“Bring me home alive, and I’ll seek you and serve you.”
I’m going to go analog on you and reflect on a hand-written post from 97 years ago.
Scratched in ink in one of my parish’s old baptismal records book is this name on line 25: Louis Zamperini. There are other names on the list too, but this one stands out this July 4th Independence Day. Born January 26, 1917, he died yesterday, July 3. Today’s news reports are filled with the incredible bullet points that punctuated this 97-year-old American hero’s life:
He was an Olympic athlete who roomed with Jesse Owens and met Adolf Hitler. He was a World War II hero who survived an airplane crash and 47 days on a raft lost at sea fighting off sharks and Japanese aircraft fire.
No less than 48 bullet holes were counted in the tiny raft with NONE hitting the occupants. The miracle survival only resulted in his capture by the Japanese as an emaciated skeleton they sent to “Execution Island.”
At a Japanese POW labor camp, Zamperini’s fate took a sadistic turn as he suffered unbelievable cruelty at the hands of a masochistic captor, Wantanabe for two and a half years. He described constant belt-buckle beatings and starvation at the hands of his captors. “The tension of stress and humiliation caused me to hate with a vengeance,” He said.
If you read Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about his life, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, you know that his courage and endurance in the harrowing POW camp paled in comparison to his triumph over battling personal demons and post-traumatic stress syndrome in the aftermath of the war. How did this come about?
He found an antedote to hate and vengeance and a host of troubles which plagued his life by making a decision to follow Christ. The catalyst, he famously told audiences, was a Billy Gram prayer service in which he heard challenging words reminding him of a promise he made to God over and over during the war: “Bring me home alive, and I’ll seek you and serve you.” God brought him home alive. Zamperini had not followed through with his promise, and he was ashamed.
In inspirational talks and news interviews in the intervening decades–even up until fairly recently– he gave startling witness about his determination to follow Christ by walking away from his demons and forgiving his captors including the sadistic Wantanabe. His teaching on forgiveness was simple and direct: “It must be complete and include everyone.”
In a 2012 CBS interview Zamperini said the hardest thing in life is not to endure two and a half years in a harrowing POW camp or even battle a month and a half lost at sea in shark-infested waters. “I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self-destructive. If you hate somebody, you’re not hurting the person you hate; you’re hurting yourself. That’s a healing. Actually, it’s a real healing–forgiveness.”
Laura Hillenbrand, who spent seven years writing Unbroken, said in an interview with his hometown newspaper today that she was inspired by Zamperini’s ability to forgive those who had tortured him.
“His story is a lesson in the potential that lies within all of us to summon the strength amid suffering, love in the face of cruelty, joy from sorrow. Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness.”
His name is one among many recorded in 1917 as having received the Sacrament of Baptism at St. Mary of the Angels Roman Catholic Church in Olean, NY. Do we not join all the other names inscribed in parish baptismal record books all over the world–called from that day forward to live in allegiance with Jesus Christ? Do we not promise, in effect, at our baptism: Bring me home alive, and I’ll seek you and serve you”? Do we follow through with that promise?
Louis Zamperini’s name stands out today not so much because of his heroics in an Olympic stadium or in war, but for his exemplary triumph over evil in a conscious effort to follow Christ–to seek him and to serve him–to honor the baptismal promise.
RIP Louis Zamperini, son of Tony and Louise who brought you to the font to receive this amazing grace so that you may live a new life in Christ and live it abundantly.