I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s this year pretty much in bed. I woke up two days after Christmas with a bad bug and spent the next few days either in bed sleeping or in the bathroom being sick. The first time I can ever remember being sick like that was when I was in the third or fourth grade and we lived in New York. I just remember being so sick that I could barely get out of bed. Three decades later and I can still remember how uncomfortable it was, and the delirium and strange dreams that always accompany these kinds of sicknesses. It seems like those dreams are the strangest when you lay there watching television, so this latest time I at least made sure it didn’t come on until the intensity of the bug had passed. Either way, it felt like an almost prophetic way to end 2011.
“I am sick, discontented, and out of humor. Poor food, hard lodging, cold weather, fatigue, nasty clothes, nasty cookery, vomit half my time, smoked out my senses – the Devil’s in it; I can’t Endure it. Why are we sent here to starve and freeze? What sweet felicities have I left at home: a charming wife, pretty children, good beds, good food, good cookery – all agreeable, all harmonious. Here all confusion, smoke and cold, hunger and filthiness…” – Surgeon Albigence Waldo, Valley Forge, December 14, 1777
There is an old saying, “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.” This was certainly true for George Washington and his troops that came through their time in Valley Forge. It was December 21st, 1777 (almost exactly a year after he had pleaded with those same troops to stay with him just a little while longer and help save the Revolution) when Washington arrived at what would become their winter camp – and the place that would prove to be a very real testing ground for the faith and resolve of Washington, the troops, and the newly formed United States of America.
Sickness, disease, lack of clothing, supplies, and sufficient shelter all took their toll. Exact numbers are hard to find, but of the 12,000 that marched into camp with Washington that cold December day, only 8,000 remained by February. 2,000 had died of sickness, the rest had either deserted to the enemy or simply gone home. What Washington couldn’t know coming into that camp, is this period of struggle would become a time of transition for him into a greater level of authority than he could have imagined.
2011 was a year of transition for us. It started with me in my third year of youth pastoring at a local church ~ we had blended the church we personally started and pastored for 6 years in with this church on the first Sunday of 2008, and I stepped into the roll of youth pastor at that time. God had spoken to my heart to challenge the teens to let 2011 be a year where they would “live an extraordinary life” – no limits, no excuses, and just do whatever God would ask. Sometimes that can easier be said than done. There are some dreams and things that God has specifically been stirring in my wife and I, but for whatever excuse or fear that we’ve allowed to hold us back, have still not stepped into. By the time May arrived, I was ready for my first sabbatical in the 20 years we’ve been in ministry. I’d come to the point where I’d poured out so much and now needed some pouring into, so I stopped being the youth pastor. I can tell you, sitting still is not an easy thing.
There’s a scene in the movie “White Christmas” where Bing Crosby’s character goes on national TV to make a pitch to gather the men of his old unit on Christmas eve. He wants to do what he can to honor the general they served under in WWII, and who is now retired and running a little ski chalet in Vermont. Bing sings the words, “What do you do with a general when he stops being a general?” Knowing who you are is an important thing… but when you let WHAT you are become WHO you are, it can be a bad thing. When all you know is what you do, what do you do when you aren’t doing it anymore?
Washington didn’t seem to have this problem. The man he was before the Revolution, was the man that elevated him to his position over the Continental Army, and it was the man who held the army together during the toughest winter of their lives. He was a man of great character and a deep faith. Now, not everyone had this lofty picture of Washington in their heads, and I’m not talking about the British. Many of his own council of generals thought he was a poor choice to lead, and had openly petitioned Congress to remove him and replace him with General Horatio Gates. When Washington asked for relief and supplies for those suffering at Valley Forge, many of those who didn’t like him either delayed their response or ignored the requests all together. But still, Washington was steadfast.
History records that on January 12, 1778 a Corporal Amos Barnett of New York’s Westchester County militia was sitting with several others in his hut and complaining about having to have “fire cakes” again. The men would take what little flour they had left, mix it with water and salt (if they had any), and ladle it onto a griddle or many times just a flat rock. “What manner of army is this?” complained the corporal. “What kind of war when men die more in camp than in battle? Who bears the responsibility for this?” “I do,” came a voice from the doorway, and a dozen pairs of eyes turned to see General Washington standing there with a few men behind. “I apologize to every man here for every hardship. I thank you all for the service you have rendered to the causes of liberty and independence.”
He went on to tell them of the parties he’d sent out to forage for supplies, promising soon they’d have meat, grain, clothing, and boots. Then Washington asked, “Do you take me at my word, fellow patriots?” Finally, Corporal Barnett spoke: “You have not lied to me yet, General, nor to any of us here. So yes, we take you at your word. Will you join us for dinner, General? We have not much, but what we have is yours.” Washington’s response was not for just himself, but those who accompanied him: his slave Billy Lee, a West-Indies born Colonel Hamilton, and General Lafayette, a highborn French nobleman. “Yes, I would be honored to dine with you tonight… to dine among Americans.”
It was encounters like this which caused the men to follow him when even the generals would not. And it was because Washington was this kind of leader, that instead of marching out of the camp in the spring with what you would expect to be less in number, he marched out with more than 18,000 men! That’s right, they came in with 12,000, then lost 4,000 – but gained 10,000 in spite of the broadcasted hardships of that winter camp! And it was through those hardships and their will to survive, that those men had been transformed from a half-starved band of rebels into a professional army. They had gained an inner fire through their time at the Forge.
We have some friends we’ve known for about 15 years now whose daughter and son were in our youth group in their teen years. Their son Frank was deployed to Afghanistan with his Army unit at the beginning of July, and he died on July 16th from injuries he received when a roadside bomb caused his vehicle to roll over. As hard and sobering as it was for me to receive this news, I can not begin to imagine what they have gone through in the last several months. We went to dinner with them a couple weeks ago, and then saw them again yesterday at another friend’s New Year’s Day party. The resolve they have displayed, and their un-compromised trust in God through it all, have been a testimony to me. There is always a hope to be found. They have gained a fire through their time at the Forge.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
Many prophetic voices declared that 2011 was a year of TRANSITION, and that those who would persist would come into 2012 in greater AUTHORITY. I believe this to be true. This posting is getting long, so I’ll save the details of the rest of my 2011 for another time. I can tell you that I still don’t know what I’ll be doing – or even where I’ll be doing it – as 2012 progresses. What I can tell you is, I know that God knows, and He will tell me when I need to know… or He’ll do what He sometimes does and leave the choice up to me. Whatever does happen, I can tell you I’ve come through a year of “sickness and fatigue” and have survived. I am stronger for it. I have gained a fire in my time at the Forge. And I can say as Washington did after leaving Valley Forge in 1778:
“Humble and grateful thanks are due… to the great Author of all the care and good that have been extended in relieving us in difficulties and distress.” – George Washington, May 30, 1778
So, what do you do with a general who is no longer a general? You tell him to trust God and persevere… that he will gain a fire which can only come from his time in the Forge.
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:11-13)