One of my favorite pastimes is to read spy stories. It is a fascination that began during my teenage years as I would read various articles in The Reader’s Digest about Soviet espionage and the dangers it posed for the freedom of America. That is probably also where my lifelong interest in Russia began. When I was commissioned as an officer in the US Army in 1987, those interests were increased a dozen fold. The Soviet Union was the great perceived enemy of freedom for the US and most of our war planning was a preparation for a conflict someday with that nation. That brings us to today. Russia is in the news again after being mostly a sleeping bear since the fall of communism in 1990-1991. But warring nations never really know how to live in peacetime. And, as the motto in the Army says, ‘old soldiers never die.’
Recently, I have been reading Scott Anderson’s, The Quiet Americans, about four World War II veterans—Michael Burke, Edward Lansdale, Peter Sichel, and Frank Wisner—who were some of the first spies for the CIA. All of them had difficulties adjusting to civilian life after their war service in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, or the Pacific theater. The adrenalin rush they experienced while carrying out secret missions in World War II made it difficult to acclimate to normal life in the American business world. We often think of all soldiers as suffering from PTSD in one form or another. Yet, there is another side of things. Some soldiers find their greatest joy in combat. The intense excitement, and even fear, that accompanies preparation for battle gives some soldiers their true purpose in life. They never feel so alive as when they are planning for battle and risking their lives. That adrenalin rush is something I routinely felt in the days when I could still run. After a good run, I felt I could conquer the world. When my doctor told me that if I wanted to be able to continue to walk I would have to stop running, it was a crushing blow. Burke, Lansdale, Sichel, and Wisner must have felt that same way when they returned from war to the mundane duties of life. No doubt, that is why they readily agreed to become some of the first spies for the CIA.
David was a man of war. He defeated Goliath, the Philistines, and various enemies surrounding Israel. He wanted to build a Temple as a permanent home for the ‘holy place’ and the ‘most holy place.’ Nathan the prophet first told him to do all that was in his heart. But the next day, Nathan had to inform David that he was not the person to build the Temple. His son, Solomon, a man of peace, would have to undertake that responsibility. A warrior, an old soldier who is still a battler, is never the right person to reconstruct the mess that is left after hostilities have ceased. I was thinking of this very thing as I reflected recently on friends still fighting to turn around denominations that have passed the point of no return. Such people remind me of the German army at ‘the Battle of the Bulge.’ The Germans had suffered great casualties while they were being attacked both by the Soviets from the east and the Americans, British, and Canadians from the west. The Wehrmacht made one last push to drive the Americans and their allies back. They cannibalized every piece of machinery they could in order to get enough working tanks and planes for a final battle. They gathered soldiers from every place they could. They refused to give up and admit the truth, but it was all in vain. Within a few months, it would all be over for Hitler and the Third Reich.
Many pastors and churches are like that. They become so accustomed to fighting for the heart and soul of a denomination that they forget how to live in peace. They comfort themselves even after losses that they are actually winning because the losses were closer than they expected. They say, ‘another year, another Assembly, renewed efforts, circle the wagons.’ The losses keep coming and they keep doubling down on the fight. I heard a new twist on this matter recently when a well-known speaker at a conference told someone from my church, “If Dewey and the people in Vanguard had only stayed with us, they could have helped us get the momentum to win back the denomination.” Oh, well.
Now, here are the problems with fighting to win back a denomination. First, what happens when the fight is clearly over? Do you take your fighting spirit with you wherever you go from there? Sadly, in too many instances, that is exactly what happens. Certainly, there are times to fight. There is a day appointed for everything, even a “time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8a). But, not every day is a time for war. Those ‘old soldiers who never die’ lose that perspective and insight. They know how to fight, but they do not know how to have peace. Second, it is easier to demolish than it is to build. One of the reasons we started Vanguard Presbytery when we did was so that we could attempt to build it in the right way. I knew that it would be impossible to walk out of a building after the fight and start work on the blueprints for a new denomination. It is easier to just say your farewells and move on. It is hard to handle both the sword and trowel at the same time. It is easier to beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks. It is easier to build if you are not coming straight from battle. It is easier to build if you are focusing on what you need to do right rather than still thinking of what was done wrong. That is true in so many situations. I learned a long time ago that you cannot hit a good golf shot by reminding yourself what not to do. But fighters are always thinking about the battle. That is why fighters are not the right people to start a new denomination.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL. Please mail any contributions for Vanguard Presbytery to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. www.vanguardpresbytery.com