World War 2 Orphan Story

 

Taken Into Heaven
by Ted Schroder, May 28, 2006

“This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

Reading Philip Yancey’s book, “Finding God in Unexpected Places”, I came across a chapter which began with these words, “I first met Bill Leslie.” Immediately my mind went back over thirty years to when I also first met Bill Leslie. At that time I was Dean of Christian Life at Gordon College, and had been invited by Bill to do a preaching mission at his church, La Salle Street Church, in Chicago. I stayed at his house, which was located, like the church, midway between the richest and poorest communities of Chicago: two blocks from the Gold Coast, and two blocks from the Cabrini-Green housing project. Bill Leslie pastored a congregation that had a vision of being a bridge church between the two neighborhoods. The reason I was asked to speak was because friends of ours from Wheaton College drove in from the suburbs to support the work Bill was doing.

As my mind took me back all those years, Phil Yancey reminded me of Bill’s twenty-eight years as pastor of that church. One Sunday Bill was attacked by three men in the sanctuary, as they sought to rob him of the morning offering. He was hit over the head with a bowling pin, kicked and battered with a fire extinguisher. They stripped him of his clothing, gagged and tied him up before leaving him. He began a tutoring program for the local students. He started recreational programs for the unemployed youth and brought Young Life to the neighborhood. He began a ministry to local seniors, a legal aid clinic, a counseling center, a ministry to single mothers, and an $11 million housing development, Atrium Village, that was economically and racially mixed.

I remember Bill as working tirelessly night and day, at the expense of his family and his health. He did not take care of himself, and died, aged sixty, in 1989. He was dearly beloved, and greatly missed. At his funeral one of the leading African-American women summed up Bill’s life with simple eloquence, “He was biblical without being fundamentalist, spiritual without being withdrawn from the world, and actively engaged with the world but not conformed to it.”

Remembering Bill Leslie again, as a Gospel warrior, after over thirty years, causes me to measure my life by his, and to be instructed by his example. His identity has not been erased by his death, nor his life by his relocation. We believe that, like Jesus, he has been taken into heaven.

Another friend of mine, my former tennis partner, and treasurer of my church in San Antonio, has written a book about his search for his father. Conrad Netting was born after his father was killed while in action over Normandy in 1944. His mother, who later remarried, did not tell Conrad much about what happened on that flying mission. Kate served on the search committee that brought me to San Antonio from Orange Park, Florida in 1986. She became a very dear friend of our family.

Conrad grew up knowing very little about what happened to his father until in 1994, he discovered a footlocker containing his father’s belongings, which had been sent home from England after his death. His mother had repacked them and included his father’s medals, Army Air Corps uniforms, flight log, an account of his last flight written by his wingman, and letters that her husband had received from her. Conrad contacted the wingman, who had retired to Fort Myers, Florida, and they arranged a meeting. Conrad learned more about his parents from him than from any other living source.

Eight years later, in 2002, Conrad received an enquiry from a family in the village in France where his father’s plane had crashed. They planned to put up a memorial to his father for helping to destroy a Nazi truck convoy, and were seeking a relative for more information. Apparently the writer was eleven years old at the time of the crash and watched his father, who was a cabinet maker, making a casket for the “brave soldier’s burial.” He wrote, “We are so grateful to this young man [Conrad’s father was only 26 when he died], for fighting for a land that was not his own, and so sorry that he died far away from his homeland…. I regularly visit the tomb and lay flowers on it, paying tribute to this soldier fallen to liberate my country. I would be very thankful to you if I could know more about this short life.”

Conrad was astounded to receive this communication. He had not realized that his father’s remains had been so respectfully, lovingly, and tenderly cared for in death. He made contact with the family in France, and eventually arranged to visit them. The memories they shared added to his knowledge of what had happened to his father. While the body had later been removed to Brittany American Cemetery the local villagers dedicated a memorial to Conrad’s father, near where he had died and originally been buried. After speeches from the local dignitaries, and the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, some ladies who had visited the crash site in 1944, presented him with a piece of wreckage from his father’s plane as a memento.

Conrad wrote in The Delayed Legacy, his account of his search, “As a Christian, I was especially pleased that my father’s first burial place was adjacent to the base of a tall cross reaching perhaps fifteen meters towards the heavens. This cross, standing like a lighthouse, sends signals of hope, compassion, understanding, and redemption to all who would believe. What a perfect symbol to stand watch over the battle site, the crash site, the graves and the town. Within a tight radius from that cross was a grave or memorial of all the players in the story and, some day, maybe the graves of all those who saw the crash and have remembered it so well today. Two sons, two fathers, one story. All monitored by the dramatic cross representing another Son and Father.”

Conrad reports that the American World War II Orphans Network claims that there might have been 183,000 orphans who lost a father during that war. The founder of the organization, Ann Bennett Mix wrote in “Lost in Victory”:

“We struggled against our mothers’ desire to forget and our own desire to remember. While many mothers needed to forget that painful episode in their young lives, we – the orphans – needed to know about our fathers. We are now in our fifties. We have completed our educations, raised our families, and established our careers.

Now it is as if we are awakening from a dream in which our fathers were lost to us. We want to know who they were. Perhaps our awakening is occurring as we begin to face our own mortality and think about the linkage of our lives, the past and the future. We are beginning to ask the unanswered questions: How and where did our fathers die? Is there anyone who was with them when they died? Are there those who remember them? Are there pictures or letters to provide clues that can help us know our fathers?

We are beginning to find the answers. We are beginning to realize how profoundly our lives have been affected by our losses. We want our children to know their grandfathers. We want to learn all we can before it is too late.”

I never knew my grandfathers. Both had died before I was born. My parents were not very forthcoming about them. I am particularly interested in my maternal grandfather who fought in World War I. For some time I have been gathering material on the campaigns he served in order to understand what he went through for four years in his twenties. One of them was the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16. Just a year ago, I stood on the deck of the yacht Sea Cloud, as it sailed through the Dardanelles on its way to Istanbul. As the sun rose above the Gallipoli peninsula I saw the mammoth war memorials which bore witness to the 500,000 casualties suffered by the Allied and Turkish forces in that terrible conflict.
How do we make sense of our history, of the lives of the people we remember who have impacted our lives? Is this life, with its memories, all that there is? Do we just come and go, as insignificant as ants on an anthill? 

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7,8)

The Scriptures tell us to remember all those who have intersected our lives, and particularly those who influenced us in Christ. Jesus points the way in the pattern of his life. At the end, after his mission on earth was accomplished, he was taken up into heaven. As John Chrysostom commented on the Ascension: “the royal chariot was sent for him.”

Is it not too far-fetched to believe that his departure from this earth, tells us something about our own? Jesus told his disciples that he had to return to his Father. He also told them that he would come back and take us to be with him so that we also may be where he was. (John 14:3; 20:17)

Each one of us: ourselves, and our parents, and grandparents, our heroes, and our teachers, our friends, and those who we “have loved long since and lost awhile”, who have put their trust in Christ will, like him, be taken up into heaven. This promise assures us that nothing we do in this life, is in vain; that no life is prematurely cut short, for God knows when our mission is accomplished. Then, and then only, will we be taken up into heaven.

The disciples were gazing intently up into the sky as Jesus was going when two ‘men’ dressed in white, stood beside them and rebuked them. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) In other words, go about your business. Jesus told you to witness to him to the ends of the earth. Your task is now to concentrate on what you have been put on earth to do. Don’t get so nostalgic about the past, or so obsessed about the future, that you forget your present job in life. The Spirit is coming to equip you for your task on earth.

The disciples were concerned about the political ramifications of the Gospel: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus told them that their focus was to be elsewhere. Be my witness in the world in which you live. Neither politics, nor military power, is the ultimate answer to the needs of the world. Nor is preoccupation with heaven. Instead, make your life count, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ: fight the good fight of faith.

An audio version of this presentation is to be found on www.ameliachapel.com.

Amelia Plantation Chapel, Amelia Island, Florida.

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