CONTENT WARNING: RELIGIOUS THEMES
When discussing my faith with like minded individuals, or having a robust discussion with those who are curious and want to philosophise, there is one statement I hear quite often that just doesn't gel with me and my experience of faith.
Surrender to God.
I have never liked that phrase, that idea, that point of scripture. Why should I have to 'surrender'? Am I at war with God? Am I to be His prisoner? A slave?
Of course not! It's a ridiculous concept, as far as I'm concerned.
In the same line, I've never been comfortable with the idea that God has my life all mapped out for me; that He's got some kind of 'perfect plan... a blueprint especially designed for' me. I believe that He is with me as I move through my life, I certainly don't believe He knows exactly what I'm doing or where I'm going. Each moment is a choice that influences the next moment, every small decision we make compounds to form our future. God is beside me when I make my choices, that I believe, but He is not directing each one of them. They are my choices, influenced by a myriad of factors, of which God is only one.
And that brings me to my second issue regarding faith as a 'surrender'. One of the most common phrases attributed to Jesus is that His followers may 'lay their troubles at the foot of the cross'. This is often interpreted as an invitation to pray and ask God and Christ to help us in our times of trouble; prayer can be very comforting for a believer in times of need or struggle, but I have always seen it as simply that: a comfort. I don't believe, for an instant, that God is not with me during my times of trouble, or that He is not willing to help me find a solution, but that is the point: I have to find the solution. God puts mountains in my path, obstacles for me to overcome, to try me and allow me to test my strength and broaden my experience and knowledge. I can pray my little heart out all I like for Him to remove that obstacle, but nothing's going to happen unless I take some action. He might guide me, give me suggestions, or help me find a way around, over or through, but I can put all the troubles I want at the foot of the cross, but God isn't about to make them vanish. That's up to me; to learn what I need to learn from the mountain and then move forward.
Also, that little phrase about putting troubles at the foot of the cross, it's often attributed to Jesus but He never says it directly in the gospels. Commentators such as St. Paul and the Disciples make this claim on behalf of Jesus, and they may have felt that within their beliefs (faith is a personal thing, after all), but it doesn't work for me. If God didn't want me to have any troubles, He wouldn't put the obstacles in my road in the first place, so when I meet them there's no point trying to give them back to Him. If I have troubles, then I can pray and seek comfort (which I do) but I have to take action to solve the problem, rather than sit around and wait for God to solve it.
Jesus said it himself! You will have trouble! It doesn't matter if you believe or not, it doesn't matter where you're from, what you do, who you are or anything else. There are no exceptions: you will have trouble! In the second part of the scripture He speaks of overcoming the world, which I interpret as giving us the tools to overcome our own trouble. From a religious perspective, God may have overcome the troubles of the world, but that doesn't mean they're not there anymore, it just means that we have the tools to see past them, to move ahead and to find our feet again.
So, if I don't see faith as a surrender, what is it to me?
To me, faith is an invitation. Some would agree and say that, yes, God invites us all to His table, but I interpret this differently. I have the free will to choose who I sit with, to choose who I want in my life, and so my faith comes from my belief that God has accepted my invitation to be a part of my life. He's always there, but He's not interventionist. I have had my spiritual experiences, moments where I've felt His presence very strongly, but these are my own experiences which inform my faith, others may see it differently. They may feel a very strong call to a surrender, and that's OK. Your faith is your faith, and my faith is my faith, but don't ask me if I've 'surrendered' to God, because the answer is an emphatic HELL NO! I've given Him an invitation into my life, and we're walking down this path together.
This story was inspired by true events.
07 July 1916
The Somme, France
By the time Crymble got to the medics, he knew the man across his shoulders was dead. There was a certain weight to a dead man, a horrible, slack heaviness as every muscle in the body failed and went limp. Crymble had actually staggered as the tension had left the man he was carrying and the terrible dead weight had set in.
“Wait!” snarled a medic, as Crymble attempted to bring the man into the filthy tent serving as the medical bay. “He’s already long gone, boy!”
Annoyed, his shoulders cramping and his mind ill at ease, Crymble attempted to enter again, but was this time physically forced back.
“I said wait!” the medic snarled, looking like a man possessed. “We’ve got no time for dead ones. Wait!”
So Crymble deposited the soldier on the ground and sat beside him. He drew his knees up to his chest and waited; it was a strange thing, but you spent more time waiting in this God forsaken place than doing anything else. He heard the far away whistle of a shell falling on the stretch of land between their trenches and the Germans and flinched as the sound of the impact. He saw the eyes of the soldier beside him were open; this bothered him for no apparent reason and he closed them.
A more romantic man might have said he now looked as if he could be sleeping, but Crymble didn’t think so. If nothing else, he’d never seen a man sleep with his legs ripped open, all but hanging off.
Back in the raging war on no man’s land, another shell whistled lethally through the air.
It was some hours later, during a lull as both sides collected their dead and tended as best they could to their wounded, that someone found time to come over to Crymble and his lifeless companion. You couldn’t really blame them, of course; a dead man was a low priority next to a living one who might make it to a clearing station, but it annoyed Crymble nonetheless.
The medic looked Crymble over with a tired expression. It was a different man to the one who had snapped at him earlier, but it didn’t really matter. If you looked too long at any man out here - English, Australian, Irish, Canadian, German, Indian - you started forgetting they were different anyway. In this place, every man had something terrible in common.
“Are you hurt, soldier?” the medic asked and Crymble shook his head.
The medic crouched down next to the lifeless soldier Crymble had brought with him from the front lines. “Your friend?”
“My sergeant,” the man corrected.
Crymble nodded; the wounds were self-explanatory.
“What’s his name?”
“Byers,” Crymble replied. “Here.” He pulled the man’s tags off without thinking and handed them to the medic; the man shook his head and gestured for him to keep them.
“I’ll take the details, but those’ll go back to his wife - assuming he’s got one.”
Crymble nodded again. “He’s got one,” he told the medic. “He’s got a son, at least, so there’s probably a wife; heard him talking about it the other day.”
“Noted,” she the medic. “If you can bring him in here, I’ll get everything written down.”
Crymble didn’t complain as he hoisted Byers up onto his shoulders again and brought him into the tent. It was not a pleasant place to be - the smell alone, a mixture of piss, shit, blood and sweat, was enough to make him feel ill, but the grisly injuries and the sound of sobbing men was worse - and he was glad he didn’t have to stay long. A rather strained and harassed looking clerk took the details, looking at the dog tags Crymble had as he did so.
“Company Sergeant Major J. A. Byers; Royal Irish Rifles; killed in action seven July 1916. You know him well?”
Crymble shook his head. “He yelled it at me to keep my uniform straight; that’s about as close as we got.”
“He have any family you know of?”
Thinking that his previous answer should have told the idiot standing in front of him that he wouldn’t know the personal details of the man’s life, he answered rather snappishly.
“Overheard him talking about a son a few days ago, that’s all I know.”
“Thank you,” the clerk replied. “I’ll take those.”
He stretched out his hand for the dog tags and Crymble handed them over without hesitation. The clerk slipped them into a rather battered looking envelope and scribbled hastily on the front: BYERS, J. A. Personal Effects.
“You’ll bury him?” Crymble asked and the clerk nodded.
“Not personally, lad,” he told him, “but someone will. You’ve done well.”
Crymble nodded and turned his back on the horrible place. He passed J. A. Byers’s body on the way out, but did not pause. Given the many horrible ways to die in this place, the way the sergeant had gone hadn’t been bad: one minute he was there, the next minute his legs had been a puddle of blood. He hadn’t even regained consciousness inbetween being hit and dying as Crymble carried him away from the front lines.
He looked out over the field as he headed back to the trench. Maybe there was a bullet out there with his name on it, or a shell stamped with his face; perhaps it would be mustard gas or infected burns from a flame thrower; it might be trench foot or gangrene or fucking food poisoning from bad rations. Death crouched before him like a snarling animal, just waiting to pounce, but Crymble couldn’t bring himself to care much. What was the point? It would come when it came, and there’d be plenty to die with him; of that, he could be certain. One thing every man could be assured of: out here, no one died alone.
A team of stretcher bearers brought Crymble’s body off the field the next day. Bullet clean to the head; he was still recognisable, however, his regiment badge and identity tags intact. The overworked clerk made note of his death, stuffed his few personal effects into an envelope to be sent to his wife, then handed the remains over to the men to deal with.
In the rough little cemetery they’d built, well back from the fighting, they lay Crymble in a roughly dug hole, two along from J. A. Byers. The chaplain said a few words, they covered him in the same thick muck he’d died in, and placed a roughly hewn cross at his head. They’d done it with all the men here: if they knew the name, they put it there, if they didn’t, they marked the site all the same. Maybe when the war was over - if it ever ended - they’d do something a bit nicer; give the men a proper resting place, for now, however, mud and hastily carved crosses would do for them all. There was little time for sentiment out here.
18 June 1932
The Somme, France
“This the spot?”
It was a sticky, humid kind day, with barely a breath of wind to rustle the grass or the leaves of the trees. The kind of day that lent itself to sitting idly in the shade, perhaps sipping a lemonade, and contemplating how good it was to be alive.
But for the large team of men up on the hill, such idyllic thoughts were far from their minds. They had an unpleasant task ahead of them, one that needed to be done before the new memorial was opened in just under two months.
The surveyor nodded, looking rather grim. “This is it - there’s definitely men here.”
The group had the unenviable responsibility to exhume - with as much dignity as possible - the bodies of the men buried in what had been a rough, wartime cemetery in 1916. British and French authorities had stumbled onto the place almost by accident, after uncovering the records of a clerk killed just before the end of the war, in which had been recorded the location of the cemetery.
Normally, of course, they would have let the bodies be, but, with the new memorial shortly due to open and throngs of people no doubt planning to attend, there was some concern in official circles that these graves might be inadvertently trampled. They hadn't yet been discovered when the memorial had been planned and built, and were in an awkward position given the angle of the towering structure that would shortly dominate the skyline. The decision had been made to move the men to the new cemetery that had been placed at the foot of the memorial. Given that each man had most likely fallen during the Battle of the Somme, it was fitting they be buried in the shadow of the memorial that now bore their names.
The exhumation took more of the day. The graves - their markings long gone, the wooden crosses destroyed by war, time and the elements - were carefully dug up, the bones of the men within them shifted into the new, freshly dug resting places on the hill near Thiepval. Already, some of the men there had headstones made of bright white, French limestone, and so would these men too, but there’s would be without names.
"Why'd the clerk record the cemetery, but not the men in it?" one of the men asked as he dug and his colleague frowned.
“He might have done, for all we know,” he said. “But the poor man was trying to take records in the midst of the war and, given he died before the end of it, it's not surprising things are missing or incomplete."
The other man sighed, looking out at the graves still to be exhumed. “Poor bastards.”
It was some weeks before the headstones were placed, only a few days before the memorial was officially opened in August. Carved neatly in the same way all the others had been, perfect, symmetrical, their simplicity belying the true horror of the epitaph carved upon them.
HERE LIES A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR
Known Unto God
J. A Byers slept beside Crymble, the soldier who had carried him off the field, while Captains lay beside Privates they had never met in life; their names adorned soaring monuments and perhaps God knew, even if the men didn’t, that there were lessons yet to be learned.
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Me With No Apologies.