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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

My colleague Harry was there

My friend Harry was there. I worked with Harry for three years in District H: we were both social workers with the Liverpool Social Services Department. In fact, it was Harry who wrote my colleague’s reference for the CofE when I applied for ordination in 1973. A typical Scouser Harry had a colourful background and had somehow found himself gainfully employed as a welfare officer, mainly working with old people – who were not much older than himself. Harry could make things happen. Harry had many stories to tell; I was fascinated and would probe him for more detail, especially concerning his experiences as a soldier in the War. Harry was there, on D-day, landing on Normandy on 6 June itself, 1944. “I knew we had to win,’ he recalled, as he described how from horizon to horizon his sight was filled with ships. “And all this was organised by officers,” he marvelled. (Harry, as a private, didn’t have much time for the higher ranks). However, Harry – as he was quick to point out – was no hero: his single aim was to survive. Like many of his colleagues he just wanted to go home. He recounted how on occasions he along with everyone else simply he ran away from the fighting as fast as he could, throwing his rifle away. You just picked up another once you reached safety, he told me. It didn’t help that he carried, at least for some of the campaign, a flame thrower. He might as well have had a bulls-eye painted on his back. In contrast, he told me some hilarious stories of how he avoided sentry duty. Nothing could prepare you for the trauma of war. Harry told me of one particularly tough sergeant (or sergeant-major) who trained Harry and his colleagues. For example, preparing his men for the bocage of Normandy, how to crash through a thick gorse hedge. (Totally unnecessary, Harry informed me. You just cover your hands with your sleeves and simply squeeze through) Later in battle, Harry recalls seeing this same sergeant rolled up on the ground, crying his eyes out. Totally traumatised he came apart when it came to the real thing. “So who coped best on the battlefield?” I asked Harry. I can always remember his answer: “the Bible bashers.” Harry was your regular RC, a cradle catholic. His religious sense, let us say, was underdeveloped. Certainly he would be wary of any religious maniacs floating around but in the army there is no privacy. If you are going to read your Bible, everyone will know. There are Christian privates but no private Christians in the army. Certainly for Harry, those men who were prepared to live as Christians openly and prepared to put up with some ribbing were those who were best prepared for the terror of war, for a time of terrible testing. My own uncle, who also served during the War, said of his time in the army: 99% utter boredom, 1% sheer terror. The question as ever is: “How would I cope?” This Eastertime I have been following Easter Pilgrim, the daily mailing from the CofE, which took us through the Lord’s Prayer, the very heart of Jesus’ ministry. Of course, I am familiar with this prayer but I never quite grasp what we mean when we pray “Lead us not into temptation.” Translating this phrase into English has always been a challenge. After all doesn’t James tell us that “God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one?” (James 1:13). The Greek word (which itself would be a translation from the Aramaic) essentially means hard testing, even persecution. For three years in the 1970’s following Alternate Services Series 3 we prayed “Do not bring us to the time of trial,” which is probably a better translation. But people didn’t like it and so the Liturgical Commission backed down and returned to “Lead us not into temptation.”

You may have read that Pope Francis has just approved a revision to the prayer. Now it will be“Do not let us fall into temptation”. Easter Pilgrim suggests “experiences which test our faith.” So we are asking our heavenly Father to keep us from such experiences which test us to breaking point. However, the apostle Paul teaches: “No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13, the Message translation). This promise makes all the difference, especially as we may be sitting in the Dakota waiting for the red light or standing in the landing craft waiting for the front to drop– to know that in a few moments, we will be facing sheer horror. Whatever the equivalent is for us, we can count on God’s faithfulness. In this we are assured of sharing the victory of Jesus. What Harry did tell me was what it was like to finally enter German territory. Every house, he recalled, had white sheets hanging out of the upstairs windows. Hard testing, yes. But in Christ we are more than conquerors. (Romans 8:37). So we thank God for Harry and those like him who fought for our freedom.

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