I finished a book this week called Beyond the Shadow of Night by Ray Kingfisher. The story follows Mykhail, a Ukrainian boy who at eighteen is forced into the hated Soviet army to fight against the Germans at the start of the World War II. He is captured and kept in a prison camp with thousands of other soldiers. The camp is just a field and a fence. There are no buildings for protection in the freezing cold of winter or the blistering heat of summer. Food is moldy bread thrown over the fence to be fought over by starving prisoners. Mykhail remarkably survives for a year. He does this by fighting for the best holes in the ground to sleep in and being willing to do whatever it takes to get his hands on any food that lands over that fence. Weaker prisoners die, the stronger ones like Mykhail live.
A guard notices Mykhail’s determination to live. He offers him a path out of this camp by joining the German army. Mykhail knows he can’t survive much longer and has no love for the Soviet army, so he says yes. He is freed, fed and given shelter, and evaluated for how he can help the German cause. He is a mechanic by trade, so he is given an engine to take care of at Treblinka, a concentration camp for the extermination of Jews in Poland. He has to keep the diesel engine running that pumps carbon monoxide into a room on the other side of the wall. Daily Mykhail hears the cries of hundreds of men, women and children dying from the fumes coming from the engine he is maintaining. If he protests and refuses, the German soldiers will kill him. If they kill him, Mykhail knows they will just get someone else to run the engine. Mykhail stays. Mykhail clings to life. What would you do?
Paul tells us an enemy of the cross is set on earthly things. What Paul likely means is that an enemy of the cross is more concerned with keeping alive in the Kingdom of Man than living as a citizen of heaven. Mykhail’s story reminded me just how easy, even sensible it seems to be an enemy of the cross at times. We have never had to make the decisions Mykhail had to make, but daily we encounter our own challenges clinging to the cross.
The god of an enemy of the cross is their belly Paul writes. Mykhail grabs a piece of moldy bread from a dying fellow Ukrainian prisoner because his belly demands it, even as he knows that weaker prisoner will die because of it. Their god is their belly. Put simply they are more concerned with their well being than their neighbor’s well being. Their god is their belly is just another way of saying their ultimate concern is themselves. Most of us are concerned about our neighbor even sacrificing for them, till a point. At that point that we stop as our belly yawns in hunger.
Paul adds that for an enemy of the cross their glory is their shame. Our glory is how we make ourselves known in the world. What we do, how we do it, the priorities we set. Mychail’s glory was his ability to survive at any cost. The cost was having thousands of screaming dying humans in his head that he could never silence. Those voices distorted his entire life. Our glory becomes our shame when our actions, our choices, our priorities take us away from God not closer to God. Our shame is not God’s punishment, but our realization that the path we chose took us in the wrong direction.
This is convicting me, what about you? I want to help that person, but first I have got to take care of something. I want to share what I have, but wait until I see what I have left over. I want to serve in that ministry, but wait, it’s Friday…that is my day off. I want to cling to the cross…but it’s hard.
It even feels at times we become enemies of the cross while doing what seems like the right thing. A young couple are leaders in a church. They have great people skills, dedication to worship and serving. They are good models for others to follow, how to be faithful in this world. Then, one of their children is blessed with a great skill. Her gift is unusual and real, from God. To honor they have to make sacrifices, schedules changed, priorities altered, money invested for the best teaching and training. When Easter rolls around as they dressed for worship and loaded themselves in the car, they realized it had been Christmas since they worshipped last.
Truth is, on any given day any of us might find ourselves an enemy of the cross. But if the cross of Jesus tells us anything, it tells us that God loves God’s enemies. On your best day, God loves you. On your worst day, God loves you. Know this as you struggle daily to cling to that cross. Paul tells how, he says imitate me. Follow the path of Paul, who is following the path of Jesus, but trust God’s forgiveness as you meander from that path.
Stand firm in the faith Paul says as he lifts himself up as a model to follow. Faithful lives are hard, we all need models. This is why we live faithful lives together, encouraged by one another. For parents, I know the struggle of being faithful worshippers and servants as your child’s needs and gifts are discovered and nurtured. I lived that struggle too when raising my kids. I found models in my church who were doing it and watched them. We have models here too. Tuggle, Lesley and Anthony aren’t perfect but they work hard to both develop the good gifts of their girls and keep the baptismal promises made for them to raise them in the church. Between a crazy softball schedule for Hannah and Sophia’s growing interests, they still manage to keep their girls involved in church, worship regularly.
The character Mychail only wanted to survive, but surviving took him further and further away from whom God hoped he would be, further and further from God. I was moved by his story and confident that God could forgive even a perpetrator of war crimes. Cling to the cross, if your hands fall off, grab it again, and again. Be confident in God’s forgiveness and love when you fail. God loves you. And stay in community while you cling, not just because that was the promise made in your baptism, but because here you will find encouragement from others clinging hard themselves. Amen