Faces on Faith: No greater love: Thoughts on Veterans Day
(Editor’s note: The letters of Elizabeth Lewis and her background story can be found at www.armyheritage.org.)
The days were getting chilly along the coast of Maine, but one mother’s heart was no doubt warmed by a piece of mail received from Europe late that fall.
It was dated Nov. 13, 1918.
“Dear Mother …” it began, “There has been so much happening since I last wrote I don’t know where to begin. The first and great important thing is the ending of this war. I can just imagine the celebration the people at home are having … We could always hear the [shelling], and at 11:00 a.m. the last shot was fired … The cathedral is in ruins and the clock and steeple is about the only thing left. At 11:30 a.m. the day the war ended the chimes rang from the Cathedral for the first time since [it] started.”
The letter was written by a nurse named Elizabeth, serving in France in the second decade of the twentieth century. A letter censored for details and approved by Capt. C. F. Smith of the U. S. Army.
She refers, of course, to the fact that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the 1918, the Great War, “the war to end all wars,” as Woodrow Wilson had called it, came to an official close. The occasion gave rise to what was initially known as Armistice Day. An annual commemoration of the truce that ended the fighting, and an honoring of those who served and those who died in that war.
Today, more than a century and several wars later, we observe this day as Veterans Day. And we honor not only those who served on the battlefields of World War I, but all those who are veterans of the armed services — all those who have served our nation in times of war and in times of peace.
Whether they were drafted or volunteered, on this day we recognize that those who are veterans sacrificed a portion of their lives in service to our country. They often literally put their lives on the line to protect, rescue or tend to the needs of others. And whether this was done out of love of country, or love of family, or simply love of members of their unit, such a willingness to risk life and limb is the greatest demonstration of love humanly possible. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “No one has greater love … than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
The Great War was not, in fact, the war to end all wars. Indeed, in time it would be renamed World War I, when a second worldwide conflagration broke out a mere twenty-one years later. There are those who over the years have questioned whether or not the fifteen hundred nurses, and millions of others who died in that war died in vain. There are those who question whether the risk taken and sacrifices made by those who were killed and those who survived were worth it. Indeed, such questions have been asked of most any war, most every war. Were the sacrifices made, were the risks taken, meaningless and futile? I won’t pretend to know the geopolitical answers to such questions. And even though I am a historian by training, I will not venture an opinion here on their effectiveness or value in the overarching story of humanity. But I will suggest this. If we fail to remember those who died in service, if we fail to honor those who took the risks, who made the sacrifices, then they will have served in vain.
If we fail to learn the lessons the stories of folks like Elizabeth Lewis have to teach us, we will leave the wounds of war undressed and unhealed. For in the end, her story, and so many others, like the story of Jesus itself, remind us that we are called to take risks and make sacrifices out of love for those around us.
By Nov. 13, the blackout had been lifted, and this is what the nurse from Portland wrote to her mother: “It seems so good not to have the window all shaded and everything in darkness around the hospital … to see the lights shine at night from the windows and ambulances. People in the States can’t half appreciate all these things …”
We do well to honor the sacrifices made by Elizabeth Lewis, and millions of others, in what may seem a paradoxical manner. For we would best honor her, if we prove her wrong. For the greatest honor we can bestow on such folks, is to truly appreciate and learn from their stories. For if we do, we just may raise the shades of darkness and hate and allow the light of love, real, sacrificial, risk-taking love, shine through the windows of the world.
The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.