Nancy and I spent this past weekend in Kansas City. On Sunday, we attended Liberty Christian Fellowship. For me, the theme of the morning was what I can best term as trajectory.
Our lives are always going somewhere. As I sang along with the rest of the congregation and listened to the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, I gave thought to the trajectory of my life, especially where I might be heading now if God hadn’t found a way to intercept me on that road to perdition.
I’m not the man I once was. People who know me now probably wouldn’t think it possible that the Phil they interact with now is someone who could be capable of living consumed with rage, anger, and bitterness. But I knew that man well and I knew what he was capable of. There’s no need to bore you with all the details. Suffice it to say, I was hopelessly lost and I really didn’t care. The trajectory of my life was straight down, to the pit of hell itself.
As far as I was concerned, life had very little meaning, other than the few transient pleasures one could drag out of it. In the end, I believed, everyone dies and everyone rots. There was no heaven; there was no final judgement. Given that, I felt I could do whatever struck my fancy. There was no need to worry about being judged for my actions. There was no room in my belief system for God, Therefore, I reasoned…..no God…..no judgement…..Do whatever you want.
But, a long series of events led me to a crossroad I never anticipated.
The events built upon one another, without my being able to see them. They were sign posts of grace, meant to let me know that someone or something outside of me cared about me. As I look back on it now, I realize I was too stiff necked and rebellious to acknowledge them.
The anger, bitterness, and rebellion within me grew to the point where I knew I was going to cross a line no man should ever cross. That time came shortly before Christmas in 1966.
I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. I wasn’t involved in a day to day combat role. My duties were pretty routine – send and receive teletype messages, encrypt and decrypt classified material. The Vietnam War I was acquainted with was a mass of routines, with the occasional mortar and rocket attacks punctuating the boredom.
It was during one of those routine days that my reckoning came. My duties that day included burning classified documents in an incinerator outside our duty station. I was being given a brief respite from the daily grind and routine. The duty sergeant gave me an M-16 and sent me on my way.
I was about half way through the task when I noticed something moving out in the trees outside the chain link fence that surrounded the incinerator. I stopped to take a closer look. It was an old Vietnamese man relieving himself. He appeared to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. At first I thought I should warn him of my presence, but decided against that. Then, my heart began to pound. “This old man needs to be put out of his misery.” I paused for a moment, then began to think to myself, “I’ve never killed a man, but this may be the perfect time. Why not kill him? Everyone else is killing people over here… No one will notice…..I can say that I warned him and did what I had to do.” I picked up the M16, loaded it and aimed it at the old man. I was about the release the safety when the following words came to me, almost as if William Shakespeare himself were reciting them to me – “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” I stopped, not fully understanding what was happening. Was I talking to myself? Was I hallucinating? I decided my imagination was playing tricks on me and I tried again. As soon as I tried to take aim once more, the words came again…”The quality of mercy is not strained…” When I heard them the second time I knew my imagination wasn’t playing tricks on me. Someone or something outside of me was trying to stop me from doing something so evil that, in doing it, the life of that old man would be needlessly taken and my life would forever be lost.
I dropped the weapon and began to cry uncontrollably. “Are you the God I’ve heard people talk about? I sobbed.
Then, the encounter ended as quickly as it had started. I had work to do and an encounter to try to erase from my mind.
I tried over the next month to forget what had happened, but I couldn’t let it go.
It all seems to clear to me now, but it wasn’t then during that pre-Christmas encounter. The trajectory of my life was either going to go down to the pit or up the heaven itself. There were no other options, no other paths to choose. It took about a year from the time I left Vietnam, but I surrendered my life to Jesus in August, 1967.
I occasionally read those words I heard in 1966. They were from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” act iv, scene 1. The passage they came from follow in full:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
They’re powerful. As I read them, I sometimes wonder if Shakespeare didn’t once have an encounter like mine.
There are times, in my wild flights of fancy, I mistakenly think I would have made the choice to surrender to God on my own, without Him intercepting me. But, I know that’s not true. God was looking for me; I wasn’t looking for him. He was the one willing to forgive and embrace me; I was the one who was prepared to take the evil in my heart as far as it would take me. He was the one willing to bear the cross, not me!
But, thankfully, I’m not the same man I was in 1966. I have changed. I’m not complete yet and I have a long way to go. I sometimes lurch down the highway to heaven like a drunken man, veering left, then right rather than following straight along the road. Things catch my eye that have nothing to do with where I’m going, but all too often I give in to the temptation to indulge myself in the vanities this life affords. I’m all too often vain and self-righteous. Like the prophet Isaiah, “I’m a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Like Paul of the New Testament, I’m the “chief of sinners.” And yet, amazingly, the same grace and mercy that intercepted me back in 1966 still intercepts me today.