About Time

 

Letter from war

 

More than sixty years after my father served with the Canadian Armed Forces in World War II, Mom handed me a treasured scrapbook with correspondence and clippings from that turbulent period of their lives. Sitting quietly in the living room, I examined the contents of a tiny scrapbook containing black and white photos—some crystal clear, some badly faded—and letters from her older brother, my Uncle Lorne.

 

“When he was a small boy,” Mother said, staring out an open window and smiling, “Lorne used to tell me, ‘If you ever feel like you’re dying, just keep running. As long as you keep running, your heart keeps beating and you can't die.’”

 

At the age of 24 Lorne found himself running through Europe, dodging Nazi bullets, fighting for the liberation of France. "Canadians don't start wars," Dad once told me. "We just show up and help them end." 

 

In a hand-written letter postmarked August 30, 1944, he wrote these words:

 

Dear Mother and Dad,

 

We are still going strong and every day sees us closer to home. There are several things you must get used to here—to know the sound of your own guns from the enemy, to take discomfort as it comes and also to admit that you have been scared. It is funny how a few days ago we were diving into our slit trenches. When the danger was past, we came out and laughed at each other’s fantastic jumps to safety. You must look at the lighter side of life here, for I’ve seen those who tried to restrain themselves give in to a case of bad nerves. War makes you think of many different things and all in the space of a minute. You might laugh, joke and pray all inside those 60 seconds and when it is all over you say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. I feel ready for more.” During the last few days I’ve seen the real reason we are here. I’ve been greeted by these French people and the greeting is sincere. They have told their children of us, from the smallest to the biggest for they too wave and run to clasp your hand. A candy in their hand and you are a friend for life. One day soon it will be over and we’ll all go to our homes. Keep smiling Mom and Dad, and keep praying for us over here. One day soon we’ll all be round that table again, talking over the years gone by.

 

Love to you all,

Lorne

Seven days later Lorne was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet.  

Each year on November 11, we gather for Remembrance Day with services and memorials intended to celebrate our freedom. But increasingly, as the veterans move on, it seems easy for my generation to forget the incredible sacrifice millions of men and women made that we might be free.

With that in mind, my wife and I finally summoned the courage to watch Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s haunting window on the days surrounding the Allied invasion at Omaha Beach. When the film was first released, war veterans broke down in theaters, many unable to process the memories invoked by the soldier’s-eye view of the horrors of battle. I don’t blame them. I sat with my trigger finger on the remote control’s “fast forward” button during the first thirty minutes. And I must confess to covering my eyes with a pillow on two occasions.

When the scene finally switches from the bloody beaches to a peaceful America, we see a mother glancing up from her sink as a U.S. army car creeps up the dusty driveway and stops before her farmhouse. Since her four sons enlisted, hoping to halt Hitler’s bloody advance, she has been praying this moment would never come. One of her boys is gone, she realizes in horror. Which one could it be? But the news is worse than she could have imagined.

That day she is handed not one, but three telegrams. Three of her four boys are dead. And the fourth is missing.

Sinking to her knees on the porch, she watches the dishtowel slip from her trembling hands.

Stirred by the grief-stricken woman’s plight, U.S. army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall resorts to unusual measures. He orders Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), a hero of the Omaha Beach battle, to lead eight men across the picturesque French countryside to find the fourth son, paratrooper Private James Ryan. His mission: bring Ryan home alive. Together they strike out, heading in the general direction of Cherbourg. Though their mission is eventually accomplished, the cost is high. Most of the eight lose their lives, and in an act of the ultimate sacrifice, Captain Miller gives his own life to save Private Ryan.

The film concludes in modern-day France as an aging war veteran shuffles up to a grave in the sea of white crosses memorializing those who died liberating the country. His family stands back, giving space to his memories. Five decades have passed since he was rescued and returned home. Five decades since the men gave their lives that he might live. Overcome by gratitude, Private James Ryan kneels before the tomb of Captain John Miller, and breaks down in tears, like his mother on that porch so many years ago.

Turning to his wife at last, he cries, “Tell me…tell me that I’ve lived a good life.”

She walks forward and wraps her arms around him as they weep together.

The tears come for me too, as I write. You see, I too have knelt before a cross. A cross that reminds me of the monumental sacrifice of the One who gave His life that I might live. And like Private Ryan, I feel a sense of unworthiness. Such love, such sacrifice, makes me want to do something. It seems to demand that I repay the Giver, that I sacrifice something in return. “Tell me,” I want to say, “that I’m worthy, that I’ve lived up to this, that I’ve done enough, that I’ve run fast enough.” Then comes the gentle reminder: “You haven’t, Phil. There is nothing you can do to deserve this. Just accept it, it’s all been done.”

As surely as the sacrifice of these dear war veterans has brought us freedom, God’s finished work in Christ Jesus has brought us salvation, redemption, reconciliation, resurrection, and eternity with Him. What can we do but accept the gift and live the rest of our lives with thanksgiving?

Great freedom comes at great cost.

We will not forget.

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