Monday, May 30, 2011

A Veteran I'd Love to Meet

I just finished a remarkable biography. It's called Unbroken. It's written by Laura Hillenbrand, and she recounts the life (so far) of Louie Zamperini. Louie grew up in Torrance, California during the Great Depression. He was not a good boy. He connived. He stole. He got into numerous fights. He and the police were on a first name basis. He was, as Hillenbrand described him, a "one-boy insurgency." If it hadn't been for patient parents and his older brother, Pete, who knows what would have become of Louie? It certainly wouldn't have been this story.

The only way Louie avoided a life of crime was his interest in running. Pete was a runner and he saw something in the way Louie ran that could lead to greatness. And did it ever! He set all the California high school records for the mile run. He went on to the University of Southern California and set all kinds of records there, winning the mile run in the NCAA meet. He was a natural.

He even set his sights on the 1936 Olympics. He was the youngest man in the field, and he didn't make it in the mile. Not to be deterred, however, he tried the two mile and miraculously made the Olympics in that race. You've heard of those Olympics, haven't you? Berlin. Jesse Owens. Adolf Hitler. Zamperini placed seventh in the two mile run and because of the way he went about his business, he even shook hands with Hitler. Louie knew he was a bit young to compete with all those young men in their prime, so he refocused his energies on making the 1940 Olympics which were to be in Tokyo. Of course, a world war erupted and those Olympics were cancelled.

To avoid the draft, Louie enlisted in the Air Corps and became a bombardier on a B-24. He was good at what he did. But he didn't get many missions under his belt because he and his crew were forced to fly an unsafe plane on a search mission. The engines gave out. The plane went down into the sea. Only three of the crew, including Louie, survived.

There would be no rescue either. Louie and two others drifted for almost seven weeks, fending off hunger, sharks, a Japanese attack, and storms. One of the three died during their weeks on the raft. And just when Louie and his friend thought they were about to make land, a Japanese patrol boat found them and took them prisoner.

The next couple of years were hell for Louie. The Japanese were vicious to American prisoners. You've heard of the Bataan death march and the conditions in which these men had to live. It wasn't any better on the Japanese mainland. The men, even the officers, were treated as slaves, denied basic medicines, adequate food, and Red Cross packages. And worst of all, they were unmercifully beaten on a whim by the guards. One guard in particular took a sadistic interest in Louie. They called him "the Bird." He beat Louie with a belt. He beat him with rods. He beat him with his fists and kicked him with his boots. The bird knew Louie was a famous Olympian and wanted to make an example out of him, wanted to break him. And even though the Bird got Louie in two different prison camps, he never quite could break Louie Zamperini.

Finally, with the war over, Louie returned home, and quite the hero. People thought him dead, so it was almost a resurrection story. Add his war experiences to his Olympic glory and everybody wanted to hear Louie's story. Louie told it. He seemed okay to those who didn't know him, but he was not okay. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't get the Bird out of his mind. Louie couldn't sleep for thinking of him. And when he did fall asleep he dreamed of the Bird. Louie was eaten up with bitterness and a desire for revenge. Many war criminals had been caught and tried in Japan but the Bird eluded capture. Louie used to dream of how he'd kill the Bird. Once, he was awaken by his wife's screams as he sat on top of her choking the life out of her, thinking she was the Bird. Add to these problems Louie's constant drinking to numb the pain, and he was as big a mess as he was as a boy.

Everybody was worried about him. His wife left him for a time but came back to him. She wanted to help him but didn't know how. Until one day in 1949 when this gangly, young evangelist from North Carolina set up a tent in Los Angeles to hold a crusade. His name was Billy Graham. Louie's wife heard him and was saved from her sins. She gave her heart to Jesus. She tried to get Louie to go. He fought it but finally gave in, only to run out when Graham gave the invitation to trust Christ. He said he'd never go back, but he did. And as Graham preached, God broke through to Louie's heart. Louie trusted Christ for his salvation and invited Jesus to come into his life, save him from his sins and give him the life that is really life. Jesus answered that prayer. Louie was saved, transformed in every way. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "If anyone be in Christ he is a new creature; old things pass away, all things become new." You could paste Louie's picture right next to that verse. He was a changed man. He gave up his drinking immediately. And even better, he never had one more dream or ill thought about the Bird—not one. Isn't Jesus a wonderful, merciful, glorious Savior?

Louie went on in life to found and work with boys in camp. He has lived a life that matters. God has used him to do far greater things than win races and survive the horrors of war. And all these years later, Louie has stayed active, skiing and skateboarding well into his 80s—not the 80s, his 80s. It's a remarkable story. I encourage you to get it and read it. I've spared the details that add so much color and tension to the story. It's a biography that reads like a novel.

Louie's story made an deep impact on me. While I was reading the sections that describe his imprisonment by the Japanese, I actually dreamed that I was shooting Japanese prison guards—and liking it. That's not me, but I dreamed it. Louie let go of his hatred, bitterness, and desire for revenge. I was having a hard time with that, I guess.

One of my key takes from the story is this: the answer to bitterness, hatred, and revenge is not found in war, not found continuing the cycle of killing and brutalizing one another. The answer is found in Jesus. That's where Louie found it. Even though I assume that verse in the prophets about God turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and nations studying war no more probably reflects a time when Christ comes back to this sin-sick, war-sick world, it seems like we could get a start on that even now if we'd all turn to Jesus and follow Him with the same passion and commitment of Louie Zamperini.

Did I tell you Louie went back to Japan to meet with former prison guards? He wanted to see them and forgive them. He wanted to forgive the Bird too, but the Bird would have none of it. Too bad for the Bird. But good for Louie. The Bird continued to live by his hate-filled heart. Louie followed the path of his master Jesus who taught, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God."

Oh, for more and more peacemakers like Louie in our war-torn world.

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