Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Not As the World Gives
21-year-old Lt. Charles L. “Charlie” Brown wasn’t sure he was going to make it.
It had started well enough. At 11:32 a.m., on Dec. 20, 1943, Capt. Brown's Ye Olde Pub blended in at 27,300 feet as one of the 63 Allied aircraft creeping in to start its bombing run on a fighter plant in Bremen, Germany.
But the mission had turned into a nightmare and the as the plane turned home it bore witness to how bad it had been. The tail and rear section was severely damaged, the nose was smashed, there were holes everywhere. Brown only had one engine left at full power, every crewman was injured, the tail gunner was dead, and he had three seriously wounded crewmembers on board.
Brown was still partially dazed as he and his co-pilot eased his crippled B-17 into a slow climb, to just above tree top level and turned towards the North Sea and to England – 250 miles away. He knew he couldn’t bail out or crash land with his injured crewmembers – their only chance, and it was slim, was to reach the UK and safety.
So Brown nursed his battered bomber as it limped along when he looked out the cockpit window and saw a German fighter plane – a Messerschmitt 109 – flying right alongside him.
It was over.
Brown kept flying but he knew that there was no way that Ye Olde Pub could outrun or outfight an Bf-109 – even his remaining machine guns were jammed. It was all over but he kept flying.
Oberleutnant Franz Stigler was feeling pretty good about himself and excited as he climbed onto the wing of his Bf 109. His aircraft was rearmed and refueled from his morning combat with American bomber formations. He had already shot down two B-17's earlier. In the Luftwaffe you got the Iron Cross if you shot down three bombers in one day. Now Stigler was eager to take off again and chase the remaining bombers back to the Channel and shoot down another. Suddenly a lone B-17 flew right over the airfield at tree top level! Stigler and the entire ground crew were shocked but quickly jumped into action. Soon Stigler was in the air and chasing his 3d kill.
As Stigler closed in on the smoking B-17, his thoughts turned over on all the lessons he had learned from his many fights with the Flying Fortress. Stigler had already been shot down several times and before the war ended he would be shot down a total of seventeen times. American bombers alone would shoot Stigler down eleven times.
This was not a game. Stigler had shot down B-17s and been shot down and he had seen the damage inflicted on his country by these American bombers. His job was to shoot them down.
But as Stigler got closer, he realized something was wrong. The B-17 wasn’t shooting at him! Not only that but this plane was severely damaged – he was surprised it was flying at all. He could see the dead tail gunner still at his station; through the large holes he could see the crew tending the injured. He took his time and flew all around the aircraft and finally he flew to the left of the aircraft to signal the pilot to land and give up. Stigler thought that was the only chance they had – they couldn’t possibly make it to England.
Brown and his crew couldn’t believe it. What kind of game was this German Bf 109 playing? He was flying all around them and coming within wingtip distance. He must know that there was no way they could defend themselves – why not just end it?! And then this German flew so close that Brown could clearly see him – and the signal that the pilot was making were unmistakable. Brown was being told to land.
Stigler was thinking, “What is wrong with this idiot?!” Minutes earlier, Stigler thought nothing about this plane or its crew – they were the enemy and he was going to shoot them down. But now, something had changed. Stigler was actually concerned about them and about their safety. Their only chance was to land and surrender and they would be POWs but at least they would be alive. But this American pilot would look at him, see him signal, and then jerk his head to the front. Over and over again. Idiot!
Brown just couldn’t bring himself to land while the aircraft could still fly. He didn’t know why it kept flying but as long as it did – he couldn’t land it anywhere but England. Finally the coastline came into view. If he could just hold on – but why didn’t this German shoot?
Suddenly, the Bf-109 pulled ahead. The pilot raised his right hand and saluted and then banked away to the right and was gone. What just happened?
Stigler wished the pilot and his brave crew well. He had shot down Americans before and would again but not this time. He just didn’t have the heart to do it. He had flown along with them for a long time and knew they were just trying desperately to get home. Stigler knew the penalty for letting these Americans go – it could mean his own death. But it didn’t matter – he couldn’t shoot these men. He thought it would be like shooting a man in a parachute – he just couldn’t do it. So he saluted them and wished them luck.
This story touches us by the surprise of it all. We don’t expect Stigler to show mercy. They were at war. Stigler was a fighter pilot whose orders were to shoot down B-17s. Brown was an enemy combatant. He would not surrender as ordered. Stigler was within his rights to shoot them down. By not shooting them down, he was risking his own life.
But he spares them anyway.
This isn’t the way that the world works!
Yet this act of mercy touches us. It speaks to us at a deeper level that is beyond this world’s rules.
This is what the Lord means when he says in John 14:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
The world says there are limits to mercy. That there are limits to forgiveness, and to grace, and if you want something from me then you have to give me something. Jesus says that the peace he leaves us is his peace and this gift is not like the kind that the world gives - Jesus gives us peace without condition. We just have to decide whether to accept it.
I know there are many of my Christian brothers and sisters that don’t believe that. They can quote scripture and verse where they think that the rules are clear. That you can only get to Heaven through Christ – otherwise you are condemned. For them, it is a simple formula because accepting any other option is to question that there is an absolute truth. It says so in the Bible so it is so.
I feel bad for them. They can find the words but miss the intent. They want to put God in a box with these rules and you can’t put the Creator inside a box. We believe that the Bible is divinely inspired but you can’t bind the Lord with it – that’s not what it is for.
Let me give you a different perspective from John 13 – just moments before these words were uttered.
So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.
Go back and read the entire chapter. Jesus washed all the disciples’ feet.
He washed the feet of those whom he knew would abandon him.
He washed Peter’s feet whom he knew would deny him three times before the night was out.
He washed the feet of Judas whom he knew would betray him.
That doesn’t make sense to us. Who does something like this, an act so full of love, for people that would hurt him and betray him? Our world doesn’t work this way!
And that is the point.
Jesus peace and love is not as the world gives you.
And Jesus commands us to do the same. Also from John 13:
I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.
Forgiving those who have hurt you. Giving mercy to those that don’t deserve it. Loving people when you know that they are going to disappoint you.
It doesn’t make sense in this world but it is what we are supposed to do. If we are followers of Christ then we have to follow his model.
And what about Brown and Stigler?
Brown and his crew miraculously made the flight and landed safely in England. Ye Olde Pub never flew again but Brown did, and so did Stigler.
Both men went on to continue to fly till the end of the war and returned home. Decades later Brown searched for this mystery pilot that spared him and his crew and found Stigler! They met and became friends. Brown and his crew even had a reunion to introduce Stigler to all their families – people that would not exist had Stigler shot them down so many decades before.
Stigler and Brown are both dead now but their story lives on.
If you want to learn more (and there is a lot more that I left out), I encourage you to visit http://www.aviationartstore.com/ it is the most complete account of their story that I found. It is also a treasure trove of other stories worth reading and remembering.