fix we’ve gotten ourselves into. Of course, some situations just befall people, dilemmas far more serious than throwing good money after a bad Buick: a depression that knocks the pins out from under you, sudden loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, just plain thievery, a business failure and/or children who have fallen into wantonness. We beg for reprieve as our fears overwhelm us. We pray for it, and when relief doesn’t come, we lament our circumstances and shout to the heavens for relief.
When Isaiah was first called as a prophet, King Uzziah had for many years presided over a relatively peaceful period in Israel’s history. Their neighbors, however, Egypt and Assyria, had experienced a great deal of internal strife, allowing both the northern and southern parts of Uzziah’s kingdom to expand their territories. But soon after Isaiah’s calling, storm clouds began gathering in the north with the ascension of a strong Assyrian ruler. Amid the strife that followed, Ahaz, king of Judah, responded with fear (and unbelief), casting aside God’s will in favor of a political solution that seemed to his advantage: an alliance with Assyria against Israel. Isaiah’s plea to trust in Yahweh went unheeded. It was at this time that Isaiah gave Ahaz a sign: that at some time in the future a young woman would conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel, or God within – the same Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace who would bring Light to a dark world many centuries hence.
Later, under Hezekiah, Jerusalem itself came under siege, but this time Hezekiah trusted in the Lord and was delivered. However, God’s judgment awaited the people of Judah and Israel during the latter days of Hezekiah’s reign, a time during which Israel “paid double for all her sins.” Like happens sometimes to us, even after we have seen the Light and changed course.
I have to remind myself from time to time that the Lord has promised to see us through our trials but has not promised to magically pluck us from our misery and set us down in Perfect Land without regard to the consequences of our actions. Because he is a Holy God, the Father demands justice. We must pay for our sins, if not precisely in the manner presented by the Catholic Church of my youth. Those who accept the promise of Christ, compelled to do so by workings of the Holy Spirit, are forgiven and redeemed. Those who do not, people who choose to disregard God's plan, are condemned (perhaps even including those we love, which is gut-wrenching to consider). One way or another, however, God’s justice is served.
Remember the Top 40 worries? These two fears were at the top of the list, exceeded only by concern about narrow-minded people - which says a great deal about societal discourse of late:
But "take heart, I have overcome the world,” Jesus says to his disciples in John 16:33 as his crucifixion looms, the sacrificial act by which he not only provides relief for the fearful but a redemptive path through which believers at last transcend the pain and suffering of this world and find rest in the infinite presence of God.
"In me you may have peace,” Jesus proclaims. Now there's something you can count on!