What a Survivor Learned

27 January 1945. That was the day that Auschwitz, a World War II death camp, one that defies sufficient description, was liberated, but not before 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there. Why should this matter to us and to our children, and to our children’s children, seventy-two years later? In short, it should matter because of love.

This week I’m reading Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is his story of surviving the Auschwitz death camp. Frankl’s training was in psychology—the study of the soul/mind. In the book he explores the question of how and why some Jews were able to survive the agonies of existence within the barbed wire, the death trenches, the freezing temperatures, the inexorable starvation, etc.

How did some Jews survive the tortures of dehumanization and humiliation at the hand of the Nazis? The answer: love.

This passage from Frankl’s book is profound:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature . . . .

 And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous that the sun which was beginning to rise.

 A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

 There is much to this passage that deserves thoughtful reflection. However, what interests me is the link between the survivors’ spiritual lives and their endurance. The spiritual rootedness of some people set them apart from their fellow men and women. They were sustained amidst unimaginable horror by their spiritual lives, by the lives, if you will, of their souls—their psykhe (soul) + logia (study of).

A fellow military chaplain friend of mine includes these words from General George C. Marshall in his emails: “The soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul, are everything. Unless the soldier’s soul sustains him he cannot be relied on and will fail himself and his commander and his country in the end.”

Gen. Marshall and Victor Frankl both understood that the soul is what’s most important. They were not Gnostics; they were not arguing that the body and matter are bad, and that the soul and spirit are good. No. They were simply but profoundly calling us to think, and to admit the crucial role of the human heart, the human soul.

In the biblical worldview, Jesus teaches his followers, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 ESV). The human soul, then, is crucial, as is each individual’s standing with God.

In the biblical worldview, love is rooted in the nature of God. God has revealed himself in creation, in Scripture, in conscience, and supremely in Christ. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

I do much studying of history, especially military history, and as I reflect on the horrors of Auschwitz, and of how men inflicted unparalleled horrors on other human beings, I feel shame. I see what the human heart is like when it’s rooted in lies. But I also see how God reached down to a sin-soaked creation in rebellion against him. Jesus became sin. He suffered the horror of divine wrath. And he did it for love. Why? Because he is the divine redeemer who has infinite knowledge of men’s souls and knows that outside of his righteousness imputed to men by faith, our eternal fates are worse than Auschwitz. But because of Christ, we may be liberated.

I know this will sound simplistic for many—this idea of penal and substitutionary atonement for sinners, but Scripture reminds us that the message does appear as a stumbling block and folly to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:20-31). But the great promise is that others will be humbled, will be teachable, will think consistently, and will believe upon the loving savior of souls.

Battle at Sauder Hill

My family and I were thrilled about moving into our new home. Tucked in the hills of hardwoods, a lake below promising days of fun, and woods where deer and turkeys are more common than people, all seemed right. If things went according to plan, this was to be the next to last trip up. “Just let me get this load done, and then one more trip up with friends in a couple of days, and we’ll be in,” I thought.

I was driving my midsize Nissan pickup, and pulling a 14’ trailer with a sofa, a rocking chair, and various other belongings. My daughter was in the front seat; my wife and son were in the backseats.

It had recently started to rain. The road was blacktop. The sky was gray and solid, in a way that December seems to specialize in.

imagesUp ahead I saw the sign: Sauder Hill. Hill, I suppose, defies precise geometric qualification. But this hill was at least a 50-degree incline. As we started up, I put my truck in low gear and flipped on the tow switch. I hoped for the best.

The battle began within seconds. We ascended 100 meters or so, and my right rear tire began to spin. Soon it was buzzing on top of the pavement, but no longer pushing the truck and trailer uphill. All tire traction broke loose from the asphalt, and we started sliding backwards.

Out of the right side of my truck, I saw a laurel canyon of hardwood trees, and a menacing ravine eyeing my family. It struck me as some yawning beast set on our destruction—a maw ready to swallow my whole family.

My wife screamed, “Pirtle, stop!” (She’s almost never called me by my first name. Too many Jons in the family.) Well, telling me to stop my truck from sliding down Sauder Hill was, shall we say, a bit obvious. “If I could, I would!” I said, in a voice that likely sounded less than kind.

The weight in the trailer was now likely all towards the back, behind the axle. Because I’d not packed the trailer correctly (I was just ready to be done moving), the contents had shifted to the rear during the ascent. The tongue of the trailer was pulling up on the ball of my hitch, and the bed of my truck was now too light for traction. On the slide backwards and down Sauder Hill, the trailer slid off the asphalt and perched on the lip of the remaining road, just above the ravine.

Our daughter, the calmest of the four of us, said, “Dad, maybe we three should get out.”

“Yes,” I said, “you’re right. Go ahead, you guys get out and walk down to the bottom.”

As my daughter, wife, and son opened the truck doors, I looked down at my left leg. It was shaking. Visibly. I could see it bouncing like I was keeping time to electronic dance music. Dada, dada, dada, dada… I begged God not to let us slide another inch, at least not while they were trying to get out and away from the truck and trailer.

They made it to the bottom of the hill.

By now, several drivers had stopped their cars and trucks to watch. Several men in large 4-wheel drive trucks and/or Jeeps offered to pull me up the hill. One elderly gentleman stopped in his Ford F-350 and said, “Hey, I’ve got a chain and we can hook it up to your tow hook on the front of your truck, and we’ll get you up.”

But I thought better of it and asked my wife to go to the security gate and tell them what had happened. She did, and called me on my cell phone a few minutes later. “The security guard says you can get a tow truck from Jasper for seventy-five dollars.”

About forty-five minutes later, the prettiest truck I’d ever seen showed up. At least it seemed pretty at the time. Beautiful, in fact. A deliverer. A truck and crew who reclaim life. It was a four-wheel drive Dodge dually. The driver’s name was Billy. How appropriate, I thought. Billy, the tow truck driver. His demure wife sat in the front passenger seat. They could have been angels!

He said, “Just hook this cable to your tow hook, put your truck in neutral, and release your emergency break.” I obeyed him like I was a little child.

My wife, daughter, and son got into Billy’s tow truck, and sat in the rear seats. Billy mashed the switch on the back of the tow equipment, pulling the steel cable taut. He got back in his truck and pulled me up.

Just a couple of minutes later, we were all at the top of Sauder Hill. We paid the man with a debit card that he swiped on his phone. It was all in a day’s work for Billy, it seemed. But for my family, we’d done battle. We’d escaped from a yawning ravine that snarled at us, as if to devour us whole. We’d battled with Sauder Hill—and lost. I’d lost presumption. I’d been borne up by others.

It’s now two days after the battle, and my left leg has almost ceased to tremble.

 

 

 

Missing

As I pulled the brass door handles at the bookstore toward me, and followed the green carpet worn smooth by soles, tob6j6nqqwk-kgrhqmokiceyvlzcryrbmegfhwg-_35 the cafe, and the smellscapes filled the room, I said, “A medium house coffee and medium hot chocolate, please,” and reached for my wallet to pay.

The cashier canted her head to the left and wore a quizzical look, but she slid the steaming cups towards me, and took my debit card.

I thanked her and turned to hand the hot chocolate to where you’d be, with your smile at another cup of hot chocolate.

“Sir, is the hot chocolate for someone with you?” the cashier asked.

“Thank you,” I said, “yes, um, thank you.”

I flushed at how I must’ve appeared to the girl behind the counter–a man ordering a coffee for himself, and a hot chocolate for someone the cashier didn’t see.

But I was sure I’d press the warm cup into your hand, and see you smile, and reach my fingers to your free hand and bring our hands to my lips to kiss, and peruse shelves of my favorite writers, and relearn what Wallace Stevens’ line that “being there together is enough” means.

But the cashier was kind, and only smiled at me, as I discovered what we both missed: you.

The Great Reversal

“Silent before the scene.” That is the phrase from the song this morning still echoing in my mind. Sung by the choir and musicians this morning at church, the theology of that phrase stabbed me, and taught me.

The phrase pierced me. Why? It’s because when I, a sinner, come to see myself in the light of God’s holiness, my words fail. I am undone. As the writer of Hebrews expresses it, I am “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13 ESV).

I am “silent before the scene” of God’s justice as it was meted out upon God the Son, Jesus. The horror of the only holy one taking on the sin of others—becoming sin—defies my sufficient description. The more I study and grasp the meaning of the cross of Christ, the more I find my words insufficient. I fall “silent before the scene.”

However, this silence is temporary for the redeemed. Let me summarize a conversation I had with a fellow minister this week. He is a music and worship leader, a minister of the gospel. He has so much talent, he’s hard not to envy. He sings beautifully, plays multiple instruments, encourages, teaches, etc. He’s one of those men I love for the light he brings into my messy darkness.

We were speaking of ministry, some common joys and some common struggles. But then he said something that relates to this idea of being “silent before the scene.” “Talkers,” he said, “will be out of work in redemption, but singers won’t.” He was teaching me of how voiced songs are inherent to redemption.

He said it as if it were fundamental–that singing praises to God because of his redemptive work will be ceaseless. Whereas my writing about redemption will cease, voices of praise for redemption will go on and on.

Falling “silent before the scene” of God’s justice is temporary for the redeemed. Moreover, I relearned why Jesus said in Luke 19:40, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Who are  the “these”? Christians. They’re the redeemed.

What will the redeemed do? They’ll not be silent. They’ll not be “silent before the scene” forever. They’ll sing; they’ll praise. And if they don’t, the very creation will erupt in chorus to its Maker.

For those of us who love the written word, who bathe in the beauty of well-crafted words, we need to confess something: there is a great reversal wrought from heaven; therefore, let us fall “silent before the scene” of God’s works, yes, but then let us join in singing the incarnate conquering word of redemption.

Alone Together

 

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“May I talk with you a minute?” the young man asked.

“Of course,”  the older man said. “What’s on your mind?”

“It’s about Sara. You remember, right? If she calls it off, I’m leaving the military, and moving back out west. I’ve no reason to stay here, being from Nevada.”

“Really?” the older man asked. “You mean you’d leave your unit here, these guys, your job, and pack it up…just like that? Is it that serious?”

“Yes it is,” the young man said. “You see, I’m not from here. I’m from out west. I came here, really, for her. I joined the military because her father was a vet, and retired out here. And because my father and grandfather served, and they’re here now. . . retired, too. I felt like I had to move when I was with her. But now, all I want to do, you know, if it’s over, is to leave.”

“I see,” the older man said. “Did she say it was over?”

“Well, no, but she said that we needed time to be apart.” He emphasized be apart by signaling quotation marks with his index and middle fingers on both hands above his shoulders when he spoke.

“I see,” the older man said. “Have you thought about this? Do you have other friends that you talk to, and share your life with?”

“Well, you see,” the younger man said, “we’ve been best friends for years. We share everything. She came up…well…like I did…hard…not much structure…and we’ve always promised to fight for us, you know? We didn’t want to be like what we came from.”

“Gotcha,” the older man said. “What makes you think it may be over?” he asked. The younger man never answered the question directly.

“So neither of you wanted to be like what you came from, right?” the older man asked. “Right,” the younger man said quickly.

“And you’re ready to return to where you came from, if she says it’s over, right?” “Right,” the younger man said.

“And because you feel betrayed by her, if she’s willing to call the whole relationship off, or even be apart, as she says, that’s enough handwriting on the wall for you to pack it in. Is that right?”

“Exactly,” the younger man said.

“Well, may I ask you another question?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Well,” the older man asked, “what do you do to decompress, to blow off steam? Drink? Run? What is it for you?”

“I ride my bike,” the younger man said. “It tops out at 160 mph. North Georgia’s great for riding.”

“That sounds exciting.” The older man felt that he sounded ancient to this young man who rode his motorcycle 160 mph, while the older man’s idea of decompressing was drinking black coffee and reading Dickens.

“What is it about your bike that does it for you?” the older man asked.

“Well, I can be with my riding buddies but still be alone. I’m not a crowd person. I’m not very good with people. And she always got that about me. She’s the people person. I just love her, and I love riding, but I’m not much into the crowd thing,” he said. “I just want to be with her, and it be us, you know? Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” the older man said. “It makes sense. But may we agree that you’ll take a knee for a day or two, and give her time, so you can be apart to evaluate the place of your relationship to each other? Is it all worth at least some time to slow down and think a bit, at least before you’re ready to ride to Nevada?” the older man asked.

“Yes, I can do that,” the younger man said.

The older man changed the topic to the young man’s interests, and spoke of motorcycles, running, and adrenaline life.

The younger man seemed better. He stood up from his chair, extended his hand to shake with the older man, and smiled. “Thanks,” said the younger man. “It’s good to talk to someone.”

As the younger man exited the room, and returned to his world, the older man thought how each man is alone in his own way, but how being alone together is the thing. There are levels of closeness, he thought, wherein we open the windows of our tender paranoid hearts, and look for shapes to fill them with color and warmth, or with the fragrance of knowing and being known, and yet. And yet, the older man thought.

Arrested

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He simply appeared in the road. I’d just rounded the curve of the running trail. Up ahead about fifty meters, the running trail rejoined the asphalt road that led back to post. But the sight of him took my breath. I felt arrested by a drama I’d not scripted.

His coat was perfect camouflage, the colors of the oak woods from which he’d come. The main beams of his rack were flawless khaki-white, proud and upright. The grain lines of his antlers reminded me of cedar boards my stepfather and I had built with when I was a child.

I felt my heart race, and I was helpless to slow it. I was caught in a fleeting drama, precious because I knew it could not last. I’d stopped—no, frozen—in my steps. I tried to slow my breathing so that he would not bolt into the woods. He, too, froze. His black eyes had a quality of fury and mystery that engendered wonder.

I’ve spent years hunting for such a buck. I’ve killed bigger ones, but this moment—these seconds of rapt mystery, wherein the wild and beautiful jolted me from the mundane, quickened me. Into what? Recognition.

What would a skeptic say—that this is just a chance occurrence, of no significance, a random event devoid of overarching meaning?

But I did not think that—not when it happened, or even now. Instead, I think heaven discharges intimations of the artist, the artist who ordains our steps and arrests them, with sights that make some tremble with mystery.

The Ones to Watch

He is not the most popular. She is not the most recognized. He is not the handsomest. She’s not in the limelight. However, each is invaluable. Who are these people? What sets them apart? They’re the servant-leaders. They are the overlooked catalysts of success and missimgresion accomplishment.

Recently the military unit of which I’m a part trained at Ft. Stewart for a few days. Our mission? Individual weapons qualification (IWQ). We spent several days and nights on ranges practicing marksmanship skills. I love anything to do with guns and ammo, so I relished the training with my fellow soldiers.

As with any skill set, soldiers vary in their levels of proficiency. Some infantry soldiers zeroed their weapons with just 6-9 rounds, then moved down to the qualification range. There they qualified as marksmen, sharpshooters, or experts.

However, some soldiers floundered. And that’s when I witnessed the emergence of the servant-leaders. A divide occurred. A handful of soldiers struggled with fundamentals of marksmanship: sight picture alignment, breathing, trigger squeeze, etc. Some soldiers scoffed at the struggles of their fellow soldiers, as ways of congratulating themselves. Yet other soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers, took a different approach. Rather than accentuating the struggles of their fellow soldiers, they mentored them. They served them in order that they (the struggling shooters) would learn and improve.

The servant-leaders got down in the dirt with the soldiers who were struggling. In the prone position, they talked them through the fundamentals of effective marksmanship. For most soldiers, their shooting improved. Nearly all qualified.

At the end of the days of training, these servant-leaders did not receive accolades. They garnered no public praise. Yet the fighting force of soldiers is now stronger. Why? It’s due in large measure to these overlooked catalysts of success and mission accomplishment. Who are the ones to watch? It’s often those men and women who speak softly but serve valiantly, the servant-leaders.