Saturday, December 10, 2011

Giving Thanks as we Move Toward Christmas

December has arrived and with it a notable increase in cold and wet weather. There continues to be a great deal of uncertainty in our lives right now, especially in the area of employment, and there have been some pretty frustrating hassles and complications in recent days, but in the bigger picture we have a great deal for which to give thanks.

I have begun to settle into the idea of living in our new home after coming back to Virginia following a visit home for Thanksgiving and stuff sorting. I now have a pile of items waiting in Phoenix that Alison and I will attempt to pack into our rented vehicle when we leave Phoenix to drive back to Virginia at the end of January. These things, along with things Alison wishes to add from her home in Livermore and wedding related items promise to do a pretty effective job of filling up both the vehicle and also any available space that we still have here. Things are going to be a bit tight, but we are thankful indeed to have this place to live. It is going to serve us well in the coming months. I have certainly been thankful to have the heat in recent days!

We were successful in finding a bed, which I have enjoyed sleeping on this past week. We have begun to bring Alison's stuff over here, a little at a time, and slowly make the transition to her living here as well. In preparation for the coming holiday we have done our best to make the house as Christmasy as possible, adding our very own tree, along with candy canes, lights, stockings, and nativity. It isn't going to win any awards, but it certainly helps to create a holiday atmosphere for both of our first Christmas away from our families.

Things continue to look promising for me to return to the National Mall as a ranger, though there are still a great many unresolved variables (such as congress passing a budget!), and the timeline of that working out remains in question. Still, there is reason to hope! I also found out that I successfully appealed and was granted in state status (and as a result in state tuition) for GMU for this spring. That is exceedingly good news, and means that I will for sure begin my graduate studies at the end of January.   

Details continue to come together for the wedding, an event which is rapidly approaching. In fact the wedding itself is exactly five weeks from today! There is nothing for which I am more thankful than that in five more weeks Alison will be my wife.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Transformative Power of Love and Forgiveness

"Not long after sunrise on a Sunday in December, a pilot guided a small plane over...the northern tip of Oahu Island...Far above (Pearl Harbor) the pilot counted eight battleships, the Pacific Fleet's full complement... The pilot's name was Mitsuo Fuchida...Behind Fuchida, 180 Japanese planes peeled away and dove for Oahu. On the deck of the Arizona, the men looked up."

So begins Laura Hillenbrand's account of the attack on Pearl Harbor in her book Unbroken a chronicle which she herself describes as "A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption." Though the focus of the book is not upon December 7 and the attack on Pearl plays a supporting role in the larger context of the story Hillenbrand relates to her readers, I can think of no better tribute to the men who were lost 70 years ago this morning then the story of Olympic runner and WWII Bombardier Louis Zamperini.

Unbroken is indeed a story of survival, resilience, and redemption. After missing out on the race he wanted in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Zamperini had set his sights on Tokyo where he hoped to have a second chance. Fate, the Empire of Japan, and Nazi Germany conspired against him, however, and his Olympic dreams came to an abrupt end following the invasions of Poland and China and subsequent cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Games. As a result of seeing his dream of running in a second Olympics fade away Zamperini redirected his passion into the defense of his country and began training to be a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps. The story of Unbroken relates a stirring account of the incredible trials and atrocities that Louie went on to face, first at the mercy of the Pacific Ocean, and then at the hands of the Empire of Japan, in particular the merciless and domineering grasp of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, one of the most notorious of Japan's war criminals and more commonly identified by his nickname, "The Bird."

As I read the account of what Louie went through I was overwhelmed with simultaneous feelings of admiration for Louie and anger at the Japanese. I would have left the book maintaining this anger had it not been for the most profound and moving element of Louie's story, which comes near the end of the book when Louie attends a revival led by Billy Graham. For years after the war Louie had been consumed by rage, despair, and a profound passion of vengeance, toward The Bird in particular. At the close of the sermon Graham gave an altar call and Louie arose from his seat intending to flee from the tent and wallow in his anger. Instead, when he reached the aisle he found himself engulfed in memories and his feet led him, not in retreat, but rather toward the altar. The following day Louie left home with his old military issue bible and began reading it while sitting under a tree in a local park. It was in this moment, combined with his experience the night before, that the true transformation of the story occurred.

"Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation."

There was something more profound, deeper, and more meaningful than pain, loss, and destruction, and in the end this something more is what came to control the life of Louie Zamperini.

Louie's story is not unique. There are many other accounts of hate and misunderstanding resulting from the Japanese treatment of prisoners during WWII turned into love and affection through the redemptive power of God's love. Interestingly these stories are not restricted only to those who suffered at the hands of the Japanese, but also to the Japanese themselves. One of the most potent examples is that of the young Japanese Captain mentioned in the opening lines of this account, the man who was responsible for the coordination of the entire aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, the man who gave the command to drop the bombs on that fateful day in December, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida.

As was the case for many of his Japanese compatriots, allied outrage concerning the Japanese treatment of POWs was inexplicable for Fuchida. Under the Bushido code that typified the Samurai tradition of Japan, revenge toward a captured enemy was not only permitted, but was a responsibility in order to restore one's honor. After encountering stories of American kindness toward captured Japanese soldiers and seeing the anger of the allied nations toward Japan for their actions during the war, Fuchida embarked on a journey to try and understand why anyone would treat their enemies with such love and forgiveness.

This journey ultimately led Fuchida to a New Testament where he encountered the story of the crucifixion of Christ. The words Jesus spoke from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34) arrested his heart and became the catalyst that would transform his life.

Fuchida went on to become a Christian evangelist, traveling throughout the United States to tell the story of a love that has the power to change human hearts. His forgiveness of his enemies extended so far, in fact, that he became a United States citizen in 1966. Among the many places where Fuchida spoke after the war was the Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, where he stayed at the home of Alison's grandparents.

One of his last actions as president of the United States was a presidential proclamation, delivered on December 5, 2008 by George W. Bush, authorizing the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which encompasses the whole expanse of the many battles fought between the Americans and Japanese in the Pacific and includes the final resting place of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

The Arizona remains the centerpiece of the monument, lying only 25 feet beneath the surface as an enduring underwater memorial dedicated to the honor and sacrifice of not only the 1,177 servicemen who went down with her, but all Americans who fought, suffered, and died in the fight against Japan. To this day the Arizona continues to bleed engine oil, a poignant reminder of the blood that was spilled 70 years ago. But the Arizona, like Fuchida and Zamperini, is a symbol, not only of pain and death, but also of new life and transformation. Despite the leaking oil the sea has taken over the Arizona, transforming her into an reef filled with marine life. This great symbol and loss and sacrifice has become the progenitor of new life and greater purpose.

This is a day of remembrance for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice 70 years ago this morning, and in the ensuing battle for the soul of the world. But let us not only remember the pain and the sorrow, but rather look also to the new life and transformation wrought by love and forgiveness.

Both Fuchida and Zamperini were men whose lives were intimately tied to the chaos that reigned in Pearl Harbor. Each was consumed by hate and a thirst for vengeance, and each was transformed by the loving power of the cross and forgiveness.

Let us remember their stories this day and join with them in partnering with God to bring his kingdom here to earth and bring about the redemption of his creation.

The mistreatment Louis Zamperini suffered at the hands of the Japanese meant that he would never compete in the Olympics again, but it did not mean that he would not run in them.

In 1998 the Winter Olympics were held in Nagano Japan. The man selected to run the torch through the former Japanese POW camp of Naoetsu (one of the most notorious, and the final location where Louie was imprisoned) was none other than Louis Zamperini.

"On the morning of January 22, 1998, snow sifted gently over the village once known as Naoetsu. Louis Zamperini, four days short of his eighty first birthday, stood in a swirl of white beside a road flanked in bright drifts...At last it was time. Louie extended his hand, and in it was placed the Olympic torch. His legs could no longer reach and push as they once had, but they were still sure beneath him. He raised the torch, bowed, and began running. All he could see, in every direction, were smiling Japanese faces. There were children peeking out of hooded coats, men who had once worked beside the POW slaves in the steel mill, civilians snapping photographs, clapping, waving, cheering Louie on, and 120 Japanese soldiers, formed into two columns, parting to let him pass. Louie ran through the place where cages had once held him, where a black-eyed man had crawled inside him. But the cages were long gone, and so was the Bird. There was no trace of them here among the voices, the falling snow, and the old and joyful man, running."