Whatever happened to uncle Tom?

The recent events to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, have stirred many memories and drawn our attention once again to one of the most pivotal days in history. It is hard not to be moved by the stories of heroism and suffering that unfolded on that day and in the ensuing months, right up until the end of the war in May the following year. No wonder some sociologists refer to the World War Two generation as a hero generation.

The uncle Tom of the title was part of that generation. He was actually my great uncle. I have seen his medals. But I never met him. Great uncle Tom was killed in action about two weeks after D-Day. It is easy to make the comments that one usually makes about men who die so young. And those comments are fitting and appropriate. The pain of loss that was felt by his sister, my maternal grandmother, was one that she carried to the end of her life, finding expression mostly on Remembrance Sunday at the local Cenotaph.

However, it would be inaccurate to portray my late great uncle as someone sent to war against his will. Indeed the opposite was the case. He had pretended he was eighteen, when in fact he was sixteen, to secure a place in the Marines. He was found out and sent home. When eventually he did join up, he was sent to North Africa, and fought in the big, well-known battles.

By 1944, he was safely in a desk job, serving one of his superiors. Apparently, he became concerned that the war would come to an end without him firing another shot, and asked to be sent to France.

We have so much to learn from my great uncle’s generation. Much and all as we see them as heroes, and they certainly deserve that description, it’s hard to find any of them who saw themselves as heroes. In fact, many, if not most, were loath to talk about their heroics. Sometimes it is tempting to ask “Whatever happened to the spirit of uncle Tom’s generation?”

We need people in all walks of life who are prepared to fight for what is right. But nowhere more so than in the spiritual arena. People who are prepared to leave the security of their own familiar circles and branch out into enemy territory. People who are not prepared to accept that the destiny of cities, towns and villages are locked into a flight path that leads to self-destruction. People who are more concerned about saving the lost than securing their own spiritual hero status.

Paul knew all about the demands of spiritual conflict. He experienced difficulty and setback at a level most of us could never imagine. In 2 Corinthians 6 he reveals something of the price tag of spiritual warfare:

All this we want to meet with sincerity, with insight and patience; by sheer kindness and the Holy Spirit; with genuine love, speaking the plain truth, and living by the power of God. Our sole defence, our only weapon, is a life of integrity, whether we meet honour or dishonour, praise or blame (2 Corinthians 6.6-9 J. B. Phillips translation).

Whatever the circumstances or the setbacks, Paul was determined to meet them in the spirit of Christ. That’s a warrior spirit. That is the spirit of someone who doesn’t give up. The spirit of one who won’t give in. A true hero. But of course, such people never think of themselves as heroic. Just servants of Christ.

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