The Blog: On Second Thought

Katy Perry’s new album “Witness”

Say what you will about Katy Perry, but I love her honesty. The title track for her latest album, Witness, is a soliloquy of doubt and loneliness. I won’t name names, but these dark themes fail to surface on the “positive and encouraging” genre of radio stations that are out there. And it’s why you’ll find me listening to some of the less “encouraging” musical artists on occasion.

See, great music, great lyrics puts sound and words to feelings. Sometimes, I doubt. I have fear and anxiety. I wonder if I’m alone in the world, if anybody cares. And I crave music that can put words to those parts of my soul. Words like Katy Perry’s:


If I lost it all today, would you stay?
Could my love be enough to stimulate?
If s*^t hit the fan, grenades got thrown
Would you still show, oh?
Could you go down with me to the mat?
Could we get back up and eventually laugh?
Roll eyes at highs, cheers in the lows, and stay in the flow.


There is a song in the Bible by the Sons of Korah called Psalm 88 that’s a pure cry into the darkness. It says things like:


You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.


And other lines like:


From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.


 

And if that wasn’t dim enough, the song ends with this:


You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.


You read this song and you keep waiting for God to show up, for the ending to turn happy, but it never does. The song ends with a God that didn’t show up. It ends in darkness and loneliness. But that’s why I love it so much.

I’m a believer. I know that in the end God is going to be there for me. I know that. But when I can’t pay my bills, a friend betrays me, or I lose a child, I don’t feel like he’s going to show up. I feel alone. I feel that “darkness is my closest friend.” And for some reason, knowing that someone, anyone, has also felt this despair makes it all a little less despairing. In some strange way, I find the dark and lonely songs by Katy Perry and the Sons of Korah oddly encouraging, precisely because they offer no encouragement.

Now, some of you are already crafting an angry comment about why I shouldn’t write about Katy Perry. So, I’ll just end with this: she’s looking for a connection, someone to get her through whatever she is going through, maybe you can be a witness instead. Besides, who doesn’t need a witness?

 

 

Doug Bender is an I Am Second writer, small groups coach, and author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. and Live Second: 365 Ways to Make Jesus First.

(Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/JustinBieber/)

I am a Belieber.

I’ll just say that upfront.

I don’t have the T-shirt. I’ve never seen him in concert. But I’m a fan of Justin Bieber. I remember watching the YouTube videos that launched his crazy rise to fame. It wasn’t some marketing firm or record company rep that got his music out there. It was him on a crummy camera blasting us away with his vocals. Thankfully, the production quality of his music has improved with time.

Now, I say all this, not to endorse everything he’s ever done, said, or sang about. Let’s be honest. I wouldn’t endorse everything I’ve ever done, said, or, well, attempted to sing. I say this because love him or hate him, he’s got some truth we all need to hear. And some of these truths we don’t hear nearly as often or as loudly as we should. Here are a few of those truths:

 

1. “God is in the midst of the evil”.

On May 22 of this year, a suicide bomber killed 23 adults and children and injured another 119 following an Ariana Grande concert. So, Justin Bieber and others joined up for “One Love Manchester,” a benefit concert for those injured or killed. Justin got on stage and said this:


“God is good in the midst of the darkness. God is good in the midst of the evil. God is in the midst. No matter what’s happening in the world, God is in the midst. And he loves you and he’s here for you.”


I recently shared about the suicide of my absolute best friend from childhood. I remember just searching and struggling for answers. And the only answer I ever really found came from a line in a song written by a man named David in the Bible. He wrote, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”

I haven’t really told this story much in public, but, more recently, my wife and I had a still born child. And there is absolutely nothing you can say to comfort that or to wipe away that pain. You just have to be in the sadness and know that God is sitting next you. That’s it.

 

2. “What a better way to fight evil…with good.”

At that same concert, Justin challenged us to fight evil with good. He said,


“Love always wins in the end. What a better way to fight evil…with good.”


That doesn’t seem like anything big or shocking on the surface, but think about it for a second. Some group of people just set off a bomb, killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children. Children! And Justin Bieber challenges us to fight this gruesome and terrible violence with goodness and love. That’s bold.

Jesus taught that when someone hits us in the face, we should turn our head and let them hit the other side. That’s insane, that’s bold. But that’s Jesus. And according to Jesus, love is our weapon. I don’t hear this near enough in my circles.

 

3. “We have the greatest healer of all and his name is Jesus Christ.”

I’m not even going to give you commentary here. Just read what he said in an interview with Complex magazine:

“If you believe it, he died for our sins… What Jesus did when he came to the cross was basically say, ‘You don’t have to feel any of that stuff.’ We could take out all of our insecurities, we could take away all of the hurt, all the pain, all the fear, all the trauma. That doesn’t need to be there. So all this healing that your’re trying to do, it’s unnecessary. We have the greatest healer of all and his name is Jesus Christ. And he really heals. This is it. It’s time that we all share our voice… I’m at a point where I’m not going to hold this in.”

 

4. “None of us can handle this world, dude! It’s eating us alive.”

Pick up the Bible and read any story out of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and you’ll find a theme. There was one group of people that just really got to Jesus. Seriously, you can tie Jesus down and whip him to within an inch of his life and then string him up on a cross to die and he’ll say, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” But this group of people ticked him off so bad that he got out a whip, flipped tables, yelling “Get them out of here!”

And what is this group, you may ask? Religious people. Hmm. If you are a church going person, beware.

Too often, what I hear is there is this magic list of bad things that you need to avoid, usually all the sexual stuff, drugs and alcohol, and maybe a few others. Do these things and you are out. And of course Christians like to shout out how good they are at avoiding this list. But this list is the same list religious people had in the time of Jesus. And it didn’t work for them. And in walks Justin Bieber:


“If we can understand that we’re all imperfect, let’s come to God and come for his help. You’re not weak by doing that. I think that’s a common misconception of Christians, that you’re being weak because you can’t handle it. None of us can handle this world, dude! It’s eating us alive.”


 

So there it is. I’m a Belieber. I’m not asking you to convert. I just want you to hear him out. He’s speaking some truth here. We need a little less pride in ourselves, a little more pride in Jesus, and we need to stop running from sadness and grief and just know that God is in the midst of the evil.

 

 

Doug Bender is an I Am Second writer, small groups coach, and author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. and Live Second: 365 Ways to Make Jesus First.

 

 

More on Justin Bieber

You need to read what Justin Bieber just said about Christianity–because he’s right- I never thought I’d say this: Justin Bieber understands Christianity better than a lot of people I know. And there’s a lot about Justin Bieber’s Christianity that I want.

Justin Bieber nails it regarding God and faith…again- I mess up; I disappoint people; I’ll always disappoint people; but God still loves me and that love is unconditional.

 

More from Doug Bender

13 Reasons Why NOT: an Open Letter to My Friend Who Committed Suicide- I was the last person you ever called and I missed it. I’m still not sure how it happened. But you took your life before I could call you back. I remember calling the next day. Your mom answered and said they couldn’t find you.

Friend or Foe: My Brain Can’t Tell the Difference- That moment sent me on a dizzying journey that eventually led to the discovery that I have a defect. My brain isn’t normal. I lack the mental ability to identify people by their face. It’s an actual thing, face blindness, they call it.

Nashville Predators- Mike Fisher

I’d get the question: “Hey, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

And it was: “An NHL hockey player”.

That’s all I wanted to do. I remember just the anticipation, I loved to compete.I  loved the speed of it. I loved to score. I grew up in Peterborough, Ontario. Peterborough was a hockey town, so it was filled with hockey rinks. I tried balancing that with school and church and family. 

Hockey is stats-related, performance-based sport. I think that carried over as a kid into just trying to be a good kid. At six years old, I was about to go to school and I asked my mom if I could ask the Lord into my heart. I still remember where I’m on my knees and prayed with my mom.  


I make it to the NHL. I’m making a great salary. I made my childhood dream. Everything was great on the exterior, but in the interior, not good at all.


I left home at seventeen. I was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League, so I went away at seventeen and left family and friends, and the security of home and church. I was playing with 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 year-olds and I struggled. I was trying too much to fit in. I was focusing for so long on what I can’t do. I can’t swear, can’t drink, can’t have sex. I can’t do all these things. And meanwhile, inside, I’m not focusing on that relationship with God. Hockey took over.

At nineteen, I make it to the NHL. I’m making a great salary. That’s it. I made it. I made my childhood dream and everything was great on the exterior, but in the interior, not good at all. I remember signing my first contract. I was nineteen years old. It’s kind of a little bit unbelievable. That’s every kid’s dream, to sign a contract, and I remember going out that night to a bar, gettin’ drunk, making a bad decision, and waking up the next morning and feeling like the worst piece of crap that I could ever felt like.

There was a lot of inside feelings of a lot of different things. I was letting people down. I was letting God down. I was trying to hide, trying to pretend like everything was great. Still go to church, but maybe be hung-over. Not really into it, but just putting up a facade. When I did a Bible study with my cousin, who I was living with at the time, at the age of about 22, I get to a scripture, Luke 9: 23-25, and it says:


“If you want to be a follower of me, you have to put aside your own selfish desires, shoulder your cross daily and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it, but if you give up your life for me, you will find true life. What do you benefit if you gain the whole world, but lose your own soul in the process?”


I remember that scripture just hitting me, that was for me. I’d reached my dreams. I had money and everything. I thought I was cool and it just wasn’t working. I knew where the answer was, but I hadn’t been looking for it in the right places. Through a process of just praying and getting in the Word with my cousin my life was changed. For the first time, I remember thinking: “Man, this is really real.”

It wasn’t because of my parents. It wasn’t because I was supposed to be in church. It became real to me. It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly God changed me on the inside. I started to not worry about the dollars, but just focus on just pursuing him. And slowly, God started to just bring up stuff. I started to confess things in my life that I wasn’t proud of. God just kind of released that. It wasn’t religion anymore, it was a real relationship and it was awesome.

Game day, I start to get goose bumps, thankful to be able to do what I love to do. I fail, definitely. I’m on the back end of my career. I’m a guy that’s kind of not very patient at times, and I’m a slow healer. But I finally figured out that it wasn’t just about performing. It was about just accepting his love in spite of our failures and our mistakes. That love of the Father is unconditional, and that’s a pretty good feeling to know how much he loves me.

My name is Mike Fisher, and I Am Second. 

Mike Fisher is a recipient of the NHL Foundation Player Award, recognizing commitment, perseverance, and teamwork on and off the ice. He has played in the NHL since 1999 with the Ottawa Senators and then in 2011 with the Nashville Predators. In 2016, he was named captain and is currently playing for the Stanley Cup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.


More Feature Stories

Chris Plekenpol: God must have taken a vacation because there’s no way He can be present in a situation like this. That was Chris’s rationale after being deployed to Iraq where no day, hour or minute was certain.

Josh Turner: God inspired me to write “Long Black Train.” I wrote this song, by myself, in my apartment, and it came to me in a vision. It’s a vision of this long, black, beautiful, shiny train, and people are standing out to the sides of the track, watching this train go by, just craving to get on it.

(Photo source: pexels.com)

I can still see the sales rack in my mind. I can hear the hangers clanking as I fingered through the T-shirts. I can even tell you exactly where in the store I stood staring at the bright yellow and blue “3 for $18.99” sales sign.

All my clothes came via my older brother, thrift shops, or family friends. Well, except the clothes my mom made herself. So, maybe I wasn’t the most stylish kid on the block. Obviously, this sales rack meant some desperately needed style in my life. No more handmade clothes and no more hand-me-downs. This was a shot at the real thing. My homeschool co-op was going to think me the hottest kid at the science fair. Yes, I was homeschooled and my mom made my clothes. I know. I know.


This was a shot at the real thing. My homeschool co-op was going to think me the hottest kid at the science fair.


Never mind, that it was a discount retail store where I stood staring at the rack. Mom told me I could pick from that rack any three T-shirts. Three! Can you imagine that. I’d never had three new shirts ever. I could only pick from that one rack, but who cares. They were new and not made by mom. I love you, mom!

Twenty years later, I can still feel the emotional rise and joy of the moment. I touched and examined every one of those shirts. I was there for at least an hour engulfed in decision making. Looney Tunes were cool then. Well, at least I thought they were, but we’ve already discussed my level of style at the time. I got one Tasmanian Devil shirt with some sassy saying, a Daffy Duck shirt, and a Looney Tunes compilation shirt. And I wore those things for years, and I do mean years. Of all my early childhood, those shirts rank top four possessions along with a Styrofoam plane, Mario Brothers, and a Mickey Mouse that read books to me.

I’m now married, have kids, a good job. And I don’t shop at that store anymore. A class thing, I guess. Somehow, it feels below me. I’m embarrassed to even say that. I erased this paragraph like five times trying to decide if I’d even tell you this. But there it is. I think I’m too good to shop at that discount retailer.

What happened? Those shirts brought me years of joy and pride but now I’ve got a brand name shirt on. And the thing is, I’m no happier than I was twenty years ago wearing those Looney Tunes T-shirts.


The problem isn’t that I don’t have a nicer shirt, because I got that. The problem is I think that nicer shirt will make me happy.


There is a name for this. It’s called materialism. Sometimes it’s called the love of money, greed, or discontentment. Whatever we call it, I’ve got it. I find myself leaning on money and stuff for happiness. I haven’t learned to beat it yet. I’d like to be perfectly content with any financial situation. That’d be just plain contentment. I’m not. I find myself at a place I call happy discontentment. I don’t spend crazy or have a house full of stuff I don’t use, but I do carry with me this itch for more. I don’t need more, but something in me wants more. I’m happy with my life, but carry with me this discontented itch. So, I find myself at happy discontentment.

No matter how many shirts I buy or how much money I spend on those shirts, I’ve never been happier than when I got three terribly 90’s Looney Tunes T-shirts. The problem isn’t that I don’t have a nicer shirt, because I got that. The problem is I think that nicer shirt will make me happy.

 

Doug Bender is an I Am Second writer, small groups coach, and author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. and Live Second: 365 Ways to Make Jesus First.

 

 

More from Doug Bender

13 Reasons Why NOT: an Open Letter to My Friend Who Committed Suicide- I was the last person you ever called and I missed it. I’m still not sure how it happened. But you took your life before I could call you back. I remember calling the next day. Your mom answered and said they couldn’t find you.

Friend or Foe: My Brain Can’t Tell the Difference- That moment sent me on a dizzying journey that eventually led to the discovery that I have a defect. My brain isn’t normal. I lack the mental ability to identify people by their face. It’s an actual thing, face blindness, they call it.

How Ashton Kutcher Saved Me from Growing a Beard- I didn’t have a topic, experience, training, or any actual plan to make this happen. I just thought one day inspiration would strike while I sipped a macchiato at some sidewalk café and out would pop a book and my hairy face would be on the back cover.

Nashville Predators- Mike Fisher

I have never followed professional hockey in my life. I grew up in the Panhandle of Texas, and I’m not sure that there was even a single hockey rink in those hundreds of square miles. No one talked about hockey when I was a kid. Baseball was even kind of an afterthought. Football was, and is, king. Basketball just got us through the winter.  

Though certain sports, hockey included, aren’t part of my DNA, I’ve learned to watch and enjoy them over the years, especially when the team is doing well, which is the case for this year’s Nashville Predators.  

Sometimes I’m more drawn to the players themselves than I am the game that they play. That’s one of the things that makes sports so compelling – knowing the individual stories of the athletes. Watching them overcome adversity, whether in their childhood years or after they achieved some level of success.  

Mike Fisher, captain of the Nashville Predators, is one of those people.  And right now, he and the Predators are going after the biggest prize in all of professional hockey – the Stanley Cup.

So, the big question is: what does it mean to be second when you’re pursuing the position of Number 1? Can you still be second to God and others when the goal is to be the very best in your chosen field of endeavor? I want to do the best I can be in my job. I want to be the best father I can be. Deep down, I want to be first. First, while being second.  Seems like an oxymoron, right?  Well, not really.


Living second doesn’t mean that we don’t give our best. It doesn’t mean we’re a doormat for others. It doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to be better than we were before and reach for the stars.


We have all desired to be number one at something. Whether it was finishing a race as a child or your place in line when the new iPhone came out. First feels good! First is first for crying out loud!  What did Ricky Bobby say? “If you ain’t first you’re last!” And the general consensus is that the late Dale Earnhardt is responsible for letting us all know that second is the first loser.

Well, you can actually live second and finish first. That is what Mike Fisher of the Nashville Predators is trying to do right now. They won some very tough games in the playoffs, and now they’re right in the middle of pursuing the biggest prize in professional hockey – the Stanley Cup.  Knowing what we know about Mike, I am confident that he is giving 100%.

Living second doesn’t mean that we don’t give our best.  It doesn’t mean we’re a doormat for others.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to be better than we were before and reach for the stars.  

But it does acknowledge that the people in our lives are ours to serve and love and support.  And that God wants each of us to put our pride and ambitions aside if those things are damaging to others. Living second is a win/win. It puts a balance in our lives that can’t be achieved through the constant pursuit of ‘self’.

As the Predators continue to win in their pursuit to be the best in the world, I think it’s safe to say that their Captain understands that winning in life, through living second, is the sweetest victory of all.  

And that’s the main reason I’m watching. Mike Fisher brought me to hockey.  I was a fan of his story and his character before I knew anything about his sport. If you haven’t heard his story check it out here. I know enough about him to know that he understands that there are more important things in life than winning. How we treat people while we’re on this earth, and the legacy that we leave behind in the small things transcends any victory that we might achieve in our professions.

So, when the remaining games in this Stanley Cup final are on television, you know where I’ll be – cheering on the Preds, knowing that whether they win or lose the most important things have already been won. This small town boy from the flat, arid lands of Texas, where a hockey rink is less common than a UFO sighting, is a fan for life.   

 

Stan Fletcher’s day job is showing people around Lieper’s Fork Distillery as a tour guide.  He writes music, plays the guitar, and performs weekly at various spots around Nashville.  He has been involved in various aspects of I Am Second since the beginning of 2016.  Stan was a pastor in Seattle and Scottsdale for 13 years.

(Photo source: pexels.com)

In the Friends” episode, The One That Could Have Been, Fat Monica is sitting at her kitchen table with Chandler, upset that her boyfriend ran out on their date because of work. In her frustration, she blurts out, “Chandler, I’m going to die a virgin!” As if such a fate was actually worse than death.

Monica’s disappointment and embarrassment about being a 30-year-old virgin reflects how our society views those who are sexually abstinent in adulthood whether by choice or lack of opportunity.

I can’t speak for society, but I can speak for myself. I laughed at that scene, not because I thought it was funny, but because I identified with Monica. In fact, I exclaimed, “Me too!”

Now, sex in and of itself would be a horrible reason to get married. So let me be clear, that is not the only reason I would like to be married one day.

I know marriage is more than sex, and that marriage is beautiful and hard and all that. I know it doesn’t complete me. I know marriage will not make me happier. I get it.

But sometimes I fall prey to the belief that in our society, it would be easier to be married and Christian than single and Christian.

If I were a married Christian lady, nobody would think twice about me staying faithful to my husband. If I did sleep around, the world would actually look down on me.

Case in point: In that same “Friends” episode, Rachel has the opportunity to cheat on her husband with Joey Tribbiani, the Soap Opera star, but she doesn’t. She feels overwhelmed with guilt for even entertaining the idea because cheating on her husband would make her a horrible person.

However, as a single Christian lady, I still believe the only man I should sleep with is my husband. God just hasn’t revealed the identity of that lucky man yet. The world thinks I’m crazy for wanting to be faithful to a man who may very well not even exist.

I’ll be 29 this year, and I can count on one hand the amount of dates I’ve been on in my life. I’ve never been on a date with a man where I’ve enjoyed myself and wanted to continue the relationship. They’ve all been awkward, and then I had to do the whole “I don’t really like you that way. Let’s pretend like we’re going to stay friends, but I’m actually going to avoid you like the plague from here on out because I feel guilty for possibly hurting your feelings” thing.

Let me share with you a list of some situations I’d rather not go through again:

  • Being told by a guy I like he’s not that interested in me
  • Telling a guy I’m not that interested in him
  • Kidney stones

So after one painfully awkward date, I told God I would prefer not to be asked out at all than to be asked out by a man whom I’d have to reject.

God is faithful, and I have not been asked out since August 2012.

I’m telling you this because I need you to know I’m not some super holy person who has resisted so much temptation in an effort to stay faithful to my future husband; I’ve had no opportunity to be unfaithful. (At least not physically… emotionally unfaithful? Well that’s a story for another day.)

I’m just a girl who somedays feels like the biggest loser in the world and who sometimes believes no man will ever find her beautiful or love her. A girl who struggles with loneliness and feeling unwanted.

But those are my feelings; they are not my reality.

My reality is a Father who has beautifully protected me from the pain and destruction of sexual sin thus far in my life, but whose affection is not contingent upon my perfection. I am loved.

My reality is a Savior who loved me at my worst and who continues to recklessly pursue my heart. I am wanted.

My reality is a Great Comforter who guides and guards me as I navigate the trials and joys of this world. I am never alone.

Feelings often take awhile to catch up to God’s truth. They also forget easily. I have to remind my heart daily of the truth, so my feelings can be rooted in God’s Word and not fear.

My fear of being single forever and dying a virgin finds its root in the fear of being an outsider and misunderstood and ridiculed. Ironically enough, God’s Word promises exactly those things for those who follow Jesus.

We were never meant to “fit in” in this world; we were meant to change it. And in our weakness and struggles, God shines brightest.

“…I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ might rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ESV

I’m not implying that the single life is all calamity and hardship. For the most part, I’ve greatly enjoyed my twenties and God has taken me on many adventures that would not have been possible if I was married. Marriage would have provided its own set of hardships.

But singleness does provide a unique opportunity to live counter culturally and proclaim that God’s way is better–even if in my weakness, I still feel a tinge of embarrassment when asked about my abstinence.

Will living a chaste life while single change the world? Maybe not.

But living in obedience to God in every area of my life–big and small–certainly will.

I may very well die a virgin, but please, God, don’t let me die without changing the world.

This originally appeared on Sarah Stinson’s blog, with my whole heart. Republished with permission. 

Brian Birdwell- 9/11 Pentagon Attack Survivor

The moment when you are 15-20 yards from an 80 ton jet coming through the building at 530 mph with 3,000 gallons of jet fuel, and you live to tell about it– not because the United States army made me the toughest guy in that building, but because the toughest man that ever walked this earth 2000 years ago and sits at the right side of the father had something else in mind.

The morning of September 11, I stepped out and went to the men’s restroom, and took care of my business. I was about 7 or 8 steps out when flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at the intersection of the fourth quarter in the E ring at about a 45-degree angle.  I was thrown around, tossed around like a rag doll inside. I was set ablaze, breathing in black putrid smoke, inhaling aerosolized jet fuel, with the temperature of that air somewhere between 300-350 degrees.

You could see flesh hanging off my arms, my eyes are already beginning to swell closed, and I had no hair. The front of my shirt is still intact, my access badge and my nametag are melted, but still hanging covered in the black soot and scorched blood.  My arms are skinned alive, my pants are gone, I only have my leather belt and a portion of my pants that are in the immediate area of the belt. The flames were consuming me and I expected to pass away.

It’s really the definition of terrorism because it combines two things: One, receipt of a life threatening injury, I mean, set on fire the way I was; but combined with the blackness, the darkness and inability to navigate. Just moments before I was in a hallway that I was exceedingly familiar with, I knew exactly which way I was going. Then in that next moment on the impact of the aircraft I am being set on fire, sustaining a life threatening injury with no way to escape, and no way to know which way is to safety or to danger. That darkness and that blackness is what really captures your heart in the panic. When you meet those two circumstances, those moments seem to last an eternity.

I did what we in the military are never trained to do, which is surrender. I came to that realization that I was no longer struggling to survive, but I had stepped over that line from that desire and zest for living which we were created with to that acceptance of my death and recognizing that this is how the Lord was going to call me home. I screamed out in a loud voice, “Jesus, I am coming to see you.” Yet that didn’t come, and I lay there thinking all right Lord let’s get on with this thing. But the Lord had other purposes.

I used the wall that I had been blown up against to get up; and as I was staggering down the hallway four men, Bill McKennan, Roy Wallis, John Davies and Chuck Knoblauch come out of the B ring door area and Roy can see me, he sees me coming out of the smoke and staggering in the hallway. And in their haste to pick me up, Bill, Roy, Chuck and John each grab a limb and give that exertion to get up but I didn’t come with them.  It’s similar to that paraffin or hot wax you stick your hands in and after the wax cools it will just peel right off, and that’s what happened when Bill, Roy, Chuck and John each grabbed a limb and go to pick me up, they pulled chunks of flesh off of me and that’s my first insight into the pain thresholds that are ahead of me as a critical burn survivor.

I began screaming at them to leave me alone, and in my heart and mind am telling them to leave me there to die.  They don’t do that. Chuck actually rolls me over onto the left hand side and essentially the four of them shake hands with each other, grasping each other’s hands and wrists with my body weight resting on their arms acting as a litter to carry me through; I am yelling at them to put me down and leave me alone. I am yelling at Bill because I recognized Bill but Bill doesn’t recognize me. I am trembling violently and uncontrollably. In all my years of triage, the process is to take care of those that are most injured first, the most critical, and Dr. Baxter treats me first, and that tells me how serious injured I am.

We get to Georgetown University Hospital. On the other side of the Potomac River across the Key Bridge – there’s a lot of intensity, a lot of voice commands, a lot of directives; clearly a lot of gravity. Normally in an emergency room situation it’s airway, breathing, circulation; once those three things have been stabilized you’re evacuated to specialized care. But more importantly, when flight 77 makes impact with the Pentagon, as the third aircraft that crashed that day, inside the White House Situation Room Vice President Cheney turns to Secretary Moneta, Secretary of Transportation, and says, “Shut down all air space in the Unites States.”  that includes all medivac helicopters.  

Dr. Williams will not just do his best to stabilize me, but he began the escharotomy, the incisions, and the very ghastly things that have to be done for someone who has been so seriously and critically burned. The finality and permanency of life that I thought I was facing inside the Pentagon– I am now in an emergency room realizing that whatever I do here may be my final acts.  

 So, I told Dr. Williams I wanted to take my wedding ring off, because normally jewelry has to be cut off the burn survivor, whether it’s a ring, bracelet or necklace if that’s the part of the body burned because as swelling of the body occurs but the jewelry doesn’t swell, it becomes a tourniquet. Judith Rogers, one of the nurses in Georgetown that had answered the “all hands on deck” call to the Emergency Room, reaches for the ring as my body is cooled like that steak you take off the grill, and as Judith takes that tug and de-gloves the flesh, there’s exposed bone after she pulls it off, there is blood streaming out of the base of my hand and only the Lord can hear me scream in my mind. I am concentrating on the dignity and the finality of the death that I know I am dying; and saying goodbye to my wife and my son, and the symbolism of that wedding ring.

Mel will eventually arrive at Georgetown. Knowing that she was there was critical to me, more than anything else she was living up to the wedding vows that she had taken 14 years earlier. I am proud of her. I asked for the hospital chaplin, Chaplin Cerillo, to say that final prayer, and it’s just a prayer that says, “Okay Lord, You are in charge here. If you guide Dr William’s hand and the team here at the Georgetown Emergency Room and I survive here, we will salute that flag and move out with that mission; but if you’ve brought me here and your decision is to bring me into eternity silently and quietly under the care and compassion of my fellow Americans, we will salute that flag too.” It was with the strength, not of a soldier, but of my faith in Christ that I could look at Dr. Williams when that prayer was over with and very laboriously tell him lets get on with it,  resting in the comfort of the commander and chief of life.

General Peak very wisely asked Mel, “Has Matthew been up here to see his father?” and she said, “No, not yet.” He said, “You need to get Matthew up here because your husband is dying and your son needs to say goodbye before that happens.”

Matt would make that visit and in 20 plus years of military service, the hardest thing I have ever been asked to do was to say goodbye to my son. I remember watching Matt come in and he came into the right hand side, as I was wrapped like a mummy, with a tube in every orifice in my body. I can’t speak because of the tracheotomy and the feeding tubes and other things; but I can see him walk in and just mouth “I love you dad,” and I could sit there and mouth back to him how much I loved him; and because of that opportunity I had to say goodbye to my son, in that moment I was having my “it is finished moment”.

As hard as that was to physically and emotionally say goodbye to my son, I think about how difficult it must have been for God the Father to say goodbye to his Son for three days, his Son having known the perfection of heaven. In my death, I would be separated from my son, but joined to my heavenly father, whereas Christ’s death separated him from the perfection of heaven and the relationship he had with the Father.

Time will allow me to forgive. In fact, I can’t say that’s happened. I couldn’t look you in the eye and say, “Yeah I have forgiven and moved on,” but I can tell you that Mel and I accentuate the positive of not only having our lives to remain together and watch Matthew grow up, but also having grand kids somewhere in the future and continue to live in this great nation. We don’t think about the difficulty that five particular terrorists put us through, and concentrating on the negative of the terrorists’ actions; but we concentrate on the grace of the Lord’s actions.

You know, I got a purple heart for stepping out of a men’s restroom; and many of our men and women in uniform today earn their purple heart today by stepping out of this great nation into foreign danger zones. Christ earned his purple heart by stepping out of the perfection of heaven. And that’s exactly why the term “I am Second and He is first” is so appropriate.

My name is Brian Birdwell and I am Second.

 


More like this

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The day I lost my first soldier- I glanced at my watch; we were on time. Second platoon was heading out in sector and I felt like things were starting well…then Boom! A massive explosion erupted about a mile and change out. I watch a mushroom cloud rise from the fire. I ran inside the TOC and got on the radio.

How I found myself after I lost my mother to addiction- This past May, I lost my mom to alcoholism and addiction. In truth, I had lost her before that—long before that. But the shock of it was no less jarring.

 

Films

Chris Plekenpol: God must have taken a vacation because there’s no way He can be present in a situation like this. That was Chris’s rationale after being deployed to Iraq where no day, hour or minute was certain.

Chad Robichaux Film: As a police officer, Chad Robichaux had to make a life-or-death decision. As a Force Recon Marine serving as part of a Joint Special Operations Command Task Force, he witnessed unspeakable evil. Eight tours later those memories still haunted him.

Sujo John: When terrorists hijacked planes and rammed them into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11/2001, his life story was altered. As the walls of the towers came crashing down around him, his wife’s whereabouts unknown, and thousands dying around him, Sujo could only rely upon God’s plan for his life. A plan which became real amidst the death and debris of Ground Zero.

(Photo source: pexels.com)

Happy Memorial Day (weekend)!

I think what Memorial Day is best known for in our country is barbecues, a day off from the grind of the work week, and most importantly–the beginning of summer. However, Memorial Day is more somber than that. It started as a day to go visit tombstones and decorate them, remembering the soldiers buried there shortly after the civil war. In 1971, it became a national holiday to take time to remember those who gave their lives in the defense of freedom. To be fair, only about 7% of Americans have served in combat. Of that, fewer have had close friends or loved ones die in battle. So when this holiday comes around, more barbecues than cemeteries are decorated.

For those of you who need a story to remember I would like to share the story of the first soldier to die under my command in combat. I was a company commander in Iraq in 2004. We were stationed at Camp Habbaniyah–just West of Fallujah and just East of Ramadi–patrolling the road that connected those two violent cities. My tank company, A/2-72 Armor which had been attached to the Currahees (of Band of Brothers fame) had just replaced a tank company from the 1st Infantry Division. The road was in our hands, and I was nervous. I stepped outside of my TOC (Tactical Operation Center (HQ)) and watched as my tanks headed through heat waves into sector. I glanced at my watch; we were on time. Second platoon was heading out in sector and I felt like things were starting well…then Boom! A massive explosion erupted about a mile and change out. I watch a mushroom cloud rise from the fire. I ran inside the TOC and got on the radio.

“Sitrep!” I shouted.

Gunfire exploded in the distance. I waited an eternity for a reply. Then through the Radio, I heard, “Red 3’s been hit.”

“Any casualties?” I asked my RTO as I ran to my bunk, grabbed my rifle, vest, and helmet.

“Red 3 is KIA.”

I paused taking in what that meant. Killed In Action. SSG Vaillant was dead.

I ran down to my tank. I remember racing past SSG Vaillant’s tank as it came in. I remember wanting to grieve. I remember fear and anger and thoughts of God all flooding my mind. I joined the platoon in contact with the enemy, we fired across the Euphrates River at what we thought might be the trigger man that killed our brother. Then we crossed the river and got on foot going house to house. I spent seven hours with my interpreter trying to figure out who killed SSG Vaillant. The only thing we found that day was sadness and exhaustion.

A couple days later the leadership of the battalion and my company stood by to remember SSG Vaillant. We would have our own memorial day. Psalm 23 was read, Amazing Grace was played. I gave a eulogy about the grace of God. A twenty one gun salute jerked a tear from my eye. After the ceremony, my company huddled together and informally I asked the men to share a memory of their lost comrade. PVT Cavazos took a step forward. He shared a memory back in Korea about how SSG Vaillant and he were waiting for transportation together to get back from a firing range. It started to rain and they were getting wet and tired. They decided to sit back to back for comfort and to prevent the rain from invading as best as possible.

“That’s when SSG Vaillant started talking about Jesus.” Cavazos said. “I was getting tired, and I didn’t want to be rude, but I just nodded off. When I woke up what seemed to be an hour later, SSG Vaillant was still talking about Jesus.”

I want to be remembered like that. Etched in the mind of PVT Cavazos was the man whom SSG Vaillant was. A man of God who died in combat. A man of God whose hope was realized on the day when it seemed death and darkness got the upper hand.

SSG Vaillant’s memorial day pointed to a greater memorial day. The day that Jesus took our sins away. The day that he died on the cross in our place…but didn’t stay dead. And that was the hope of SSG Vaillant. And that is my hope. That is the hope I wait for patiently. I’m waiting for the day Jesus comes back and ends the war, the hurt, the pain, and the darkness. So it’s Memorial Day, a day to remember those fallen in combat. We remember them because of our loss. We remember Jesus, because of our hope.

 

Chris Plekenpol is the Lead Pastor of Wells Branch Community Church in Austin, TX. He is the author of Faith in the Fog of War I & II available on Amazon.com, here and here.

 


More like this

Blog

In four minutes, I lose my first soldier- How Chris Plekenpol lost his first soldier and what he learned watching a terrorist burn to death.

How I found myself after I lost my mother to addiction- This past May, I lost my mom to alcoholism and addiction. In truth, I had lost her before that—long before that. But the shock of it was no less jarring.

13 Reasons Why Not: an open letter to my friend who committed suicide- Dear Daniel, I was the last person you ever called and I missed it. I’m still not sure how it happened. But you took your life before I could call you back.

Films

Chris Plekenpol: Watch Chris’s own story. God must have taken a vacation because there’s no way He can be present in a situation like this. That was Chris’s rationale after being deployed to Iraq where no day, hour or minute was certain.

Chad Robichaux Film: As a police officer, Chad Robichaux had to make a life-or-death decision. As a Force Recon Marine serving as part of a Joint Special Operations Command Task Force, he witnessed unspeakable evil. Eight tours later those memories still haunted him.

Brian Birdwell: One minute he was visiting the bathroom down the hall from his Pentagon office. The next minute he was burned over 60% of his body from an unknown explosion and resulting fires. That was the hell unleashed on Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell on 9/11/2001.

Sujo John: When terrorists hijacked planes and rammed them into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11/2001, his life story was altered. As the walls of the towers came crashing down around him, his wife’s whereabouts unknown, and thousands dying around him, Sujo could only rely upon God’s plan for his life. A plan which became real amidst the death and debris of Ground Zero.

Chris Plekenpol

Sometimes, I regret not saving that guy’s life. I mean, sometimes, I sit there and I’m like “you know that’s probably what a Christian would do.” And yet, I didn’t have the guts to do it.  You think you really know God. There is just those moments where I went from this place of being a fan of God, when I was 22, to just having this incredible faith. Where life went from black and white and turned to color, and it just became such a powerful thing. The army kind of sometimes runs a little contradictory to that. So, I just made this call and decision that the only thing in life I wanted to do was share the gospel [of Jesus].

So, I find myself getting out of the army and I’m in Korea and the Colonel gives me a call. And he’s like, “Chris, I want you to take command of this company.”  

So, there is that moment, “Sure, I’ll do one more year. What’s it going to hurt? It’s great leadership experience.”

Well, twelve days after I take command, my Colonel gives me another call, “Hey Chris, I need you to take an assessment of your men. I can’t tell you why, but you can probably figure it out.”  

Figure what out? Well, he told me I was going to war. I was going to Iraq.

A couple of months later I find myself in the sandbox of Iraq. I am now the commander of 100 men, 21 tanks, 7 Bradley’s, which are like mini tanks, a handful of Hummers. I’m standing outside my command post for that first day of combat. I was watching heat waves, I mean it’s hot. Heat waves are bouncing off – it’s 120 degrees outside. And there are my tanks, we’re all out in the sector. I mean, I’m doing this – this is real.


There are three letters that you never want to hear creep across the radio in combat. And that’s KIA.


I glance down at my watch to make sure everything is okay and boom, a massive explosion erupts about a quarter of a mile out. Smoke and fire billow into this mushroom cloud about 250 feet high. Immediately, I run into my command post and I’m trying to figure out from the situation report what exactly is going on.  There are three letters that you never want to hear creep across the radio in combat. And that’s KIA, killed in action.

The first four minutes, I lose my first soldier. Immediately, I run and go grab my M4 carbon rifle, my 9mm pistol. I put my flak vest on and sprint down to my tank. I charge that 50 caliber machine gun, my loader takes a 45 lb., 120mm round and puts it in the breach of the main gun. Then my gunner toggles the switches on the computer, while my driver pushes that 72 ton beast of a machine 42 miles an hour into the west gate.

I align three tanks to pound the north shore with everything we got. These terrorists start to withdraw to the north. I send two tanks across the river to follow. I follow in my tank. 100 men behind me start searching house, to house, to house, to house. And after 7 hours of searching, we find nothing.  


You got one job as a military leader, and that is to bring back everyone home alive. In the first four minutes of that, I fail.


I’m emotionally drained. I go home, back to the barracks and write a letter home to his wife, Kaila, and his 13 year old daughter, Sara, and explain how I let her father and husband die. You got one job as a military leader, and that is to bring back everyone home alive. In the first four minutes of that, I fail.

Spiritually, I’ll be honest with you, it kinda felt like God took a day off. When I came to faith in Christ at 22, we kind of had a deal. Here I am 6 years later and it feels like that whole thing about “I’ll never leave you or forsake you”, it’s kinda church jargon now. But where are you in the moment where my company is in battle, in combat, and I lose somebody and there is that sense that you’re on vacation.

I was constantly out of sector. My uniform is wet with sweat. I’m frustrated. I’m tired. I don’t even feel like I’m a Christian at all. I feel like I’m not praying. I’m not reading my Bible. I’m struggling here. Ultimately, I made a decision and went up to my second-in-command, my executive officer and I said, “Adam, check it out man, I am going down to the chapel in the morning.”


I figure that God is big enough for my worries.


I take a chair and set I set another chair [in front of me]. I just sit there and I talk to God. And I am like, ‘You know what, I’m frustrated. I’m tired. I don’t know if I can do this. I’m lonely. You know, there is no one I can express this fear with; everyone looking to me and  I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders here.

So that frustration kind of mounts and I’m just letting Him have it. I figure that God is big enough for my worries.

This one time, we are out in sector and all of a sudden this terrorist takes a car bomb. It’s not like he has a uniform. He looks like everybody else. He takes this car bomb and he plows it right into one of my men’s tank. The car doesn’t explode. In fact, there was something wrong or he miscalibrated somehow. The detonator didn’t work and he rams the car straight into the tank. You know, this is a 2 ½ ton car running into a 72 ton tank. He loses. He’s knocked out.

The entire gas tank explodes. We have this massive inferno moving from the rear of the car to the front of the car, where these bombs are. So, this terrorist rolls out of the car. He wakes up because the heat must be just incredible. He’s starting to roll away from the blast. And there is a moment. I’m not going to lie to you. I could have saved his life. I saw it, but I didn’t do it. There’s that moment, I was not willing to die for my enemy right now. I’m not willing to do it. And so I watch him. The explosion erupted and we watched his body ripped apart. After the explosion, the dust settles. I jump off my tank and I sprint up to his body. I watch crimson fill the sand.

I’m that terrorist.  When it comes to how I’ve affected my life towards God, I’ve been an enemy of him and yet he didn’t sit back in his tank and just watch me die. He decided to come from heaven to earth and take that blast for me. Life is so short and so urgent. We just have this need to share the hope that we have with people who have no clue. I look at that terrorist and there is no way that I would ever go and save that guy’s life, because I am not that kind of hero. I am not willing to go and risk my life for an enemy. Yet Christ did that very thing for me. I owe him everything and that is why he is first in my life, because he was willing to do what I was never able to do.  

I am Chris Plekenpol and I Am Second.  

 

Chris Plekenpol: Watch Chris tell his story in his own words.

Chad Robichaux Film: As a police officer, Chad Robichaux had to make a life-or-death decision. As a Force Recon Marine serving as part of a Joint Special Operations Command Task Force, he witnessed unspeakable evil. Eight tours later those memories still haunted him.

Brian Birdwell: One minute he was visiting the bathroom down the hall from his Pentagon office. The next minute he was burned over 60% of his body from an unknown explosion and resulting fires. That was the hell unleashed on Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell on 9/11/2001.

Sujo John: When terrorists hijacked planes and rammed them into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11/2001, his life story was altered. As the walls of the towers came crashing down around him, his wife’s whereabouts unknown, and thousands dying around him, Sujo could only rely upon God’s plan for his life. A plan which became real amidst the death and debris of Ground Zero.

When Marriage Hurts- Matt Morrison

In a few weeks, Holly and I will celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary. It’s hard to believe we’ve been married this long. It’s also hard to believe that we have a five year old, that we’re pregnant with our second child, and that we’ve known each other for over a decade.

Over the past year, we’ve found ourselves transitioning into a new season of marriage. For the longest time, we’ve usually been the young couple in the room receiving advice from the more seasoned ones. And while our marriage is still young and we definitely still need that advice, we’ve recently hit an awkward stage where others are coming to us for the advice too.

It’s not like I haven’t learned a few lessons through the years. For instance, if you accidentally eat her leftover cheesecake while she’s pregnant, she’ll end you. And when she tells you she’s pregnant for the first time, a response that starts along the lines of “I did notice that…” is a terrible idea. Also, texting her friends behind her back to help them plan a surprise party in her honor doesn’t look much different to her than the early stages of an affair.

When Holly and I are asked for advice about a couple’s situation, our most common response is, “Been there, done that.” From the endless fighting over each other’s bathroom routines to the late night “come to Jesus” meetings, we’ve learned just how normal challenges in marriage can be.


I found myself reiterating the same point over and over again- “This is going to be harder than it looks.”


Recently, I was asked to officiate my first wedding. I taught the groom in a Bible class when he was in 4th grade. Through the years, he grew close to our entire family. He’s one of my “non-biological brothers” – guys who my parents mentored closely through the years. As I thought about my message, it forced me to consider implications of marriage on my faith for the first time in a while.

Walking with them through the pre-marital counseling and the hell that is engagement, I found myself reiterating the same point over and over again – “This is going to be harder than it looks.”

At the ceremony, I walked through an important passage in the Bible found in Ephesians chapter 5. It’s about the roles of the husband and wife. Paul challenges the couple to submit to one another. The husband is called to sacrificially and proactively love his wife as Christ loves the Church. The wife is called to submit to her husband, trusting his servant leadership. Together, they paint a living picture of the core message of Jesus. Their unending commitment and radical selflessness demonstrates the unconditional love Jesus shows the world.


We feel this pressure to make everything in marriage seem passionate, seamless, and endlessly joyous. But marriage isn’t two people running through fields together and vomiting sunshine.


When we consider this idea that marriage demonstrates the the core message of Jesus regarding love, we often think about the sweet times – the romance, the sex, the outward acts of love. We feel this pressure to make everything in marriage seem passionate, seamless, and endlessly joyous.

But marriage isn’t two people running through fields together and vomiting sunshine. In fact, I believe God is most honored when marriage is hardest.

Inevitably, every marriage experiences moments when there seems no way forward. Hearts are broken. Trust is shattered. One or the other is physically and emotionally exhausted. In some instances, the very covenant itself may even be violated.

In these moments, it only makes sense to give up, part ways, and call it quits. These are the times when the world says God wouldn’t want you to be unhappy. They’re the seasons when it’s easy to think you deserve more than what you’re getting. They are also the moments that separate a marriage from any other relationship or commitment.

When we choose not to give up, it makes much of Jesus. How else can you explain a wife who forgives her unfaithful husband and fights for their marriage? How else can you explain a broken husband who serves his wife in the face of emasculating verbal assaults? There’s no other relationship that could leave two people more vulnerable to heartbreak.

But when we choose to stand in and fight for one another, we demonstrate a supernatural love. It’s the kind of love that led Jesus to his cross and defeated death. This is why divorce is so heartbreaking to God. While unfortunately necessary in extreme cases, it’s a missed opportunity to demonstrate that love.


The tough times in marriage shouldn’t be a place of shame. In fact, they can often be a message of hope to the world.


Whether you’ve been married six months or six decades, you should never be ashamed of difficulties or challenges. You should never feel as if the relationship is failing. These late nights and tearful moments are when God’s love shines through most. They are the very reason you made such a powerful commitment in the presence of all your family and friends. You were telling the world then that you’d never give up. This is where you get to show them.

And when you do, you’ll show them more than just two people who love each other. You’ll show them a glimpse of the God who never gives up on them. The tough times in marriage shouldn’t be a place of shame. In fact, they can often be a message of hope to the world.

Couples, don’t be afraid to struggle.  Let the world see the love God has shown you by how you love each other through the tough times. Don’t be afraid to let your failures and weaknesses hang out. While uncomfortable, these are defining places in our lives that have the power to draw people to Jesus.

Matt Morrison has been married to Holly for eight years. the two live in McKinney, TX with their son, Caleb and soon-to-be-born son, Noah. He manages communications for e3 Partners, a Christian organziation based in the Dallas area. You can find his latest writings at mattmorrison.me.