Journey Post 36, Memorializing God: Oh Captain! My Relational Captain!
NOTE: Some time ago, I promised a friend I’d write an essay explaining something of my understanding of Christianity and the Christian life. This is that. It’s not systematic nor exhaustive, but reflects where I am right now, particularly in light of our recent trip to Colorado….
In 1967, the year that Time published a cover story asking, “Is God dead?” I was a young college student more concerned about getting my draft notice and going to Vietnam than about what might be happening with God. My mind was on the “real” world, or so I thought.
A couple years later, my “real” world had an encounter with the God world in a dry rice field in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam. While pondering and puzzling over my own mortality and God, a visitor to my hospital bed brought news that my C.O., Captain David Walsh, had been killed about the same time that I was wounded. He had given his life for his men by seeking to flush out and kill some snipers who were targeting our perimeter. Rather than send someone else, he led a few men out to find and eliminate the threat. Capt. Walsh, after single-handedly charging in and killing two of the snipers, was finally brought down by a third.
Above: Captain David Walsh (Photo by Bob Kraft)
My captain left me that day with a legacy of love and an idea about what it means to value others above yourself. His legacy was a seed in me that struggled most of my life even as it sprouted: the soil of my heart was hard, stubbornly so, a heart seeking at the same time freedom and self-protection, two goals so contradictory that one must suppress the other. The safe route wins almost every time. Left to itself, such a heart could never be set free. Yet, for nearly fifty years, that seed has sprouted and grown, often imperceptibly—a still tender plant. (You see, I really am a donkey.)
Two years after the rice field, I became a convinced Christian, a committed follower of Jesus Christ. Like Peter, I was convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, the only one who “has the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Two things had pushed me to acknowledge that God was still very much alive: one was the changed life of a friend who displayed Jesus’ life to me in very real and relevant ways; the second was the resurrection. Jesus really did rise from the dead: applying the tools and mindset of the historian to Jesus’ life took me down a path to confirm the central fact of all history.
I call my life—and this blog—a “zigzag journey.” Some zigs and zags got more pronounced as Jesus’ life and teaching pushed against the boundaries of my self-protected soul. My faith was real, but my following was incredibly hesitant. If I ever resembled Peter, it was when he sat only feet from Jesus on trial and pulled back to safety. I’m the guy in the Simon and Garfunkel world: I am a rock and I am an island, I have my books and my theology to protect me. My fears made me wonder if I were real….
I’ve seen God’s hand evident in my life since I was little. That day in the rice field, the hand held a 2×4 and it was banging on my steel pot, yelling “Walt! Wake up! Pay attention!” He put my feet on the road to see he is alive. It was also the narrow road to freedom, though I often preferred side trails….
Some thirty-five years after Nam, another 2×4 made me see, at the same time, the Father heart of God and how evil my own assumptions about him had been. Gone was the idea that he was “out to get me” and didn’t care. Like most, my view of God had been mostly determined by my relationship with my parents. My folks were social, but not truly relational. When my dad died, I had felt left alone and abandoned. When I got to know my adoptive Father, I discovered that he wants to be with his children, that he values and wants to be with me. I now knew my identity: I am a son of my Father.
In the nine years since, I’ve seen that his love—which I once routinely described in duty-bound terms as “doing the best” for me out of his wisdom and grace—is other-centered and self-sacrificial. And that love is completely trustworthy. We Christians speak often of faith, belief, and trust. Trust can never be simply cognitive. My initial faith in Christ had been very cerebral. Trust grows in relationship.
We Christians also talk about being free. Not only free from the condemnation of sin, but free to love in the way we were designed to within human relationship and community. Knowing God’s love is steadily dissolving my self-protective impulse and freeing me to truly love him and others.
Other-centered love is risky and not safe. I now understand the answer to Lucy’s question about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Is he—quite safe?” “…‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Above: Lucy and Aslan
“God is relational.” I was deeply struck by the thought after our teacher in Colorado, Dr. Larry Crabb, voiced it. I suppose most Christians would not disagree, though the term seems too touchy-feely to use regarding the majestic sovereign of the universe. But that is precisely what it means that “God is love.”
Love is another word we Christians throw around with little thought. Other-centered and self-sacrificial love is the kind that Jesus displayed on the cross; it’s the kind that exists within the Godhead among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Captain David Walsh’s legacy is an indelible picture in my brain and heart of what it means to value others. And this gets to the point of the whole essay.
His legacy did not arise from that one sacrificial act of valor alone; that was the culminating act consistent with the way he cared for us, his men. It showed up often in the six months I spent there. He would not put us in harm’s way unless necessary, nor use us as stepping stones to his own advancement, as some “leaders” do. I didn’t appreciate it much at the time; I think of him often, now.
The point is that other-centered self-sacrificial love is not a one-time act. Jesus’ love for and value of others was on display every day. He is this way because this is how God is. God intends for it to be a routine part of daily human life in relationship. And we can’t pretend it is not difficult.
Please don’t think me presumptuous in saying what God intends. A couple statements that Jesus made go to the very heart of what Christianity is all about.
The first says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, NIV). A “disciple” or apprentice is one who learns from someone to be like them. The disciples were not learning what to preach to others—had this been Jesus’ intention, he could’ve opened a seminary. The disciples were learning to live life as the Father intended, and what that looked like in everyday relationships. The preaching would come out of that—i.e., from their relationship with Jesus.
The second is also about being a disciple: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, NIV).
When Jesus speaks of “denying self,” he’s not talking “self-denial,” like going without chocolate; he’s referring to denying the “self,” i.e., our own self-centered agendas and desires apart from God. When he speaks of “taking up the cross,” he’s not talking principally about physical death: it’s a stronger way to say “deny yourself.” The natural out-flow of denying self is other-centered love on a daily basis.
Christians are not called on to live out “churchianity” or impose a system of morality; Christians are called upon to live life within the community of mankind in the way that God intended and, thereby, put on display what God is really like. Jesus called it being “salt and light.”
The two statements of Jesus above should give you some idea of what he intended being a Christian to look like. Loving others without regard to self lets others see God for who he is. It puts the spotlight on him instead of me. Love that is other-centered enables people to be genuinely relational (which I struggle with greatly); it attracts others to Christ and his community. This lack of love and relationality has cost Christians their credibility and is the greatest hindrance to the spread of the gospel message.
Shortly before leaving his disciples, Jesus promised to send “another helper,” the Holy Spirit, to enable their life and service to him. God had promised to send his Spirit in the Old Testament prophets. There doesn’t seem much evidence for him in this world. I wonder if we’ve substituted something else?
“Oh Captain! My Captain!” is a poem written by Walt Whitman about the death of Abraham Lincoln. One line reads: “From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;…” Whitman’s captain was dead, but the ship was safe. I would love to tell my captain, David Walsh, that his men were safe.
Scripture refers to Jesus as “the captain of our salvation” (Hebrews 2:10, KJV). He died, conquered death, and lives. And I live. Perhaps not always “safe” but now truly free.