Remarks at the Naval Academy 9/11 Memorial Prayer Service 2017

Invited to share a few thoughts at the U.S. Naval Academy's 9/11 Memorial Prayer Service, I thought it might be of some value to share my remarks with you.  I am also posting a photo of Ken Waldie, my company mate and classmate mentioned in the message (wearing the hat on the left).  

Ken Waldie Photo.jpg

United States Naval Academy 9/11 Memorial Service 2017

Rear Admiral Alan T. Baker, CHC, USN(Ret.)

Our reading is from Psalm 124: A song of ascents. Of David.  "Had not the LORD been with us, let Israel say, had not the LORD been with us, when people rose against us, Then they would have swallowed us alive, for their fury blazed against us.  Then the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent overwhelmed us; then seething water would have drowned us.  Blessed is the LORD, who did not leave us to be torn by their teeth. We escaped with our lives like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare was broken, and we escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth."

We have this phrase at the Naval Academy called: “Mid in the middle.” It goes something like this: You have a movement order that takes you out of class yet the professor requires you to be in class.  This is a classic example of the “Mid in the middle.”  Your coach requires you to be at practice yet your grades require you to get Extra Instruction from a professor instead.  This is another example of the “Mid in the middle.” Finally, your upcoming weekend liberty plans collide with an unexpected duty “opportunity” from your Company Officer.  All of these are examples of the “Mid in the middle” experience at the Naval Academy.

Policies within Midshipmen Regulations try to solve this dilemma through a table of priorities.  Within Midshipmen Regulations is a list declaring various priorities. This becomes your authority of listing a higher priority over a lower priority.  It works most of the time such as when things go smooth or when life is calm.  It also works when the printed word has greater authority than the coach, or professor, or company officer.

While Midshipmen Regulations declare what is the higher priority over another priority, it doesn’t do very well addressing ultimate priorities: What happens when life is churning? What happens when our soul is in conflict? Instead of these ultimate priorities, the questions that now seem to drive most of us are often: What’s my grade going to be? Who can I get to take my duty? Where do I go for spring break? Will I sign the “two for seven” service obligation and commitment? What car will I buy? Who do I invite to the Ring Dance? Will I get invited to the Ring Dance?  What will be my service selection?

Yet these current “bigger than life” questions will soon be replaced by ultimate ones: How will I behave in combat? Can I actually pull this trigger? Will I be able to launch this missile? Will I be brave? Will I let my battle buddies down?  Would I willingly tell my CO that I’ve completely "lost the bubble"? What can I say to my sailor’s family after he is lost overboard?  The stakes grow higher along with promotion.  Rank has its responsibility.  Plebe year has a lot of requirements for following.  After that, there is a lot of leading requiring more authority, more responsibility, more risk, more accountability, and certainly more conflict.

And with each higher rank we find that life becomes more like Psalm 124: It says: when people rose against us, Then they would have swallowed us alive, for their fury blazed against us.  Then the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent overwhelmed us; then seething water would have drowned us. These words were written by someone who experienced the power of the sea.  Maybe a sailor wrote this.  The writer mentions: Engulfing waters.  Torrents of rain.  Seething water to drown them.  Like a surface vessel trapped in the path of hurricane Irma, there are times that a table of priorities does little good.  Rules of the nautical road call this “in extremis.”  We cannot abide by the common ways of doing life.  Life is upside down. What we thought was safe is now dangerous.  What we thought was good is harmful.  The sea is frothy.  The sky is murky. Life is not as it was.

This is what happened on 9/11. We shifted from merely a table of priorities to focusing on ultimate priorities.  Our nation was attacked.  Like the long shadow that Pearl Harbor cast upon my generation: Both events were hostile and preemptive attacks. Both harmed our nation and our people. Yet 9/11 was worse.  Pearl Harbor attacked our war-fighters and our weapons. Yet 9/11 was a hostile and preemptive act of war with the aggressive and illegitimate goal of harming innocent people and unsuspecting civilians. Just as we read in our Psalm, there remains today a seed of destruction.  There exists within the heart of evil an intent to injure and harm and destroy.

Those from a Christian tradition call this sin.  They believe that the root of sin is our greed, our lust, and our pride.  To put it into context, let me quote the Apostle John in his first letter: Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever….(1 John 2:15-17).

We gather tonight so we keep afresh the unjust actions done by the few to the many, the destructive and immoral actions done by those guilty to those innocent.  We do not want to forget because we do not wish to allow our alumni, killed by these terrorists, to have died in vain.  Our memory of these Naval Academy alumni, our tolling of the bell in their honor, our mentioning of their name in this sacred space of worship, serves us more then them. 

How does it serve us?  Because we will depart from here convicted that hate-filled and harm-intending people will continue to be present throughout your careers in the military. You are appointed, and then commissioned, to prevent this unlawfulness to proceed.  You are entrusted by our nation with tools of destruction to counter their senselessness. Yet foundational to the use of these tools is the core of who you are: Your heart and soul.  You are the “mid in the middle” who on one end have those seeking destruction of our nation and planet.  And on the other end you acknowledge that we have God who is the creator, sustainer and preserver of life and all that is holy and pure and desired.

I’ve got a buddy by the name of Ken Waldie.  He got the nickname “Waldo” from his classmates.  We were not only classmates, we were companymates for our entire four years at Annapolis. Coming out of Pittsburgh with an attitude of, “Let’s put out for the Big Blue!”  He clearly loved the Navy team as much as the Steelers and Pirates.  Notorious for always helping out his classmates, he always had the gouge.  When an upperclass would shell-shock a Plebe by asking him rates during meals, Waldo could whisper the entire football team’s name, position, and number to the non-jock Plebe sitting next to him without getting caught.  Most of the time he got away with it.  I remember one upcoming uniform inspection where I knew I would get fried for not getting a haircut.  Waldo took it upon himself to cut my hair with his scissors.  Regrettably, the job was so bad that we both got fried. He took it in stride and smile. It was part of his makeup to bring everyone along. He gave respect, and easily earned it. Words like leader, champion, and inspiration were often heard referring to him.

That’s why Waldo was elected class president each of his four years here. His personality and leadership enabled him to be a four-year president, something in the rich tradition of the academy that had never been accomplished. His classmates continued to vote Waldo president of the class alumni group for the next 21 years after graduation. 

Then something happened.  Waldo was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11 that struck the first World Trade Center Tower on September 11, 2001. He left behind his wife Carol, 3 sons, and a daughter. The turnout at his Memorial Service was estimated at 1,500.  Our call to arms against foes unwilling to take responsibility for their immoral deeds leaves us frustrated.  The pile of dust & cement entombing our fallen citizens leaves us cold & grieving.  It seems like the “mid in the middle” is living in an unbalanced world, too often sliding toward the corner of chaos.  We see our alumni die. We grieve with tears and anguish.  We sorrow because we see the loss of innocent human lives. 

Yet you, in uniform, are the ones who we expect to engage in combat. Unlike any other job in America, you begin your vocation by taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  What ties America together is not simply our political system, or constitution, or cohesive language, or culture, or aggregated states.  What ties America together is the motto on our coins and in our Pledge of Allegiance and in your final statement in your oath of office: In God We Trust; One Nation under God; So Help me God.  These are the words that the Psalmist, King David, uses to say that evil and destruction will have their say, and occasionally they will have their day, but they will never overcome God nor His design to redeem us because Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.

The universal, unchanging mission statement of God is found in Isaiah 11:9 – “…For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea.” Please note this is another nautical emphasis.  This verse is of such special importance to God that it is repeated by Habakkuk 2:14 – "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea.” God’s glory balances the “mid in the middle.”  On one end is evil, on the other is goodness and grace. And evil does not win because in the end: "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” 

In VADM Stockdale’s autobiography, In Love and War he describes his singularly most dangerous moment at the hands of prison guards in the Hanoi Hilton.  He says: “My heart sinks. I’m caught red-handed. I am dead…I am saying the Lord’s Prayer silently…This is curtains! What is that thing I see? My God, I haven’t thought of that for years!  It’s the face of Christ in the big stained-glass window behind the altar of the Naval Academy chapel. He’s looking right into me just like he used to when I was a plebe…” 

I am sure Midshipman Stockdale was not much different than you.  Often sensing he was “caught in the middle” as a Mid. Yet he was never so “caught in the middle” as he was between his enemy torturers and the free nation he loved.  What I want us to notice is at the deepest moment of despair, at the point where he was certain he would be killed in an instant, Admiral Stockdale drew strength upon this last thought: “It’s the face of Christ & He’s looking right into me.” Jesus looked right into Admiral Stockdale. Jesus galvanized himself to Admiral Stockdale’s soul: Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.  This is the last verse we read in King David’s Psalm 124.  This is our declaration of dependence on the Lord. We can tear-up our personal declaration of independence from God and draw close to the only one who can fight our battles, win our campaigns, provide us pathways to peace, promote strength, encourage health, empower energy, and guarantee eternal life.

David, long before he was King, as a teenage shepherd went against Goliath.  It was not because he was feeling particularly “giant-strong” one day.  But he remembered God was with him.  The very same God who gave David strength when he stood eye-to-eye with a bear.  The very same God who showed up when a lion crossed David’s path. David's trust needed to be in the right place, in God: Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.  This was David’s declaration of dependence. Once that was established David stepped forward armed with 5 smooth stones and a slingshot and he faced the giant. 

What are your giants?  God is in the renovation business. He takes wounded sinners who are weak and instead of just obliterating the weak spots, he camps-out in our weak spots. He strengthens us in the areas we need.  He becomes what we lack. And he does it for one reason.  He loves us. Look in the mirror. See that person before you with the doubting eyes? Well, God not only created that person, fashioning each and every detail, counting each single hair, he also genuinely loves the person reflected before you.  This is what God does and He does it recreationally.  He does it lovingly.  He does it in spite of ourselves.  That is why He gets the glory and not you.

He is the only one who deserves the glory. The more obvious it becomes that you don't have what it takes to be victorious on your own, the more you can trust that God will step in. He's the God of the final hour, the last curtain, the impossibilities.  He no longer allows you to stand in the middle because He takes your place.  He loves it when we stand alongside Him with gaping mouths, recognizing what He does. So why not give him every opportunity to show us? We have a choice. We can continue to try to do things in our own strength, peter out and falter, or we can recognize, as it says in 2 Chronicles 20:15: that, “the battle is the Lord's”. The battle is His but the victory He gives is ours.  If we let God fight our battles we'll always be on the winning side.

I once served as the 16th Chaplain of the Marine Corps.  I served three excellent Commandants of the Marine Corps.  Yet, I learned that the Commandant of the Marine Corps is not the most valued or most highly respected Marine.  Sergeant Majors are the most highly respected of all Marines.  They are known for amazing leadership, vast experience, and shear stubbornness when times get tough. 

It was earlier, in my first tour with Marines, and I am preaching at a worship service to at least a hundred Marines engaged in combat.  They are sitting under a canvas canopy in the hot desert on benches that have splinters. They don’t care. They are Marines.  They love splinters and they love heat.  The more splinters and the more heat the louder they yell “Uhh-Raa.”  They have their weapons with them. They have their gas masks inside canvas cases strapped to their upper right thigh.

It was in the middle of my sermon, don’t even ask me to remember what I am saying, that a distant siren starts to blare.  The siren means we have a live missile inbound, with a possible chemical weapon inside its warhead, flying toward us.  The rule for an alarm like that is to scramble and run for cover. That is a reasonable rule.  We have places to go before the bombs go off.  My inclination is to shout out to the Marines, from my MRE box pulpit, and say: “Scatter to the bomb shelter.  Get out of here.”

Before I could gather my thoughts, the most senior enlisted Marine, our Sergeant Major, rises from his splintered bench. He gruffly looks at his Marines.  He stares at me and nods like we rehearsed this from the beginning of time.  I have no idea what was about to happen. Ignoring the annoying siren, he slowly unsnaps the canvas case and pulls out his gas mask.  He straps on his gas mask – and then what do you think he does? He sits down as if nothing is happening.  He acts as if there is no siren wailing toward its crescendo.  10 seconds passed. Time froze in the reality of the situation. 

 What do the junior Marines do? Slowly, the other Marines follow suit. There are now a hundred Marines, with gas masks, staring at me and waiting for me to say something significant.  They waited for the sermon to continue.  I am humbled by their faith.  I am stunned by their unwavering commitment to stay seated. I was too embarrassed to run away.  I must have finished my sermon.  After the service, after the siren, after the missile missed us, I asked the Sergeant Major, “What motivated you to respond the way you did to put the lives of your Marines at risk?” He nonchalantly shook his head and said, “Chaplain, God is here in our service. He would not allow his word to falter. The battle is the Lord's. We are safer here than any other place in our camp. Chaplain – do you believe this too?”

Courage overcomes fear. Leadership overcomes chaos. God overcomes evil.  God anointed the Sergeant Major to give Godly counsel as “the man in the middle.”  Let us remember on this 9/11 memorial service that when we are caught in the middle: Our help is in the name of the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.  Amen.

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