It was 50 years ago. I had just made the rounds of the graduation parties and was about to step off into the world. I had been appointed to the U.S Merchant Marine Academy, and had orders to report to Kings Point, Long Island for my Plebe summer. The week I was to report the unthinkable happened. My father died.
My dad had fallen and broken his hip. Due to his severe Osteoporosis, his bones were so brittle that he broke his hip simply by getting out of bed. His overall poor health contributed to the formation of a pulmonary embolism which took his life. He was only 54 years old. My mom was in shock and we were all devastated. I was numb.
I still had the orders to report to the academy. To this day I have no recollection of how I got there. I literally left the day we buried my dad. I had never been away from home. I don’t remember sleeping.
Once processed into the academy, the customary hazing began, and then the unexpected crashed in on my fragile psyche. Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 were walking on the moon!
In that the academy was a federal institution, to celebrate the occasion of the moon landing all but those deemed essential personnel at the academy were given the day off. That meant we plebes were “allowed” to sit by ourselves in our rooms.
As I lay in my rack that night I looked up at the moon…I had time to think about my dad…and my mom. I realized that this whole attempt to get an appointment to a service academy was an attempt to make my dad proud of me. Now facing the rigors of a plebe summer…sleep deprived and understanding that my whole concept of the universe had changed—I began to tremble. I shook so bad and began to sob so violently that I feared I was losing my grip.
This next part is a series of mental snapshots, fragmented by the passage of time. I just remember that I passed out. When I came to I had no idea where I was. To my right there was a man whose leg had been amputated. Turning to my left there was another young man whose face was horribly disfigured and heavily bandaged. The trembling came back with a vengeance. I pulled the sheets over my head, and prayed
Dear God if you are real, please help me…I prayed this over and over. I then fell asleep.
When I woke I was informed that I had been transferred to a Public Service Hospital on Staten Island and that the injured men I saw were casualties from the Vietnam war. An officer from the Academy, accompanied by a chaplain informed me that I had collapsed and had been transport to the hospital. I was diagnosed with an Acute Anxiety attack. The three days without sleep, dehydration and the stress of my dad’s death had caused me to shut down. The officer gave me two options. You can attempt to rejoin your class (you are already behind) or you can resign your commission and return home. I could not imagine trying to rejoin the class and chose to return home.
I returned home as a failure. In my mind I just didn’t have the strength to get past my condition. Watching the footage and listening to Neil Armstrong’s iconic words ‘Just one small step for man…’ I felt that I had taken many steps backwards into an uncertain existence. As the men on the moon made history, the history of Camelot came to an abrupt halt in a place called Chappaquiddick. The seams of the very fabric of America were already beginning to tear…racial tensions…rebellion…sex drugs and rock and roll.
The next few years, as I began University were marked by isolation, work and drinking. The story of my encounter with the Lord is one of supernatural grace, unmerited favor and absolute certainty about he claims of Christ.
I remember the night that I responded to an invitation. I remember that I initially balked at taking the first step into the aisle. I knew that I knew in my heart that this was real. I stepped out into the aisle walked to the front…dropped to my knees… and was born again.
Fifty years later, I am in awe of the life the Lord has allowed for me. The high calling to pastor. A career in the Navy Reserve as a chaplain…the privilege of serving as a Bible College and Seminary professor; training the next generation of pastors.
In my role as chaplain, I was part of a team of Navy Chaplains who went to Ground Zero immediately following 9/11. I won’t attempt to try and describe the ministry that took place. I did however remember something significant that occurred to me after I returned home from New York.
In recounting those amazing days, I recalled that our team of chaplains was billeted at a Coast Guard activity on Staten Island. In a flash I remembered my shame at ‘washing out’ of the academy all those years ago. I did a search and learned that the site of the Public Service Hospital in which I prayed for God’s help was minutes away from where we were headquartered!
The Lord not only heard my prayer, but He brought me back to the place where I failed in my own strength…only now I was ministering in His strength. To think—it all started with one small step…
On this fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, I now have the perspective that our making trips to the moon or the stars will not change our conditions on earth. Shakespeare wrote
The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings
Martin Luther King wrote, “We have guided missiles, but misguided men.”
C.S. Lewis wrote concerning the fallen angels, “God destined them to be adjectives, yet they longed to be nouns”
‘It is not the step that man took to reach the heavens. No…it is the step that almighty God took to dwell with sinful men, in order to redeem them for His own. Augustine describes our condition best:
“Our hearts Oh God are restless until they find their rest in thee…”
How about it? Any takers?