A Very Heady Draught

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum.  There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die.  The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.  When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

–          Luke 7:1-10


“The relief of no longer trying to win these men’s confidence, the shuffling off of miserable hopes, was almost exhilarating…The approval of one’s own conscience is a very heady draught; and especially for those who are not accustomed to it.”

–          C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength



In August of 1977, I was assigned as the platoon leader of a combat engineer (heavy) vertical platoon in Germany.  I had no idea why I was here or what I needed to do to survive this.  My plans were not God’s plans.  My thought was that I had no business being here.  No one ever listened when I spoke.  How could I lead others?  I had taken Army ROTC in college on a scholarship.  When looking over my grades, it was almost my worst subject.  I got a straight B for four years.


Why did I get so bored with ROTC?  Not a single semester with an A?  The Vietnam War was going on.  I had a very low draft lottery number.  I knew, in an odd way, that I would study like crazy to be the best engineer that I could be, just to go to Vietnam as a forward observer for the artillery – and die.  You see, I was really good at making artillery adjustments by my trusty eyeballs (spatial reasoning?), so if they made note of my talent, they would know how to utilize me.  And the life expectancy of forward observers in Vietnam was measured in minutes.  (Snipers looked for the glint off binocular lenses.)


During my senior year of college, with a cease fire in Vietnam, I did not consider the war over until we did not send replacements there.  The classic video of people jumping onto the Huey helicopter from the Saigon embassy roof was filmed roughly one week before I graduated.  Suddenly, the Army had too many officers.  Most of my comrades were ordered to report for six months of schooling and then get shipped off to reserve units, civilians.  Many of those guys wanted to make the Army a career.  Unlike me, that was their plan.  A couple of them resigned their commissions on the day of graduation, just to enter as an enlisted man (being given credit, and stripes, for skills learned).  I was given a deferment.  I had aced the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and in recognition, the Army wanted me to go to graduate school.  The same day that I received my master’s degree, I got my orders to report for active duty in the mail.


Sure, I had a lot of book learning and a high IQ, but I was just a dumb old farm boy from the backwoods of Mississippi.  “Dumb” because I had lived in an insular farm home 10 miles outside a small town in a state that did not have a lot of modern development, in the bottom five in almost every category.  Most states had gravel roads in rural areas in those days.  We had a gravel driveway off the main highway, but there were gravel roads outside the main highways everywhere.  The school bus route was almost completely over gravel roads.  It wasn’t just the lack of development.  Those around me rejected modern thinking, preferring the old times and keeping their mindset there.


In my mind, I had no business overseeing anything.  How could I prove to these guys that I was worthy of being trusted when I did not trust myself?


When I met the men in my platoon, I had such a wide variety.  There were guys from the inner cities and there were farm boys like me.  There were east coast guys and west coast guys, two Hawaiians.  I had one guy who had moved back and forth between Washington and Vancouver due to his father’s job.  He was Canadian by birth, but he joined the US Army to prove to his friends in Washington state that he was not dodging the draft.  My three senior sergeants, above E-5, were from Washington state, Texas, and Alabama.  One of the other sergeants, an E-5, had dropped out of an Ivy League school to join, but then I had a guy whose test scores were below the minimum requirements for mental capabilities.  (The recruiter had a way to get him into the Army through trickery.)  Yes, I had anything and everything within a group of 38 men, including a guy who grew up twenty miles from my home town.  Of course, each month some left, having served their time, and others replaced them.


My platoon sergeant, an SFC from Texas, was my earthly angel or I would have never lasted a week.


My second week on the job, the construction of a veterinary hospital for guard dogs, ended with a concrete pour.  I was told, probably lied to, that the platoon leader had to pay for the beer for his first concrete pour.  I got a combination of good German beer and the best brand, at the time in the PX, of American beer.  The guys were surprised.  I was suddenly a good guy.


Growing up in a dry state, I did not feel ‘good’; I felt like a bootlegger.  My moral code was sending me to a dark place.  My platoon sergeant pulled me aside for a brief one-on-one.  “Sir, any other officer would get them the cheap stuff.  You gave them a great gift tonight.  You now have their trust. … Just don’t screw it up.”  I wonder if my platoon sergeant had read the C. S. Lewis quote above.  No, probably not.  He just knew human nature as well as C. S. Lewis demonstrates in the quote.  Of course, Lewis had been a lieutenant in World War I.  He knew.


I nearly screwed it up, as my sergeant had warned.  I took an interest in the guys who had families with them in Germany, some at a great financial burden.  I was this nice Christian who had to be proven to be tough before the tough inner-city guys could trust me in a tougher situation than pouring concrete.  My only ‘explosion’, in raising my voice, happened a month or so later.  A sergeant violated a safety rule in refueling a Herman-Nelson heater (vintage Korean War heater with a blower).  I yelled for him to stop.  When he kept screwing up (one spark {and the heater was hot already} and he’d be engulfed in flame), I removed my hard hat (Yes, I was outdoors without cover.) and threw it like Odd Job in the movie Goldfinger.  Being a poorly balanced projectile, the hat veered to the side and landed a few feet away, but suddenly every member of the platoon stopped what they were doing.  I made it clear that regardless of rank, violators of safety rules would hear from me.  But the rest of the time, I deferred to my physically imposing platoon sergeant (well over six feet) who had been at this game for nearly 20 years.


A couple of months later, I discovered what my sergeants had nicknamed me, ‘Lt. Eskimo.’  Why?  There might have been those times when I walked around with my sleeves rolled up in sub-zero temperatures.  But, no.  They told everyone that I had a cold, cold heart.  Each new guy in the platoon feared Lt. Eskimo, until he got to know the real me.  By then, he was already in the habit of following my orders, or the orders that the sergeant told him had come from me.  My nickname caused trouble.  Some admin tech heard of my nickname and changed my personnel jacket to reflect an Eskimo ethnicity.  When my battalion commander, a native of Alaska, heard about the official record mistake, he became furious.  He let me off the hook when I convinced him that I had nothing to do with it.


I had been given credit for time in grade during my graduate school deferment, basically starting off as a 1 Lt, so I had been a Captain for some time when I got out of the service four years later.  I had gone from a field supervisor of 38 carpenters, electricians, and plumbers on construction sites to having 200+ people working for me and managing multiple million-dollar construction projects, as well as managing day-to-day maintenance work.  The difference was that I was accustomed to the heady draught of having people trust me and follow my commands.  Of course, they trusted me, because I trusted them and often took their advice.  At some point, you grow into the job – if it doesn’t go to your head.


The Scripture tells an odd tale.  A Roman officer demonstrates faith in Jesus, as a healer, that surpasses the faith of the Jews.  The Jews had to be in the presence of Jesus to be healed, even having to touch Him or His clothing, but the centurion somehow knew that Jesus had authority over illness and health.  To the centurion, all Jesus had to do was give the command.  Most people who are not in the military or are not veterans may take this story on face value with a shrug.  They do not understand the layers in the story.  Veterans know.


The centurion commanded 100 men.  The men were arranged in battle formation with ten men in front and the next ten men behind, with their spears resting on the shields of the men in front.  Each man had a sword in his other hand for hand-to-hand combat.  When these men fought, they trusted the centurion would put them in the best position possible, but safety was never assured.  These men came so close to the enemy that they could determine the eye color of the man they were fighting.  They could smell their enemy.  Each soldier trusted the other nine men in line with him and the ten behind them with the spears.  He trusted the twenty to the left and the twenty to the right.  The Roman weakness was from side attacks.  Frontal attacks by soldiers on foot were easily repelled, chariots, in numbers, not so much.  The centurion chose how many groups of twenty were kept in reserve and how many were on the front line, one group of twenty next to the next group of twenty.  Yet, when the centurion gave orders in battle, he knew some would die.  (It has been over 45 years since I got my B for this class.  Wonder what the A students can remember?)


Maybe now, when you read the battle stories of the Old Testament, this visceral side of battle in those days becomes clearer with the above description.


Without ever having faced military service, does this give a little more depth to the faith that the centurion had in Jesus?


We have not seen Jesus touch someone to have them healed, but do we have the trust that Jesus can simply command, from His place at the right hand of the Father, and make it so?  Do you have a depth in relationship with Him to ask Him to make it so?  We serve a mighty God.  Praise Him and thank Him today.


Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.


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