Larkin Spivey Finding Faith In War

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Poem for the New Year--2011

A British soldier of the Northhampton Regiment spent much of World War II in prisoner of war camps. During his many trials he was comforted by a short poem written by Mary Gardiner Brainard:

I see not a step before me
As I tread on another year,
But I’ve left the past in God’s keeping
The future his mercy shall clear,
And what looks dark in the distance
May brighten as I draw near.

The soldier wrote in his diary:

Through the difficult days of captivity this verse was constantly before me, suggesting, as it did, a brighter path in the distance, to which the course of time—with faith—must ultimately lead me. The full beauty of these words came to me at the close of my last hour of freedom.

This poem is appropriate for any day, but is especially perfect for the first day of the year. This is the time to look forward and not back. The past cannot be changed no matter how hard we wish it, and is truly in God’s hands. Neither do we know what lies ahead, and it is just as useless to worry about that. Jesus’ instruction on this point is crystal clear: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:34) What we can do is concentrate on our actions in the present and look forward to the future with a joyful hope. Even though we have problems looming ahead, we don’t have to face them alone. Our Savior walks with us and guarantees us the strength to endure and to overcome. There is no darkness that will stand against the light of his presence.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all…if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:5,7)

(This story is from a daily devotional in Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from World War II)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas at Khe Sanh

There is no good place to be away from home at Christmas. A hill outside the perimeter of the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh in Vietnam would surely rank high among the worst. On Christmas day, 1967, Sergeant James Oyster stood duty on this far away outpost. Thankfully, it was a quiet day and hot food was brought up to the hilltop by helicopter. The same aircraft took away three friends rotating back to the states, after a sad farewell for those left behind. An airplane flew overhead playing Christmas carols. When the Marines heard “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” several half-joked that they should shoot the plane down. Sergeant Oyster noted his thoughts about all this in his diary:

We’ve been outside all day just kind of messing around and we had a spotter plane fly over playing Christmas carols. Sitting there listening to that was kind of sad: kind of melancholy I think. You know that back home the family is opening the Christmas presents and I hope they are thinking of me. But it is just not the same. This is not the first Christmas I have spent away from home. This is the first Christmas that I was in a position I couldn’t at least get on the phone and call them. But I’m sure they are thinking of me. I hope that they are praying for me, too.

I spent a Christmas day in Vietnam at the Phu Bai combat base with a lot more amenities than those enjoyed by Sgt. Oyster. On Christmas days now, I am surrounded by friends and family with all the comforts of home. For all of us in safe and secure places, it is a time to remember those who are not so blessed. At this moment there are men and women on alert at lonely outposts far from home. Some are in danger. All are lonely. All are missing their families and loved ones. They deserve our thoughts and prayers.

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” ~Luke 2:10-14

(This story is a daily devotional from the soon-to-be published Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from the Vietnam War.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Story from Vietnam

Silent Night (2)

Just before sunrise a torrential rain soaked the Marines and half-filled their foxholes with water. During the day temperatures soared above one hundred degrees, subjecting the men to a tropical steam bath and unremitting heat. As the sun set that evening, Navy corpsman Bob Dirr thought to himself that this was a heck of a way to spend Christmas Eve. He was on watch, leaning against the back of a muddy foxhole, trying to keep his feet out of the water. Arrayed around him were his medical bag, M-16, and three hundred rounds of ammo.
As he gazed at the North Star, he thought of another star long ago and of other Christmases from his past. His heart ached with loneliness as he thought of home and loved ones, and contemplated the desolation around him—no presents, no decorations—only doubts, if he would see another Christmas at home.
As he stared idly into the darkness, a green flare streaked across the sky, fired from a distant fire support base. Quickly, another flare went up, and then another. As he watched, the sky above the horizon was crisscrossed with red, blue, yellow, and green flares. Dirr glanced at the luminous dial on his watch. It was one minute after midnight—it was Christmas. Faintly at first, he heard singing in the distance. It grew louder as men along the line picked up the familiar melody. Soon, the hills resounded to the quiet but firm voices of hundreds of men. As tears ran down his face, the young corpsman joined the chorus:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. ~Luke 2:8-9

(This story is from soon-to-be published Battlefields & Blessings, Stories of Faith and Courage from the Vietnam War)

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Christmas Story from World War II

Silent Night
On December 24, 1942 the 7th Marine Regiment was relieved from the front line on Guadalcanal after 96 consecutive days of combat. Edward Andrusko and his battle-weary comrades marched to the relative safety of the beach area to wait for embarkation. That night he and many other Marines attended a memorable Christmas Eve service in a coconut grove beside Henderson Field. The makeshift altar was covered by a tent, and coconut logs served as pews. Bomb shelters were close at hand. Andrusko observed, “It was a beautiful service with candles, caroling, prayer for peace on Earth, and memorials to our dead and wounded.” Suddenly, however, the air raid warning sounded. The chaplain, a seasoned combat veteran himself, calmly asserted that he was going to continue with the service, but pointed to the air raid shelters for all who wanted to seek a safer place. Most of the Marines stayed in dark outdoor church, illuminated by a single candle. An amazing scene unfolded, as recounted by Andrusko:

Soon we heard the drone of enemy planes and the whistling of their bombs and explosions approaching closer and closer.
Instantly the dark night was brightly illuminated by our large searchlights . . . nearby batteries of our anti-aircraft cannons blasted away…The guns fired loudly and rapidly, and their high overhead explosion bursts would light up the sky…Our bright red tracers added to the awesome fireworks display. More bombs fell, but soon passed us by.
We sang “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright,” as the enemy planes passed slowly overhead. After a while their bombs fell further and further away from us. Our prayers and carol singing must have been heard through the din of battle, and answered, for soon the all clear was sounded. No one was hurt at our church service. That was our first and last Christmas Eve midnight mass on Guadalcanal Island.

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” ~Luke 2:9-11

(This story is a daily devotional from Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from World War II, Page 428)

Friday, December 10, 2010


Lani and I just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with a trip to Kiawah, where we had a few days together to reflect on the countless blessings of marriage and family. To commemorate the occasion we pledged to write lists of forty reasons why each of us loves the other. The idea was a little intimidating when we first discussed it, but I quickly found the task easy and fun. I finally had to edit down to keep my list at forty. It was an occasion to reflect back on our early days together, remembering that she had a Mustang when we met, that she told a Marine general that she would take care of ‘happy hour’ for her Marine, and how she waved her Redskin pennant in the midst of hostile Rams fans in the LA Colisieum. I remembered how she took charge and kept going during long separations. I recalled her heroic commitment to natural childbirth, motherhood, Outward Bound, mission trips to Egypt and Rwanda, and so much more.

In recalling these past events in our marriage, I couldn’t help remembering some of our fights and disagreements, although these have blessedly faded into the past. Our arguments seem to get ever shorter and shorter. At every stage of our marriage, we have tried to stay focused on our home, our children, and all the positive attributes that we love in each other. We have seen other couples focus on the things that irritate them and watched these irritants grow under constant scrutiny. In their wedding ceremonies, many couples include the oft-quoted scripture on love from First Corinthians. On our 40th anniversary we would like to take the opportunity to suggest that every couple make this passage a daily focus in building a stronger marriage:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it keeps no record of wrongs . . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. ~1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Today is the day we remember Pearl Harbor. It is a day to remember the woeful lack of readiness on the part of political and military leaders who should have known better. Any degree of alertness, coupled with minimal dispersal of ships and aircraft could have saved countless lives and invaluable equipment. Pearl Harbor, the movie, was released in 2001. In a thoughtful review of the movie Ken James compared the state of military forces then to our spiritual condition now:

Being reminded of the true story behind Pearl Harbor I can’t help but think about the spiritual parallels. While the majority of people live their lives in relative peace, thinking everything is just fine, how many of us will be blindsided when death comes? And yes, I’m talking to churchgoers too. What have you done to ensure you are ready when the end comes? There’s a statistic that says death is 100% fatal. Sooner or later it’ll happen. I hope you have put your trust in Jesus Christ. He’s the only way to a bright eternity. Trusting in your own good works will get you nowhere. The USS Arizona and other members of the fleet at Pearl Harbor weren’t ready, and they sadly found that out too late.

Therefore keep watch. Because you do not know the day or the hour.
~ Matthew 25:13

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.’ ~ Matthew 25:34

(This story is an excerpt from Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from World II, p. 46)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Faith in the Vietnam War

My next book (due out in 2011) is about the Vietnam War and is a sequel to Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from World War II. I recently received an e-mail from a reader who asked if it was difficult to write about the Vietnam War from a spiritual perspective. Since this question might interest others I thought I would respond by blog.

First, I have to say that writing a book about Vietnam was difficult personally, since I was involved in that war and have strong feelings about it. I was not a Christian at the time and had my own questions about God’s presence and the random and brutal violence that I experienced. I fully understand this kind of reaction from nonbelievers who experienced combat. On the other hand, I have met many others who went to war as believers. I have been amazed at the wide range of reactions to the Vietnam War by all those who fought it.

The World War II era was definitely a more spiritual era in our history. Our national and military leaders did not hesitate to pray publically, calling themselves and others to prayer during dangerous times and to thanksgiving in the wake of success. In my research into World War II it was not difficult to find personal witnesses, diaries, and correspondence expressing the power of individual faith during this conflict.

America in the 1960’s was of course very different. All institutions in our culture were under attack, including the government, military, business, and traditional religion. Fortunately, all of this counter-culture activity did not extinguish spirituality altogether, as many young men went to Vietnam sustained by their faith and supported by their churches. Many others like myself, however, went as religious skeptics and found the trauma of war fully supportive of their antipathy toward God. Even many believers had experiences that called their faith into question. It would be difficult to summarize the many ways veterans went on to cope with these issues, but I will cite one person’s journey which was not unusual:

Phil Downer saw his best friend killed in Vietnam and for forty years lived with the anguish and guilt of surviving when his friend did not. He often blamed God for the downward spiral of his life. Recently, at a businessman’s meeting, he unexpectedly heard someone patiently explain the Gospel and how Jesus Christ had suffered for the sake of mankind. Somehow, in that moment, he recognized that Jesus “took my bullets for me,’ just as his friend had done in combat so long ago. In that moment he accepted Jesus as his savior and went forward in faith and a totally new life. There are countless other stories of veterans suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress who finally found freedom from their scars in the person of Jesus. In a way, soldiers of the Vietnam era seemed to go through a deeper valley than others before them, but many came through the valley in God’s time to greater heights of spirituality.

I take great encouragement from this and many other stories of faith and courage from the Vietnam War and see a great spiritual lesson in them. God responds to deep and genuine doubt, and he soothes deep and genuine pain. If we will bring our issues to him forthrightly and passionately, he will respond, and, in his own way, bring us to a deeper spiritual level with him. Bill Mahedy, an ex-Army chaplain, explained the classic road to healing for Vietnam veterans who ask, “Where was God in Vietnam?” They are ready to be healed when in their hearts they hear God’s question, “Where were you in Vietnam?”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A World War II Hero

November 2010

My daughter, Catherine-Alexa, recently sent me a text message to check out an article in the Wall Street Journal about a war hero. I looked and found a story about Louis Zamperini. In Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from World War II I had written three daily devotionals based on this man’s amazing story during and after that war. Zamperini had been a star long distance runner and Olympic athlete when he volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1941. He became a navigator on a B-24 bomber and was assigned to the Pacific theater where he flew long range missions out of various island bases. He was shot down in May 1943, miraculously survived the crash, and suffered one of the longest lifeboat ordeals on record. In his book Devil at My Heels[1] he chronicled his spiritual journey through this experience and afterward, during his internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Although he felt that God had saved him on many occasions during the war, afterward he drifted away from God as his life fell apart due to recurring nightmares, drinking, and business failures. The climax of his story came on a September day in 1949 when his wife took him to a tent meeting in downtown Los Angeles. He went reluctantly to hear an unknown preacher named Billy Graham. In spite of his antipathy, Zamperini found his heart changing by Graham’s patient and persistent presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He described what happened:

I dropped to my knees and for the first time in my life truly humbled myself before the Lord. I asked Him to forgive me for not having kept the promises I’d made during the war, and for my sinful life. I made no excuses. I did not rationalize, I did not blame. He had said, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” so I took Him at His word, begged for His pardon, and asked Jesus to come into my life.

[1] Zamperini, Louis with David Rensin. Devil at My Heels: A World War II Hero’s Saga of Torment, Survival, and Forgiveness. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thoughts on Skeptics

October 2010

I recently asked my priest, Rob Sturdy, to look at a manuscript titled A Skeptic’s Guide to God. I completed this work several years ago and have been unsuccessful so far in attracting a publisher. I have had to consider the possibility that there might be something about my efforts lacking theologically and perhaps not altogether pleasing to God. In the course of our conversation Rob gave me a book by Timothy Keller titled The Reason for God[1] that he thought might be useful to me in this project. I read the book and did find it extremely insightful. Keller has been the minister of a Presbyterian mega-church in Manhattan for many years and has a wealth of experience with the type of skeptical person that I am concerned about.

One of Keller’s enlightening discussions centers on the question of doubt. In my own book I make the observation that a skeptic is “a thoughtful person, usually of above average intelligence, who tends to place doubt on a higher moral plane that belief.” Keller offers a startling explanation for this phenomenon by pointing out that, “All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs.” Sincere doubt about the existence of God necessitates a system of other beliefs about the origin and purpose of the universe and life that is even more difficult to prove than the existence of God. A person’s doubt that there can be only one way to God is based on his or her own concept of ‘fairness’ and the nature of God. These concepts can also not be proven empirically.

Keller concludes that believers and skeptics alike need to take a second look at their doubts. Believers who honestly confront their own doubts will find their faith strengthened through the process. He points out that, “Faith without doubt is like a human body without any antibodies.” If we don’t acknowledge and resolve our doubts, we will be ill prepared for the hard times that will test our faith. On the other hand, skeptics should look more closely at their doubts and examine the beliefs underlying them. This process might lead them to concede that their own ‘faith’ in these beliefs may be as difficult to logically prove as the believer’s beliefs. Both groups would benefit from this process and be better able to talk to each other with less suspicion.

I agree with Keller on this last point, but must reassert my underlying interest in this discussion. When I put some of my doubts on hold and went from skepticism to Christ, my life took a radical and positive turn. I hope to show other skeptics how such a step of faith can be possible in their lives. A new look at the nature of doubt and belief seems like an important starting point in this process.

[1] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton(Penguin Group), 2008.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Naval War College

September 2010

While in Rhode Island I renewed old acquaintances at the Naval War College and met the new Library Director. Terry Metz has recently come from Wheaton College to replace the retiring Bob Schnare. Although he has no prior Navy experience, Mr. Metz is an information technology expert and has big plans for this great institution. Over the years the War College Library has been one of my foremost resources for military history research, and it is reassuring to see it continuing under strong leadership.

Endowed by Who?

September 2010

While traveling to Rhode Island for our fall retreat, Lani and I met our daughter, Anastasia, her family, and other friends in Washington, D. C. for Glenn Beck’s August 28 Restoring Honor rally at the Lincoln Memorial. It was an inspiring event, centered on a call for America’s return to God. Although I remain skeptical about some of Glenn Beck’s views, I am convinced he is a patriot with a firm understanding of what has made our nation great. He highlights the importance of God at the founding of America, and puts God at the center of solutions for restoring our nation to economic, political, and moral soundness. At this point in history, I believe this is a voice that we need to hear.

President Obama’s appearance before the Hispanic Caucus on September 15 presented an eerie contrast to the Restoring Honor theme. In a glaring and unexplained misquote of the Declaration of Independence, he said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To every educated American the omission is stark: “Endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” was a carefully crafted phrase written by Thomas Jefferson to make clear the source of authority in the new nation. The Declaration of Independence was an acknowledgement that our rights don’t come from a king, parliament, congress, or political party. Our rights come from God. Since this phrase constitutes the bedrock on which our nation was founded, its omission is astounding. We’ve grown somewhat accustomed to liberal efforts to remove God from our schools, public places, and money. Am I being overly suspicious wondering if there is also to be an effort to remove God from our history? This is not an academic question. If not from God, where do our rights come from? If not from God, why are they inalienable?

New Book to Press

August 1, 2010

I have just sent the completed manuscript for Battlefields & Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from the VIETNAM WAR to AMG Publishers. I have written this book under contract, which has proven to be a mixed blessing. It is extremely gratifying to know that a great publisher has commissioned the work and has a definite plan for its publication and promotion. Advance royalties are a good thing also. However, after approving my proposal for the book, AMG decided that their publishing schedule required the finished product within one year. Creating 365 daily devotionals in so many days has been a daunting challenge. It has been a year full of pressure and prayer. I have daily sought God’s inspiration and support and pray now that this work will be a positive contribution to His kingdom.