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The story of Job is familiar to all of us - a man whose world was spinning merrily along with everything falling into place suddenly confronted with one misery after another... disaster, death, disease, despair. In some of the most moving poetry ever written, chapter after chapter attempts to deal with the age-old question of why, so often, life is so unfair.
People still wrestle with the issue. Some years ago, a Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner, wrote an immensely popular book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. After watching his son die of progeria, Kushner tried to put it in theological perspective and concluded that "even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check," and that God is a "God of Justice, not power." According to Rabbi Kushner, God is as frustrated, even outraged, by the unfairness on this planet as anyone else, but he lacks the power to change it. Oh really? Elie Wiesel said of Kushner's God, "If that's who God is, why doesn't he resign and let someone more competent take his place?"(1) No doubt the question asked by who knows how many in New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy. The unfairness of life is a difficult issue for people of faith.
I raise this question about the unfairness of life in the context of this weekend which our nation sets aside to honor and remember our veterans. The normal tack for the pulpit to take on a day like this is to celebrate the heroism, dedication and supreme sacrifice made by fallen warriors, to remember Jesus' words saying "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."(2) But this morning I want to take the part of old Job and complain about the unfairness of it all. For the most part the ones we remember this weekend began their service at a very young age, lives barely begun, and too many snuffed out because it is always true that old men's wars become young men's fights. Unfair!
The particular piece of unfairness I recall involves Charlie. Charlie was several years younger than I. If I remember correctly, his family joined our church when he was just about ready for Junior High. Even though he lived several miles away, he was at that church every time the doors were open - Sunday School, morning and evening worship, youth groups, choir. If his parents could not bring him, he would thumb a ride or hike or ride his bike.
It would almost be fair to say that Charlie adopted that church as his second family, but it really was his third. His second family was the Leiningers. He even looked like one of us. Charlie and I could easily have passed for brothers - he was blond, blue-eyed, and fat. He was at our house as much as he was at his own. He would drop by of an afternoon, see my mother scrubbing the floor or washing windows or doing dishes, and would pitch right in to help. Good kid. TOO good - later that night, Mom would say something like, "Gee, Charlie is nice. Why can't YOU help like he does?" (Thanks, Charlie!)
Charlie had one of those personalities that was irresistible. He always had a huge smile, loved to laugh and joke, was unfailingly pleasant. He was very musical - a beautiful tenor voice, terrific talent on the trumpet. He was the kind of kid every mother would be proud to call her own.
Charlie would have liked it more if all those mothers' DAUGHTERS had felt that way. He never did very well with the girls. He was especially enamored of one of my sisters, but she never gave him a second look. Girls LIKED him all right, but nothing more. Perhaps he was TOO much fun, TOO happy - they did not take him seriously. That hurt him.
For some unfathomable reason, Charlie looked up to me. He had two older sisters and a younger brother, but no older one - he adopted me for that role. As we moved through our teen years, he followed me around like a puppy dog. He was a shadow - there was no shaking him. He got on my nerves - little brothers often do.
One might think that the relationship would have changed with the passing of the years, but it did not. Even after I was grown and moved away from home, Charlie would come around...a lot! I could be on the radio, doing my show in the middle of the night [I was in broadcasting before entering the ministry], and Charlie would drop in at the station with donuts or pizza or something equally calorific (which was no help at all to either of our waistlines) ready to just hang around for the rest of the night. Once I was away on vacation at the beach - he hopped a bus and came. That was Charlie...the shadow.
By the time high school was over, Charlie had no particular life direction in mind. But he was in no hurry. Instead of fumbling around in college, he would join the Navy. That way he could take some time to decide on a career, avoid the draft, and get his education when his hitch was through letting Uncle Sam pick up some of the tab. Even though the Vietnam war was going on, Charlie was not worried about combat. The recruiter had told him that, with his talent on the trumpet, he had an excellent chance at landing a nice, cushy slot in the Navy band. Sorry, Charlie - not only is life unfair, so is the Navy. He ended up being assigned for training as a medic.
Needless to say, he was disappointed about the band, but not terribly. He enjoyed his work and found he had a genuine talent for medicine. As a good Presbyterian he had been brought up to understand God's providence and saw his assignment as perhaps a way the Lord was using to give him a path for life.
Of course, as Charlie's training progressed, so did the war. Not long after his school work was complete, he got orders to join a Marine contingent and head for Southeast Asia.
I do not remember what kind of send-off we gave him - some sort of bon voyage party, no doubt, with good wishes and prayers for his safe return. He had previously admired a custom-made ring a former young lady of mine had given me. Since she was a FORMER young lady, I no longer wore that ring, so my going-away present to Charlie was an easy choice.
In the beginning we heard regularly from him - all the news from the trenches that we were getting in gruesome, living color each evening over dinner as well. I wish I could say that I was a faithful correspondent, but I was not. In spite of all I heard about how meaningful letters from home were to the boys in the service, and in spite of my mother's constant badgering (Gee, David, you KNOW how much a letter from you would mean), I never wrote - big brother taking little brother for granted. The closest I came to sending him anything was to make a tape of some of his favorite music, but I never mailed it. I waited too long. Word came that he was missing in action.
We were all stunned. But, after the initial shock, I was not overly concerned. After all, this was Charlie they were talking about. Nothing would happen to Charlie. Anyway, he was a medic. He did not even carry a gun. They would not hurt a medic, especially one as crazy as Charlie.
Day after day passed with no information on his whereabouts. There were prayers for his safety from all his friends, the hope for a miracle. There were constant questions: "Any more word about Charlie?" More prayers. Finally, the dreaded letter: Charlie had been out with a Marine patrol near the base at Khe Sanh, where a two-month-long siege had just been broken; he had stepped on a mine, and was instantly blown apart. Twenty-one years old.
They shipped what was left of him home in a body bag. That night at the funeral home, as family and friends gathered, is mother handed me a small package...the ring I had given him. He had not taken it to Vietnam with him for fear that it might be lost or stolen. He wanted it safe and sound for his return. It was. He wasn't. When I gave the ring to him, it had been several years since I had worn it.; it had lost its meaning. Now, it had a new meaning. I put in on again. I still wear it.
I had not been to too many funerals by that time in my life. One for my grandmother when I was eight years old, another for my grandfather about ten years later, perhaps one or two others, that is all. I did not like funerals. When a young man is in his early twenties, he does not like to be reminded of death. Despite the fact that a Christian funeral is an affirmation of life...life eternal...the reality of death is what prompts it. I avoided funerals. In fact, it would be a dozen years before I would go to another one, the one for my father. But this one I had no desire to avoid. After all, it was for Charlie.
I remember walking into the church and being stunned at the number of people there (in the neighborhood of 500). That might not have been a surprise if Charlie had been the son of a prominent or powerful family, but he was not. The people were there just because it was Charlie. I knew everybody loved him, but for so many to come out on a weekday afternoon was a genuine tribute.
My father conducted the service. I do not remember what was said. All that sticks in my mind is that not once during that hour did Dad even mention Charlie's name. He was afraid to. My father always kept his emotions under wraps, and to say anything too specific about this young man might have taken those wraps off in front of a whole congregation. After all, this was as close as he had ever come to having to conduct a funeral for a member of his own family. Dad made it through. We all did. To this day, I am not sure how.
Later that night, as friends ahd gone home and just those closest to him were left, I broke down and cried. It had taken till then for the reality of what had happened to hit me. As I sat and sobbed, a six-year-old girl came up to me, put her arms around me and said, "Don't cry. Charlie is still alive with Jesus...and he's still alive in our hearts." Out of the mouths of babes. I hugged that little child like I would never let go. "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted."
Some summers ago, while on vacation, we went to Washington and saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was the first time I had ever done that. It was an emotional moment as I looked up Charlie's name. Panel 50-E, Line 11. Quickly I walked to the spot, found his listing and softly ran my fingers over the letters...Charles B. Boynton, Jr. Tears welled up. Charlie.
There are "Charlies" in the lives of most of us...young men or women who died in the service of their country. It seems so unfair. It IS unfair! Charlie and 58,000 of his comrades-in-arms in Vietnam should never have had to die. People should not have had to die in Iraq or Afghanistan or Korea or on Normandy Beach or in the Argonne Forest or at Gettysburg or Bunker Hill. But they did. It is all so unfair. Life is unfair.
Where is God in all this? After all, people prayed for the safe return of their Charlies and Bills and Bobs and Joes, but they did not come back. Why does God let a good kid like Charlie get blown apart in a jungle halfway around the world for no good reason?
If Job were around this morning, he might ask something like that. Or perhaps he would not. After all, the first time Job asked God for an answer to life's unfairness, instead of an explanation, he got an explosion:
Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant empty words? Stand up now like a man and answer the questions I ask you. Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers? (Job 38:2-4 TEV)
On and on an indignant God goes...three chapters worth, not of answers, but wilderness appreciation...until finally Job whispers, "I spoke foolishly, Lord. What can I answer?" By the end of story Job could say, "I am ashamed of all I have said and repent in dust and ashes."(3)
One commentator writes, "I have a hunch God could have said anything to Job - could, in fact, have read from the Yellow Pages - and produced the same stunning effect...What [God] said was not nearly so important as the mere fact of making [the] appearance."(4)
Is that enough for us? We who are Christians have had the benefit of God's appearance. God came in human flesh, walked the dusty paths of Palestine, preached, taught, healed. It was unfair for Charlie to die, but "unfair" hardly seems adequate to describe what happened to Jesus - after living a perfect life, tortured and hung on a cross. But it happened. Then three days later, God's answer to unfairness came. Easter. Resurrection. Apparently, God was less concerned about preventing unfairness than ultimately overcoming it. Did you hear that? God seems less concerned about preventing unfairness than ultimately overcoming it. Hmm.
The pain of Charlie's loss is less now. Time heals all wounds, and now almost fifty years have gone by. The only visible reminders of Charlie's time on earth are a few photographs in scattered family albums, a gravestone in a Baltimore cemetery, a name on a black wall in Washington, and this ring.
Yes, the pain is less, but our desire for fairness in life is NO less...nor should it be. Who does not long for more justice in this world, for little children never to go hungry, for young mothers never to get cancer, for all the young Charlies never again to die in war? But until the promised day of a new heaven and a new earth, the day when God wipes away all tears from our eyes, and there shall be no more death, or sorrow or pain,(5) we wait. In a modern paraphrase of Job, we say, "I may not have the answers, but I have God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that is enough."
Happy Veterans Day!
1. Kushner and Wiesel both quoted by Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God, (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishing, 1988), p. 179
2. John 15:13
3. Job 42:6
4. Yancey, p. 240
5. Revelation 21:4