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Archive for July 3rd, 2017

The following may seem a strange blog for Ezerwoman. However, on this Independence Day of 2017, I think it an appropriate way to express gratitude for a godly man but also to explain what it is that sustains godly men (and women) in times of difficulty and peril. 

Howard Linn was born an Iowa farm boy. Today, at 94, he confesses that he was also born a sinful creature. Indeed, he had inherited the sin of his ancestor, Adam. But, on his Baptismal day, Howard was washed clean by water and the Word. The gift of faith was given to him and his identity was forever changed. He was marked with the sign of the cross and, because of what Jesus Christ did for him, Howard became a son and heir of God.

Did Howard think much about his Baptism and its effect on his identity? Did he fully understand the significance of Jesus’ invitation to pray, “Our Father, Who art in heaven”?

From childhood on, Howard prayed, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Did Howard understand that he was asking God the Father to strengthen and preserve him and, through times of suffering, keep him steadfast? What would this mean?

Howard has vivid memories of going to church with his parents and family. Like most Lutheran boys, he was catechized in the Christian faith. Would he ever appreciate the liturgy, hymns, and Scripture verses committed to memory?

On May 19, 1944, Sergeant Howard A. Linn was forced to evacuate the gun turret of his B-24 Liberator while on a bomb run over Germany. Under attack of a group of German Faulke-Wulf 190s, and with engines engulfed in flames, Sergeant Linn had no choice but to parachute. “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” His prayer was answered when Howard landed safely and undetected by the enemy.

After a brief night of forested sleep, Howard began walking toward a village where he could get his bearings. About noon, two-thirds of the way through town, a boy sighted Howard just as a policeman on a motorcycle came around the corner. The boy flagged the policeman down and pointed to the American soldier. The policeman took Howard into the boy’s house. Calls were made. Then he was placed in a barbed wire enclosure where people from the village came to look at him. “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” Later, Howard learned that if he had been shot down near a town that had suffered a bombing, he might have been beaten and tortured by angry citizens. The people of this village, however, had never experienced a bombing. They were curious about this American flyboy, but not hateful. Around 4:00, Howard was picked up by a German Luft-Waffe officer and delivered in a Volkswagon to a forced labor camp.

The following day, Howard and two other American airmen were transported to an interrogation center in Frankfurt. Every two hours, Howard was taken from his basement cell to be questioned by a stern German officer. Howard knew how to answer: Name. Rank. Serial number. And he knew how to pray. “Our Father, Who art in heaven.”

“Our Father … give us this day our daily bread.” Howard was given a loaf of heavy, dark, sour bread before he was packed into a railroad car with other U.S. Airmen. That bread sustained him for four days as the train carried him to Stalag Luft 4, a prison camp about 100 miles north of Berlin in Stettin, Pomerania.

On June 1, Howard’s parents were notified that their son was “reported missing in action since Nineteenth May over Germany.” On June 30, they were informed that their son was “a Prisoner of War of the German government.”

That young man, known as Prisoner 1525, continued to receive “daily bread” in the form of barley cereal, ersatz coffee, and sour bread in the morning; thin soup at noon; and boiled potatoes at night. The camp was crowded with allied soldiers and heavily guarded. Police dogs were turned loose every night.

There was plenty of time to think in prison. Howard often thought about the day he was shot down. He was acutely aware that many of his fellow crew members were married men. Why was he, an unmarried man, allowed to survive? A buddy in the turret where Howard was usually positioned was killed. Only two other crewmen and Howard lived. He grieved for his buddies and, although he bore them no harm or ill-will, he suffered under the weight of guilt for a long time. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There was peace for Howard in knowing the merciful forgiveness of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

There wasn’t a German chaplain to pray with Howard or strengthen him through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. But he could draw upon all that he had been taught as a child. The liturgy and hymns that Howard had grown up singing, the Scripture verses that he had been encouraged to memorize, and parts of the Catechism that he had not fully appreciated as a boy served him well.

This was true for many of Howard’s Christian brothers in that POW camp. Men who had been involved in their congregations back home helped lead worship services on Sundays for anyone who wanted to attend. Everything was done from memory. There was opportunity to ponder the things that really matter most and to come to grips with the fact that earthly life is short in comparison to eternity. There was a visible difference between the men with faith and those who didn’t appear to have any. Those men constantly worried about not having any control of their lives. They had little hope of getting out alive. As a result, there was a ward full of guys who were mentally unstable. Perhaps they didn’t know the Lord who invited them to pray, “Our Father, Who art in heaven. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” One day, Howard watched a man run for the high barbed wire fence. He was given a warning, but persisted in climbing halfway to the top knowing full well what would happen. There was a single shot. The man fell to the ground, dead.

In times of suffering, Howard learned that we do one of two things. We either depend on ourselves, or on God. Howard knew God. He had grown up, learning to trust his Heavenly Father; therefore, he had hope outside of himself. Suicide wasn’t an option. A son of God can pray, “Our Father, Who are in heaven … lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.”

Today, when Howard thinks about the circumstances he endured, the prophet Elijah comes to mind. Elijah was threatened by an intimidating enemy, the evil King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. In fear and loneliness, Elijah asked the Lord to take his life. The Lord’s answer was a cake of bread and jar of water. Elijah was strengthened for forty days and nights. Howard admits to feeling very much like Elijah, alone and far from home. Countless times, he wondered, “Will I be shot?” “Will I be put through more than I can endure?” But, for Howard, there was always a cake of bread. A jar of water. And then, a Christmas Eve.

On the night before Christmas in 1944, the German Commandant told the prisoners they could stay outside their barracks until midnight with floodlights on if they promised not to try to escape. The singing of Christmas carols filled the night and comforted troubled souls.

Howard was in Stalag Luft 4 for about nine months. Life had been miserable, but it was going to get worse. His stamina and will to live were to be sorely tested. On February 6, 1945, with the Russian army quickly approaching, Howard’s compound was evacuated. The men were told they would be on the road for three to four days. But the forced march across frozen land extended to 87 days.

The guards, among them the hated Gestapo, marched the prisoners as much as 18 miles a day. Destination was unsure. Nights were spent in barns, sleeping on hay atop manure, or outside in the rain and snow. Food consisted of bread, thin soup ladled into a can, and powdered milk from Red Cross parcels. Sometimes, vegetables were stolen from a farmer’s winter stockpile. If possible, prisoners scrounged for wood and built a fire. Latrines were trenches dug by the prisoners. Many of the men had dysentery. Howard was sick with such terrible cramping that he felt he wouldn’t make it, but at the end of three days, the illness was removed and never plagued him again.

The forced march paused to camp in Hanover, but continued advancing when rumors that General Montgomery and the English army were getting close. Passing through cities that had been heavily bombed, Hitler youth spit and shouted at the POWs. In April, some of the guards fled, but others stayed with the POWs because they didn’t want to be captured by the Russians. On May 2, 1945, after marching some 600 miles, Howard learned that the war was over. Two thousand men started the march. Howard was one of the 1500 who survived and was granted freedom.

The men were instructed to continue walking and hitchhiking west. No encouragement was needed. Upon arrival at British command, the clothes Howard had worn for 87 days were burned. There was a trip—no, maybe three or four—through the delouser. A haircut and a shave. Gentle food for his shrunken stomach. A pillow for his head. Slowly, human dignity was restored. With the White Cliffs of Dover in the background, Howard set sail for Boston Harbor. Hearing the song, “Sentimental Journey,” stirs his emotions to this day.

Howard shares this and so much more with family, friends, and groups who invite him to speak. He is held is high regard by members of his Lutheran congregation. Do we listen to Howard, but then say, “I could never endure such things.” Do we hear Howard describe atrocities, but then respond, “I do not know such evil.” Do we applaud Howard, but then walk away, asking, “What is his story to me? He was held captive by the enemy. I have no such bondage.”

Howard would respond: You can endure such things. Evil does exist today. In this earthly life, we are too often held captive. The only Savior from Satan, ourselves, and any false hope to which we cling is Jesus Christ.

We can endure “such things” as indignity and suffering. Jesus knows our suffering because He, too, suffered. During the indignities of war—or cancer, bullying, or false rumors that stain a reputation—we can look to Christ who suffered humiliation, hatred, and death for us. Jesus does not promise ease of life, but says, “If you would be My disciples, pick up your cross daily and follow Me.” Jesus does promise to be with us in every circumstance. He promises to be in His Church. He is in the Word of Divine Service, in the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Communion, and in Absolution.

Howard found himself in enemy territory, and so do we. Satan, the world, and our sinful nature assault us every day. Howard endured by remembering his Baptismal identity and praying, “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” We can do the same. The faith given to Howard provided light in the darkness. His childhood catechesis and familiarity with Scripture as sung in liturgy and hymns comforted and renewed him. He was grateful, and we can be, too. Howard could trust that an ascended Jesus had kept His promise to send a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who interceded for him in times of weakness. We have that Helper, too.

Evil does exist today; it comes naturally in a fallen world. We are vulnerable people because we are corrupted by sin. Cain killed Abel. Hitler and his Nazis killed six million Jews and five million Christians, gypsies, “useless eaters,” and so-called “undesirables.” The United States has sanctioned the killing of over 56 million little boys and girls by the hand of abortionists since 1973. Human life is at dreadful risk when we do not believe that God is our Father and we are His children.

Howard confesses to being born a sinful creature, and so are we all. In war, Howard learned that our corrupted nature is reality. We are capable of terrible evil. Until we recognize our sinful nature, we cannot resist it; instead, we do awful things out of fear, or for power, or to gain control. We raise ourselves above God. We love ourselves more than our neighbor. Freedom to resist evil and do good comes only in Jesus Christ. His mercies are new every morning for the repentant sinner who looks to the Lord for his salvation. Evil has no dominion over a child of God.

In this life, we are too often held captive. It is not barbed wire, but our own sin that binds us. Whenever we cling to human desires, fears, false hope, guilt, and bitterness, we fall into the despair of slavery.

One would think that Howard sees a better world than during WWII, but he does not. We seem to think we are entitled to happiness. We trust our own feelings first and, if God is needed, it is to make our life trouble-free. We make a vow on our wedding day, but the commitment is too quickly dishonored when things become difficult. Human life has value when it pleases us, but not when we are inconvenienced by it. There was nothing convenient about being a POW on an 87-day forced march, but Howard could see even unsightly men covered with lice and bent over with dysentery as children of God for whom Christ died. That made them his brothers.

But could Howard ever accept the German people as his brothers? Yes, but only with the example of Christ before him. In forgiving Wilfried Beerman, the German boy who alerted the police, Howard was free of bitterness. Today, the families of Howard and Wilfried enjoy an abiding friendship.

Howard was physically taken captive by his enemies, but they could not threaten his identity or imprison his spirit. He was always a free man in Christ. Looking back, Howard knows that he was always under the protection of his Heavenly Father. Strength was given when he was weak, bread when he was hungry, a cup of water when he was dry. War raged all around him, but Howard’s spirit was at peace.

Seventy-two years later, Howard still trusts the promise of His Heavenly Father:

Even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (Is. 46:4).

 

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