For Memorial Day weekend, Bryon and I watched the film Unbroken. I read the book when it came out a few years ago and was captivated by the life story of Louie Zamperini who was during his long lifetime at turns a teenage delinquent, Olympic runner, World War II bombardier, prisoner of war, husband, father, skateboarder and Christian.
The movie focused on what the directors thought were the most dramatic events of his life including his fame as an athlete, his amazing survival on open sea for 47 days after a plane crash and the unbearable torture and humiliation he endured over 2 years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. In the movie we view lots of scenes chronicling his speed, strength and courage. The camera focuses on the actor’s blue-grey eyes which reflect his unbreakable will to survive.
Unbroken is the title of the book and movie, but the reality is that he did break. He didn’t break under enormous physical hardship or torture or imprisonment. He broke after he came home and was safe with his family and his beloved new bride. Recent studies show that veterans have increasing incidences of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) even as their level of direct combat decreases. More and more the research is pointing to the difficulty of assimilating again into modern society as the source of the problem.
Spirits break when there isn’t enough support; when the person loses their sense of meaning and purpose; when they are separated from the close bonds of fellow soldiers all sharing the same experiences; when the superficial, commercialized, lonely, isolated aspects of civilized life aren’t enough to keep the horror at bay.
Louie broke. He started drinking. He became distant from family and friends. He felt suicidal. On his own, his spirit could not withstand the trauma and pain he had endured. He felt hopeless and lost when he was finally safe and secure.
During the very worst time on the life raft after weeks without food, water or shelter there was a terrific storm and the end seemed near. It was then that Louie prayed the most basic of prayers, “God, if you get me through this, I’ll give my life to you.” So many of us have prayed that type of prayer and then, like Louie never followed up on it, but at the lowest ebb of his life, he remembered what he had promised. His desperate wife had tried everything to get his drinking stopped and his life restored. She was at the end of her rope but it just so happened that Billy Graham was making one of his appearances nearby. She begged Louie to go but he kept refusing. Finally he relented and at a Billy Graham crusade he gave his life to God and his spirit was restored and his hope renewed. He would say that his life was saved one more time and this was the most miraculous and life-changing event of all.
It would be easy to be cynical about this story except for the fact that Louie lived another 60 years until just last year. And what happened in that sixty years is just as remarkable as all the stories of his earlier successes and survival. He became a loving and devoted husband. He became active in Christian ministry as an inspirational speaker and helped countless people. And by the power of the Holy Spirit he forgave all of his captors, including the most twisted and brutal one who was known as the “Bird.” He even traveled to Japan to meet with all his prison guards in order to forgive them in person.
Without the saving grace of God, the love of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Louie would have been broken. We love our heroes to be independent, unrelenting, and able to overcome any obstacle single-handedly. But that’s for the movies. In reality we are all broken, wounded and empty. It is the breath of God that breathes life into us and puts our bones back together and inspires and strengthens us and gives us a new song and a greater purpose.
It is God who puts us into community with other Christians so we don’t have to go it alone. God gives us brothers and sisters who are linked to us with ties that resemble the very sinews and tendons of the body.
This feast of Pentecost today is less about the miraculous foreign tongues with which the disciples spoke and more about the power of God to bring life and hope and good news to those whose spirits are broken. It is about the power that works in us to allow forgiveness and restoration to take place. It is about scared and insecure people who overcome their shyness, unworthiness and nervousness to share good news with others who are desperate to hear their testimony. It is about proud people who are broken in their failure and isolation and put back together by the love of God. It is about the true heroes who are mostly unsung and often humble in their loyalty and service to others.
Friends, you are my heroes. You persevere when the obstacles seem overwhelming. You continue to hold onto faith when you experience some of the most difficult and desperate situations. You love one another in spite of differences and offenses and you keep working at forgiveness and restored relationships. You welcome one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I know you’re not perfect. You know I’m not perfect. We are not yet what we will be. This journey isn’t yet finished. The Spirit of Jesus is being poured into us daily as we try to live ordinary lives with extraordinary inspiration and power. We are not puppets being manipulated or controlled by a force outside ourselves. Instead we are moved and guided and encouraged by the Spirit to live courageous lives of faith, hope and love.
The Reverend Canon Britt Olson