In the heart of America’s heartland, on I-40 just west of Oklahoma City, there is a patch of federally-owned land named Fort Reno. At Fort Reno is a cemetery. Most of the graves there are Germans who died in Oklahoma in the 1940s.
I love a story with a happy beginning. Why do we love stories that begin, “Once upon a time…”? For me, the lights dim; red velvet curtains pull back and the moment overflows with the promise of adventure and wonder. We know that on the other end will be the line: “and they lived happily ever after.” But still, we take the ride.
As great as that opening line is, there is one better. It is: “Fear not!” It creates enormous anticipation because we don’t know what precedes, the assumed conjunction, “but.”
Like, “This ride is off limits to the very young, the very old and the very pregnant, BUT fear not.”
Can you think of a line that starts a story with more white-knuckled, slack-jawed angst than “fear not”? The line creates the exact opposite of its admonition. That is until you hear the rest of the story. At that point, the two short words become a sort of mantra that serves to remind of a promise we can use the rest of our lives.
If you don’t know of the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, a Google search will provide hours of reading material. The story is a true one, although embellished over the years of its telling. It is a story of an hours-long cessation of fighting during World War One. It seems that a cease fire was called between the fighting fronts of the British, French and Germans. There was an area between the frontlines called “No Man’s Land.” It was strewn with dead and injured soldiers from both sides. The cease fire was called so that each side could walk safely into No Man’s Land to retrieve the bodies of the fallen troops. But on this Christmas something more happened. Small Christmas trees with candles that had been sent to the German soldiers on the front lines were placed for all to see. Christmas carols gave a common language as enemies became something else and spent the day together. For just a several hours war stopped! It just stopped.
Soon however the troops were ordered back to their bunkers, the fighting resumed and millions more perished.
Did it matter that in the midst of the sounds, smells, the horrors of war, men gathered in peace and remembered a story that begins, “Fear not”?
John Lennon recorded a song he titled, “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” I don’t know his intent, but my perception is that he juxtaposed the happy, innocent, storybook feel of a Christmas Song with a questioned state of a humanity that draws lines, stays divided and doesn’t seek the promise of the season’s story even though it is attainable. Lennon seems to anticipate our hypocrisy.
[By all means give a listen to Lennon’s song and check out the arrangement of the song by Yo-Yo Ma and Jake Shimabukuro on the album, “Yo-Yo Ma & Friends, Songs of Joy & Peace.”]
My father is a World War Two veteran. One of his duties during the war was guarding German prisoners of war who were being shipped to Oklahoma to work on farms. If you’re interested you can find more about this here: http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/P/PO029.html.
I asked my father, who has served as a pastor for many years, to recall a time he remembered when he could say that God was very present in the moment. With hundreds of memories to call upon, he didn’t hesitate. He told of a time on a train hauling the German POWs to Oklahoma. It was Christmas. He said that all of a sudden a German soldier began to sing:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
And before he could finish the first verse, everyone on the train was singing Silent Night.
The cemetery at Fort Reno is a reminder that many of those young German men never made it back to their homeland. They wore the uniform of one of the most dehumanizing movements in our history. And still somehow there is something beautiful in a moment when people remember a story that begins, “Fear not!”
I wonder: would a moment like these be possible today?