In the Middle of the Greatest Story
Someone once said that we are all in the middle of a story.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine you’re actually in the right story, like maybe you stumbled into someone else’s story. Have you ever felt that way- that the story you're living somehow isn’t your story, but you’re watching it happen. It’s unfolding before you, and it has something to do with you, but it’s not your story at all. Veterans Day has me thinking of a time I stood in the middle of a story and felt like an imposter there, an imposter in someone else’s story. It was this past summer when I found myself standing on the beaches of Normandy. It was an afterthought, really, to visit those beaches. I did it for my husband, thinking he would like to see such a famous battle site. I stood on that shore looking out at the expanse of ocean and thinking how far removed it all seemed from my life in the states. I wondered if somewhere, far beneath the sand at my feet, the blood of all those soldiers was still there, marking the place where they’d fallen, crying out to the 21st century to remember what it takes to be free. Some of the locals were swimming in the water, but I couldn’t do it. My husband and I stood there looking out, thinking this whole place was a memorial. Entering those waters just seemed desecrating somehow. Too many died here. Too much blood was spilt. I knew it all had something to do with me, but I felt myself floating above it, not really engaging in the harsh reality of it all, still looking at it as if from the yellowed pages of a secondhand history book.
I never expected to be here, wet sand making an ever shifting memorial, the ocean the ever present agent, slowly, imperceptibly sometimes, altering the face of things, washing away the violent memories of a war, the homesick memories of a soldier who fell so far from home, so far from where he thought he’d end up.
Suddenly, my blood sugar was taking a dive and stupidly, I hadn’t brought anything to stop it. I walked around, wondering what there was to eat. Nothing was open except a fruit stand, so we approached it and chose a few beautiful peaches. But there was a language barrier and the vendor wouldn’t take credit cards and we’d forgotten to get Euros like stupid tourists. In the end, I approached a French family and asked if they could interpret for us. They agreed, and realizing our dilemma, offered to buy the fruit for us. I knew I had to eat something, but I hated to accept their generosity. Then the husband said something that made everything else unimportant. He said, “Please, let us buy something for the American heroes who saved France.” And that far away feeling I had had, that this was not my story, suddenly disappeared, and everything zoomed into that moment, that place, that family; and I knew that it was my story because they had just made it mine. Perhaps their ancestors had lived in the village that had been destroyed by this battle, or their family’s home had once been occupied by the German invaders.
The soldiers who fell on these beaches had not just fallen to free the French who lived way back then. They had died to save the family who bought my peaches, the family whose life had just intersected with my life, and I knew that it was these beaches that had made that life possible.
The Great War is not just a story in a history book at Normandy. It is woven into the fabric of that place, as the remnants of German bunkers mar that beautiful coastline, and the blasts of innumerable artillery scar the face of the landscape. Those bunkers, left by a relentless foe, and those craters, made by a relentless ally, have replaced the original landscape of Normandy. And they protect that landscape because it is a reminder, a reminder, yes of pain, but also a reminder of victory and freedom and friendship and a thousand other things that are worth remembering, things that are worth dying for.
The cemetery lies on the rise above that stretch of beaches, an impeccably manicured plot of land, white crosses stretching in every direction, standing upright and glistening white along the sunlit shore, row upon row. It is magnificently somber. We walked along its length, overwhelmed by the size of it, and visited its chapel, wondering at the seeming contradiction of its peacefulness. There were a host of other tourists meandering around the place, and I was struck by how alive we all were- how death and life both existed on this hill, overlooking the violent crashing of waves, surrounded by the serenity of fields and farms. It drew my mind to another hill- another death, another life.
And I thought how the cross is the ultimate meeting of those two inalterable realities- death and life.
At the cross, the death of the Son of God occurred- violent and undeserved. Like those soldiers of Normandy, he died for others, even for those not yet born. Blood became the fertilizer for lives yet to be lived. But it is much more than death that occurred on Calvary. That climatic moment when Christ gave up his spirit was overtaken by another climax, for he did not stay dead. Thus the cross became the symbol of life, as Christ defeated not only death, but also “the one who has the power of death, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).
I was raised on the story of Jesus. It was built into our home and family from before I was born. But it was not always my story.
I was an observer, at first, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who did not believe he was the Christ, whose own power and position meant more to them than the salvation of their people. I, too, sat listening but not hearing, thinking it did not all really apply to me. Until, one day, through the miracle of faith, my eyes were opened to just how much the story of Jesus mattered, how much it mattered to me. I had been standing, aloof, like on those beaches, until the whole personalness of it came crashing down upon me like the waves on Normandy’s shore. I had owed a great debt. Payment was being demanded, and I stood, fearful, realizing it was a debt I could not pay. I remember those days, lying awake at night, wondering what to do with my sin, what to do with the separation between myself and God. He was calling me, but I felt I could not reach him across the chasm of my brokenness. Then the Soldier arrived, coming from another place, landing on the shores of my heart. He conquered the foe that threatened to overtake me. In MY place, condemned, he stood (from “Man of Sorrows”). And the story that had seemed like someone else’s became mine. For in that moment, I knew the battle Christ won at Calvary was not a battle for someone else’s freedom. It was a battle for me.
I had stood at Normandy, the weight of that peach in my hand, and wondered how I dared take part in it. I did not deserve its sweetness, purchased by another, as a remembrance of the sacrifice of another. Yet, it was bought for me. I bit into that peach, and it was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. So Jesus’ death became my freedom; his resurrection became my victory. Undeserved mercy swallowed every sin. Undeserved grace bridged the chasm of brokenness between my soul and my God.
And I found life in the middle of the greatest Story ever told.