Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Consider and Hear Me

Presented October 16, 2016

Psalm 13

1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4 lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him," lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
I learned the words to this Psalm when I was 14. It was given to me as sheet music by my voice instructor to memorize. Entitled “Consider and Hear me,” It was my first solo. I remember practicing it at the top of my lungs when I was plowing with my John Deere revved up loud so as to hide my singing. The words have never left me. I have to say that I have used them over and over as the need presented itself. I learned it, of course, in King James language.
One of my concerns of the contemporary world is the trend...the statistic...that many young folk are leaving the traditional church. This demographic in our society has a different view of the world than those of us who were born in the middle of the  last century. And one of the traditions they seem to have discarded is the value of a spiritual life...a belief in God and a practice of worship.
I despair for them, because as I tried to point out to the children this morning...those of us who need to discuss things...pray and lament out loud, as it were... they have no connection with their creator. They have neither the language nor the passion...and I might add...the pleasure of verbally processing their concerns with God either through words or music.

Is this a serious deficit? When might this be a problem for them? Well, you never know….when did you need to talk things out with the Creator? When did you call upon your spiritual background to get you through a dark place in your life?

Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine who put his faith and his spiritual background to use in a time of extreme need.

Capt. W. R. Alcorn
It is my pleasure to introduce you to Wendell Reed Alcorn...farmer kid born in 1939 in Western Pennsylvania...a tough kid...who dogmatically went to church every Sunday...learned the hymns, and the prayers of the church and went off to Penn State to become a forester. That’s where I met him.

We became fraternity brothers...not the frat boys you hear about, but part of a group of 48 guys who lived together in the early 1960s who all were in school to study agriculture….we were all farmer kids.

Wendell was two years ahead of me and while I was unsettled on my career choices, Alcorn was fixated on flying jets, not, as you might think, managing stands of trees. Upon graduation he was off to Navy flight school. Two years later I followed him, not in aviation, but into the Navy nonetheless.

During the summer of 1963 we intersected in Newport, RI as I was finishing up my training before entering the fleet and Wendell was going to Justice School before he joined his squadron to fly a jet.

His squadron was attached to the USS Enterprise. I on the other hand, was headed to the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D Roosevelt. I to the Mediterranean and Alcorn, ultimately,  to Yankee Station in the South China Sea. I did not see him again for over 25 years.

Alcorn was now going by the name Ray since his initials were WRA… and he felt Ray was easier to remember than Wendell...I still stumble when I talk to him.

Ray was shot down over North Vietnam and spent the next 7 plus years in the infamous Hanoi HIlton. To add some perspective, let me read you a portion of what he wrote on his release in 1973:

On 22 December 1965 after twenty days and twenty-nine combat
missions, I was shot down and captured in North Vietnam.       
I was sustained during those long years in prison by my faith in God, faith in my government, and faith in my fellow countrymen. I knew I had not been nor would I ever be forgotten. Upon my repatriation, I was overjoyed to find that these faiths which gave me so much help and comfort were not merely figments of my imagination, but were very true and real. I thank you great American people for your support, your prayers and for your faith in me. God bless you all.

I first heard that Ray was Missing in 1967 just before I got out of the Navy. But it was not for another two years that I learned that he was considered a POW. His initial status was MIA. During this time of uncertainty, and if you remember...these were troubling times...there was little information coming from the captors in the North.

As you may recall, our prisoners, all 580 of them were returned in early 1973 in a negotiated deal. We saw them arrive live at Clark AFB in plane after plane.

Some years later Aleene and I traveled to a reunion of these 1960s vintage frat boys which was being hosted by Ray and his wife Karen in Tahoe City, California. There I heard, first hand, about his experience in the North Vietnamese prison.

We have connected several times since then and I have shared his story with some of you personally. But before I put this presentation on paper I emailed him to ask permission to share it with you.  He simply said that it was good for him to talk it through with those who understood and were willing to listen.

Ray told me his tale years ago and reviewed it again this fall when I checked in with him. What followed were several phone conversations...each lasting over an hour and a half. I wanted to be sure I had my facts straight.

The, then, 24 four year old was flying his A-4 Skyhawk over North Vietnam with his wingman (who did not survive)  when they ran into a wall of anti-aircraft fire….remember this was his 29th mission...he had seen that before.

A shell penetrated the canopy of his jet, cut his oxygen hose and grazed his neck. When the oxygen hose separated there was a flash fire from the hot metal in the presence of pure oxygen. Ray was burned, blinded and knew he had to bail out.

“In that fraction of a second before I ‘punched out’,” he said, “I uttered the first prayer that entered my mind: God I’ll need your help with this one.” He was crying out as was the Psalmist in our scripture this morning….Consider and hear me, O Lord my God...

Ray was raised during a time when farm  families went to church every Sunday. That’s what they did. “We were always in church,” he told me. But for the previous two years or so, he recalled he had fallen away from that habit. “He knew God,” he said, “but I hadn’t talked to Him much in months.”

He parachuted to the ground mostly uninjured except for the burns and the  wound to his neck. He has an ugly scar there now….to which I can attest.

He was surrounded by a small group of people who seemed friendly, but soon after he gathered his parachute and took a few steps the group grew larger and men with guns showed up...they motioned to him to join them.

Incredibly the DOD sent him this picture
about 20 years after his release. That is him.
He explained: “I thought things were going pretty well as they marched me along the road to Hanoi, then we stopped in a village and some rabble rousers began to whip the crowd into a frenzy. That’s when things got ugly.” He explained that one of the men spoke English and told him that there was a man there with a gun who wanted to shoot him and he might not be able to keep him from doing so. Things went from bad to worse and the armed man held the gun to his head.

Ray continued, “The English speaker told me that he would count to ten at which time he would be shot.” The count began: 1-2-3-4-5…”about this time I felt a warmth, a peace like I had never felt before,” he said, “….6-7-8-9-10”  A shot was fired but not from the gun aimed at him.

He went on, “...about that time a woman with a shawl  covering her head stepped forward, pressed something into my hand, made the sign of the cross and disappeared into the crowd.”

What had the woman placed in his hand? Was it a cross? A pebble? Whatever it was, when he was telling me his story it caused him to choke up. What was the object, I pressed?

He responded when he had collected himself….“A cake or cookie….When I finally was put into a cell that night after my first interrogation, I worked the ropes off my arms and realized my right hand was still clenched shut.  Upon opening my hand I discovered the cookie now crushed and covered with dirt and blood.  I took a small bite and decided that was my first, and it turned out, my only communion in North Vietnam.”

Refreshing your memory...all of Vietnam had been controlled by the French from about 1900 until 1954 with the fall of Dien Bien Phu as the French quickly left the country.  The country was split in half by the UN. It is not surprising that there existed a strong Christian, Roman Catholic, presence.

Ray felt that he had received a blessing from God; a sign that he was not alone. The woman had been God for him. This incident was instrumental in getting him through what turned out to be 7 years and 3 months of captivity.

The first four years of captivity were brutal...sometimes daily beatings, being hung by the arms for hours, solitary confinement, not allowed to communicate. He said by late 1969 after Ho Chi Minh died, conditions got better.

a cell in the Hanoi Hilton 
The prisoners came to understand they were political prisoners...to be used as bargaining chips...so while treatment was brutal, it was not lethal….although several of his compatriots did die.

He said that from the beginning of his captivity he learned the tap code that the growing number of prisoners used to communicate...and each Sunday the senior officer….in Ray’s case, James Stockdale would tap C C for church call….and if they were alone or later in groups they would pause for some sort of divine service. “I usually recited the 23rd Psalm.” Ray said haltingly…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” With that, tears welled up in his eyes and he paused…”You can tell I still get emotional when I think about it.”

There are more stories, of course….
Doug Hegdahl the young sailor who was repatriated after a year of captivity out of "First in, first out" order. He had memorized over 300 names of prisoners either came in contact with or heard about. He used “Old McDonald” as a memory tool. And others, too numerous to mention here.

I asked how he endured for over seven years:
“You live from day to day….week to week….month to month. When I got captured I felt that I would be released or rescued in a month...and I could survive for a month. Then I could survive another month...then I could survive for six months...then a year....and then another year. Being unable to communicate with others, I did a lot of communicating with God...my friend and my companion.”

One of the captured airmen had been an altar boy in the Anglican Church. He knew the liturgy inside and out...he would lead them in prayers week after week.

The last three years they had choirs and choir competition...singing hymns that some could remember...often at the risk of being beaten. The choirs, of course, were voices not standing together, but coming from individual cells up and down a long hallway. They paid a price for this but persisted.

Near the end of the his captivity they were permitted to assemble outside in a courtyard and they really began singing in a real chorus.

Were most prisoners believers, I asked?
“No...we had all sorts...conservative Christians… Jews,... Mormons… Catholics and Presbyterians like me,” he said. “One guy focused solely on his wife...everything he endured he did in the hope of seeing his wife. Unfortunately when we got back she had filed for divorce and two years after that he was gone.”

Ray and I had two mutual acquaintances who were prisoners, it turns out. One was a pilot from my hometown in Pennsylvania. Another was a pilot friend with whom I served in Roosevelt. A third was prominent name most of you would know...John McCain. While Ray was in the same camp with McCain he was not in the same cell or cell block. He was, however, in the same squadron right after they both began flying again after their release. He has many McCain stories...some are even  positive.

My story about Ray’s prison experience is my attempt to share with you the impact it had on him and through him to me. It is a compelling tale of strength, faith and courage…and how God works through others to furnish strength.

In 1998 he was part of a group of 12 former prisoners who went back to North Vietnam to visit Hanoi and the old prison. It gave him some peace as he met with civilians who were willing to discuss their memories with the group. And those conversations played a role of forgiveness in his healing.

I recall that when we concluded our first reunion twenty years ago.....I will never forget...as he fought back tears and looked me in the eye and said,  “I know I am going to Heaven, Tom...God has been with me throughout my life, every step of the way.”  

You can draw your own conclusions about Ray’s experience.  But the ability for those downed pilots to maintain a spiritual life, the ability to call upon scripture and hymns...from memory...all played an important role in their survival. It has been so in my experience as well and many of you can add your stories of similar life events.

God does give strength in time of need to those who ask Him to...Consider and Hear Me...

Ray and Karen the last time we
were together


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