GOD BLESS YOU DOGFACE

Two hundred and eighty-four combat missions in helicopter gunships over Vietnam, flying in support of the SEALS and River Patrol Boat squadrons along the Mekong Delta, followed by a stint with Air America, the CIA air force in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh trail, qualify a man to comment on the meaning of Memorial Day.

My late friend, Paul Steube, who flew those missions, was rightly proud of his service. Of flying with the Helicopter Attack Light 3rd Squadron (HAL 3) Seawolves, he wrote, “It was sort of like dancing around the sky, hurling thunderbolts at anyone foolish enough to reveal themselves by shooting tracers at us.  And they couldn’t touch us.  We were too good, too lucky, too cute, and we were so young. Lord, we knew we were something.”

It wasn’t until much later in life that Paul came to appreciate the role of the common, “dogface,” foot-soldier. That’s when he wrote the following tribute.

“I want to tell you something that took me 54 years to learn.  And I am so glad that I learned it in time to tell my brother (who was an infantryman).

I was a mustang in the Navy. That’s someone who gets a commission after serving as an enlisted man. After I’d been in the Navy for a couple of years, I was fortunate enough to get into the NAVCAD, or Naval Aviation Cadet, program.

Going to Pensacola! Going to get those wings of gold, the Holy Grail! It was a demanding program, especially difficult for me, but I made it. I made my five requisite carrier landings and got my Naval Aviator Wings and a commission as an Ensign.

Years later, in the observations memorializing the Fiftieth Anniversary of the D-Day landings, I learned about what some other people had done, and still do. And it finally dawned on me that I didn’t amount to a pimple on the behind of the noblest man on the field of battle: The Straight Leg Infantryman.

Usually not much more than a boy.

Usually given not much more than a hunting rifle.

Usually told not much more than, “Go that way and kill anything that tries to stop you.”

And thank God he does.

And that is why, if ever again I were in uniform, walking down a street or through an airport concourse, and I met a private wearing a small blue enamel rectangle with a rifle mounted on it, I wouldn’t stop to explain.  He would simply have to wonder the rest of his life, why did that Navy Commander salute me?

God bless you, Dogface.”

Study the killing fields of Pol Pot that ran with the blood of innocent millions after America withdrew from South East Asia and the truth of Scripture will stand: As long as sinful man remains on this fallen planet there will be ruthless aggressors who seek by violence to impose their will on peaceful populations. Thank God for the soldiers past and present who have died to defend them.

RISEN: Something Good Out of Hollywood

Based on Bible stories made into movies of late, the Nathaniel’s among us would be justified in paraphrasing the dubious disciple’s first question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Hollywood?”

Noah, in spite of my initial enthusiasm about it, turned out to be a theological mish-mash and a box office disappointment. The trailers for Exodus: God’s and Kings, revealed such an obvious hack job on the original story that I, along with many others, didn’t waste my time or money on it. Roma Downey and Mark Burnette’s 2015 television hit, AD, also left me disappointed by the middle of the series.

Not so with Risen, the Sony Pictures release now playing in local theaters. Instead of trying to make something more or something different than the original Easter story, Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified, and Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is good. The plot is believable, the film is well paced, and even though it’s obvious that special effects were relegated to the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have a few weaknesses. One actor is glaringly amateurish in the two short scenes he inhabits. It wouldn’t matter if they weren’t so strategically placed. And those of us concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just prior to the ascension. But these things are minor and offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an otherwise excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar. That actor should win an Oscar.

Far more important however and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. Every man who feels the cynicism of Pilate creeping up on him in mid-life will identify with Clavius’ quest for truth. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

WHEN A WARRIOR FALLS

When a pastor’s phone rings late at night it is never good news. That was true one year ago this week, when Marilyn, the wife of my friend Hank called from the local emergency room, clearly in distress. I jumped in the car, heart racing, uttering the only prayer I could manage: “Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” I knew from past experience that when the nurse had me turn left, into the staff lounge, instead of right, to the exam rooms, that Hank was gone.

I have lost so many youngish friends and family like this, suddenly and without warning, that making sense of it has been a lifelong endeavor. You know the deal: a few seconds one way or the other, a decision to go left instead of right, a slight medical miscalculation, fragmentary details that tip the balance between life and death. That huge two letter word IF. Who can calculate the odds? And what does it mean?

Some things can only be understood by faith. I want to share my conclusions about that shortly, but first I want to remember my friend Hank.

Hank the Warrior
Hank gave a talk at our 2014 men’s retreat on success and told us about several occasions with various companies where he had been given the privilege to, “resign to pursue other opportunities.” He said that most of us would share that privilege and told us how to handle it: “Never lose your confidence. Get up, brush yourself off, and say, ‘Well, that was fun,’ and get back in the game.”

For that and many other reasons, I saw Hank as a warrior. Not a Seal Team Six kind of warrior. Hank was a spiritual warrior, an Ephesians six kind of warrior.

Eph. 6:10-12 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Hank was the kind of guy that the world could just throw stuff at and he could stand there and take it, and not lose his cool, and not betray his Captain, Jesus, and then lead.

For me and our church he had so many of those spiritual warrior qualities that a Church and a pastor need: A cool head, sober judgment, sound theology, engaging personality, the gift, with Marilyn, of hospitality, the abilities to teach, and lead and administrate. Hank was a good and faithful steward of everything that was and is our church, and all that with the heart of a servant. Because of that he was my personal friend and mentor, a guide stone when I was clueless, and a true partner in faith and ministry.

So what do you do when you lose a man like that? What do you make of it? Here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
That Hank and you and I and every other follower of Christ serve the Creator of the universe in the Great War between good and evil. Jesus is our great Captain and we serve at his pleasure, in life or by death. He chooses the day we depart.

That He loves us beyond anything that we could ask or imagine.

That He takes care of his widows and orphans. How well I know this.

That in his own life of poverty and service, and unjust and brutal death, Jesus has identified with all who suffer, with all who are taken “before their time.”

That His resurrection proves that this life is not all there is. That Hank now lives in a world more real and so glorious that when we see it, all of life on earth will seem a mere shadow.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
What the Apostle Paul wrote in the last few days before his martyrdom:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6-8 NIV)

Remember that he goes to a reward, to be with his Captain. Remember to long for Christ’s appearing.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

I know that Hank prefers his current location over this world. And I have this great fear that I’m going to outlive everyone that I love. But that is up to my Captain. Either way, I will keep doing what he made me to do.

When a warrior falls remember to keep doing what your Captain made you to do.

Hank became an elder at our church in 2005 and I wouldn’t let him resign until 2014. Our board meets twice a month and begins every meeting by praying; first for the needs of people, then the various ministries of the Church, and finally for ourselves and the things before us a board. We go around the table and pray.

It’s easy for prayers like that to become perfunctory, like saying grace at meals. Sometimes you’ll hear yourself or another man drop into a pattern and you wonder if he’s “checked out.”

Hank developed a pattern over that last year, a close to his prayer that sounded a common theme, but it was never perfunctory. In fact it was so urgent within him; it was coming from such a deep place, that it became at once a riveting call as well as a benediction from my friend. It went like this:

“Father, no matter what we are able to do as a Church, no matter what we get involved in, never let us lose sight of Christ. Always draw us back and keep us centered on Christ and his Cross; the salvation and grace that come through him alone.”

And now dear friends, we cannot tell you how much we long for you to have the same hope and to follow the same Captain that Hank now knows face to face.

VETERAN TEACHERS

I’ve never met a perfect soldier. Let’s get that out of the way up front. Veteran’s and Memorial Days tend to bring out the worst in those of us prone to purple prose about our heroes, so it’s important to be clear that the men (sorry, I don’t know any female soldiers) I’m about to recognize were regular guys with all of the problems and faults of all the regular guys you’ve ever known. What sets them apart are the values they espoused and aspired to, values they passed on to me and that I hope to pass on to you.

I was born fifteen years after the end of WW II. As I was growing up and going to technical school, college, and seminary, the men who fought that war and the ones that followed were living through mid-life and beyond, serving as leaders, teachers and mentors to those of us who were to inherit what The Greatest Generation had fought to preserve, nothing less than Western Civilization.

Their names won’t mean much to you, but the dross was burned off the values they held by the battles they fought. So here are their names and the things they taught me.

Lewis Askew, who flew Corsairs from the deck of the Benjamin Franklin in 1944 and shared his story about the bombing that took 750 of his shipmates, taught me that men can persevere through the deepest tragedies if they know why they fight. John Durden, who repaired tanks in General Patton’s Third Army and taught me transmissions and drivelines, showed me that honor lost was hard to reclaim. Phi McClain who drove a Jeep across booby-trapped roads in France and became my spiritual mentor taught me the importance of knowing and being who you are, and that fun can be found just about anywhere. Mark Walters, who built bridges and runways from Normandy to Berlin and on through Korea, taught me leadership under pressure and the value of listening. B. Gray Allison, who flew the B 24 bomber over Western Europe with the 8th Air Force and founded the seminary I attended, demonstrated the power of faith and a positive attitude as well as scholarship coupled to a passion for souls. L. R. Barnard, chaplain to his majesty’s armies and master of theology to me, taught me the value of history and the wisdom of a wider perspective. Master Chief Bob Bennett, whose friendship, loyalty and encouragement taught me to believe in others, even when they don’t believe in themselves. Paul Steube, who flew Huey gunships with the Sea Wolves in Vietnam, demonstrated duty, and the power of sheer determination. These and so many others who are passing from this earth, and many thousands more coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and dozens of unnamed battlefields in the war against Islamo-facism, knew things about duty, and honor, and sacrifice, which can only be learned in combat.

It is a beautiful and majestic thing to see a man take up a commission, a role, a service, to become an agent of a higher, nobler purpose than self and persevere in that mission to the absolute end of endurance or even life itself, for the sake of others. That’s what men and women like these have done for us as they serve in our nation’s military. Let’s remember not just to honor them, but to honor the values for which they stand.

2 Timothy 2:1-4