Van Ens: Share good cheer on a dreary Christmas
My father treasured an inexpensive portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower that hangs in my study above Old Glory, folded in military fashion. This flag was solemnly placed atop my dad’s casket after he died in 1973, symbolizing what he wanted to be remembered for: A World War II soldier, a private who fought in the infantry Fifth Division “Red Devils” under Commander in Chief Eisenhower.
Dad drove a gasoline truck on Normandy’s front lines. He fueled tanks under Gen. George Patton’s command. He claimed these battles marked the high point in his life, despite the death and destruction he endured in French villages. To this day in Normandy’s shops and coffee houses, the French display thank you signs, remembering Yanks like my father who freed them from tyranny.
In the portrait my dad revered, Eisenhower’s gaze focuses on my father’s dog tags and a zippered Bible containing the Psalms and the New Testament, which my father carried into battle. The dog tags identified him physically; the Bible revealed the stuff of his soul — scriptures bestowing good cheer in miserable circumstances.
This Bible was small, so dad held it in his open palm. Its diminutive size foreshadowed cramped quarters in front-line trenches. My father said adjusting to tight circumstances conditioned him to hardship like what confinement from COVID-19 teaches us today. Deprivations help us discern what is the necessary from the irrelevant, the authentic from the superfluous, and the time-tested from the trivial.
Inscribed in this Bible is my grandfather’s good cheer he shared with his eldest son on Christmas Eve, 1941. Grandpa’s testimony: “Meinard, [dad’s Dutch baptismal name Anglicized as “Mike”] you go with God, and God will go with you. Reach in your Bible whenever you have time. Yours’s … Father.”
“Go with God because he goes with us” in times of good cheer and dreary days. Like shepherds who “abided in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night,” we face chilly challenges. The pandemic’s frosty gusts blow and make us bend over, shivering in fear because normal routines are disturbed.
This Christmas Eve is not unlike December 24, 1941, when my Grandpa inscribed that God would accompany my dad in war. Stern challenges faced the nation. An epidemic of grief fell over America.
Prior to Christmas Eve, Japanese squadrons attacked our Pacific fleet docked at Pearl Harbor on a quiet Dec. 7 Sunday morning shortly after 7:30 a.m., leaving 2,400 people dead and another 1,200 casualties barely living, many U.S. sailors suffering horrendous burns.
Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the White House that bleak Christmas Eve. German panzers had reached Moscow’s perimeter. Like hordes of stinging wasps, Japanese forces advanced in the Pacific theater.
On December 10, 1941, the Emperor’s forces sunk the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, where Churchill and Roosevelt had met the past August at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. On board main deck, they signed the “Atlantic Charter,” melding John Bull and Uncle Sam who defended freedom against totalitarian regimes.
During Churchill’s Washington visit, Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas Day. Japanese forces overran Manilla in the Philippine Islands on January 2, 1942. All seemed lost, including the God in whom my grandfather placed confidence when he gifted my Dad with the inscribed Bible.
On the eve of Christ’s birth 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt lit the Christmas tree on the White House’s south lawn. FDR had expressed an ominous joke at a similar lighting ceremony the year before. He darkly jested to the crowd that holiday revelers were welcomed to return in 1941 — “if we are still here.”
Using urgent, encouraging one-syllable words that braced Americans’ shivering hearts on the south lawn, Churchill imparted good cheer that dismal time. Amid fear of death, disease, and demons ruining the civilized world, he exuded good cheer.
“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” Churchill implored the crowd. “Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grownups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
He concluded on a note of good cheer, “And so in God’s mercy, a happy Christmas to you all.”
Eleanor Roosevelt remembered how Churchill’s warm words did not altogether remove war’s chill gripping her heart and leaving her soul frost-bitten. She recounted, “… there was little joy in our hearts. The cold gripped all of us so intensely that we were glad of a cup of tea on our return to the [White] house.”
My Dad Meinard [Mike] was the first to enlist in the army from his rural hamlet in western Michigan. In short order his three sisters — Velma, Clara, and Rita — became military nurses. Two brothers John and Tom fought in France, as did my Dad. A seventh sibling Clarence fortified the home front. He enrolled in seminary to “fight the Devil and all his hosts,” as Martin Luther boldly declared.
This seminarian learned how to defend civilized society with Christianity’s shield and sword of Jesus’ goodness. These seven siblings were named after their Dutch ancestors who had adapted to fewer resources in the Netherlands.
Amid rising death tolls and social distancing from loved ones, I shall retreat to my study this Christmas Eve. With a lamp flickering, I shall gaze at the large print of Eisenhower atop my heirloom bookcase. General Eisenhower peers at the small Bible, worn by war and preserved by a soldier’s faith in Jesus.
Like cloaked shepherds who warded off the night’s frost, I shall reach into the Bible Grandpa presented to my dad on Christmas Eve 1941 and read a hopeful promise for today’s stern times:
“God goes with us.”
Christians discover His presence in the glad tidings of Christ’s birth. This good cheer encourages us to move ahead, despite a pandemic hounding our steps.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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