Sunday, November 27, 2011

God’s protection and presence

This weekend is an anniversary of sorts.  Last year, near midnight on the day after Thanksgiving, one of our children was struck by a car while walking across a street.  That is the most abbreviated way of saying what happened.  The fuller account is that someone was driving through downtown Rochester and his car struck two pedestrians, killing one and breaking the leg of the other.  He accelerated away from that accident and then struck two more pedestrians less than one-half mile later, one of whom was our daughter, breaking a leg in each of them.  We did not learn of the accident for about 12 hours.

When we first heard the news I went directly to the hospital, where our daughter was being transferred to intensive care following surgery to repair her leg.  Because of my own background in health care I was able to quickly understand that while she had been seriously injured, she very easily could have been hurt much more severely.  She had a broken leg, a damaged knee and some scrapes.  That was about it.  No head trauma or serious internal injuries.  Similarly, the worst injuries to the other two survivors were their broken legs.  In the next few days we came to learn that our daughter had been struck by a car traveling 50 MPH, and that the mortality for rate for pedestrians hit at 30 MPH is 50%.  We saw God’s hand at work in protecting our daughter and we thanked him, as well as asking that his peace would be known among the family that had lost a son and brother. 

Our daughter is a single mom, and her children were 2 and 4.  They moved in with us for two months.  Along with our own 4 year-old, the demands of two full-time jobs, with one parent also in grad school, suffice to say that it was a very hectic time in our home.  We remain thankful today for the people from our church, our places of employment, and our families and friends who provided meals, supplies, encouragement and prayer during that time. 

One year later the legal case against the driver is still in process.  Our daughter has had a second surgery to repair her knee.  She is living in her own apartment and has returned to work.  It would be easy to continue to give God thanks for his goodness to our daughter and us, and leave it at that.  But the reality is much more complex, at least from my vantage point.  There is a family that is mourning and their wounds, from what little I know of them, appear to remain fresh and deep. 

God is sovereign over all that happens in the world.  He knows all that will happen within our lives, and nothing happens, or can possibly happen, that is outside of his divine authority.  Psalm 139:16 says, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”  These words of the truth of God’s knowledge and authority, words in which I find great comfort, apply to the family of loss as well as to my own. 

Today is the first day of Advent, the season of the church calendar when we wait in anticipation.  As we worship and wait, in anticipation of the Incarnation, the very presence of God among us for our salvation and redemption, let us pray that in this season his presence will not only be known among us, but also among those we know who are carrying their pain on their own.  The psalmist says “He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.”  God alone can bring perfect healing, of body, mind and soul. 

Right now I can pray for this family, that they would know God’s ability to bear their loss and heal their hurting hearts.  And as I pray and wait, may God also reveal to me other ways in which I can reach out to others with the Good News that is only to be known in Jesus.  And may also God reveal his presence to you anew this Advent, this season of joyful anticipation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Come of Age

Maybe you became a Christian after hearing the Good News of Jesus and choosing to respond to him.  Perhaps God powerfully grabbed a hold of you and compelled you to believe the Gospel.  Or maybe you are a Christian because you have always been one, neither remembering a time when you weren’t one or being able to imagine the possibility that you could not believe.  Maybe you came to Christ in some other manner.  Or maybe you are still on the fence, unsure what to make of Jesus.  No matter how you may have come by the label of “Christian,” nearly all who claim it would agree with the idea that it is not merely something you are, but it is also an identity that calls you to grow within it.  Growth as a Christian is the subject of Angus Buchan’s Come of Age: The Road to Spiritual Maturity. (2011: Monarch Books; 382 pp).

Buchan is from South Africa, where for over 30 years he has been both a farmer and an evangelist.  I had never heard of him before reading this book but apparently he is very well-known in his home country and he has also traveled widely through Africa, England and Australia.  He has founded a men’s ministry that started small but in 10 year’s time drew about 200,000 men to its rally in 2009.  It is the 2009 rally that serves as the jumping-off point for Come of Age. 

The typical pattern of the rally is to have worship on Friday evening and twice Saturday, with men only, and then to have wives and families join the closing session on Sunday.  In 2009 Buchan fell ill shortly before he was scheduled to preach on Saturday and was airlifted to a hospital.  While he appeared to have one, and possibly two, heart attacks, he was released from the hospital and able to preach for the final event on Sunday, with no medical evidence of any damage to his heart.  He was 61 years old at the time but this event brought to him an acute awareness of the brevity of human life and the need for him to live as a mature Christian and to call other Christians to maturity as well, hence the title, Come of Age.

In the first chapter Buchan writes of the 2009 rally and his heart attack and the way that it caused him to take a new look at his life and his ministry.  After that he writes topically, touching on many aspects in which a believer in Jesus can grow as a person of faith.  Some chapters are brief and some are longer but all are easy to read and not weighed down with sophisticated theology.  Buchan started out as a farmer and in the shift to becoming an evangelist and mentor he has remained eminently practical.  One of his strengths is that he has a deep love for both his Savior and for the Bible, something that is evident on nearly every page.  He longs for people to come to faith, for people to see God at work in their lives, and then to share that knowledge with others.

While I sincerely believe that his heart is in the right place it seems as if his passion occasionally clouds his view and subtly subverts his intended goal of spiritual maturity.  An example is the chapter addressing marriage, where he rightly points out the ways in which at its best Christian marriage points us to the joy Christians will know in heaven.  On a Saturday at one rally five men felt so convicted of the error of their lifestyle, i.e. living with women while not being married to them, that they asked Buchan to marry them at the Sunday morning worship, a request that he complied with.  It struck me that as a mature Christian it may have better to counsel the young men to change their living arrangements, and then guide them to prayerfully seek God’s will about the relationship.  As mature Christians we should learn to wait upon the Lord, rather than to shape our lifestyles to fit what we presume to be the shape that is most pleasing to God.

As I read the book I found that I increasingly liked Buchan and his passion for the Gospel but that the guidance he was offering was fairly superficial.  Spiritual maturity is something that all Christians should strive for when they come to faith and it should be the place where they live until they are called to join the Lord in heaven.  The Bible calls this process discipleship and Jesus commanded it of his followers, saying in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” True maturity as a Christian benefits from several things.  One of them is intentionality and another is community, and I mean community not in the sense of those people that one worships with each week but a small group that regularly meets for the purposes of growth and accountability.

Early in my life as a Christian God led me to such a group and we used a number of things to shape our activity together.  One of these was a covenant, which we wrote together to give a meaningful shape to our group time each week.  The covenant kept us “on track,” reminding us of our purpose and reducing the likelihood that our time together would degenerate to wandering, instead of following a path to a destination.

Another thing our group regularly used were books written to guide spiritual formation.  While Buchan correctly points out that to be a Christian means to be intentional in growth, there are many books available that do a better job than his of engaging minds and hearts as they follow the Lord.  Some veteran authors of this genre that I have read and recommend are Beth Moore, Jerry Bridges, Paul Tripp and Eugene Peterson.  A visit to a Christian bookstore will provide a number of others.  One thing Come of Age has done is to whet my appetite to pick up a book by one of the authors listed that I’ve read before and see how it speaks freshly into my life today.  And also to read it with an eye to the clearest source of spiritual wisdom the God has given us, the Bible. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What’s in the air?

I live in Minnesota, where for all practical purposes winter begins on November 1st and lasts through March 31st.  That makes for five months, exceeding what the calendar says by two full months, but accepting that winter runs that long makes it easier to tolerate those days, those rare days but present nonetheless, where ice storms come on Halloween and the end of March can bring 18” of snow in one day.

This week has been typical of the abrupt changes we can experience.  It was warm enough to run outside in shorts on Sunday.  Wednesday brought a wake-up temperature of 15 degrees.  Thursday it was close to 30 but the wind speed matched the temperature.  And late Saturday brought wet snow, so that on Sunday morning there was a thin and very slippery layer of ice in our neighborhood while dry pavement was found just a few miles away.  And our forecast is for the temperature to climb back into the 50’s later this week.  It seems like winter and, at the same time, it’s not winter. 

Earlier this week I listened to some comments by Greg Beale regarding his new book.  While the book itself may be primarily of interest to pastors and theology geeks Beale said something that really grabbed my attention.  He spoke about the acute awareness that the authors of the New Testament had that they were living in a world which was fundamentally altered by the resurrection of Jesus.  The apostles were aware that the world in which they lived was forever changed solely because Jesus had been brought back from the dead.  They were living in the knowledge that they were simultaneously both in history and in the “last days,” the time that the Bible points toward that is beyond history, when God’s redemptive plan for all creation will be fulfilled.

On many days our lives do not seem to show evidence that the “future is now,” that God’s new creation has already come into existence with the resurrection of Jesus.  We feel weak and powerless.  We have a hard time seeing the horizon of today, let alone imagining the vision that God gives of our future. The apostle Paul points us back in the right direction, so that we can see hope in our struggles.  In Romans 5:3-5 he writes “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  

The many variations in the weather this week reminded me that no matter what is going on around me there exists a constant in my life, the presence of God’s Spirit.  Life has its up-and-downs, its myriad challenges, but God, through his Spirit, is our constant companion.  Paul told the Ephesians, and he tells us, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14). 

No matter what is in the air, no matter what is in the details of our lives, no matter what the news of the world is, we who call on Jesus in faith have God’s Spirit within us to testify to us that the world to come is also already here.  In the sure knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection let us live by the power of his Spirit, serving him faithfully as the world awaits the fullness of his kingdom 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


The other day I was working on a small project at home and I grabbed two tools for the job.  One was a framing hammer and the other was a hacksaw.  I was taking something apart and planned to use the hammer first.  If that failed then the hacksaw would get the job done.  As I was working on the project I had some thoughts floating in my head that I thought I could turn into a reflection, something along the lines of the right tools for the job.  My ideas turned out to be half-baked, at best, and nothing came together. 

Yesterday I got going on something else altogether.  I began working on the suggested memorization verse for my Bible study.  I participate in the Community Bible Study (CBS) class in my city and this year we are studying the Gospel of John.  During the course of the study, roughly every other week, we are given a verse to memorize.  My participation in memorization has been sporadic over the 8 years that I’ve been in CBS, but I know that memorizing scripture has always been good for me and my spiritual life, so I was going to get started now on the verse for next week.

And the verse is this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” John 5:24 ESV.

The context of that verse is that Jesus has returned to Jerusalem and done some healing, after which he is doing some teaching.  As I worked on memorizing the verse, breaking it down into small pieces and slowly speaking them aloud, I found that Jesus was not only teaching in the past, in history, but that he is also teaching me in the present. 

In that one verse Jesus brings out nearly all that is essential about the Good News to be found only in Christ.  We who hear the words of Jesus, and by faith believe in God the Father who sent him into the world, have eternal life.  We don’t have a promise of eternal life sometime in the future, but we have it right now, in this very moment. We will not face God’s judgment for our sin but we have already passed over from being dead in sin to new life in Christ. 

This passage in John does not point to salvation as something whose benefit’s the believer will experience in the future but instead clearly states what the believer already possesses – eternal life with God is a reality right now.  And eternal life is in the sense that eternity that isn’t in the far-off future but it is present right now. The life that we know in God today will never end.  Our understanding of it may change, our love for God may grow deeper, but God and this most precious of his gifts, his very presence for eternity, will never change. 

And so a tool did provide me with something for reflection, although it was not a tool made by human hands and for human work, but the tool of God’s Word, provided by him, to strengthen and encourage us to serve him, to love him and to glorify him, now and forever.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Heaven is for Real

Imagine being the parent of a 4 year-old who has survived a medical crisis in which your child was critically ill, to the edge of death, and then survived.  As time unfolds after this emergency the child lets out bits and pieces of information that appear to be a first-hand account of a trip to heaven, a trip that happened as his earthly life appeared to be fading away.  Such a parent is Todd Burpo, who is also a husband, small business owner, community volunteer, and pastor, and whose young son, Colton, is the witness to the story underlying Heaven is for Real. 

Frankly, I was skeptical when I first heard of the book and had the opportunity to read it.  I’m a Protestant Christian, firmly grounded in the theology of the Reformation.  Luther, Calvin and Augustine all believed in heaven.  So did Paul and John the Evangelist.  Jesus believed in heaven too, and if the one I call Lord and Savior believed it, then I will as well.  So of course heaven is for real.  What could I learn from this book that I did not already know from reading The Book? 

On the other hand, I don’t think that my understanding of heaven, which is grounded in my intellect, and its promise of eternal peace in the presence of God, which is firmly embedded in my heart, is the same understanding of heaven that is found in many of our churches or more broadly through American culture.  There seems to be a hunger for knowledge of heaven, or at least a market for that knowledge.  In addition to Heaven is for Real, which I understand to have sold very well, other recent titles are 90 Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who came Back from Heaven, a refutation titled Heaven is for Real: The Book that Isn’t, as well as a purportedly first-hand account of heaven’s opposite, 23 Minutes in Hell.  So I re-thought my initial position and read this book, for the primary purpose of understanding popular theology and how it may be used as an entry to guiding people to deeper theological truth, the kind of truth that sustains you in the very difficult circumstances that Todd Burpo and his family found themselves in when Colton became ill.

Colton’s story and the knowledge that he learned of heaven unfolds slowly, in small pieces.  First is an incident several months after his illness, where in the firm way in which he expresses his understanding of salvation, albeit in the language of a 4 year-old, (i.e. Jesus has to be in your heart), along with his persistent manner of talking of Jesus in the present tense, that causes Todd, and his wife, Sonja, to suspect that their son may have experienced a supernatural trip to heaven and back.  Over time they tease out details, being very intentional not to ask questions that lead to predictable answers but to let Colton answer in an open-ended manner.  Much of what Colton reports are the kinds of things that the Bible supports directly, or that may be reasonably inferred.  An example of the former is Jesus’ delight in children, while the latter comes in Colton’s description of the vast beauty found in heaven, including the presence of colors that can’t be imagined by those living on earth but could very possibly exist in the dwelling of the divine presence.  One factor that adds credence to Colton’s reports of heaven is that while his information is consistent with the Bible they are not the kinds of things that are taught to 4 year-olds in Sunday school. 
Eventually Colton describes two people he met in heaven, which for his parents is certain evidence that his account is true.  One person is his grandfather, who had been dead for many years.  To verify this Todd shows Colton a number of pictures of the grandfather, but the only one where he recognizes him in is one from his younger adulthood. This also suggests to Todd that the bodies we will have in heaven will be the ones we would consider to be in our physical prime.  Additionally, the news that the grandfather is in heaven eases several minds.  Knowledge of the grandfather’s attendance at a revival meeting shortly before his death, and his confession of faith there, is not widely known and learning that he is in heaven is greeted by his family with great relief.

The other person he meets is his older sister, an unnamed child of Todd and Sonja who was lost in a miscarriage.  Colton appears to have no way of possibly knowing of the existence of this child until he encounters her in heaven.  The experience of losing their baby was a wrenching one, on a level of emotional and spiritual pain that I have never personally known, and quite naturally the Burpo’s find some peace knowing that their grief, and their child, has been held by God all along. 

In the final analysis I find the premise of Colton’s story wanting.  A young boy goes to heaven, comes back, and shares his experience there with his family, and then the world.  But for what purpose?  As Todd tells Colton’s story it seems to me that the story continually points back at us.  We learn of the beauty of heaven.  We are reassured by the people who are present there.  We even get a glimpse of the final battle between the forces of good and evil, learning that all those present in heaven will have a role in it.  Do any of the things that are in Colton’s story really prepare us for heaven?  Do they spark and deepen our desire to be there?

In the Bible there are several first-hand accounts of the experience of heaven.  They are all relatively brief, particularly when compared to the number of books that have been written recently on the subject.  The key texts that come to my mind are from 2 Corinthians 12, Isaiah 6 and the Revelation of John.

In his letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes of knowing of a person who was taken up to heaven, saying in 12:3-4 “And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”   Paul does not dwell on the knowledge that might be gleaned from hearing a first-person report of heaven but instead considers this to be knowledge that should be kept private, something that is not intended to be shared.

Isaiah’s experience is a bit different, as he tells of being in the very presence of God, where he heard God’s voice and beheld his glory.  What stands out in Isaiah’s account is not what formerly living persons he may have seen or the beauty that we might expect in heaven, but a very real sense of his own unworthiness as a sinner in the presence of a holy God.  And God’s response to Isaiah’s confession was to provide forgiveness.  In v. 7 Isaiah hears “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”  In his vision of heaven Isaiah experiences first-hand God’s grace.

And in his Revelation, John the Evangelist gives perhaps the broadest biblical account of heaven, providing several brief sketches of the people present, the physical splendor, and what I consider to be most important, the activity of heaven.  In John’s telling, heaven is indeed beautiful in ways that are beyond our merely human imaginations.  And there are a great many people there, all of whom “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14)  But more importantly than the place and the people is what the people are doing.  They are engaged in worship.  They are gathered around the throne of God, praising him as they exclaim “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10)

As the book title proclaims, heaven is indeed for real.  God has given us testimony to that fact in the Bible, with enough detail that we can look forward to the time when God will call us to the very place where we will eternally dwell with him.  Books such as this one, and the many others in a similar vein, may make us feel good but they don’t really seem, to me, to be able to deepen our faith.  Reading such books is not likely to encourage us to love God, to serve God, or to long for God, in a way that proclaims his kingdom and his glory in the world in which we live.  Reading God’s word will do this, and in addition it will remind us of his covenant promise to always hold us, through life’s deepest and most painful moments, until the time of his choosing, when he will bring his children to the only place where they are truly home.  Heaven is for real and it is all in God’s hands.  Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Steve Jobs and immortality

Last week I read a review of the new biography of Steve Jobs.  I know little of Jobs beyond the basics: He founded Apple computer and was on the leading edge of the revolution in the computing industry in the 70’s and 80’s; despite the innovations that came from his leadership Apple forced him out for perhaps 10 years; then they brought him back and he continued to lead Apple in ways that impacted not only his company but also both the computer industry and contemporary culture, so that his work truly was felt throughout the world.  The iPod, iPhone, iPad, and mouse are among the most commonly known of his developments that have influenced the world.  

It is my last impression of Jobs that appears to have loomed large in his own mind. According to the reviewer, Tim Challies, the central thing that drove Job’s life was a desire for immortality.  Challies writes this: “Jobs was always convinced that he would die at a relatively young age—a premonition that proved true. This then drove him to create things that would outlast him. Though his body would die, he could leave behind a company. His greatest and proudest creation was not a gadget, but a corporation; he wanted to leave Apple—the essence of the company—as his legacy to future generations. That is what I found as the subtle and perhaps unwitting theme of this biography—Jobs’ knowledge that he was mortal and his desire to be immortal.”

Jobs knew he had cancer for the last several years of his life.  He had pancreatic cancer, a particularly deadly illness that is often advanced at the time of diagnosis, an illness that abruptly confronts one with the issue of mortality.  Treatment options are few.  The one-year survival rate is 25% and at five years it is just 5-6%.  According to the biography Jobs pursued several treatment options but eventually succumbed to his cancer, knowing that while his would body would die the legacy of his work would be lasting. 

I don’t know if the desire for immortality is widespread but I do believe that the lack of desire in confronting our own mortality is.  As a runner, one who is clearly middle-aged, I still long for the time when I could consistently run faster and I try to figure out ways to get a portion of that former speed and endurance back.  In my mind I am continually grasping for the past and reluctant to accept what are clearly the facts of the present.  More seriously, I have known people in their 80’s for whom the idea that one day would be their last on earth was something that had never, ever, seriously entered their minds.  I never asked them about that but perhaps they really believed that they would go right on living without ever reaching the horizon, even though they had never known anyone who did the same thing.  But as surely as the leaves on the tree outside my window were green in the spring and are now brown and falling off the tree, so too one day I will pass from life on this earth.  As has everyone who ever lived before me and all who are to come.

But where will I pass to?  Where will any one pass to?  In chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it crystal clear that life, both in the here-and-now and in the eternal sense, is an either/or proposition.  People are either slaves to sin, and its consequences, or recipients of God’s gracious forgiveness and its benefits.  He sums up this teaching in 6:23, writing “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The death that he writes of is not merely death of the physical body, but a never-ending isolation from the presence of God, something that the Bible clearly teaches in Luke 16:19-30.  And the result of eternal life in Christ is the exact opposite.  It is living in the never-ending presence of God.  One of my favorite images of eternal life with God is from Revelation 21:3-4, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”  Eternal life is to live in the very presence of God, in a place where every imperfection is made new, where every bit of physical, emotional and spiritual brokenness is healed.   

We can be like Steve Jobs and attempt to leave a mark in the world that may never be forgotten or we can take hold of the offer that God makes in Christ Jesus.  While I believe that the first choice is an ultimately false one the second is unfailing, for it rests on the sure promise of God.  And in receiving God’s promise we can pray with the psalmist to serve God today as we wait for his tomorrow, saying “Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.  Show me the way I should go, for to you I left up my soul.” (Psalm 143:8 NIV) 

Immortality does exist, but it is the gracious gift of God, to be spent with him, and for the purpose of his glory.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Rumor of War

Recently I read A Rumor of War, the memoir of Phil Caputo of his time as a young Marine officer in Vietnam.  Caputo had joined the Marines as an officer candidate while still a college student, primarily out of desire to break out of his suburban middle-class background and to experience adventure in his life.  He spent roughly one and one-half years he spent in Vietnam and learned that the dreams of glory fueled by his imagination and the cultural portrayals of American military success, like those found in any war movie of the 40’s and 50’s, came at a cost he could never have imagined, and that in fact there was little glory and much sorrow to be found in the act of war.  

Caputo divides his story into three parts.  The first part tells of his early Marine training and then the arrival of his unit in Vietnam, in April, 1965, at the very beginning of the build-up of American forces.  He, and the country at-large, felt confident, that the US military presence would be a decisive one.  This sense of optimism, and the idealism that underlay it, was confronted by a harsh reality.  One result of that reality was that the initial 5,000 troops of April, 1965 increased to 200,000 by year’s end.  Caputo was part of an infantry company and he describes their day-to-day struggles with the climate, the Vietnamese they were fighting against, and the bureaucracy in graphic vignettes.

In the second phase of his Vietnam experience Caputo was reassigned and given a primarily administrative role, one that he defines as “the officer in charge of the dead.”  He had the responsibility of keeping the official records of dead and wounded soldiers for each side, which included a ratio of American to Vietnamese casualties as a measure of the war’s “progress.”  Another part of this job included completing the paperwork, and learning the details, for each American fatality.  His previous experience as a field officer gave him a graphic understanding of the real meaning of the euphemisms that were used as descriptive terms for the reports.  It is a task that placed an increasingly heavy load on his psyche.

In the last phase Caputo was transferred back to a combat unit and was again immersed into an environment where the physical and emotional toil never seemed to end.  It’s only variation was found in whom, and by what means, another person on either side would become dead or wounded.  And it is at this point in the story where he has his perhaps, and this is in my view as the reader, defining episode of his Vietnam experience, the time where in his words he “breaks” and finds himself crossing a psychological line that he would have never thought possible of a person of his background before coming to Vietnam.  As this happens he realizes that such a possible inner change, and its consequent external results, could happen to virtually anyone.

Caputo’s memoir was written 10 years after his service in Vietnam, and I remember first hearing of it around the time it was published and then turned into a mini-series, about 30 years ago and roughly the same time as I was ending my own four years of military service, all of which was in the immediate post-Vietnam era of 1976-80.  My service was in the Navy and I had little contact with people who had served on the ground in Vietnam, so I don’t personally know anyone who had a first-hand experience in a combat setting.  But while I was in the Navy I did have the opportunity to travel widely, including to several places that have had significant exposure in world news in the intervening years as places of strife and conflict.

While Caputo tells a story that is based on events that happened 45 years ago much of what he experiences internally is relevant today, i.e. that “ordinary” people under profound physical and emotional stress can find themselves capable of thoughts and behavior they would consider impossible in the “ordinary” circumstances of their lives.  Sadly, we hear of examples of such things all too often.  They happen in distant lands and they happen in our own towns, sometimes even our own homes. 

Something that I, as a Christian, find absent from Caputo’s memoir is any kind of reference to God, or even a higher moral truth in the most generic sense.  I have heard the phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes” but in his extensive reflection on his Vietnam experience, which includes many occasions in foxholes, as well as other things that surely must have been as intense and terrifying, both god and God appear to be absent.

While I hope that in profound adversity, such as what Caputo describes in Vietnam or that can be found in a myriad of difficult situations that a person could encounter, I would place my trust in God, the fact is that even the strongest and deepest Christian faith is still imperfect.  I don’t really know if or where I would break under the stress.  I do know that God has made a claim on me, a claim that is sealed in his promise and that cannot be broken, and that he will always be present, whether I can discern it at the moment or not.  And that same promise belongs to all who call in faith on the name of Jesus. 

Last night at my Bible study we happened to be singing the hymn This Is My Father’s World, which has lots of imagery of God’s world as a beautiful and peaceful place.  And we often experience God’s world in that way.  But the song also says this in its third verse: 

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

The promise, not of the hymn but the very promise of God in the words of the Bible, is that whatever happens to us, be it good or bad, happens within a world that is always in God’s control, and I praise God that the last word will not be mine, but his.