A bridge to the future

September 20, 2004

“HOW I LOVE THE PRACTICAL REALISM of the Christian faith!” Such positive words spoken with conviction about Christianity are unusual for Dutch television in these postmodern times. The occasion was last Sunday’s memorial service for those fallen during the Battle of Arnhem 60 years ago, live on national television.

Queen Beatrix and Price Charles joined many veterans and family members and thousands more to remember those killed during the Allied attempt to wrest control of the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem from Hitler’s troops. The service took place in the war cemetery in Oosterbeek, just outside Arnhem, close to where the Allies had set up their headquarters.

Actually, this celebrated battle was a terrible Allied disaster. It was supposed to open the way into the Rhur Valley industrial region, and from there on to Berlin and the war’s end. The bridge at Arnhem was the last in a series of seven strategic bridges the Allies had to capture in their long slog up through France and Belgium from Normandy.

But it proved to be one bridge too far.

Allied leadership ignored Dutch intelligence warning of strong SS-armoured divisions in Arnhem, and sent thousands of young Allied soldiers on a fruitless mission to their deaths. Some were shot hanging helplessly under their parachutes, and were dead on landing. The handful of commandos who had been parachuted onto the bridge itself held on to their prize for several days waiting for the promised help which never came, before surrendering. The Allied advance was stalled. The crest-fallen Dutch who thought they were being liberated had to endure yet another long, cold and hard winter of occupation.

A Bridge Too Far-the title of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the battle and of the film based on the book-passed into both the Dutch and English languages as a modern saying referring to any task too large for the resources available.

So what has all this to do with the ‘practical realism of the Christian faith’?

And who would dare be so bold, public and personal about their Christian faith? No, unfortunately, not Prince Charles. Nor Queen Beatrix. It was a British chaplain of the Airborne division, who had parachuted into Holland with his troops the day before.

A chaplain of a parachute division must go beyond abstract theology. He must address the harsh realities of life and death. What words of perspective would this man have to say about the disaster of Arnhem?

He began with the proverbial story of the lost traveller who asked a local farmer how to get to his destination. ‘Well’, drawled the farmer, ‘if I was goin’ there, I wouldn’t start from here.’ “How we hate such advice!” exclaimed the chaplain. Immediately he followed on with: “Yet how I love the practical idealism of the Christian faith!” We don’t live in the ideal. The Christian faith offers hope in our broken circumstances. We have to begin from where we are – in less than ideal conditions. Many at that memorial service, he said, had loved ones who died in this battle. No-one would choose to start from that starting point. But that was often the reality of our daily lives.

The chaplain referred back to the earlier reading from Psalm 144, often read before soldiers went into battle:
1. Blessed be Yahweh, my rock,
who trains my hands for war
and my fingers for battle…
5. Touch the mountains, make them smoke,
flash your lightning-scatter them
shoot your arrows-rout them…
11. From the peril of sword, save me
rescue me from the power of aliens…

And yet, he continued, the psalmist looked beyond the battle to a future, to a hope:
12. May our sons be like plants…
our daughters like statues and carvings fit for a palace,
13. may our barns overflow with every possible crop
may the sheep in our fields be counted in their thousands…
14. May there be an end of raids and exile and of panic in our streets.

All of us have to build from where we are to the future, he said. From the Twin Towers. From Belsen (in Russia). From Iraq. From our present circumstances, whatever they are, towards a future of hope.

Arnhem was a disaster, a bridge too far. But the many friendships forged between the veterans and the Dutch folk had created a new saying, concluded the chaplain: Arnhem had become a bridge to the future.
15. Happy the nation of whom this is true
happy the nation whose God is Yahweh!

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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