On Forrest Gump, the Band of Brothers, the Christmas Story, and a Cancer Patient Named Andy

1.

Stay with me here.

This one’s about faith at Christmas.

And I know we’re all over the place here—we leaders and thinkers and drifters and seekers who read this blog—and I like that about you. I truly do. Some of us have tons of faith. Some of us have no faith at all.

Yet no matter what our belief systems, Christmas is one of those times where we can talk about what’s beyond us.

 

We can talk about what we don’t know, as much as about what we do.

But hang on—I’m getting ahead myself.

2.

Remember the scene from Forrest Gump, the one where Lieutenant Dan shakes his fist at God?

As the movie goes, Lt. Dan was a military man through and through, and just like generations of his ancestors before him, he wanted to die a hero’s death in battle.

But Forrest Gump saved his life, there in the steamy jungles of Vietnam. Carried him over his shoulder and ran ahead of the napalm blast.

Sure, Lt. Dan lived, although he lost his legs in the fight.

And because of that—Lt. Dan’s Great Injustice In Life—he grew furious. He partied and drank too much and hung out with hookers and cursed everyone he met.

During one holiday celebration gone wrong, Lt. Dan set down his whiskey bottle long enough to probe Forrest with a sneering question: “Have you met Jesus yet?”

Gump answered: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

Lt. Dan continued. “That’s what all these cripples down at the V.A. talk about: Jesus this and Jesus that. They even had a priest come and talk to me. He said God is listening and if I found Jesus, I’d get to walk beside him in the kingdom of Heaven. Did you hear what I said? WALK beside him in the kingdom of Heaven! Well kiss my crippled ass. God is listening? What a crock.”

There’s a man who hates God.

The movie continued, and Lt. Dan eventually went to work on Forrest’s shrimp boat. One dark night off the shores of Louisiana a squall came up. A real act of God.

Lt. Dan shook his fist at the sky and yelled out at the wind and the waves, “You call this a storm?!”

We’re not shown exactly what transpired next between the Divine Being and the wounded soldier. But in the following scene the storm is over and the sun is out.

Some sort of deep and genuine change has occurred in Lt. Dan’s life. He’s sitting on the edge of the boat and says quietly, “Forrest, I never thanked you for saving my life.”

The once deeply angry man gives a little smile, hops into the calm ocean water, and backstrokes away.

And in a voiceover Forrest says, He never actually said so, but I think he made his peace with God.

3.

Keep that last line in mindhe never actually said so, but I think he made his peace with God—and let me tell you a different story, this one about a cancer patient named Andy. His story is in some ways a real life parallel of Lt. Dan’s.

I never met this man directly, and I have no idea for sure what happened in the quietness of that man’s soul. One of my readers wrote to tell me what went down.

The reader’s husband is a retired pastor, a man in his mid-70s who visited Andy in the hospital. Andy’s days were numbered. His clock was quickly ticking.

Andy lay there with tubes sticking out of him, and his face yellow from the toxins, and his breath labored and raspy, and the red eyes of death blinking at him like an alarm clock on his bedside table.

As men-of-the-cloth are prone to do, the pastor sat beside the hospital bed and made small talk for a while, and then asked Andy all the hard questions: if he was ready for life on earth to be over; if he had found his peace with God.

At that point in the conversation, Andy summoned enough energy to let loose with a string of profanity and anger. His Great Injustice in Life, he insisted, was that he was too young to die. He wanted nothing to do with God. He hated God. If there was a God, then God was no friend of his.

The pastor said okay. He wasn’t going to press the matter. Was there anything else he could do? Bring the man a book, perhaps. Did he enjoy reading?

Andy quieted down. Sure, he said. He liked reading about World War II.

The pastor had just read Lt. Buck Compton’s memoir. Andy nodded. He’d always respected the Band of Brothers.

Andy devoured the book. And this is where the story of Andy takes a mysterious turn. Because when Andy had finished reading about WWII, the retired pastor visited him again.

The two men talked about this and that, and then the pastor asked Andy the same original hard questions: if he was ready for his life on earth to be over; if he had found his peace with God.

This time—after reading Buck Compton’s book—Andy’s whole body language had changed.

When Andy spoke the name of God this time, he spoke it without a trace of profanity or anger.

If fact he spoke it reverently, with great care. He didn’t say much. But it was an entirely new tone.

That’s all there is to Andy’s story.

Very soon after that, Andy died.

4.

I can’t help but compare those two pictures.

One day a man curses God with every ounce of his being.

A week later he’s speaking about God reverently, he’s backstroking out to sea.

What happened in between?

Here my guess. This may sound shocking, but I think what happened to Andy relates to the real meaning of Christmas. It also relates to what the veterans of WWII saw up close, men such as Buck Compton.

See, when you’re parachuting into Normandy with tracer bullets ripping through your parachute, you can’t help but think this will be your last day alive.

Or when you’re shivering in a foxhole in the snowy Belgium woods and all around you artillery is falling and exploding, you can’t help but think that death is close.

The real meaning of Christmas is not about paper and tinsel and packages and wrapping. It’s not about getting time off of work, or eating a big turkey, or travelling to see your loved ones.

It points back to what military nonfiction books talk about.

Here’s the shocking part—the real meaning of Christmas is learning to face death.

5.

Remember the Christmas story? The one Linus told Charlie Brown. The story doesn’t end with a baby being born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn.

The Christmas story continues, and the same child grew in wisdom and stature and became a man.

The man lived and breathed and argued and drank wine at parties, and gave his friends nicknames, and hung out with thieves and prostitutes and all the wrong sorts of people.

And then the man was killed alongside of two criminals.

Killed for no apparent reason—

No reason … other than to crush death in the head.

No reason … other than to offer us peace with God.

That ancient leader Paul of Tarsus described it this way. “Jesus … was handed over to death because of our failures and was brought back to life so that we could receive God’s approval. Now that we have God’s approval by faith, we have peace with God.” (Romans 4:25-5:1)

6.

Here’s how a book about a WWII veteran might have factored into the mix. Near the end of his life, Lt. Buck Compton (1921-2012), described his faith in his memoir this way:

“In later years I met an Oregon attorney named Vance Day, a very astute guy who handles some real estate and financial matters for me. He’s a strong Christian and we talk off and on about religious subjects.

There are a lot of questions I have still, but I wanted the same type of inner tranquility I saw in Vance Day’s life, so I guess you could say I made a decision in that direction.

I’m not one of these people who say they have become born again suddenly, but when it comes to following Jesus Christ and what he taught, I guess you could say I’m getting there.

I believe in God. I know there’s a God who created all this—it’s all too complicated and complex to come from nowhere.

I start there in my faith.”

I believe Andy read those words. He lay in his hospital bed and thought hard about how a man such as Buck had faced death in war and knew what death was like close up, and then he saw how Buck chose to face death again—with faith—at the end of his life.

If faith made sense to a man as revered and intelligent as Buck Compton, then maybe it would make sense for a man like Andy too.

7.

What might this mean for you?

Let your mind go there a moment this Christmas season—as hard as it may be. Let your mind go to that dark place of death. Because someday, one day, we’ll all face death ourselves.

It might be in a hospital room with a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Or in a war.

Or in old age.

Death is that red-eyed monster that devours us all in the end. That’s why books about WWII and the real meaning of Christmas can blend together and give us hope. On one hand there’s death. On the other, there’s life.

This Christmas, I invite you to go the same direction as so many men have gone before you.

I invite you to shake your fist at the sky if you need to. Yell out at the wind and the waves: “You call this a storm?!”

Do your battle. Whatever your specific battle is.

Then sit on the edge of your boat with the water calm and the sun out. And consider the man in the Christmas story, the Man who overcame death to give you life, and what he means to you.

Can you hear the voiceover?

This time it’s spoken in reference to yourself …

He never actually said so, but I think he made his peace with God.

Question: Have you found peace with God? If so, how? If not, what’s stopping you?

.

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