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But If Not

“But if not.” These three words were the sum total of the communiqué sent from the British Expeditionary Forces facing a rising tide of German forces threatening their annihilation while at their backs lay the North Sea. In May 1940, these three words galvanized Britain into action sending a ragtag fleet of boats into harms way to effect a miraculous rescue.

            More than 345,000 English and French soldiers lined the beach at Dunkirk. The flat sandy beach was 400 feet wide at low tide and half that in high tide. The gentle slope of the shore made it impossible for many of the British Navy’s ships to get in close enough to bring the stranded soldiers to safety.

A well-placed combined French/English attack had caused the Germans to think the force larger and better able to effect a defense than they were. This led to some regrouping and a small opportunity for evacuation. The first day of the evacuation, a mere 7,000 men were taken to safety.

It was clear that it would take a miracle to get the remaining 338,000 soldiers off that beach in time given the ships at the disposal of the Royal Navy. Then came the three words, “But if not.”

            The three word message spoke deeply to a nation with a strong shared tradition of biblical literacy. The words were from the King James Bible’s translation of Daniel 3:18. Three young men—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—had refused to bow down and worship an image of gold that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had set up. As Jews, they worshipped God alone and would not do as ordered by the king even though they were told that if they remained stubborn, they would be burned alive in a furnace.

            The three men told the king, “If it be so, our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

            With this story in their national memory, the words from Dunkirk resonated deeply with a clear message. The troops trusted that they would be rescued miraculously from the beach somehow, but if not, they would never bow before Hitler’s armies. They would die in honor on the beach before they would disgrace their nations with surrender.

            The three words hit home. A ragtag flotilla of fishing boats, yachts and other merchant ships and pleasure craft took to the sea piloting straight into harms way counting on being the miracle for which the men with their backs to the sea were praying. A total of 860 little ships brought the miracle evacuation snatching men shoulder deep in the frigid sea to the safety of larger ships waiting further off shore.

            I see the central theme of this story repeated again and again. We pray for a miracle unaware at first that we are the miracle for which we are praying. For some sailors at home in Britain hearing the plight of the British Expeditionary Force, they were given the power to act.

Charles Lightoller and his eldest son Roger, piloted their boat, the Sundowner, to Dunkirk and ferried 130 men to safety. Lightoller had been on the Titanic and knew first hand what it was like to await rescue in cold waters. Sir Malcolm Campbell’s yacht, the Bluebird of Chelsea, held a world land speed record at the time, and was rushed into service to make two roundtrips ferrying hundreds of soldiers to safety.

These stories were repeated hundreds of times over as while God did not open the heavens and rain down fire on the Nazi advance, the Holy Spirit did speak to the hearts of the soldiers’ fellow men who came to the rescue.

Many times we pray for the big miracle and are showered with dozens of smaller ones. So often God acts in just this way so that the miracle we seek comes in the form of other persons who are Christ to us when we need assistance.

But beyond this sort of mundane miracle in which the laws of nature remain intact and yet something miraculous does take place, I hear something else in those words, “but if not.” There is a resolve that says either way I trust God. I trust God if the miracle occurs and I trust God if it doesn’t. This matters as not every soldier who has prayed for deliverance from harm has come home safe. The difference between those who live and die in battle is not a matter of who has faith.

The mortality rate for all humans is still hovering at one hundred percent. Draw the timeline out long enough and if the Lord doesn’t return first, we will all die. And whether we live or die, we are present to God. Paul captures this idea in Romans 14:8, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” He goes on to write that we are accountable to God alone for our actions.

            I trust God to care for those I love. I want them safe as they drive, safe as they shop and sleep and so on. I trust God to watch over them and care for them. But I know that using his or her free will, it is possible that someone can drive drunk and create an accident that will take the life of someone I love. I hope that they will be kept safe, “but if not” I trust God will be with them. God will never cause such an accident, but God will be with us in and through it if the unthinkable occurs.

            Miracles do happen. Some involve what can only be a change in the way the world works. Cancer is cured. Someone who was paralyzed walks again. Then there are other miracles of the more mundane kind where people help one another and something miraculous occurs.

We saw just this sort of miracle in New York City with Flight 1549. From the steely nerves of the captain, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, to the quick action of the boats who plucked passengers off the wings of a floating plane, there was nothing about 155 people coming away from a crash landing in New York City without a single life lost that didn’t seem like a miracle.

            We hope and pray that nothing goes amiss when a loved one flies. And we hope and pray that if something does that there will be an airline captain who is that cool under pressure. But if not, we trust that God will be with those we love in the midst of disaster and beyond in the life eternal.

            Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. We pray for a long full life for ourselves and those we love, but if not, we trust God’s presence working through the chances and changes of this life to weave something wonderful out of tragedy.

            (The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.) 

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