Today as our nation commemorates the sacrifices and bravery of our war veterans I am reminded of one hero whose story should not be forgotten.
Sergeant Alvin York was once described as World War I’s “greatest civilian soldier,” yet he began the conflict as a conscientious objector. A deeply devout Christian from the small mountain town of Pall Mall, Tennessee, York initially resisted serving on the grounds that violence was against his faith. His request was denied, however, and in May 1918 he arrived in France along with the 82nd Division of the U.S. Army.
York would find his courage on October 8, 1918 in a famous incident during the Battle of Argonne Forest. He and around 17 other Americans had just captured troops from a German regiment when they found themselves under heavy fire from enemy machine guns. Nine of the Americans were quickly wounded or killed, but York—a crack shot from his days as a turkey hunter—escaped unscathed and began picking off the German gunners with his rifle.
When six of the enemy tried to charge York with bayonets, he drew his .45 pistol and shot them all. He had soon forced the remaining Germans to surrender, and later claimed even more prisoners on his way back to the American lines. All told, York and his men captured 132 enemy soldiers, and he may have singlehandedly killed around 20 German troops.
For his efforts, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and several other citations for bravery. Shunning the spotlight, the reluctant soldier returned to his home in Tennessee after the war and took up farming. Actor Gary Cooper helped to perpetuate and ensconce the legacy and influence of Alvin’s life through the making of the classic Hollywood film, Sergeant York (1941). York decided to use the royalties from the film to open the York Bible Institute to train young men and women for Christian ministry.
Many who have studied York’s life have wondered what was the source of his strength. One of his journal entries from July 1, 1918 answers that best: “I carried a Testament with me through the fires of conflict. I have the Testament I carried with me during all my fighting at home now. I read it through five times during my stay in the army. I read it everywhere. I read it in dugouts, in fox holes, and on the front line. It was my rock to cling to.”
In 2 Timothy 2:3-4 the Apostle Paul wrote about being a soldier on the spiritual battlefield. “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” In these verses Paul denotes two qualities that make good soldiers—sacrifice and single-mindedness.
First, we see that a soldier has to suffer. War is not a picnic. A soldier does not go out to enjoy life, to see the world, and have many wonderful experiences of adventure and travel, despite what the recruitment posters say. If warfare breaks out, it is going to mean he is faced with ugly, arduous, uncomfortable living. He will be in constant peril and may have to take human life.
Paul is saying that the Christian must make similar sacrifices. We are not called to be Christians to merely enjoy life, to have everything around us pleasant and comfortable. No, says the apostle, we are to endure hardness, we are to get involved with life in the trenches. Where is your battlefield today? A failing marriage? A hostile workplace? A secular classroom? A sickbed? A life-and-death struggle with addiction? Don’t give up, keep digging in your heels and fight the battle on your knees.
Second, we see that a soldier must be single-minded. Have you ever seen a soldier balancing his checkbook while sitting in a foxhole? What about a soldier updating his Facebook page while in a firefight? Me neither. When the bullets are flying and bombshells exploding all around soldiers don’t have time to be distracted by frivolous activities.
In the same way, Paul is saying that our Christian lives must be full-time active duty service. We live on a battlefront that demands that we be disentangled from the superfluous. As Christians we can’t be enlisted in the Lord’s army while trying to imbibe the world’s standards. In order to carry out the orders of our Commander and Chief we have to let go of pursuits that deter from total obedience.
I think Alvin York was the epitome of these verses and there is much we can learn from his example. Moreover, thanks to men like York, Veterans Day is more than just another federal holiday when the banks and post offices are closed. It is an annual heartfelt remembrance of how blessed we Americans are to have such countrymen. To all the rest of you veterans, and those of you on active duty, thank you, too. We are forever in your debt. -DM