Sunday, November 13, 2005
Conversion, Part Four
As with the previous post, this one will make much more sense if you read part one (if you haven’t read it already), and parts two and three.
The rest of my tour in Vietnam was quiet. I never did speak to Sergeant Vartenisian about the incident at the incinerator or tell him what I was thinking. I kept it all to myself. It’s something I now regret. Once I left Vietnam I never saw him again. I guess there are a lot of people like him, who pray for others and never see an answer to the prayers they make. They’re the people of faith who go about their lives quietly, believing that it’s enough for them to intercede, believing that somehow their prayer(s) will be answered.
Sergeant Vartenisian’s were, but it was going to take some time before they were fully realized.
My “deros” (rotation day) was coming up and I put in for anything near home – Hanscom Field, Otis AFB, anything in Massachusetts. When the orders came down about a month and a half before I was due to go home, I found, strangely that I had been assigned to Lockbourne AFB, which was just outside of Columbus, Ohio. It was a shock to my system and I tried to fight the assignment. But my fighting was in vain. I was going to Lockbourne and that was it. It turned out to be providential.
I got in bad with my unit right away, particularly my duty sergeant. I became uncooperative and that made me a marked man. After about eight months at Lockbourne I was assigned to a leadership school. It was the Air Force’s last ditch attempt to retrieve me before I destroyed myself.
I’ll never forget the day I arrived at the school. When I opened the door to the room that was to be mine for eight weeks I saw an eight ball sitting on the desk starting at me. That dreaded eight ball was the squadron’s way of saying, “Straighten up or ship out. This is your last chance.” I sat, somewhat amused, for a while until my assigned roommate came in. “Hey, I’m Vic Edwards.”
Vic was a round faced man, African-American. He had the proud look of a leader. I wondered if he had been assigned as my roommate to straighten me out.
“You’re the man who’s come to fix me? I asked
“Not me, Bubba. You and I are in the same boat.”
“I’m here because the Air Force is trying to purge a rebel from the flock. How about you? What’s your great sin?”
Vic laughed a bit. “I’m not exactly sure. I think it might be because I married a French woman.”
“So I’m the rebel and you’re the non-conformist. Does that about cover it?”
“That does a pretty good job of it.”
I doubled over laughing on my bunk, pulling the pillow over my head as I did. “Geeze, if this isn’t a real recipe for success.”
My cynical laughter was contagious. Vic fell back on his bunk and began to laugh along with me. “Well, Dillon, if you and I aren’t a marriage made in heaven. We are just one big roaring success waiting to spring ourselves on the U. S. Air Force.”
After about ten minutes our laughter subsided. The room became still as we privately contemplated our fates.
I don’t know why I asked the following question. Maybe it was desperation. I don’t know, but I did. “Do you pray much, Edwards?”
“No, once in a while, but that’s about it. How about you?”
“I can’t really say that I have. I’ve had a couple of strange religious experiences if you could call that praying, but other than that, no.”
Vic had been laying on his bunk until I mentioned the strange religious experiences. When he heard those words he sat up. “Strange? What kind of strange experiences, Dillon?”
I told him about the dreams I had had when I was young and about my experience in Vietnam. He listened intently. “That is strange,” he answered.
“Look, Vic, I don’t wanna’ change the subject but how are we gonna’ get through these eight weeks?”
Vic’s answer was almost in the form of a plea or a prayer. “It’ll take a miracle for sure.”
The word miracle struck a chord with me. I knew that it was going to keep me from getting drummed out of my unit. I was just too far gone. I was at the end of my rope.
My first step of faith was tentative and feeble, but I made it. “Well, then Vic, we’re just gonna’ have to pray our way through this thing. Don’t you think?”
“I’m not sure I know how to,” Vic answered quizzically.
“I don’t either, but we’re desperate, man; we’ve got to do something or we’re cooked.”
“You’re right, we really don’t have much to lose. I’ll pray for you and you’ll pray for me and we’ll see what happens.”
As roll call for the first day at the leadership school began to ring out through the barracks I looked straight at Vic and said, “Let’s do it!”
For the next eight weeks Vic and I were faithful to our agreement. Where one of us had a weakness, the other prayed and supported in practical ways. When one of us was discouraged the other prayed for strength. And so it went. For my part I wasn’t sure exactly who I was praying to, but it did seem to help. Vic and I seemed to get stronger as the days passed. Vic excelled in drill and leadership. My strength was in classroom activity and public speaking. There was never a time that either of us felt jealous of the other. In fact, we took great pride in supporting one another. What had started as a possible disaster was turning into a life-changing event.
The real epiphany in my life came when I was selected to as a finalist in a public speaking contest held by the school. Our subject was to be “the greatest leader who has ever lived.” When I first thought about it I thought of Hannibal, who I had considered to be a military genius in spite of his failures. I also gave thought to Alexander the Great, who had conquered the known world as a young man. But the more I thought about it I knew there had to be someone greater than these two men. I spoke to Vic about it and suggested, casually, that I consider Jesus as the greatest leader. “I don’t know anything about him, Vic, I mean not a thing,” I answered
Vic’s answer was right to the point. “Read the Bible. A lot of it is about him.”
Over the next week I read the New Testament gospels twice. I could hardly believe what I was reading. How could this one man, without an alternate plan, take a group of twelve men and change the world forever? How did he hold them together? How could he succeed without an army? The more I read the more fascinated I became. Hannibal and Alexander were great leaders, but as I read I saw that there was truly no one who had ever lived like Jesus.
Over that same period I called the chaplain several times. “Was Jesus really the Son of God like he claimed to be? I asked over and over. The answer was always the same – Yes!
When the competition came I spoke about Jesus as the greatest leader who had ever lived. I’ve spoken publicly many times since that day, but none have ever compared to that speech. I won the award!
I came during that week to see that it was true and that the Jesus of the gospels was the same Jesus who had been crucified in my young dreams and the same Jesus who had spoken to me in Vietnam. And he was the same Jesus who had prompted Vic and me to join in a compact of prayer for one another for those eight weeks. I came to a place where I knew he was who he said he was. I came to a place where I would be willing to not only live, but also to die for him. It was all very private, real, and intensely personal.
At the end of the eight week school Vic and I won every award that was given at the graduation banquet. There were six in all. The miracle we had needed had come!
Not long after I graduated from the leadership school I began attending a Lincoln Baptist Church in Columbus. I listened for a few weeks and one Sunday, to the surprise of the preacher I came forward to profess faith in Jesus. Most of my friends assumed it was a spur of the moment thing, that this response to the altar call was nothing more than an emotional experience. But I knew better. It was a moment that was twenty five years in the making. In fact, as I look back at it I realize that all those moments in my life that led to that day are really a part of that moment. There are people I know who point to a date and time for their salvation, and I guess they’re right. But there was more to it for me. The dreams of my youth were a part of it. My experience as a young man rejecting faith was part of it. My experiences in Vietnam were part of it. And my experiences at Lockbourne were part of it. In temporal terms it was a long moment. In the scope of eternity it was linked to the beginning of time and to a cross where the man who had revealed himself to me in my youth reconciled my life.
The final part, part five, will follow. In that piece I’ll try to make sense of how faith informs my life and, particularly I’ve embraced the compassionate conservatism that our president has also embraced.