There is a brilliant oil painting showing two American soldiers trapped in the heat of a conflict during the First World War. It is obvious they are under fire. The battle is raging over and around them, but they are isolated – just the two of them in what looks like enemy territory – a very long way away from all that is familiar and safe. No other American or Allied comrades can be seen. In short, their emotional and physical plight is desperate.
Central to the picture is some kind of primitive radio device – a heavy box-set encased in battered tin. The soldiers are frantically trying to send a message to their comrades – an SOS – but before they can radio for help, a crucial wiring connection has to be made. The radio has been damaged, but if the soldiers can manage to physically connect one piece of broken wire with another, they might just succeed. The tense drama of the painting hinges on one embattled soldier holding up a thin piece of wire to his comrade.
This scenario plays itself out time and time again within The Salvation Army, decades after the struggle depicted by the artist. How many reading this will quickly identify with the men in the painting? Battle-scarred, perhaps? Isolated? Casualties of war, bearing scars that have, sometimes, gone deep? Reaching out with an SOS when it seems there is no-one to help or come to the rescue? Does any of this sound familiar? In the white heat of battle, some fall by the wayside, some are injured, some are hurt, and some just can’t carry on. Regimental loyalties and ties might still be intact, or they might be in tatters. People who have fought well can fight no longer.
Emotional trauma, too, takes place – the stigma frequently attached to resignation, or the painfully inevitable gossip and rumour surrounding the termination of an officer’s commission. The immense psychological hardship of leaving officership and stepping out onto what can be a cold and lonely pathway full of insecurities and difficulties becomes a daily reality. Problems can often be compounded by what feels like rejection from some former colleagues. The pain can be awful.
However, into that theatre of war, somewhat like the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in England rising from the ruins of the Blitz in the Second World War, as a striking symbol of restoration of that which is badly damaged, emerges the thorny issue of reconciliation one with another.
Reconciliation – the declaration of peace – with those who have inflicted injury, whether knowingly or inadvertently, is a non-negotiable (I’m afraid to say). A leader, say, whose love was startlingly absent when it was needed most of all, or a colleague, for example, who turned his or her back on a comrade who was frantically appealing for a helping hand; those who forgot to visit or even pick up the telephone.
The love of God, the grace of Christ, gently demands reconciliation – or, at least (to begin with), the first considerations of forgiveness and the cessation of hostilities. Those who minister in the name of Jesus, that great Reconciler, whether as officers or former officers, are left with little option but to demonstrate, by example and practice, the power of reconciliation.
Oh, I do not say it’s easy. I certainly do not pretend or imagine reconciliation can be achieved in an instant. I say nothing glibly, and I certainly do not judge. Being left isolated (unwanted?) on the battlefield is horrible, but, still, it behooves those of us who name Christ as Captain to pursue reconciliation wherever relationships are shot through. However sore the emotions, that standard still flutters across the field of battle. Oh, it might take months, or years, or decades, and we may never even meet with the people in question again – those we feel have wronged us. We may never even speak to them again (through circumstance, not by design), but we are dealing here with a reconciliation of the heart, if such is necessary – the type of reconciliation that is noted in Heaven.
Just as we each have failed others sometimes, so we need to pray for enormous grace, asking the Lord to help us forgive and, in forgiving, be reconciled. Oh, it might be wire-thin at times; as wire-thin, dare I suggest, as Jesus’ voice on the cross, hoarsely whispering forgiveness, but of such is the Kingdom.
Even if, this Christmas, or even next, we cannot even manage to put our petitions into words and hopes of heart-reconciliation remain just hopes, may I gently and humbly offer these words (strong favourites of mine) from Sir David Goodall, former British High Commissioner to India: ‘At least I can show him [God] the conflict; perhaps if I cannot bring myself to ask him to change my will, I can at least tell him that I would like to want to ask him to do so – but just cannot’.