zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the tag “Vietnam”

Journey Post 47: A Memorial Day Encounter Remembering American Pie

Note to readers:   I’ve written an essay on the parable of the good Samaritan (called, “Good Neighbor Sam”), which I will post in a week or two.  But since today is Memorial Day, I thought it more appropriate to write about America and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.

___________

Friday night I had an encounter with American Pie.

I’m not referring to a recent series of films but to a classic song written and released in 1971, a retrospective on America in the decade 1959-1969 by Don McLean.  The song is a ballad, a lament about things lost.  It’s not just about the music and how it “died.”

The music is a metaphor for an America and a way of life that disappeared along with the music and died in a real way—at least in the perspective of 1971.  The sad longing to return to a simpler, more innocent time is palpable.  It looked to the time when America had saved the world and savored the happiness of music that made us smile and dance.  It’s a song worth reflecting on.

So why am I writing about this on Memorial Day, the day we remember our war dead?  Because Americans of my generation have a visceral attachment to the song, this ballad of the 1960s, this song expressing how things felt to us as we went forth doing our duty to preserve freedom and justice for our country and for struggling democracies around the world.  But, in the end, it seemed that the fate of Vietnam and the fate of America itself were one and the same: hopeless and not worth our sacrifice.

Many conflate Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  I certainly enjoy being thanked for my service, especially since that never happened until seven years after I came back.  But Memorial Day is about ultimate sacrifice, about losing one’s life for one’s comrades, about dying for our country.

Those of us who returned, however seriously wounded or hurting, did in fact return.  Most of us went back to civilian life, raised families and lived in their communities and led productive lives.  But we were all deeply affected by the experience in some way, some more than others.  In a very real sense, we all died, in part, in some fashion.  We left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left us.

I have my own memories of the men I served with, the men who died, especially my company commander, Capt. David Walsh, (pictured below, KIA June 10, 1969) whose story will always be with me—a man who led a small group out from our perimeter to take down snipers, who singlehandedly killed two of them before himself being brought down by a third.  He almost certainly knew that he wouldn’t come back, but he went out to keep safe the men he loved.

The Vietnam War is not explicitly mentioned in the song, but it hangs over every bit of it like a dark, ominous cloud.  That war was still going hot and heavy when Don McLean first sang the song in 1971.  Most troops would not be out until 1973.  Perhaps most Americans were thinking that we had already lost the war:  Newsman Walter Cronkite told us so.  After all, he was the most trusted man in America, (no irony intended).  He came to that conclusion when he visited Vietnam following the ’68 Tet offensive.

I played and sang American Pie in my first guitar recital on Friday night.  Before that night, I must’ve read and thought about the words every day for over a month.  Recitals like that are mostly about young people (middle and high school age), but the parents seemed at least familiar with the song.  I explained before starting that I had come home from Vietnam in 1969 wounded and disillusioned with an America that I loved: I think I shared the same outlook then as Don McLean did in the song—an America on the verge of self-destructing.

Vietnam may be fading from our collective memory, but it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of everyone who lived the confusing time McLean sang about.

He begins his ballad “a long, long time ago,” referring to “the day the music died,” his take on what happened in February 1959 when his hero Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, were lost in a single plane crash.

The song traces the course of the ten following years when we were “on our own,” going through a series of days on which, he says, is “the day the music died”:  After Holly, McLean loses his girl to another guy at a sock hop and knows he’s “out of luck.”  Bob Dylan (the “jester”) steals the “thorny crown” from Elvis (the “King,”).  Lennon reads Marx and the “quartet” (Beatles) practiced while “we sang dirges in the dark” (a possible second reference to the death of JFK).  As the culture and music was more influenced by drugs, the birds (Byrds) are “eight miles high an’ fallin’ fast” like bombs over North Vietnam. The Jester is on the sidelines and the Beatles are becoming Sgt. Pepper, who “refuse to yield” to other groups while the “sweet perfume” of marijuana is pervasive.  (Or, is the reference to “sergeants” to the military controlling demonstrators or the Chicago police dropping “sweet perfume”—tear gas—at the ’68 Democratic convention?)

     Any way you interpret it, the “day the music died” here seems to reveal that the American dream and promise of freedom is dead or dying….

On another day in December, 1969, there was the tragic Stones’ Altamont Speedway concert in which the Hell’s Angels did security, people died, and, McLean says, he saw “Satan laughing with delight….” “Jack flash” (Mick Jager) “sat on a candlestick.”  We were, as he said, “a generation lost in space with no time left to start again.”

McLean is a master at using double entendre.  Many have tried to figure it all out.  Don McLean himself has never explained it all, though he has mentioned some things.

His final verse was a retrospective on the era, and he has a line about the “three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.”  After ‘Nam, I was doing my own search for God, and I kept hearing the question—not, “Is God dead?” as Time Magazine famously asked on its 1967 cover—rather, “Has God finally given up on America?  Is he getting out while the getting’s good?”

After Tet ’68, America seemed to begin its fall into what we later called “Vietnam syndrome”:  God is no longer blessing America, we can’t win a war against a “little” enemy like this, and we don’t ever want to get stuck in a quagmire like that again.  How could America actually lose a war?

American Pie seems (chronologically) to end at Altamont in ’69.  But before the song was released we heard the revelations about My Lai, and  young Americans killing other young Americans at Kent State in 1970.  Those, for me, were the final straw … at least until Nixon’s resignation.

The chorus of a song is generally key to its understanding, to getting the main point:

‘Bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,

An’ them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, and singin’,

This’ll be the day that I die…  This’ll be the day that I die.

Don McLean

I’m a couple years younger than Don McLean.  He was 13 when Holly died, I was almost 11.  But many of our experiences were the same.  For example, listening to Dinah Shore, the very popular all-American girl who had her own variety show sponsored by Chevrolet.  The Chevy song she sang played for about a decade.  One heard it everywhere all the time:  “See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call.  Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A., America’s the greatest land of all!  On a highway or a road along a levee, everything’s completer in a Chevy….”  This was America, even if you were a Ford man.

When Holly died, he was famous for the song, “That’ll be the day.”  He was singing about his girl, that, if she left him, “that’ll be the day-hay-hay … that I die!”  The good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye were lamenting his death.

Judging by all that Don McLean put into this song, they were lamenting much more: the death of America itself.  While the metaphor of the music standing for America, our way of life and our religion may seem a bit overdrawn to people now, it was very real in 1971.  It was not just a phase that we were going through and got over or grew out of.  Something real died, and those of us who returned from that war at that time know that something died in us as well.

That’s why I’m thinking that, on Memorial Day, it’s very appropriate to remember those of us who came back.  And it’s okay to mourn.  You may not be able to understand what died.  Just know that it did.

I find it greatly ironic for me personally that, in the year I came home (1969), I was just beginning to discover that those “three men I admire most,” as he called the godhead, were not getting out but were very much still around and interested in us personally and individually.  In the year he released American Pie (1971), I became a Christian.  And I began to live.

 

If you would like to read the complete lyrics of American Pie, you can do so here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20141129095635/http://www.don-mclean.com/viewsong.asp?id=89

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….

Time, Is God Dead

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.

Cpt Walsh by Kraft--caught

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).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.”

CS Lewis Lucy and Aslan

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.

altruism--Capt David Walsh

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

“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.

Journey Post 34: Completing the Trinity—Reflections on stepping out from behind the door

“Donkey” is my African name.  It’s a good Manjak (Senegal) family name—spelled differently but sounding much the same as this English word.  “I knew it all the time, Walt….  It fits!”  Okay, okay, but don’t laugh too much.  The son of the village chief gave me his family name to signify that the Manjak welcomed our becoming part of their people; we wanted to live with them and learn their language and their ways and tell them about God.

Getting the name was an unexpected honor.  Yet, the irony was not lost on me—a sort of private joke between me and God—a Christian missionary, slow to learn, stubborn, proud.

donkey image

That was thirty-six years ago …  but the name still fits.  I own it.  It’s a reminder of who I am and my need to listen to God, I mean: really.  If you know the story of how I became a Christian, you may recall that I speak of my time in Vietnam and my appointment with a mortar round on June 10, 1969 as a 2×4 upside the head from God—a precursor to getting the Donkey name….  Up to that day, I had assumed I was a Christian.  I had gone to church most of my life, but now, I didn’t know what I believed….

It took two years from the day that mortar round exploded right next to me until I discovered that the resurrection of Jesus had actually occurred in history.  That changed everything.  I knew, then, that it was all true:  God is there (here), the Bible was his word, Jesus was God’s Son—not some cosmic Santa Claus; his teaching was more than good philosophy, and something called the “Holy Spirit”—or “Holy Ghost”—operated in the world, so that I was now saved, born again … or some such thing.

If you’ve read some of my blog posts, you’ll know that I like to refer to being adopted, though I was born and raised by my natural parents.  I am a son of my Father; I am adopted.  That’s how Paul referred to God making believers a part of his family—a son, a co-heir with Jesus.  I learned that shortly after I became a believer.  I knew that Jesus gave himself for my sin on the cross.  But somehow, God in heaven had some kind of dark side in my thinking.  He was distant, watching every step I made.  He just couldn’t be very pleased.  He took care of me and would take me to heaven one day—where I’d sit in the back with all the screw-ups and the children who never quite measured up to his expectations.

Jesus had said that eternal life was “knowing God.”  I figured that “knowing” must be a synonym for being saved, a sort of transaction where, in return for believing in Jesus, God promised me heaven.

From 1971 until 2007, that was my operating or functional assumption (theology).  I’d often puzzled over a statement by A.W. Tozer: “What comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.”  I began to see that truth when two different friends told me how they viewed God.

One told me how his life and jobs kept falling apart: “Walt, I’m convinced that God is out to get me.”  Another friend, who had been a closeted homosexual, related to me his view of God and his all-seeing eye that never smiled: both friends had fathers who were displeased or distant.  Another 2×4:  this time, times two.  God, what are you trying to tell me?  I was seeing a familiar pattern: my dad was distant, I was uncertain of his love, and he died when I was thirteen.  My life since had been spent on a performance treadmill, always looking over my shoulder for the smile of ___, but my paltry efforts to please him surely brought disappointment. Now I felt like I was playing church with people’s lives.  I cried out:  “Lord, what do you really think of me?  I have to know!”  In a moment, a verse came to mind from Proverbs, chapter three: “My son, despise not the discipline of the Lord.”  Now I was reading:  “for whom the Lord loves he disciplines, as a father the son in whom he delights.”  “Lord, you delight in me?”  I was dumbfounded.

It was like being born again—again.  I was getting to know God as my Father and his father heart.  Delight?  In me?  Yes!  Seeing his heart took nothing from his righteousness, or holiness, or majesty—it magnified it.  It was like my dad was President of the United States, and I was John-John playing under his desk.  You’ve seen those pictures, right?  Have you seen/read Ben-Hur?  A Jewish slave saves a Roman general, who makes him his son and heir.  It’s a picture of our adoption.  I have today a totally different view of God my Father—he’s the one Jesus taught his followers to call “Abba, Father,” (an intimate term similar to Papa or Daddy).  Remember the Lord’s Prayer?  To call God “Father” was radical.  New light, huh?  “Father” is not a title but a relationship.

John Jr. under the deskBen Hur slave

Above:  JFK and John-John (JFK Jr.)                                                                                                                                                                         Below:  The slave, Judah Ben-Hur, soon to be adopted son of Quintus Arrius

I am a son of my Father.  That is my identity, who I am.  And he told me something that my soul had longed to hear from my earthly dad before he died, but never did.  My Father said, in a way similar to what he announced to the world about Jesus: “This is my beloved son; and I delight in him.”  He loves my soul.

So, now I know Jesus the Son, my savior, who self-sacrificially gave himself for my sin.  I know my Father, who self-sacrificially gave his Son in order to secure a relationship with me.  And now … what do I say of the Spirit?  I think I have all the correct “doctrine” concerning him.  But these last days have been, perhaps, another 2×4 upside the head of the Donkey—this time, with a 2×4 made of nerf board.

Michelle and I spent a week in a Colorado retreat center a couple weeks ago.  I was wrestling with several things:  the implications of God being “relational,” (I’m more social than genuinely relational.  My still present instinct is to fear letting you into my real life, to let you know me, to peer out from behind the door until I know it is safe to stand in front of it).  We were thinking about the Trinity and the relationship of love that exists in that divine community, knowing that, somehow, Christians share in that—but it doesn’t always seem real.  What does it mean to truly listen to the Spirit?  How can I hear his direction, how can I help others who want to draw near to God do the same?  I can’t really tell you what last week was all about, but, it will come out, as the witch said to Dorothy, “All in good time, my little pretty … all in good time.”

fearful man behind door

I didn’t hear anything “new” during the week, and yet everything was new: one of those uncomfortable paradigm shifts.  We weren’t seeking some method for generating or conjuring up a mystical Spirit.  No one controls God.

My doctrine of the Holy Spirit is very orthodox.  But there is something very much not real about my relationship with God the Spirit.  I don’t have far to look for reasons behind this.  My Father is teaching me to be honestly relational, starting with Michelle and a few others.  But most of my Christian involvement has been with churches peering from behind the door at the Spirit, churches I’ve heard characterized as holding to a “new evangelical Trinity” of Father, Son, and Holy Scripture.  God certainly speaks through his book—but he is not the book.

God promised Israel that he would send his Spirit to live in their hearts (the New Covenant, or New Testament).  In sending this Spirit, he would write his law in their hearts.  Jesus further elaborated when he spoke of a divine “comforter” or “counselor” (Greek paraclete) who had been “with” believers  and now would be “in” them as well.  It was he, the Spirit, who would empower us, ensure our fellowship and communion with the godhead, remind us who and whose we are, testifying with our own spirit that God is our “Abba, Father” that we might show God to the world.

A “close encounter” in Vietnam brought me to know that Jesus was real, not a crock.  Recognizing my evil view of God brought me to know the delighted love of my Father, not some intellectual construct (i.e., a crock).  Now, again, he has awakened my heart to find reality, to courageously pursue him where I’ve been afraid to, not inside the door but in community, to understand and live out the kind of deep genuine relationship I’ve missed in my human relationships.  Not to hear voices in the head, but to actually live by faith.

journey post reprise: Memorial Day pause

NOTE:  This was originally published on Memorial Day, 2013.

Today is Memorial Day, the day on which we honor those who have died in our wars.  It is one of the days I spend thinking about the men I served with in Vietnam, men who died, men who nearly died, and the many who somehow died inside:  these men have come out of Vietnam, but Vietnam has never come out of them.  They performed their every day duty to our country and paid dearly for it.  They are worth honoring by remembering what they and their lives teach us.

What they did, and my memories of them, is totally germane to what I’m trying to do here and played a large part in launching me on my zigzag journey the day after I was wounded at Iron Mountain in June, 1969.  The sacrifices they made and the death we faced in a war that none of us quite understood left me questioning—for the first time—whether there was a God, whether I could believe the people who told me about God all my life, and whether the America I loved was really about freedom and democracy and equality for all, or whether our leaders and other power brokers simply sought to hide the arrogance of their power?

Toler, Bott, Bertelsen, Deitler

Larry Toler, Carl Bott, Me, Joe Dietler     (Photo by Gene Holland)

If you have seen the Tom Cruise movie, “Born on the 4th of July,” you have some idea of what many of us went through.  Our nation was deeply divided over the quagmire that was Vietnam: “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”  In those days Americans did not distinguish the soldiers from the war itself.  Our men were screamed at and spit upon.  Please understand this about that war:  for most men, it was not about stopping the Communists.  For most of us, the war became very personal.  There were people trying to kill us, and we couldn’t distinguish friend from foe.  Our buddies were dying around us, and all we could think of was getting ourselves and our friends home in one piece when our tour was up.

Hopper, Kiene, Bertelsen, Cipov

James Hopper, Dick Kiene, Me, Mike Cipov     (Photo by Dick Kiene)

Vivid memories of June 10th and 11th are deeply etched:  I see and hear James Hopper, a meter behind me, as he catches a .30 cal. bullet in the neck.   I hear the whistle of an incoming round, then the sound one can experience only on the inside of a gigantic bell as it clangs.  I am flying to the right, watching a hedgerow as it passes in slow mo across my vision.  I see Chaplain Max Sullivan–the angel of God– running through the bush to help me as I lay helpless, check on Hopper, then pick up my M-16 and spray the immediate area.  He and another man (Russel?) help me up and I hop along between them on one leg.  Arriving at a clearing, they lay me down.  There is Joe Dietler, walking by and pausing to say, in anguish, that we’re getting cut up bad.   They lift me into the chopper, and I see the chopper pilot looking over his shoulder, smiling at me as I give him a blood-leaking thumbs up.  I think about the questions I asked the next day on that hospital bed.  I remember the first dressing change and the cavernous hole in my thigh.  The doctor comes by and tells me to get up and walk.   He wasn’t Jesus, but that first walk is invigorating and makes me feel like everything would be okay again—until I come across two of my closest friends, Gene Holland and Royce Lowman.  Sgt. Holland, (“Show me”), had been a mentor to me from the time I arrived in the mortar platoon.  Lowman, (“Lo”), had taught me to be a gunner.  Holland had taken six machine gun slugs in the gut.  He was the first casualty and the first medivacked out and no one expected him to live.  (Years later I find out he has no physical side effects.)  Lo’s head is bandaged where he had taken a bullet in the face. Gene Holland, Royce Lowman             Joe Dietler

Top:  Gene Holland, Royce Lowman

Bottom:  Joe Dietler   (Photos by Gene Holland)

Another friend, Michael Cipov, came by to visit us.  Cipov (“Tommy Tucker”), had spent his year in hell, and now he was going home.  He had left Alpha Company when we took off on our ill-fated operation.  What should have brought incredible happiness for him had turned to agony, particularly now as he came to tell us that our beloved, fun-loving, non-gung ho but heroic Captain David Walsh had died, had given his life for his men, chasing down two snipers before being brought down by a third.  I can see the pain all over Tommy’s face:  “I should’ve been there with you guys.”  Alpha Company is decimated, and now the General who came by to present us with Purple Hearts tells us, “They’re refitting to go back out.”  I just want to jump out of that bed and floor him, but all I can manage is some muttered acknowledgement.

Russel, Cipov, Larry Holliday                         Dennis Anderson (Andy), Michael Cipov (Tommy Tucker), Capt David Walsh, Unk, Unk

Top:  Russell, Mike Cipov, Larry “Doc” Holliday

Bottom:  Captain David Walsh    (Photos by Gene Holland)

I spent nearly two months recuperating from my wounds in Japan and California before returning to full duty at Ford Ord.  In between, I managed to see my family and witness the first moon landing on TV—something good to finish out that miserable decade.

Memorial Day is very personal to me, as was the war I fought in, as is any war to the men who fight it—whether they ever come back or not.  Please today remember those who still carry their war around with them.

 

 

journey post 23–Honest to God, part 1, Confronting my functional theology: Is God good?

Two times in my life, I remember being unusually and brutally honest with God.  One led to my becoming a Christian.  The second time led to finally understanding what it meant that God is Father—my Father.  Next to becoming a Christian after Vietnam, it was the most important thing that ever happened to me … a eureka moment in which I finally figured out who I am:  I am my Father’s son—I am adopted.  At last I knew for certain that God didn’t save me because I’d met the “condition” of faith in Jesus and so he had to—whether he wanted to or not:  God made me a son because he wanted to.  It was something he’d been passionate about since forever ago.

is God good--the problem of evil

During the couple years following that eureka moment, I also came to understand how God can be truly good, even though his creation is filled beyond measure with evil, pain, and suffering.

honest to God bookends

Those two occasions stand like bookends to the part of my life that gives name to this blog.  Each “bookend” represents about two years, during which I was engaged in a quest to find the answer to questions that I had hidden for years in some dark recess of my heart but was too fearful and never honest enough to admit to myself, to God, or to others.

On a hospital bed in Vietnam one morning, I came face to face with my own mortality.  Surrounded by the remains of the day before and all the detritus of boys killing boys, I could no longer deny the reality of the reaper.  I was staring at the wounds I’d received in battle: they were literally everywhere on my body, some small, some gaping holes—but not even one had penetrated a vital organ.  Why?

honst to God The thinker (by Auguste Rodin)

Rodin’s “The Thinker”

I came this close to death—several times … so what really happens when we die?  What about me when I die?  I knew that I almost really did.  I had to admit that I did not know the answers to some rather important questions, despite my deep involvement at church—you know, that stuff about God and Jesus and being good.  I wondered, Was God real, and did he even care?  Was Jesus just Santa Claus?

The greatest thing that ever happened for me happened on that bed:  I was forced to be honest with myself and with God.  I had to say, “I don’t know, but I need to find out.”  Most of my life, I had hidden behind a self-protective dishonesty (which didn’t end on that bed, by the way).  I had become so adept at this kind of self-protection and I probably wasn’t aware of any question about my faith—not until the gong inside my steel pot from that mortar blast forced a different perspective.  My honesty led to a two-year quest that would center on an empty grave and the claims about Jesus.  These journey posts are in large part about that quest.

We humans put great stock in our own ability to exercise our wills, to use our intelligence and wits to make our own way—but much of our life consists of unintended consequences and what happens to us.  What do we do then?  Some call God “the hound of heaven” who keeps on coming.  But what do we do with that?  There does come a time when, if we are determined to walk away, he simply lets us.  That is a chilling prospect.

The second occasion when I had an “honesty encounter” with God began with another series of events around 2007, the second bookend to my zigzag journey.  This time was a little less bloody than ‘Nam, perhaps, but nonetheless real and painful.

I was trying to counsel some people from my church whose lives were falling apart in front of me.  Their families were deeply at risk, one was doing drugs, another person was engaged in sexual activity that was blowing his family out of the water, and him and his ministry along with it.  I was doing my best to help them see clear to draw on help from the Father, but they just couldn’t, and I had no more to give.

About this time, I was just beginning to understand that people have a “functional theology,” a deeply held set of beliefs or assumptions about God and life—often much different from what they claim as a statement of faith or philosophy of life.  Functional theology is what people actually live out, whether aware of it or not.  For example, most Americans (and most Christians in America) have a functional theology of God that sees him as demanding, never truly satisfied with our performance.  When asked, we’ll say that God is “love” and accepts people by “grace.”  But in that dark inside, when we think about standing before that throne, will it be: “You could’ve had an ‘A’… I expected better out of you!”?

Yet I didn’t yet grasp how such thinking played out in church—nor the fact that the same view was inside my own head, until another conversation reminded me of how I had thought, when faced with leaving Africa a failure as a missionary and husband and father.  I was counseling a man who told me about his career and how things always seemed to fall apart.  This was a man who loved God, who was active in church, who encouraged others, and knew the Bible well.  He sat there, telling me, “Walt, God is out to get me.”  I was taken aback by his candor on something Christians aren’t supposed to think.

honest to God Afraid I'm a fake

Then I remembered how I had found myself thinking that God had taken us to Africa just to give me a taste of something wonderful, to dangle it there, and just when it was within my grasp, pull it away to show me what I really deserved.  So I thought then (1989) and was still (2007) stuffing the question I most feared to face:  Is God truly good?  Does he truly love me?

The two questions are closely related.  Thirty-five years after the hospital bed, I knew I had to face the same question:  Would I be honest, no matter what? no matter if the answer was not what I’d been telling so many for so long.  I could not allow “my” position in church to keep from looking for the real answer.  I simply had to know.  If I could no longer say in good conscience, “God is good,” then I’d have to stop playing church and get out.

Honest to God coffee cup

Honesty with God requires more than coffee at a comfortable Bible study group

 

Next post:  Honest to God, part 2.  Dealing with my dysfunctional theology of God leads to delightful discovery….

New post up tomorrow evening, D.V.: Honest to God

is God good--the problem of evil

I have a new post ready to go tomorrow, and another nearly so that I plan to put up in a week.  Both address something called my “functional theology”:  ie, what I really thought of God and how I confronted that dysfunctional thinking 35 years after becoming a Christian. Two questions were closely related for me:  Does God actually love me, and is he truly good?

journey post 21: Altruism and God

“Altruism” is a word from my high school days.  It was something spoken about often in the early 1960s.  It was an idea stunningly captured in the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

jfk ask not what

When I began to notice the word, I thought it had something to do with being “true.”  And it does, in a way.  Our word comes through French from Latin, alteri huic, “to this other.”  Altruism has to do with disinterested impartiality and selfless concern for others.  It is to do the right thing for the greater good.  So it is about being true—to something outside ourselves.

altruism Peanuts cartoon

Why the language lesson?  Two reasons.  First, it’s a good reminder for me that being selfless is not my first natural tendency.  Secondly, it’s the bottom-line message of conscience:  you know, that little voice (I can still hear Jiminy Cricket singing about it) that occasionally gets through the noise to tell us how we should be treating others.  How we treat others is what the “golden rule” is all about.

CS Lewis Mere Christianity

When I was a young man reading Mere Christianity, I understood from C.S. Lewis about the “law of human nature” (his name for what conscience tells us) that we all violate it.  But back then, I had no clue about the depth of my self-centeredness.  While I eventually acknowledged that I was a sinner needing salvation, I remained blind to much of the hard-core of self-will that would become the genesis of my “zigzag journey.”  God’s patience with me seems even now more incredible because, in so many ways, I have been like Jesus’ disciples in the years before the crucifixion when they were most blatantly jockeying for privileged self-advancement and position in the Kingdom of God.

altruism--no servant greater than master

altruism--washing the feet

I missed a big lesson while reading Lewis in 1970.  I was in such a hurry to get Jesus figured out that I didn’t take enough time to ponder many things Lewis had to say.  As a result, I missed a good half of what the law of human nature had to tell me about the God who wired conscience into the human psyche.  When I put Lewis’ little book down, I still shared the predominant view of God in American culture (even within American Evangelical culture) that God is primarily the fearsome majestic judge upon the throne of heaven, waiting to mete out judgment upon sinners.  There is truth in that picture, but it is only part of the truth….

There is another part made known by conscience—and it took me decades to see that part:  Conscience tells us that we should be disinterestedly selfless (i.e., altruistic) in our actions toward others, so it must be that God greatly values this quality, and if he values it so highly, it must then reflect something about who he is and what he is like.

God is himself selfless.

Come again?  God … selfless?  I have never once thought of God in quite that way, nor have I heard other believers say it this way.  “Selfless”?  It just doesn’t seem to fit in the same sentence with the idea that God jealously guards his glory.  Yet the apostle John wrote in one of his letters (1 John) that “God is light” and “God is love.”  They are the two themes upon which the letter hangs, the basis on which he writes about Christian behavior. “Light” has to do with understanding, purity, truth, and justice—the essence of disinterested impartiality.  Love, as detailed by John in his letter, is all about loving others selflessly and non-hypocritically.  Come to think of it, Christians often have trouble putting those two concepts (light and love) together in living out everyday life.

Lest I be accused of trying to ignore that fearsome God of judgment, consider this:  I often hear this description expressed in terms of what he’s going to do to people (sinners).  Judgment will come; it is an important aspect of Jesus’ teaching that merits our attention.  But the picture of a fearsome God waiting to judge also teaches that God is passionate: he is passionate about good and evil.  He passionately loves one and hates the other.  There is something else that needs to be considered here.  That picture often gets interpreted as saying that God is fiercely eager to rain fire and brimstone on hated sinners.  There is another possibility here (which I personally understand to be what Scripture tells us): that God is waiting to make all things right.  That is a discussion for a later time.

I’ve been reading the first part of a new book by Simon Sinek called Leaders Eat Last, in which Sinek applies to business practice an idea he first noticed in military chow halls:  leaders wait until their people are taken care of first—i.e., a good leader sees to their needs above his own.  I saw the principle in combat during my final days in Vietnam.  On the same day I was wounded, my company commander, Captain David Walsh, died living out that idea.  Capt. Walsh’s section of the perimeter was drawing sniper fire.  He led a small group of men out to get that sniper.  The Captain was the one who went first, found and killed the sniper, then drew out another and killed him.  He himself was finally brought down by a third sniper.  David Walsh’s undaunted courage and willing sacrifice for us, his men, lives on.  He was a “servant-leader.”  His legacy of servant-leadership—putting the lives of his men above his own—was made real to me that day.

altruism--Capt David Walsh altruism--Capt David and Bonnie Walsh

Dennis Anderson (Andy), Michael Cipov (Tommy Tucker), Capt David Walsh, Unk, Unk

Captain David Walsh (Middle picture shows him with his wife, Bonnie.  Bottom picture shows him with the mortar platoon on our final operation.) *  

Jesus once said, “Greater love has no man than this, than that a man should lay down his life for his friends.”  Capt. Walsh did that.

I bring this up because it is a memorable example of altruism, and it tells us something about how we were made to be, something about life, something that is not restricted to the field of battle.  It finds its greatest fulfillment in the mundane routines of our lives.

If it is true that human beings are created “in the image of God,” as Scripture says, then selflessness, that remarkable quality that we see only on occasion in our fellow creatures—must certainly be a reflection of him in us.

__________

*The two top pictures can be found at: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/dwwalsh.htm, along with a copy of his citation for the Distinguished Service Cross.  Bottom photo by Eugene Holland.

journey post 6: Time to think

Time.  That’s what you have when you are laying in a hospital bed.  Time for misery, time for pain.  Time for reflection, even when you’re doped up.   On June 11, 1969, no matter what pain-dulling agent was in my body, there was a series of sharp, vivid images and thoughts in my brain.

What I reflected on most was the events of the day before, when a 60mm mortar round dropped over the top of a mud storage hooch in a rice field:  A face off in the bush.  The faces of my buddies as we came under fire.  The face of James Hopper peering over a dike before he caught a bullet.  The face of Chaplain Max Sullivan emerging from the bush in response to my call for help.  The anguished face of Joe Dietler as he paused to tell how bad things were getting for Alpha company and the mortar platoon.

The thoughts were few but clear.  I almost really died….  Had that mortar round been a few inches closer or farther away….  Had the last face I saw before being put on a chopper been an NVA soldier instead of the concerned, assuring face of Chaplain Max….  Had an NVA soldier provided me that last installment on a ticket home in a body bag… where would I be? … heaven or…?  Was heaven real?  And God…was there even a God?  Was Jesus simply a cosmic Santa Claus to assure us that life will turn out okay?

Time.  I now had the luxury of time to think about my own mortality and/or immortality.  I had time to recuperate—physically, emotionally, mentally—before going home.  Vietnam was famous for soldiers being in combat one day killing people and at home the next.  It was a full month from the day I was wounded until I stepped off a bus to see my mom.  Going home to family, friends, and safety excited me.  No more death—but I did face problems.  At night in a lighted room, I could not stand in front of a window.  Sudden loud noises sent me jumping and ducking for cover.  Helicopters left me uneasy.

But I had survived.  I was getting stronger every day.  My wounds did not leave me obviously disabled.  Being alive was great!  God was still there, but the questions could wait awhile.  I would still be in the Army until June, helping to train men for the slaughter.  Thinking about marrying Michelle gave me joy, yet I was deeply troubled by Vietnam and by what was happening to my country.  The upheaval and turmoil of the 60s had become, for me, the “new normal.”

It was against this background that I was confronted with my understanding of Christianity.  I had assumed I was a Christian until Vietnam.  Now I had to make some decisions.  But decisions in the real world are never made in an intellectual vacuum.  There is a context, a great community of factors to think about, and my “community” was bringing on an intellectual crisis of sorts.

The first “factor” was my friend.  Watching him, I was intrigued by the reality of what I saw, a reality, he said, that had even saved his marriage, a reality I knew I didn’t have—but I was afraid to ask how to get it.  I would have told you I was a Christian, but it made no discernible difference in my life.  I didn’t want to be like those people who made you uncomfortable by acting “holy” or telling you what you should and should not do.  My friend didn’t do that: he was just himself, without pretension.  I felt like I was becoming the biggest hypocrite in the world, passing myself off as a Christian, but knowing all the time that I did not really know.

My_Lai_massacre

My Lai, March 16, 1968.  (Photo by Ron Haeberle)

Kent_State_massacre

Kent State University, May 4, 1970.  (Photo by John Filo)

Another factor was my own growing awareness of the My Lai massacre, which took place in March, 1968 and hit the press in December the next year.  It was creating a new legacy of what American “boys” were capable of.  Then, on May 4, 1970 came the Kent State shooting, in which American college students were shot and killed by American National Guardsmen.  Americans killing Americans?  How…?

My Lai took on a personal meaning.  I discovered that the infamous “Charlie company” was the Charlie company in my own battalion: my unit was Alpha company.  I had joined Alpha less than a year after My Lai, but I had heard nothing except that our men had had a “rough time” around some place called “Pinkville.”  The guys who had been in country then were mostly gone, though I did remember seeing Capt. Ernest Medina in Duc Pho once.  What haunted me was this:  It could have been me.

My Lai and Kent State became emblematic for me of what was happening to America.  America was losing its identity as the “good guys,” a generation teetering on the edge of disillusionment and revolution.  Radicals were teaching in our schools (Communist Angela Davis was teaching at UCLA where Michelle attended).   The war was now regarded as a “quagmire” with no end in sight, and the protest movement showed few signs of abating.  The civil rights movement, so full of promise, now was losing direction and hope after Dr. King was murdered.  Militancy was replacing non-violence.  I was studying history and political science at Cal State, where it was now au courant to bash the war and the government, especially Nixon.  “Vietnam syndrome” (not yet labeled) was setting in.  I still loved my country.  I had served honorably, as had my Alpha brothers.  But we came home to a nation that saw us as criminals, agents of an evil empire.  The old verities were vanishing or subject to suspicion.

Why my friend’s life is so important to this narrative is precisely because it pointed to something that just might be true after all.  I felt like I should have known the answer already, yet was afraid to ask how I could be sure Jesus was who he said.  On the shelf at home was a book, a modern English translation of the New Testament called Good News for Modern Man.  I wasn’t interested in wading through the old King James, but this Good News read like something written today, that is, since “the War” (WWII!!).  I was devouring it, asking lots and lots of questions:  Did he really do those miracles?  Did he really say this or that? What did it mean he was the “Son of God”?  Did he really rise from the dead?  Weren’t his followers deluded?

With such questions taking shape, I had some idea of what to do about that.  It was not for nothing that my parents had instilled a love of history and books and research.  The library was my internet.

journey post 3: Memorial Day Pause

Today is Memorial Day, the day on which we honor those who have died in our wars.  It is one of the days I spend thinking about the men I served with in Vietnam, men who died, men who nearly died, and the many who somehow died inside:  these men have come out of Vietnam, but Vietnam has never come out of them.  They performed their every day duty to our country and paid dearly for it.  They are worth honoring by remembering what they and their lives teach us.

What they did, and my memories of them, is totally germane to what I’m trying to do here and played a large part in launching me on my zigzag journey the day after I was wounded at Iron Mountain in June, 1969.  The sacrifices they made and the death we faced in a war that none of us quite understood left me questioning—for the first time—whether there was a God, whether I could believe the people who told me about God all my life, and whether the America I loved was really about freedom and democracy and equality for all, or whether our leaders and other power brokers simply sought to hide the arrogance of their power?

Toler, Bott, Bertelsen, Deitler

Larry Toler, Carl Bott, Me, Joe Dietler     (Photo by Gene Holland)

If you have seen the Tom Cruise movie, “Born on the 4th of July,” you have some idea of what many of us went through.  Our nation was deeply divided over the quagmire that was Vietnam: “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”  In those days Americans did not distinguish the soldiers from the war itself.  Our men were screamed at and spit upon.  Please understand this about that war:  for most men, it was not about stopping the Communists.  For most of us, the war became very personal.  There were people trying to kill us, and we couldn’t distinguish friend from foe.  Our buddies were dying around us, and all we could think of was getting ourselves and our friends home in one piece when our tour was up.

Hopper, Kiene, Bertelsen, Cipov

James Hopper, Dick Kiene, Me, Mike Cipov     (Photo by Dick Kiene)

Vivid memories of June 10th and 11th are deeply etched:  I see and hear James Hopper, a meter behind me, as he catches a .30 cal. bullet in the neck.   I hear the whistle of an incoming round, then the sound one can experience only on the inside of a gigantic bell as it clangs.  I am flying to the right, watching a hedgerow as it passes in slow mo across my vision.  I see Chaplain Max Sullivan–the angel of God– running through the bush to help me as I lay helpless, check on Hopper, then pick up my M-16 and spray the immediate area.  He and another man (Russel?) help me up and I hop along between them on one leg.  Arriving at a clearing, they lay me down.  There is Joe Dietler, walking by and pausing to say, in anguish, that we’re getting cut up bad.   They lift me into the chopper, and I see the chopper pilot looking over his shoulder, smiling at me as I give him a blood-leaking thumbs up.  I think about the questions I asked the next day on that hospital bed.  I remember the first dressing change and the cavernous hole in my thigh.  The doctor comes by and tells me to get up and walk.   He wasn’t Jesus, but that first walk is invigorating and makes me feel like everything would be okay again—until I come across two of my closest friends, Gene Holland and Royce Lowman.  Sgt. Holland, (“Show me”), had been a mentor to me from the time I arrived in the mortar platoon.  Lowman, (“Lo”), had taught me to be a gunner.  Holland had taken six machine gun slugs in the gut.  He was the first casualty and the first medivacked out and no one expected him to live.  (Years later I find out he has no physical side effects.)  Lo’s head is bandaged where he had taken a bullet in the face. Gene Holland, Royce Lowman             Joe Dietler

Top:  Gene Holland, Royce Lowman

Bottom:  Joe Dietler   (Photos by Gene Holland)

Another friend, Michael Cipov, came by to visit us.  Cipov (“Tommy Tucker”), had spent his year in hell, and now he was going home.  He had left Alpha Company when we took off on our ill-fated operation.  What should have brought incredible happiness for him had turned to agony, particularly now as he came to tell us that our beloved, fun-loving, non-gung ho but heroic Captain David Walsh had died, had given his life for his men, chasing down two snipers before being brought down by a third.  I can see the pain all over Tommy’s face:  “I should’ve been there with you guys.”  Alpha Company is decimated, and now the General who came by to present us with Purple Hearts tells us, “They’re refitting to go back out.”  I just want to jump out of that bed and floor him, but all I can manage is some muttered acknowledgement.   Russel, Cipov, Larry Holliday                         Dennis Anderson (Andy), Michael Cipov (Tommy Tucker), Capt David Walsh, Unk, Unk

Top:  Russell, Mike Cipov, Larry “Doc” Holliday

Bottom:  Captain David Walsh    (Photos by Gene Holland)

I spent nearly two months recuperating from my wounds in Japan and California before returning to full duty at Ford Ord.  In between, I managed to see my family and witness the first moon landing on TV—something good to finish out that miserable decade.

Memorial Day is very personal to me, as was the war I fought in, as is any war to the men who fight it—whether they ever come back or not.  Please today remember those who still carry their war around with them.

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