Larkin Spivey Finding Faith In War

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.