Pearl Harbor and Hacksaw Ridge

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As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, the decision was made earlier this week to continue with another volume of Perspectives articles. Thank you for the encouragement expressed by so many of you for me to keep writing. It’s not a simple chore, so I do appreciate your appreciation!

This past weekend Terry and I watched two movies at home. Pearl Harbor was produced in 2001 with Ben Affleck as Capt. Rafe McCawley, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who bravely responded to the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson and released in 2016 with Andrew Garfield as Pfc. Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who was ostracized by fellow soldiers for refusing to bear arms. In the Battle of Okinawa Doss risked his life, unarmed, to save 75 men.

Both films graphically and gruesomely show horrific realities of war. One such reality, in real life and also in cinematic portrayal, is the traumatic injury and death inflicted upon young men. Many are still teenagers anxious to serve their country yet unprepared for the powerful persistence of the enemy.

In that context, a quote originally attributed to Greek historian Herodotus was repeated by a soldier in Hacksaw Ridge: “In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.”

Though I am a son who has buried his father, I have not borne the pain of burying a son or a daughter or a grandchild. I have great empathy for parents or grandparents who have, including some of you.

As a Christian I’ve often marveled at God the Father’s experience of seeing his son buried. The song writer says it well:

How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure… that He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure.

Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon His shoulders. Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.

It was my sin that held Him there, until it was accomplished. His dying breath has brought me life. I know that it is finished.

An Airplane Captain’s Memorial Day Story

Dignified Transfer at Dover AFB

My lead flight attendant came to me and said, “We have an H.R. on this flight.” (H.R. stands for human remains.) “Are they military?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. I asked, “Is there an escort?” She replied, “Yes, I’ve already assigned him a seat.” I said, “Please tell him to come to the Flight Deck. You can board him early.”

A short while later a young army sergeant entered the flight deck. He was the image of the perfectly dressed soldier. He introduced himself and I asked him about his soldier.

The escorts of these fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and still with us. “My soldier is on his way back to Virginia,” he said. He proceeded to answer my questions, but offered no additional words.

I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no. I told him that he had the toughest job in the military, and that I appreciated the work he does for the families of our fallen soldiers. The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand. He left the Flight Deck to find his seat.

We completed our preflight checks, pushed back, and performed an uneventful departure. About 30 minutes into our flight I received a call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin.

“I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying is also on board,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and two-year-old daughter were escorting their son, husband, and father home. The family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left.

We were on our way to a major hub at which the family was going to wait four hours for the connecting flight home to Virginia. The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable to see him was too much for him and the family to bear. He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival. The family wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken off the airplane.

I could hear the desperation in the flight attendant’s voice when she asked me if there was anything I could do. “I’m on it,” I said, and told her that I would get back to her.

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the form of electronic messages. I decided to bypass this system and contact my flight dispatcher directly on a secondary   radio. There is a radio operator in the operations control center who connects you to the dispatcher’s telephone. I was in direct contact with the dispatcher and explained the situation I had on board with the family and what the family wanted. He said he understood and that he would get back to me.

Two hours went by and I had not heard from the dispatcher. We were going to get busy soon and I needed to know what to tell the family, so I sent a text message asking for an update. I saved the return message from the dispatcher. Here is the text:

“Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. There is policy on this now, and I had to check on a few things. Upon your arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft. The team will escort the family to the ramp and plane side. A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family.”

“The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal, where the remains can be seen on the ramp. It is a private area for the family only. When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted onto the ramp and plane side to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home. Captain, most of us here in flight control are veterans. Please pass our condolences on to the family. Thanks.”

I sent a message back, telling flight control thanks for a good job. I printed out the message and gave it to the lead flight attendant to pass on to the father. The lead flight attendant was very thankful and told me, “You have no idea how much this will mean to them.”

Things started getting busy for the descent, approach, and landing. After landing we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp area. The ramp is huge with 15 gates on either side of the alleyway. It is always a busy area with aircraft maneuvering every which way to enter and exit. When we entered the ramp and checked in with the ramp controller, we were told that all traffic was being held for us.

“There is a team in place to meet the aircraft,” we were told. It looked like it was all coming together but then I realized that once we turned the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay the family from getting off the airplane. As we approached our gate, I asked the copilot to tell the ramp controller we were going to stop short of the gate to make an announcement to the passengers. He did that and the ramp controller said, “Take your time.”

I stopped the aircraft and set the parking brake. I pushed the public address button and said: “Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking. I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement. We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect. His name is Private XXXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life. Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold. Escorting him today is Army Sergeant XXXXXX.  Also on board are his father, mother, wife, and daughter. Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first. Thank you.”

We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started our shutdown procedures. A couple minutes later I opened the cockpit door and found the two forward flight attendants crying, something you just do not see. I was told that after we came to a stop, every passenger on the aircraft stayed in their seats, waiting for the family to exit the aircraft.

When the family got up and gathered their things, a passenger slowly started to clap his hands. Moments later, more passengers joined in and soon the entire aircraft was clapping. Words like “God bless you.” “I’m so sorry.” “Thank you.” “Be proud.” and other kind words were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out of the airplane. They were escorted down to the ramp to finally be with their loved one.

Many of the passengers thanked me for the announcement I had made. “They were just words,” I told them. “I could say them over and over again, but nothing I say will bring back that brave soldier.”

On this Memorial Day weekend I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this event and the sacrifices many of our nation’s men and women have made to ensure our freedom and safety in these United States of America.

At such a time as this, the words of Jesus are amazingly powerful: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

Important Questions

QuestionThis past week I spent a few days with 19 other fellow pastors. Some are retired; others are still active in parish ministry. All are wonderfully gifted and talented men.

During one of our sessions, the leader asked those of us who are no longer active in congregational ministry a number of important questions:

  1. What’s a Bible passage that means a lot you?
  2. What attribute of God is most important to you?
  3. What’s going on in your life that is significant?
  4. What’s a question you would like to ask the rest of us or anyone else, perhaps even God?
  5. What’s an insight you would like to share with the group or with someone else?

The ensuing conversation was awesome! The seven of us in that group had a combined total of 317 years in ministerial leadership of one kind or another. That’s an average of over 45 years each! We all shared heartfelt matters, not the least of which is the desire “to finish well.”

In a subsequent conversation it was clear that finishing well referred not simply to vocational retirement per se. It was mostly about doing whatever it takes to influence for Christ as many people as possible, especially family members and non-believers, as long as we’re alive.

Regardless of your current age, vocation, experience, personal or family circumstances, I encourage you to contemplate those same important questions. They very well might have the same impact on you that they had on seven chronologically mature clergymen last week!

God’s Presence in Your Life

FloodOne of the most profound questions I frequently hear people asking goes something like this: “If there is a God, does he really know who I am and does he really care about my life?”

As a Christian person, husband, father, grandfather, pastor, theologian, ecclesiastical supervisor, former regional and national church body leader and current Concordia University presidential ambassador, my answer is this: Absolutely yes!

It may seem God is absent from our lives in times of personal difficulty or national disaster. But the Bible says God is always with us. He knows how many hairs we have on our head (Matt. 10:30). Nothing in all creation can separate us from his love, not even death (Rom. 8:35-39).

A few years ago LCMS Eastern District President Chris Wicher shared with me a story that some might dismiss as mere coincidence. I think it illustrates God’s presence and activity in our lives.

Chris and a few pastors and other men were driving around the flooded area of Pittston, Penn., looking for people who needed help in cleaning up their flooded homes. They came to a couple standing in front of their home, simply staring at the damage. The car stopped and one of the pastors asked if they needed help.

The people responded “No, not really. We don’t know where to begin and besides the house does not yet have electricity restored.”

The would-be helpers told who they were and that they were driving around to see if they could be of help. They told the couple, “We have a generator, pump, mops, buckets and Clorox.”

Quite moved by this generous offer, the homeowners accepted the help and in a few hours the cleanup was completed. But that’s not all. Not five minutes before the carload of generous helpers offered their assistance, the couple had prayed to the Lord for direction and help! I would submit that God answered their prayer by sending some very good-hearted men to their door.

The love of Jesus moves people to acts of kindness. Such kindness demonstrates, in this and in many other circumstances, the presence and care of God in the lives of his people.

Memorial Day

Normandy CemeterySince we will observe Memorial Day this coming Monday, I thought it appropriate to post next week’s Perspectives article early. So from my file come two stories with an important connection.

STORY NUMBER ONE

Many years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn’t famous for anything heroic. He was notorious for enmeshing the windy city in everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder.

Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.” He was Capone’s lawyer for a good reason.  Eddie was very good! In fact, Eddie’s skill at legal maneuvering kept Big Al out of jail for a long time.

To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well. Not only was the money big, but Eddie got special dividends, as well. For instance, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all of the conveniences of the day. The estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago City block. Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him.

Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son that he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars, and a good education. Nothing was withheld. Price was no object. And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was. Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn’t give his son; he couldn’t pass on a good name or a good example.

One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. Easy Eddie wanted to rectify wrongs he had done. He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al “Scarface” Capone, clean up his tarnished name, and offer his son some semblance of integrity.* To do this, he would have to testify against The Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great. So, he testified.

Within the year, Easy Eddie’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago Street. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay. Police removed from his pockets a rosary, a crucifix, a religious medallion, and a poem clipped from a magazine. The poem read:

“The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour. Now is the only time you own. Live, love, toil with a will. Place no faith in time. For the clock may soon be still.”

STORY NUMBER  TWO

World War II produced many heroes. One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare.

He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.

One day his entire squadron was sent on a mission. After he was airborne, he looked at his fuel gauge and realized that someone had forgotten to top off his fuel tank. He would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship.

His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet. As he was returning to the mother ship, he saw something that turned his blood cold; a squadron of Japanese aircraft was speeding its way toward the American fleet.

The American fighters were gone on a sortie, and the fleet was all but defenseless. He couldn’t reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet. Nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert them from the fleet.

Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes.  Wing-mounted 50 calibers blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane and then another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally spent.

Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible, rendering them unfit to fly. Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction. Deeply relieved, Butch O’Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier.

Upon arrival, he reported in and related the event surrounding his return. The film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane told the tale. It showed the extent of Butch’s daring attempt to protect his fleet. He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft.

This took place on February 20, 1942, and for that action Butch became the Navy’s first Ace of World War II, and the first Naval Aviator to win the Medal of Honor.

A year later Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of 29. His home town would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man.

So, the next time you find yourself at O’Hare International, give some thought to visiting Butch’s memorial displaying his statue and his Medal of Honor. It’s located between Terminals 1 and 2.

WHAT DO THESE TWO STORIES HAVE TO DO WITH EACH OTHER?

Butch O’Hare was “Easy Eddie’s” son.

*NOTE: For those who check such things, online watchdog Snopes says: “When Easy Eddie did eventually provide information that aided federal authorities in sending Capone to prison for income tax evasion, it was far less likely that he did it because he had an attack of conscience, wanted to right the wrongs he’d done, or sought to teach his son the value of integrity. More probably he turned state’s evidence because he could see the handwriting on the wall: Capone was going to be nailed with or without his assistance, but by doing the government a favor, Eddie could keep himself out of prison. Some sources even suggest the connections Eddie made by turning government informant were what got his son Butch a berth at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.”

Notwithstanding that grounding of “Easy Eddie’s” story in reality, these two stories demonstrate that even when children are raised in less than desirable moral circumstances, they still have the possibility of becoming people of integrity, valor and courage. Eddie O’Hare was such a man.

Politics in the Church

Credit:  Aram Vartian

Credit: Aram Vartian

Last week I read correspondence from two esteemed church leaders about church politics and centralized power. Both are public, selectively quoted here with authors’ permission.

One leader wrote: “Church politics. Maybe you have seen the ways of worldly politics at work even in your local congregation. The same tactics can also creep into district and synod gatherings as well. Sometimes, it can get unpleasant or even downright ugly.”

“While Christ-centered, diplomatic attempts at proper persuasion can honor God and move the Savior’s mission forward, the temptation to copy the political ways of the world can cause offense and get in the way of our witness to the welcoming love of Jesus.”

The other leader wrote: “In recent dealings with an entity that believes power should be centralized and politicized, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this quote: ‘I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me, ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying: ‘Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.’”

Having personally experienced both positive and negative church politics, I offer these thoughts:

  • “Politics” comes from a Greek word that literally means “of, for, or relating to citizens.”
  • Properly understood and implemented, “politics” is a neutral or even positive term.
  • Politics can be honorably utilized as well intentioned, non-self-serving, honest efforts to persuade people to pursue and achieve a purposeful and godly course of action.
  • On the other hand, politics can be sinfully and dishonorably used to gain power and control for selfish purposes that do not serve the common good.
  • Politics can even be an evil tool used to accumulate wealth, influence and notoriety not honestly earned or deserved but achieved through false witness, innuendo and wrongful allegation or accusation of those who stand in the way of those goals.
  • Politics used wrongly can injure or ruin the reputation of individuals and organizations.
  • Contrary to the opinion of those who use politics wrongly, the end does not justify the means of political activities lacking integrity and godly motivation!

The only proper use for politics, especially in the church, is truthful and objective description of reality as it currently exists, followed by presentation of a positive plan for accomplishing honorable and godly goals. The process will be truly blessed if it promotes positive objectives, helps people holistically, honors the Eighth Commandment, and is motivated by the love of Christ.

Angels of Mercy

Flooding in Pittston, Pennsylvania. Credit: NY Daily News

Flooding in Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Credit: NY Daily News

Both in America and across the globe we continue to experience tragedy and trauma produced by natural disaster. Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, floods in Texas and tornados in Illinois and Michigan have drawn our recent attention to the vulnerability of humankind to unimaginably powerful forces of nature.

In the news reports we often see photos of areas of devastation that once were cities or towns and survivors who are also victims searching through piles and pieces of what were once their homes. Even more sadly, emotionally gripping photos portray the trauma of serious injury or the grief of a parent whose young child was taken from their arms by flood waters or tornado winds.

Several months ago I received a note from Chris Wicher of the LCMS Eastern District, a district president friend of mine who had heard a story that some would dismiss as coincidence but, for people of faith, displays God’s activity in our lives. Here’s the story:

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A few pastors and other men were driving around the flood area of Pittston, Penn. earlier this week, looking for people who needed help in cleaning up their flooded homes. They came to a couple standing in front of their home, simply staring at their house.

The car stopped and one of the pastors asked if they needed help. The people responded: “No, not really. We don’t know where to begin and besides the house does not yet have electricity restored.”

The would-be helpers told them who they were and that they were simply driving around to see if they could be of help. “Besides,” they said, “we have a generator and pump and mops and buckets and Clorox.”

Quite moved by their generous offer, the homeowners took them up on their offer and in a few hours the cleanup was completed. If kindness and generosity were not enough, here’s the thing.

Not five minutes before the carload of generous helpers offered their assistance, the couple prayed to the Lord for direction and help! God heard their prayer by sending some very good hearted men. The love of Jesus moves us to acts of kindness. God be praised!

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For me the point of this story is that whether near or far away from the scene of any kind of disaster, God calls his people to assist those affected most seriously. Such folks could accurately be called “angels of mercy.” May their host increase!