In our worship service today we spent some time with our veterans. Sitting securely in our 1870’s sanctuary, we traveled into the Battle of the Bulge through the words of one of our World War II vets. Bill served under General Patton and has clear memories of his tour of duty that he willingly shared with us. His father signed the papers for him to join the Army since he was only seventeen years old. He had hoped to be a part of the Marine Corps but the fact that he was colorblind ruled that out. It was explained to him that he would be unable to discern the presence of enemy troops dressed in camouflage. So the U.S. Army became his home base. A man in our church, Tim, interviewed him, asking him if he was ever afraid. “All the time,” he assured us. “Everyone was afraid all the time.” The only time he felt safe was when he was surrounded by countless tanks. But those moments were rare.
Each soldier was given a pocket Bible when they enlisted. He carried it with him and read it in the rare in-between moments. The 23rd Psalm brought comfort to him so he recited it often. We read it together in our worship, each person invited to either follow along in our pew Bible or recite it as they had learned it. The translation doesn’t matter much when we’re talking about God’s presence in the shadow of death. Bill was able to give us a glimpse into the darkness of war. But he also spoke of the light of faith that gave him hope when in the trenches. He remembered a time that all the troops were assembled for a prayer service before a battle surge. There were Jewish, Catholic and Protestant young men standing together to be blessed before battle. At that very moment the German attack planes flew overhead, threatening their security. It didn’t matter what God you prayed to at that moment, Bill assured us. They all dove for cover, intertwined for safety in protective spaces.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”
A little German boy approached their camp one day with two eggs. His family had chickens and he had come to trade what his chickens produced for chocolate! He knew that the soldiers had candy bars in their ration packs. “He wanted our candy bars,” Bill said with a smile. So they traded happily with the boy then cooked their eggs over a fire. Those were the best eggs he had ever tasted! So much so that he resolved at that moment that, if he made it home after the war, he would always have chickens. A couple of years ago Bill and his wife, Fran, sold their country home to move into a condo. Part of the sale agreement was the chickens that came along with the house! He honored that promise he made to himself as a young soldier as long as he was able.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Bill reminded us of why this war was fought with one of his memories. As they advanced into Germany they passed by the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Bill’s gaze fell at this point in the interview and he grew very reflective. He and his infantry brothers saw the prisoners behind the fence and he found it hard to describe their condition. He didn’t need words because his distraught face said enough. The war against the hatred and atrocities of Hitler became real for us in our sanctuary. I was astounded to learn that the way out of Germany for Bill and other U.S. troops at the end of the war was in the same box cars that were used to transport packed carloads of Jews to the camps. “They smelled terrible,” he told us. “But we got in them and rode all the way across Germany to get home.”
At this point it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it through the service without tears. Bill’s ticket home required him and the troops to sit in the stench of death and hatred. The whole journey out of Germany they breathed the horror of the war. So many of the Jews who had been packed into those cars never had a ride home. God was present on those trains regardless of who rode as passenger. Whether traveling toward torturous death or the safety of home, God’s broken heart embraced all.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Bill made it home along with some of his comrades, no longer the innocent seventeen year old who needed a dad to sign for him. He locked his experiences into an inner space that not even he sought to access. God blessed him with a loving wife and she urged him to attend the reunions of his infantry division. In the presence of those who had shared those battles with him, he was able to open up and find healing. They bought a lovely home that sat on lush acreage, raising chickens and other animals. Their home was a safe haven for grandchildren and great grandchildren to find love. Bill maintained a pool that offered hours of fun for his grandkids. He made sure the chickens had grain. Over the years, as he reconnected with his military brothers, he was able to integrate his time of service into the present. Today Bill has a ready smile and an engaging presence. His stories touched all of us and made us realize how much we take for granted. My father was a career Chaplain in the Air Force so I gained appreciation for the pastoral care work that he offered the year he spent overseas without us. We invited the veterans in our congregation to come forward and they shook Bill’s hand with such respect. It’s a club that those of us on the outside will never fully understand. The word that came to me as we thanked these soldiers for their sacrifice was redemption. God redeems even the worst of our human ways. God restores us to safe places. For those who lose their lives in service of their country, God redeems them in an afterlife where there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
I wonder if we would know more Bible verses by heart if we had to walk into a war zone. That doesn’t have to be a military battle. Folks walk into war zones in American neighborhoods, houses of worship, public schools and family gatherings. Some people’s jobs take them into a war zone every day where they don’t feel safe. Looking in with horror at a massacre in a Jewish synagogue two weeks ago or a California night club this past week, we realize that our world is messed up and our safety always threatened. Maybe pocket-sized Bibles could offer us the reassurance that an entire police force or modern security system could not. Maybe our ultimate trust—in war and in daily life—must lie in something greater than our human systems; in someONE who rises above the fray. For this One will always bring us home.
“He makes my lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”