A Prayer for a Soldier in Stalingrad
Texts: Isaiah 53:1-3; I Corinthians 13:12
In one of the most horrific encounters of the Second World War, the fate of the German Sixth Army was sealed in the battle of Stalingrad. The final plane out of the city carried seven bags of mail. In them was a letter from a dying son to his father.
It reads: “In Stalingrad, to put the question of God’s existence is to deny it. I must tell you this, Father, and I feel doubly sorry for it. You have raised me, because I had no mother, and always kept God before my eyes and soul. And I regret my words doubly because they will be my last, and I won’t be able to speak any other words afterward which might reconcile you and make up for these. You are a pastor, Father, and in one’s last letter one says only what is true or what one believes might be true.
“I have searched for God in every crater, in every destroyed house, on every corner, in every friend, in my foxhole and in the sky. God did not show Himself, even though my heart cried for Him . . . on earth there was hunger and murder, from the sky came bombs and fire, only God was not there. No, Father, there is no God. And if there should be a God, He is only with you in the hymnals and prayers, in the pious sayings of the priest and pastors, in the ringing of the bells and the fragrance of the incense, but not in Stalingrad.”
These excruciating final words of a son to his father speak to an ongoing spiritual struggle, one that has long haunted humanity. The struggle is over the very existence of God and if God does exist, why God’s presence and purpose in life are not more obvious. How was a young soldier to see God amid the nightmare of the last days of war in Stalingrad? How were you and I to see God when madness danced on Charlottesville streets in August, 2017? How can we come here Sunday after Sunday with any confidence that God even exists?
For centuries, some theologians have tried to prove the existence of God. Some point to the miracle of birth as an argument for God and God’s creative handiwork. Their voices, though, tremble in the presence of a stillborn child. Some point to the beauty of the Blue Ridge in a rainbow of fall colors as a sure sign of God and God’s creative handiwork. Their voices, though, tremble before the wreckage of monster hurricane winds and devastating tornadoes.
Christianity claims that God is most clearly known in the person and life of Jesus. Yet, people saw Jesus cast out demons, still waters, feed multitudes, tell provocative parables and yet still many did not see the presence of God in him. Jesus himself was from a family of no means. He had no status to demand an audience. In many ways, Jesus was like the servant of God of whom Isaiah describes: “Who could have believed what we have heard? He had no beauty, no majesty to draw our eyes, no grace to make us delight in him.” Who could be blamed for not seeing God in Jesus, then or today? So, if Jesus is God’s presence among us, then even in Jesus, God is hidden in humanity.
The obvious question then is: Why? Why is God hidden? Why does God deal with us so indirectly? Why will God not simply tap us on the shoulder, whisper a few marching orders and explain how you and I should live? How can some people experience God’s presence so intimately, so intensely, while some are absolutely convinced that God does not exist and if God does exist, it is of no consequence to them?
At least a part of the answer to those questions involves how you and I come to know anything. Some knowledge is sensory, empirical, and not up for debate. If I drop a thin piece of glass from the balcony onto this hardwood floor, it will shatter every time I do. Whether or not I believe it will shatter makes absolutely no difference – thin glass dropped on a hardwood floor will shatter.
There is another kind of knowing, though, that is more subjective, more personal, more intuitive. It is the substance of what Christians and Jews and Muslims claim to know about God. Consider, for example, a couple that comes to me and says that they are in love and want to spend their lives together. While I am happy for the love that they profess, I do not come to know love or what it means to be a lover simply by witnessing their love. All I can learn from their love is that there is a possibility that a couple can be in a state called: “in love.”
In a similar way, for me to tell you: “God exists and loves you and loves all creatures and creation” has little meaning unless you experience that creative presence and amazing love of God. As hard as I try to prove the love that God holds for the world, for each one of us, I cannot. Can you imagine standing at the entrance of Dr. Ho’s and saying to each person walking in or out of that restaurant: “God loves you. God forgives you. God has a purpose for your life.” Most people would walk quickly by, embarrassed or annoyed, but no doubt some would stop and reply: “Is that so? Well, prove it.”
In The Brother’s Karamazov, Dostoevsky has the Grand Inquisitor accuse Jesus of thinking too highly of people because he refused to support their feeble faith with the security of empirical signs. He offered instead his empty hands, holding within them our invisible freedom. Dostoevsky suggests that God does not tap us on the shoulder or whisper in our ear because God created us to think, to discern, to wrestle with the hidden and sometimes not-so-hidden presence of God.
I grieve for the young soldier in Stalingrad. I grieve that he did not find God amid the abyss of that horror. I grieve for his father, the pastor, who could not finally shape the religious experience of his son. If the apostle Paul is right when he tells the Corinthians: “now we see in mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood,” then despite the young soldier’s protest to the contrary, I suspect God was anything but absent in Stalingrad. God was there with this dying child and with all God’s dying children. God wept at the carnage and at the killing of this child’s faith.
“Prove it, pastor!” you say. I wish I could. I wish I could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was there in the stench of that foxhole in Stalingrad. Even more, I wish I could prove that God is there to my son and my daughter, to your sons and your daughters.
What then do you and I say to those today who are bereft of faith or are stuck in the foxhole of doubt and unbelief? What do you and I say to the vast majority of our neighbors, co-workers, fellow students and family members who do not see God anywhere they look? One choice is to shake our heads and sigh in pity for those poor souls outside the privileged circle of the faith. A more honest, a more compassionate choice is to admit the fragility of our own faith, to admit that we all look into the same, dim mirror, wishing God would be more visible, more apparent, praying for the day when God will give all God’s children the eyes to see God’s loving presence without impediment.
So, would you pray with me for the young soldier in Stalingrad and for any and all who are broken and bereft of faith today. Pray with me for God to grant a faith that will sustain them and sustain us.
Pray with me the prayer uttered by German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while being held in a Nazi prison. Bonhoeffer prayed:
Who am I? They often tell me I stepped from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me I used to speak to my warders freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me I bore the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself? Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness, tossing in expectation of great event, powerlessly trembling for friends at infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory not achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!