Our nation is momentarily bereft of examples of courageous leadership. We have all these people that look for what is expedient rather than what is right. They would rather win than have integrity.
But we will learn again what generations before us have learned. Character counts. It counts so much that it haunts you doesn’t it? You look yourself in the mirror when you are facing a tough situation. You ask yourself, “Am I up to this?” “Am I taking the low road or the high road?” “What kind of person am I?” Really difficult decisions are like that. They reveal us to ourselves.
You aren’t responsible for other people’s weakness but you sure as hell are responsible for your own. It is a divine question, a question of conscience. What kind of man are you? What kind of woman are you?”
I think of John McCain, the part of his life before he got involved in politics. Graduated 5th from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. A scrappy fighter that got into quite a few scrapes with his explosive temper. 17 demerits for sneaking off campus to drink beer with his buddies. I knew a lot of guys like John McCain in college. I was sneaking out right behind them.
He made mistakes. As a pilot he crashed three times. But when he was shot down over North Vietnam, they took him to the Hanoi Hilton with broken bones in bad shape. They tortured him and he gave up some information. One thing I learned writing my dissertation, everyone caves under torture, one of the insidious things about it.
His interrogators found out that McCain’s dad was an Admiral in the Navy, so they offered him a sweetheart deal. They would let him go home tomorrow. The pain could be relieved. You can get out of the rat infested darkness, have a real meal, have a hot shower, towel off, lie down on your bed, drink a cold beer by the pool, put this all behind you, this sad, sorry episode that made everyone look bad, and just go on with your life. Your Dad’s reputation just got you sprung from solitary confinement.
Most of us would take that deal and find a way to rationalize it that would make some pretty good sense. Survival being right up there.
John McCain was a young man. I suspect he actually knew in that moment that he was at one of those crossroads moments in your life. If I go this way, it will turn out like this. If I go that way, it will turn out like that.
In that moment, he saw it from the Divine perspective, as a test of his character. His conscience posed that question to him as a moral challenge. And these fundamental moral questions turn out to be the most important questions that are posed to us as spiritual creatures.
We are fundamentally moral beings, us humans. Researchers have demonstrated our moral architecture is hard wired into our brains. Morality is not optional. We can’t live with ourselves if we violate our conscience in a fundamental way. It haunts us, like Lady MacBeth who couldn’t get the blood off her hands no matter how many times she washed them.
John McCain thought about all the guys in prison with him. He could not abandon them. He had a perq by the North Vietnamese that he couldn’t use because he could never look those guys in the eyes again if he left them behind. They needed him to be a leader and act in a way that would inspire all of them to survive this hell that they were going through.
In that moment, he thought about himself and then he thought about all of his soldiers. This wasn’t fair that he got to go home and they didn’t. This wasn’t right that he got special treatment because his Father was a VIP. If he took this offer of freedom, he knew it would undermine the morale of his fellow prisoner and it would make it harder for them all to survive.
And in that moment, he took his skills from the past, scrappy fighter that he was- got him in lots of trouble as a kid, as a teen, and a very young man- and he channeled that energy towards a cause bigger than himself. He took this offer as a personal challenge to his sense of honor and integrity. He got mad at the Vietnamese for offering him this deal and channeled his anger and frustration towards proving to himself and the world that he was morally tough minded and fair.
He went beyond thinking about himself to thinking about keeping all of his guys alive and thinking of what the entire group needed, not just his own needs. And he went back and joined his guys, knowing that it would probably mean years more torture.
Jesus once said, “Greater love hath no man than that he is willing to lay down his life for his friends.” This is the real deal. He was going back to solitary confinement, years of torture, but… he was an inspiration for his men in his time, in his moment. And he could live with that, even through a terrific test of inhumanity for years to come. Because character is like that.
And you know that. You know that your reputation is the most really real thing about your life. You want to be able to live with yourself. This is what real leaders do.
I was moved by that this summer, standing on Omaha Beach at Normandy, paying my respects along with a thousand other people, to the guys that liberated France from the Nazi’s, storming the beaches on D-Day. I couldn’t help but think of Pete Moran, known to people at Christ Church as the smiling 85 year old guy with the bright green plaid pants. Pete could sport plaid.
I believe he was 20 years old, a sophomore in college, when he was drafted. Became a pilot, and six months later, he was a co-pilot on those first bombing raids into France that preceded the D-Day invasion. His second mission out, he is 20 or 21.
I believe there were 12 men on his plane, when they were strafed by anti-aircraft guns. They took heavy fire, two guys were shot to death, two more were shot to death, three more were killed, including the Pilot of the plane.
Pete had to take over with a big hole in the cockpit and his pilot dead. The right wing was hit hard, almost blown off. They were behind enemy lines, so Pete was trying to fly the plane as far as he could. He wanted to get as close back towards the Allies as possible. But the plane wanted to tilt sideways and roll over because it only had one wing, so he had to pull on this steering arm as hard as he could for as long as he could.
He said it took all the weight he had and all the strength he could muster to hold that plane steady and his body was becoming overwhelmed but it is a life and death situation so he just kept straining.
There was no way he could do a controlled landing, so he just presumed the plane would blow up when they hit the ground. He found a wheat field and leaned as hard to his left as he could pull that steering arm and they bounced to a stop.
Four of them were still alive. And the other three ran from the plane as fast as they could and Pete would have also but he felt himself losing consciousness. He sat in the cockpit, trying to unclasp his seatbelt as the plane was on fire, but he was passing out. I’m sure he thought, ‘this is the end’. He awoke when his crew ran back to the plane, smashed through the glass above the cock pit, cut him out of his safety belt, and pulled him up, put him on their backs and ran as fast as they could away from a plane about to explode.
What makes people willing to risk their own lives for other people like that? Unbelievable character. These are people you want around you. And that is why character counts. In your platoon, your friends, your family, your team. You want people that show up and risk their lives for each other and go the extra mile because that is what you do.
First time Pete told me that story I said, “Pete, you four guys are behind enemy lines in the middle of the war, you don’t know where you are exactly, you don’t have serious weapons, what did you do that night?”
He says to me, “Chuck, we were 21 years old… We got drunk”. Boys can become heroic men… but they are still boys too.
I said to him, “Pete, did you guys go to different planes after that.”
He said to me, simply and directly. “No, after that those guys wouldn’t fly with any other pilot.” I deeply respect they humility with the way the guys of that generation said things like that. It is why we call them ‘The Greatest Generation’. That is real leadership. It is the only kind there is.
“Greater love hath no man than that he is willing to risk his own life in the service of others”. As Saint Paul says of spiritually authentic people. The suffering they endure builds perseverance and that perseverance produces character and that character fills the fearful and the anxious people around us with inspiring hope.”
And that is what God wants for you. God hopes that you will step up and lead. You are on a life long quest to shape your character to become a woman of substance, a man with character that can inspire your people in your context, during your time. God wants for you to lead by example. It is the only type of authentic leadership that there is.
The world around you will always be filled with compromise. There will always be cynics that offer some snark that morals don’t matter, it is all about winning and losing, but nothing deeper than that. There will always be people around you that look for the easiest way out, the dodge, the hedge.
You wouldn’t follow these people around the block, let alone into a serious situation of danger. But as Jesus showed us in his life and his death, authentic leadership produces a loyalty and a camaraderie that transcends even death. People long for real camaraderie. When it is genuine, it gives us the deepest sense of meaning and purpose that we humans are given to know.
That is why the people that have had to endure the worst situations together like the Hanoi Hilton can say that they wouldn’t change their lives in retrospect. Awful as it was, that is where character was revealed and forged. In the hardest moral test of their lives, that is where they were privileged to see noble character embodied. That is when they knew inspiring leadership that made them all feel so alive with each other. I’ve got your back. What a great feeling.
When you take the right fork in the road, difficult as it is in the moment, you never look back on that with regret.
Our world is aching for authentic leadership. We are waiting for you. You have such promise, such gifts. God wants you to step up to your higher self and let yourself shine.
If you came here this morning, hoping for something more, you are in the right place. This is no collection of sanctimonious Saints. We are just the forgiven, works in progress.
But, to your left and to your right are people who want for your higher self to rise and shine. They will pray for you. Some of them will befriend you, share their lives with you, encourage you and walk with you through the difficult challenges you will face in the next few years. They are just hoping to be spiritually and morally real. They are trying to live in real spiritual community.
In the midst of a lot of snark, may you develop real character. May you step up and be a blessing with your people, in your time, in your context. Our community needs you, our world aches for your leadership, our God hopes for you to find your better self. Amen.