Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Resolution

It’s that time of year again! We are the only creatures on earth that feel he need to improve ourselves. So each January 1st we set about making what is more often than not a comical attempt at some sort of self-improvement. It’s time for the New Year’s Resolution! Usually by mid-January, or at the latest, February 1st, we’ve failed again.

We swear off chocolate; commit to exercising more regularly to rid ourselves of those unwanted pounds; quit smoking for the umpteenth time; finish that degree you’ve always wanted; finally sit down to write that book that has been in your head all these years; or be more patient with my ________ (fill in the blank).

Here’s a resolution I’d like to challenge you with if you’d care to accept. Commit to going to church on a regular basis. Now hang with me! You say you have difficulty making it to church? Too tired? You often have to work on Sundays? It’s your only “down time”? Haven’t found a church you like?

The reason I’m challenging you with this is because I want to share a story with you I received this week from one of our Free Methodist missionaries in Nigeria, Africa. If you think you have challenges making it to church, wait till you read this! I will let missionary Phyllis Sorter tell you the story. . . .

Let me introduce you to the Ogor family: David, Christiana, their children and two grandsons, Gold and Wisdom. This family has been faithfully attending the Free Methodist church here for about two years, coming to Bible study on Thursdays and to morning worship service every Sunday. David and Christiana are elderly. David suffers from arthritis but still manages to farm and fish, along with taking primary care of Gold and Wisdom who attend Hope for Little Shepherds School, never missing a day.

I was unaware of the unique story behind their attendance until last Thursday. Apparently around here no one thought their situation unusual - rather - their particular way of coping was just a normal way of life in this part of the country. But to me - it is simply amazing!

On Thursday morning Pastor John told me all of us would go out to the Ogor's compound for Bible study, as Christiana wasn't feeling well. I was happy to add my Jeep to the van as a means of transport. So at 4:45 pm we loaded up as many members as possible then followed Clement across the main road onto a dirt track leading off in the general direction of the Niger River.

I'd never been to their place before so was surprised as we drove farther and farther into a desolate, uninhabited area, soon leaving the road and crossing stretches of barren hard pan - the dried out flood plains of the river. Finally we parked the vehicles and after a few minutes' walk came across the Ogor's small compound. It was pitifully poor - only a tattered tent with an old thatched roof held down by driftwood. The family lives in that tattered tent in the flood plains of the Niger.

As we walked across the hard pan of the dried flood plains I began to wonder how this family managed in the rainy season. Well, I found out.
The Ogors SWIM to church, to Bible Study and to school. David and Christiana showed us two big plastic wash basins into which they put the children and their Sunday clothes. The adults float the basins on the water, pushing them in front of them as they themselves swim the kilometers necessary to get to dry land and church.

When they get to dry land they change into their Sunday clothes. After church they change back into their wet clothes and swim back home.
Amazing! I chatted for a few minutes with David and Christiana after Bible study.
"What is it," I asked David, "that would push you to go through this kind of suffering, day after day, week after week, to get to church? What is it that makes it possible for you to endure this kind of hardship?"

         "It's all for Christ," David answered. "What else can we do? Our canoe was borrowed by a neighbor who had an accident with it. As someone died in the incident, the canoe was confiscated by the police. We have no means of acquiring another.

"We must attend worship, no matter how difficult. We do it all for Christ."
Will I ever be able to give ANY excuse for missing church again?

Thank you, Phyllis, for this cogent reminder of what’s really important!

Now, dear reader, what was that reason you say you had for not being able to make it to church?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Home for Christmas

It was December 17, 1972, a week before Christmas, and I was on the “Freedom Bird” flying back to the States following my tour in Vietnam. We landed at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco. I was wearing my Marine “Alphas,” the green trousers and jacket with khaki long-sleeved shirt and tie, and the fore & aft green cover (“hat” for you civilians).

My parents, sister and grandmother were at the terminal to welcome me home. My brother also flew out from Louisiana having returned from ‘Nam himself just four years earlier. The sense of excitement when you realize you are back in the Good Ole USA is hard to explain. No more war zone. Family and friends glad to have you back. And the opportunity to breathe air that smells of freedom! As the plane touches down, you are met with a flood of emotions. Will my family be there? Will they be on time? Have I changed? Will they notice anything different about me?

Finally the plane rolls to a stop at the terminal. Then you wait while the plane is shut down, and a military representative boards the plane to give some inane instructions before you were allowed to deplane. Oddly, there was a general tendency on the part of most of us to drag our feet as we grabbed our carry-on items from the overhead bins. We were ecstatic to be home, but having been away for a year, many of us had experienced some of life’s uglier lessons. It was as though death was on us and everyone could see it. We had certainly smelled it, and we were forever changed. And you could never forget that fellow Marines were also returning home in vinyl body bags. There would be no more family Christmases for them.

As I walked down the portable stairs from the plane, I hesitated to look up at the terminal for fear that my family would not be standing there. Of course they were, and all of a sudden I was smiling. But we had to wait for our sea bags to be unloaded first before we were set free to embrace our loved ones. The two hour ride to our home in Danville is a complete blank in my memory. I’m sure we chattered the whole way back to the house, or perhaps I dozed off, comfortable in the knowledge that I was safe back with my family.

The house was brightly decorated with all manner of Christmas lights and ornaments both inside and out. The odors of freshly baked sweets and the foods we always enjoy at Christmas were heavenly. For days I sat around the house having no desire to go anywhere. I was home. And I relished every moment of it. It was as though my soul was a sponge, absorbing every aspect of being home. I was surrounded by the people that meant the most to me, so there was nothing more I needed, nor wanted. I was perfectly content.

It wasn’t until we prepared to sit down for Christmas dinner that I was emotionally ambushed. As I watched everyone gathering around the table, I was overwhelmed with a thought that had never before assaulted me. Why was I home safe with my family preparing to enjoy another Christmas dinner lovingly prepared by my mother, when there was an empty seat at so many other tables of fallen servicemen? They wanted to live just as much as I did. I had to excuse myself from the table for about ten minutes or so before I could collect my emotions, knowing they might yet betray me again before the evening was over.

Each night I would grab a blanket and stretch out on the living room floor next to the Christmas tree. I would have a few logs in the fireplace burning warmly while I would lay there taking in the pine smells of the Christmas tree brightly lit with colorful lights only a few feet from me. Some nights I would sleep there the whole night. Other nights I would awake sometime in the early hours and stumble off to my bed. I didn’t care. I was home. And that’s all that did matter.

I fear I have become rather maudlin in my recounting these experiences from a Christmas now 39 years in the past. But in recent weeks our military men and women have been arriving home from Iraq, rejoining their families, preparing to enjoy another Christmas around the table. Gifts will be exchanged, and special moments shared. But for those who have left the ugliness of war behind them, there is a special smell in the air, and a taste of freedom that is hard to define. But for those who have been there, it is inescapable.

As you gather with loved ones this year, please pray for our returning warriors and their families. They are the reason you are able to enjoy the Christmas season.

And may each and every one of you have a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tebow Time

You may not be a fan of the National Football League (NFL), or even have an interest in ridiculously paid, frequently badly behaved, notoriously spoiled athletes. The names of the various 32 NFL clubs may mean nothing to you. But if you are paying even a modicum of attention to what is happening in the news, you must have heard the name of Tim Tebow and the NFL team he plays for, the Denver Broncos. It is being referred to as “Tebowmania.”

As a collegiate player he was nothing short of inspirational to his teammates at the University of Florida, developing something of a cult following from the fans and sports aficionados alike. He always made winning exciting even though the Gators usually trounced their opponents with ridiculous scoring differentials. People knew the outcome of the game before the kickoff, but that’s not why they came to the game. They came to see Tebow. They referred to him as Superman!

This young man is only two years removed from his very successful college football career where he lead the Florida “Gators” to two national championships, plus he won the coveted Heisman Trophy. Part of his mystic has to do with his very strong Christian faith. He made it a point of wearing his eye black (the black smudge worn by football players on the cheek bone) in a unique way. He would have a Bible verse address stenciled in white which was sure to be picked up by TV cameras. His favorite has been John 3:16; but he also wore Philippians 4:13 for the SEC Title game. (“I can do all things through him [Jesus] who gives me strength.”) He became a media phenom. At the beginning of practically every interview he would begin by saying, “Well, first I want to give all the glory and honor to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” You see, Tim Tebow was raised by parents who were missionaries, instilling in the young lad the virtues and beliefs of the Christian faith. He is always smiling, obviously enjoying life and having a wonderful time. He is courteous to a fault. He’s even respectful toward those who harshly criticize him, which is a growing number of people, mostly in the sports world. And he deflects credit for his successes back onto his teammates, coaches, and fans. And they love him!

After graduation he was drafted into the NFL by the Denver Broncos where he was expected to be the backup quarterback to Kyle Orton. Tim was thrilled to be in the NFL and was content to play second-fiddle so he could learn the NFL system of playing quarterback which is quite different from that same role in college football.

As life often goes, Orton was injured in the sixth game of the season. Tebow fans made it clear they wanted their man to be the quarterback for the Broncos now! At this point the Broncos had a dismal win-loss record of 1-4. Tebow was given the responsibility of shouldering the team for the remainder of this season. In his very unorthodox style, Tebow has carried the Broncos to an 8-5 record. This means under his leadership on the field the Broncos have won 7 and lost one game. That is an amazing turn-around! But Tebow has created another phenomena – it’s called “Tebow Time.” This is actually a carryover from his college days, but it has been crystalized in the past two months. In his often bumbling attempts at playing quarterback the way the NFL wants him to, he has reverted to the way he played in college which has confused opposing defenses. In virtually every game he figures out some way to win the game, frustrating the opposing team with his heroics and dogged determination. It invariably comes down to the Broncos being behind with only minutes left on the clock. Tebow then leads the team down the field for a touchdown to win, or a field goal to tie and go into overtime. This is nail-biting time. This is Tebow Time! And his fans love it! As many sportscasters admit, “It ain’t pretty, but it’s a win.”

When asked what was most important to him about being an NFL quarterback, he said he’s just playing a game. What is really important to Tebow is the ministry he supports that takes care of orphaned children in the Philippines. You see, during his college days at Spring Break when many of the kids would head for the Caribbean to romp and play, Tim would jump on a plane to the Philippines to spend his two weeks helping disadvantaged kids who knew nothing of his superman status at the University of Florida, nor did they care. All they knew was he was there for them, and most importantly, that he loved them.

Tebow is a threat to many people for several reasons. First, he’s outspoken about his Christian faith. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable. He has been roundly criticized for this. But he always responds with a smile toward his detractors. Second, he’s a winner. He was a winner in high school, then in college and now in the pros. Third, he’s very comfortable and confident in himself. Yes, he is intensely competitive. But he’s enjoying the whole ride that life has offered him. Fourth, it’s difficult for some people to believe someone could be this good, this squeaky clean. They’re hopeful he’ll have some dark side revealed. But Tim knows we’re all sinners in need of God’s grace. That’s why he enjoys life so much because Jesus has saved him from his sin.

There are now three games left in this NFL season and the Broncos are solidly in first place in their division. The way things are going the Broncos will most likely make the playoffs in January. Could they get to the Super Bowl? Tim certainly believes so. Maybe he’ll wear the eye black with Phil 4:13 on that day!

Oh, one last thing. There’s another phenomena surrounding Tebow. Whenever he’s involved in a good play, such as a touchdown, he strikes a pose of prayer by kneeling on one knee, with his left elbow on his knee and his head bowed on his left hand. This is called “Tebowing.” There are people of all ages assuming this pose around the world. On the Internet, this picture of Tebow prayerfully giving thanks to God has gone viral!

You go, man of God!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Christmas in Djibouti

     Picking up from last week’s article about the Christmas lights we strung on the chapel at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Africa let me tell you of another situation that happened that long ago and far away Christmas.

     The year was 2003, and I had been sent to this small African nation to set up the command religious program for this newly established counter-terrorism base on a long-abandoned French military base.

     Early in December I was sitting in my office in the chapel when two senior enlisted Marines came in. They both worked in intelligence, but had also been very involved in the chapel program. Excitedly, they told me of a plan they had concocted. They announced that they wanted to put on a Christmas play! I smiled and said, “Great! What’s the play called?” “Well, we haven’t written it yet, sir.”  I continued smiling, somewhat bewildered. “Gentlemen,” I said, “It’s December 6th, and you’re telling me you want to put a Christmas play on by this Christmas? Just how do you propose to do this in a little more than two weeks?” They said they were going to write the play that very evening, and then recruit the actors for the various parts. I blinked a couple of times and gave my consent. I knew these two men well and believed they could, and would pull it off.

     Sure enough, the play was written, and the cast members brought together, and the rehearsals began. The play was a version of the Christmas story taken from portions of the Bible story found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I asked the guys where they were going to get costumes and props to fit with the times. They assured me they had that covered.

     The original plan was to schedule one performance for December 21st. However, the performance that evening was so well attended (Standing Room Only), that there was a request for an additional performance so those who missed it could still experience this amazing program. What sealed the deal to have another performance was the request from the commanding general of CJTF-HOA (Commander, Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa). He had to be out of the country for the first performance, and since he is an openly professing Christian, he wanted to see the play. So the play was performed two more nights, if memory serves me correctly, on December 24th and 26th. Everyone loved it, including the general, who asked me to have the play performed two more times. The actors were thrilled! These were all military people who were doing their military jobs while also rehearsing and learning their lines.

     The general’s plan was to have a special evening where he would invite a number of guests to his quarters on base for a relaxed evening of refreshments and entertainment. He invited the general of the French base and his wife, various other diplomats and dignitaries, along with embassy personnel from the capital, Djibouti City, which, by the way, included a number of Muslims (Did I mentioned that Djibouti is 94% Muslim?). He also invited the Bishop of Somalia and Djibouti. Because there were so many guests, he needed two performances. He would split the group of guests in half, having one group attend the performance while the other stayed and socialized with the general, and then vice versa. At the end of each performance the actors received a standing ovation!

After the second performance, the Bishop grabbed me out in front of the chapel and stated unequivocally,
“Chuck, you must let me have these people do a performance at the Catholic Church in the city!” I explained, “Bishop, that’s not my decision. See that Marine colonel over there? He’s the commanding officer of the base. We all belong to him. It’s his decision.” The colonel joined us and was immediately importuned by the bishop to have the performers bring the play to his church. The colonel smiled and said, “Anything you want, Bishop!”

     So now my crew of actors were to perform January 5th for the French expatriates at the Catholic Church in Djibouti City. That was also the day I was to fly home to California to rejoin my original command, I MEF, at Camp Pendleton. I missed the final performance, but was later told everything went wonderfully well.

     As for the costumes and props, all manner of clothing articles and objects were used. Roman soldiers wore combat boots and cut-off camouflaged shorts, cardboard shields and swords. Mary was played by a white, female, Navy nurse, and Joseph was a black, male, Marine! The Star of Bethlehem was made of cardboard wrapped in tin foil. Behind a tarpaulin curtain the Star was carried on the end of a stick across the fake stage. From the back of the chapel with the lights out, a large flashlight held by another Marine was focused on the Star as it moved. You had to have been there to appreciate the effort. It was all utterly fantastic! The story of our Savior was told in the most unique way I have ever witnessed.

     I am still amazed to this day at the way God worked in that whole event. So many lives were touched and, I believe, transformed. It was and remains a moment in my life when I clearly saw the hand of God.

     Merry Christmas!