The mighty lightning of His terrible, swift sword

Originally published September 12, 2012

It’s been a busy first couple of months as I’ve been learning to fulfill my role as pastor.  It is a joy beyond words to be in this community, to lead them in worship and to be with them as, together, we experience and discover God’s work amongst us and within us.  This weekend I was at my first Diocesan convention here in West Virginia.  I confess I’m not a big one for legislating, but I enjoyed myself and was pleased to be there.  However, as I’m not technically canonically resident in WV yet (still belong to Oregon until December) I did get an opportunity to slip away during some of the legislative business.

We were meeting in Martinsburg, which as it turns out, is only 20 miles from Winchester, Virginia. I have long desired to go there because in May of 1863, my great-great-grandfather, Alexander White managed to get himself killed there when his right leg was shot off by a Confederate cannonball.  Alexander White was a private in the 12th WV US Infantry.  Nearly 40 years old with 4 kids at home, he enlisted in the Union cause, marched 90 miles from home and died in his first battle.

I’ve often pondered what possessed him to enlist and what it must have been like, crouching behind a stone wall, the bullets and artillery shells bursting and ricocheting around him – the grey clad soldiers moving inexorably forward.  And I wonder what price me and my family might have paid from his absence in the lives of his small children (my great-grandfather was about 11 or 12 when he died).  Family Systems Theory suggests that such a traumatic event would surely have left its mark down the generations.

After a short tramp through the woods near an elementary school, I found the remains of the very stone wall behind which my ancestor had sought refuge.  I was torn.  I had feelings of pride in his willingness to defend the republic and expand freedom.  It seemed no small irony to be there on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  But also, I felt a little angry that he would leave his family and perhaps bequeath to us a painful legacy.

As I stood in the woods, peering over the remnants of the wall, instead of a raging enemy I looked out on a school playground and several children and their families playing in the late summer sunshine.  And as I looked out on the peaceful scene presented to me, I believed that perhaps it had been worth it after all.  I called my own father and spoke briefly and I felt blessed.  We perhaps cannot control the paths into which our lives fall, but I am thankful that along those roads, no matter where we are, God is there waiting.

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