Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day: Greater Love Hath No Man

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (quoting Shakespeare):  "What a piece of work is man, in form and movement how express and admirable. In action how like an angel."
Sergeant Buster Kilrain: Well, if he's an angel, all right then. But he damn well must be a killer angel.
     - Gettysburg (1993)
Is there any human endeavor which so starkly displays the basic paradox of fallen humanity as does war?

In combat we observe the raw ferocity of corrupt mankind's hatred.  War draws from its participants a bloodlust unfamiliar to our civilized society. A "killer angel" indeed.

Yet there is also another side to war, and in it we see that "divine spark" of God's image upon which Chamberlain places his faith.  Here we witness the bravery of Gideon and Jehoshaphat, whose faith overcame impossible odds and their own terrors, as they defended their people against powerful invaders.  We admire the nobility of Uriah the Hittite, betrayed in battle because he had a soldier's loyalty.  We lament the love and valor of Jonathan, who to the death honored his bonds of friendship to David, of family to King Saul, of patriotism to Israel, and of ultimate allegiance to Almighty God.

So we discover within the hellish cauldron of war the paradox of the fallen image-bearer. We understand that our condition of total depravity does not mean absolute depravity.  Even unredeemed man yet carries God's image with him, corrupted but not exterminated by sin.  In the last mortal extremity it may yet exhibit its precious value.

We recognize this holy selflessness today, as expressed in the sacrifices those who give the "last full measure of devotion" in our age.  It was present in the last moments of Senior Airman Jason Cunningham's life, which ended prematurely on the peak of Takhur Ghar during the March 2002 Operation Anaconda:
The quick reaction force’s medical personnel, including Cunningham, another [pararescueman] who was a technical sergeant, two Ranger medics and a 160th medic, had their hands full. The Chinook’s cargo area became the casualty-collection point.
It was in there that Cunningham went to work, putting into practice all that theory he had absorbed, and doing so in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. He was trying to save lives in the back of a helicopter at the top of a bitterly cold mountain, under constant fire from enemy forces that had him and his colleagues surrounded.
Just when things seemed as if they couldn’t get worse, the forward compartment of the helicopter caught fire.
“The helicopter’s a bullet sponge after it gets shot down, because it’s just a great big target,” Scott said.
As Cunningham and the 160th medic worked inside to staunch their buddies’ bleeding, the enemy fire increased. Incoming mortar rounds bracketed the Chinook, landing within 50 feet of the helicopter’s nose.
About four hours after the helicopter hit the ground, Cunningham decided the cargo compartment had become too dangerous for his patients. Using a small sled-like device, Cunningham dragged the wounded troops to a safer spot away from the aircraft. In doing so, he crossed the line of enemy fire seven times ...
Shortly thereafter, at 12:32 p.m., Cunningham’s luck ran out. An enemy round hit him just below his body armor as he was treating a patient. The bullet entered low from the right side and traveled across his pelvis, causing serious internal injuries.
“Untreated, you die from that,” Scott said.
Cunningham must have known he was in serious trouble. But despite his worsening condition, he continued to treat patients and advise others on how to care for the critically wounded. One of the two blood packs he had brought saved a badly wounded Ranger. The medics gave the other packet to Cunningham himself, whose life was slowly flowing out in a red stream onto the white snow.
Back at the surgical unit, word of the situation on the mountain was seeping back. “We’d heard that one of the 160th medics was hit, and one of the [pararescuemen] severely wounded,” Burlingame said. If a medevac helicopter could get in and pick up the wounded, there was time to save Cunningham.
“The combat controller wanted so bad to say the [Landing Zone] was cold so they
SrA Cunningham's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery
could bring in a helicopter to evacuate the wounded, but he couldn’t,” Scott said. In the early afternoon, leaders directed that no more rescue attempts be risked until darkness. It was a decision made to save lives, and it probably did. But it sealed Cunningham’s fate.
As the hours in the snow lengthened, Cunningham grew increasingly weak from loss of blood. Seven hours after he was hit, the other medics began to perform CPR on Cunningham. They continued for 30 minutes, until it was clear nothing more could be done. There were other lives to save. At about 8 p.m. on March 4, Jason Cunningham became the first pararescue jumper to die in combat since the Vietnam War.
It is the spirit of Jason Cunningham that we seek to honor on our country's Memorial Day--the spirit of those who would sacrifice their lives for an ideal.  Perhaps this is but a pale reflection of Christ's holy sacrifice for our lost and dying world, yet it is also an immediate and poignant one, and reminds us that God's common grace yet rests on mankind.  There is indeed a divine spark.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:13

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Sinner's Prayer, Reprise (aka, Jailer's New Gig)

Thanks to the good offices of my friend Karla, I have just debuted my first post over at Live58, where they have reprised The Sinner's Prayer: Spiritual Abortion?", which I first published on this blog last December.  Here's a reminder:
In our desire to package salvation into an exportable shrink-to-fit size so that we can use it to train our legions of Junior Evangelist warriors for battle, we are in many cases destroying that which we have come to save.
If you haven't read the rest of it, please do so over on Live58, the mission of which is to "live out Isaiah 58 in an effort to end extreme poverty."  You can also follow them on Facebook.  (As you do, you may notice that their page has over 20,000 "Likes", whereas the Jailer's has ... er ... not that many.)

By following Live58, you can keep your eyes peeled for more of the Jailer's posts in the coming months.  They've even offered me compensation for my labors.  Something about "treasure in heaven" ...

As an aside, Karla's family and mine go back a few decades.  In fact, her dad was the topic of one of my early posts on this blog.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Meaningless! Ecclesiastes vs. My Permanent Mid-Life Crisis

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know my story.  That is, my journey from death to life in Christ.

So it won't surprise you to learn that I’m new to reading the Bible.  This means I'd never read most of it, including the entire Book of Ecclesiastes -- that is, until just recently.  I must admit ... I was initially shocked and confused by its starkly negative tone!

Truly, when I thought of this book, the only thing that readily came to mind was chapter 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…”  Honestly, this was the only part I knew.

But a Bible-reading plan is pushing me into uncharted territory, so a couple of weeks back I found myself starting into Chapter 1 of this cryptic text.  I didn't get very far. Verse 2 stopped me cold:
Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher.  “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless. 
Great.  This had to be the most confusing Bible verse I had ever read (and that's saying something).  I pressed on, finishing the first chapter.  It wasn't getting any better.  Really?  This was supposed to be "wisdom"?  Why did I have to read this just before bed?

But to fully grasp the depths of my confusion, I need to take you back ...

Most of my life was characterized by a search for truth -- the meaning of my existence.  Finally, joyfully, I had come to believe in the Bible as Truth.  Now here was this ... this "Teacher" telling me that it's all “a chasing after the wind”.

How was I supposed to feel about that?  Or this:
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days.  For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:9-10)
I didn’t like where this was going, so I stopped reading.  I didn’t know what possible lesson I could learn from these depressing passages.  Fortunately, I wasn't reading alone.  I was accountable, and had the help of someone who'd been there before. My mentor gave me both encouragement and context, which helped me to plunge back in.

In fact, it helped me learn to love, love, LOVE this book!  One lesson stood out for me:

We all have the same destiny.  
We all live our lives here on earth, 
and we will all die.

For as long as I can remember I'd been terrified of dying. I feared I would simply vanish from this earth as if I'd never been here, with no real legacy to leave behind.  I looked at others' accomplishments to measure mine, to see if my life had any value.  It pained me to think about how far behind I was, especially when I compared myself with those whom I looked up to.

Or perhaps "envied" is a better word:
And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecc. 4:4)
Frankly, I seemed to be stuck in a permanent mid-life crisis.  I was indeed "chasing after the wind."

Ecclesiastes brought it all home to me.  The "Teacher" taught me that I can live ANY life I want to:  “Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.  Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see…”  But I MUST understand that “… for all these things God will bring you to judgment.” (Ecc. 11: 9-10).

For most of my life, I have been searching and fearing, but never understanding what it was that I needed to do.  Then I read the last two verses of Ecclesiastes, and there it all was:

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of ALL mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is GOOD
or EVIL.
(Ecc. 12:13-14)

I will die.  We will all die someday.  All we’ve done to make ourselves known in this world will eventually disappear.  Who we are in the memories of others will fade away.  I’ve always had an issue with death because I didn’t think I'd done enough to be remembered.  That’s all meaningless.  I know now.  As Rich Mullins said: "... if my life is motivated by my ambition to leave a legacy, what I'll probably leave as a legacy is ambition."

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes taught me that I must move forward from here, to do what will truly matter: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”  This is MY duty.  It is the only one with eternal value.

I never understood before when my Christian friends said to me that they were “ready to die”.  It simply made no sense to me before.  But now I find I am finally content in knowing this simple truth: I am a child of God, and I am saved by His grace.

I can say it now:  I am ready to die ... which means now I can truly live.

"For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." 
(Philippians 1:21)