It dawned the kind of day that made a million or more WWII sailors and Marines who passed through southern California on their way to war vow in one voice, “If we ever live through this nightmare, we’re going to live here.”
It was picture perfect. Not merely a day right off a postcard, it was a day for all seasons. While a good portion of the rest of the country lay frozen under a blanket of ice that even veteran east coasters are, by now, getting sick of, the local populace was treated to crystal clear blue skies, balmy shirt sleeve temperatures, and air so clean, it hurt your lungs to breathe it.
And so, this early season Easter morning began with the healthy optimism that comes only with the first real breath of spring, giving the community its first real respite from the dank, dreary, seemingly endless winter.
For a church like mine, comfortably ensconced at the foot of Mt. Baldy and overlooking the San Bernardino and Pomona valleys, the turnout was immense. Sure, we had our regular attendees. But we were also treated to what I call the 2-fers – out in earnest for the first time since Christmas Day. (You know the 2-fers? They show up on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, and figure that’s enough for one year. But it makes pastors hearts swell with hope. For one Sunday, at least, the pews are full and the coffers are bursting.)
I arrived early. We don’t hold a sunrise service. Unlike this day, we’re often as not treated to borderline freezing conditions – due to the altitude more than the inherent harshness of the Golden State climate. So we start our marathon Easter Sunday messages at 7:30. By that time, at least the sun is up. We go straight through until around 1:00 or so, and everybody who comes gets a healthy dose of faith, hope and charity, not to mention self-esteem going out the door. But, since parking is often a problem on such days, I got there ahead of the crush, for the kickoff service.
As I was walking into the main courtyard from the parking lot, I was stopped by a man wearing an immaculate gray suit, starched white shirt and magnificent burgundy silk tie, impeccably knotted. He smiled at me, shook my hand and wished me a Happy Easter. I’ve been a member now for going on four years, and I can normally pick out the usual suspects. But this man I’d never seen before today. At first, I took him for a parking attendant, but they don’t wear suits. Shorts, tee-shirts and orange vests are their attire on good days and bad. Then it occurred to me: he was a 2-fer. He struck up a conversation that went something like this:
“Uh, do you own a suit?”
I informed him I did.
“Don’t you think it would be appropriate to wear a suit on Easter Sunday?”
I thought, Gimme a break. We do laid-back California casual out here. The pastor doesn’t wear a suit, not even on Christmas Day. I don’t even think he owns one.
But I held my tongue, waiting to see if his All-American smile would waver. It did not. I also waited to see where he was going with this repartee, considering he was not getting an explanation of any kind, let alone a satisfactory one.
He stared at me, all the time with his winning smile. I shrugged and turned away. But we weren’t done yet. No, there was more to come.
“That your car?” He asked, gazing at my 2000 Honda Accord. And I could still hear the smile in his voice.
He watched me get out of it, so I assume the question was rhetorical.
“Kinda dirty, isn’t it?” He observed.
Now I was starting to get really annoyed. I had half a mind to explain to him that workers in the brave new global economy often can’t plunk down $15 for a car wash, and where I live does not allow for the washing of cars. But I didn’t. And that was fine because he was quite content to complete his morning’s friendly piece of advice before assuming his newfound role of unofficial church greeter.
“Don’t you think it would be nice to wash your car before Easter Sunday?”
And with that, he was off to greet another family coming up the walk – this one, more appropriately attired than I, so I’m sure there was no need for further admonishments.
How could I be so blind? It’s not about the risen Lord. It’s about a suit and tie and a clean car. O.K. Chalk one up to experience, I thought. Then, as I approached the donut and coffee line, who should I run into but the president of our elder board. He too was smiling with the radiance of an exploding sun. But there was a different, more tangible reason for his delight this morning.
The man is a senior vice-president for a French-own engineering firm that manufactures precision laser guidance systems for American smart weapons. He had just concluded a companywide reorganization that required him to travel non-stop across the country since January. He was thrilled to report that on Good Friday, they handed out pink slips to over 1500 American engineers nationwide. This completed a project which offshored the R&D, not to mention the manufacturing to China. His French handlers were so impressed that they awarded him and his wife an all-expense paid, month-long cruise of the Mediterranean – from the south of France to the Greek islands. He was thrilled. Hard work, innovation and loyalty paid off again. God is good.
I inquired if it was really necessary to lower the boom on Good Friday. His smile thinned a bit and he remarked – in all sincerity – that they were aiming for Christmas Eve, but couldn’t bring it off due to some major delays from corporate, so Good Friday was selected as a satisfactory back up date.
After our conversation, somehow I lost my taste for donuts and coffee. I ambled over to the grass, which was bursting forth in hues of brilliant, deep green. It also afforded a breathtaking view of the nearby valleys. I ran into one of our small group leaders there. He was looking over the valley, pointing out to a visitor all the business interests he owned from Corona, down to Anaheim Hills, and back through Ontario and Upland. He explained to his guest that he and his wife were orchestrating a much-delayed family reunion. Over 100 people coming in from all over the country. He went on to remark that their live-in domestic, Ophelia, had been working feverishly on a home-cooked, nine-course Easter dinner for over 100 people. She’d been at it since 3:30 that morning. And if she didn’t break for lunch, she should have the meal prepared and ready to serve by 4:00 that afternoon. Needless to say, Ophelia would not be attending Easter Sunday services. Not when there were meals to cook, dishes to wash, laundry to do and toilets to clean. And all at a better price. When it comes to doing the jobs Americans won’t do, don’t expect any days off.
That’s my church. And I don’t apologize for any of its members. It reflects a small community that is an island of extreme wealth in a sea of threadbare desperation. But its members have a heart of generosity and a full understanding of the love Paul writes of so eloquently in I Corinthians 13:
- “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” – I Cor. 13:13.
But on this day – with all the movers and shakers moving and shaking to their own designs and the beautiful blonde trophy wives just bursting out of their summer sundresses – pomposity reigned supreme. It happens from time to time. And it was at just such a moment, with the sanctuary doors swinging open that I decided to take my open-collar, shirt-sleeved self, and my dusty old Honda, and set out for, shall we say, a more appropriate venue.
What does the Bible say? When your heart is troubled – road trip.
I had an idea of where I wanted to end up. But, considering the two-hour drive that would get me there around 9:30, I wondered if I could get in at that late hour. As it turned out, there was no cause for concern. The roads were deserted. It was reminiscent of the Sundays of bygone years – when everything was closed except perhaps one corner gas station. Those peaceful Sundays were emblematic of a slower-paced time, long before the now time-honored tradition of selling ourselves silly 24/7 became an accepted practice. They’re gone for good, sad to say, never to return. The drive hearkened back to the days when California really was the land of opportunity, and all things seemed possible.
An hour later, after a glorious carefree drive along deserted California freeways, I pulled up to the main gate of the Camp Pendleton Marine base in Oceanside, CA. I feel a kinship to the Marine Corps. Why would an aging ex-paratrooper – who never served so much as one day in the Corps – hold such a bond, you ask? Because the Marine Corps is first cousin to the Airborne. We’re cut from the same mold, share the same commitment, and possess the same burning desire to be the best. We also share the same sober realization that in order to defend the country, we end up counting the cost.
I got lucky. The Marine standing guard was one who attended my Normandy address a year and a half ago, and he remembered me. I explained to him my situation – I came on short notice, did not have a pass to the base, and would it be possible to attend one of the services currently underway at the Marine Corps chapel?
He told me to wait and made a phone call. I got lucky again. The XO who arranged my presentation in the first place was on duty, and he gave me visitor access, provided I agreed to an armed escort. (Pendleton is on a war footing. Has been since 9/11. A lot of us have forgotten that. The Marines have not.)
So, I got an armed escort to the next chapel service which was starting about an hour later. It was well worth the wait.
The service was conducted by a Navy chaplain from San Diego. I wish I remembered his name, because the man knew his Bible, knew how to rightly divide the word of Truth, and possessed a singular eloquence that touched the hearts of the most hard-bitten fighting men.
It was a service for men, conducted by men, and with the burdens of men in mind. To be sure, families were welcome, and in attendance. But crossing the threshold of the chapel, the sense that this was a world of serious responsibilities shouldered by men was tangible and unmistakable.
The chaplain began with a simple premise – all freedom comes due in blood. Just as the freedom our country enjoys today came due in the blood of patriots who defended it, so the perfect freedom of God’s grace came due in the blood of His Son.
From there, the message was simple.
- “12 Pilate answered and said to them again, ‘What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call King of the Jews?’
13 So they cried out again, ‘Crucify Him!’
14 Then Pilate said to them, ‘Why, what evil has He done?’ But they cried out all the more ‘Crucify Him!’
15 So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified.” – Mark 15:12-15.
- 35 “Then they crucified Him and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: ‘They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.” – Matthew 27:35
- 17 “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father and to My God and your God.’” – John 20:17
- 15 “Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. 16 And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” – Revelation 19:15-16
He concluded that the risen Savior will indeed return to judge the nations. He offered the sobering comment that when He did, the compassion, mercy, forgiveness and grace that attended His first advent will not be available. All those doors will be closed. What remains will be judgment. Until that time, the Marine Corps is the sentinel of freedom and is charged with standing the watch until God’s justice will be established on earth for all time. That responsibility rests squarely on their shoulders. And they will count the cost in blood, as the Corps always has, from the day of its inception.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, from the oldest, most grizzled sea salt, to the youngest boot.
Looking over the assembled gathering, I realized I was gazing into the face of the Old Corps. They were today’s active duty Marines, but they will be tomorrow’s Old Corps. Ultimately they will take their place beside their brother Marines from Khe Sanh and Con Thien; the Chosin reservoir; Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa; Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. They all bore the world-weariness of men who had stared into the face of the Gorgon and survived. They carried the mark of men who knew the truth about evil loose in the world and the cost of destroying it.
It was a poignant moment. A moment so sweet, it hurt. As the gathering slowly dispersed, and I headed for the Oceanside marina before the long trek back up the hill, I got the sense that the Marines of Camp Pendleton that day understood they stood watch during the twilight of their country. But true to their calling, they would keep their commitment to the end, come what may.
- "7 I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.” – II Timothy 4:7.
The Oceanside marina led down to the beach on its north side. The water was the same sapphire blue as the sky. There was barely a horizon. The late-morning sun glinted off the waves with the sparkle of chipped diamonds. The surf didn’t amount to much, but the surfers were starting to appear in earnest. And even though the day was bursting forth in all its sun-drenched glory, the moment still had the feel of twilight time.
The drive back was as picturesque as the journey down. I could see my mountain, clear as crystal, from forty miles away. I got back in time to spend Easter dinner with one of the brothers in the congregation. He recently lost his stepfather – Loyal Nixon from my previous commentary – and we spent a bittersweet afternoon of food, fun and remembrance.
It really is a good congregation. And it is a family in the best sense of the word. But on this day, given a choice between those who pay the price for defending the country in its last days, and those who reap its last benefits, I’ll cast my lot with the Old Corps every time.
What can I say? This ex-paratrooper likes being around guys who like to jump.