The Enemy’s Chaplain

My grandparents were old. Or, at least, they were older than other kids’ grandparents.

I remember Papa Jack being a bald, wrinkled man with hair sprouting from his ears and huge swollen knuckles. Both he and my Nana Lucile were hard-of-hearing as well. For Papa Jack, it was worse because his hearing aides never quite fit so he wouldn’t wear them as much. His deafness made conversation difficult. I mostly just listened to whatever story he wanted to tell.

Some of my favorite stories were about his growing up on a farm. His mother’s cooking, particularly. She had a specialty, fried pies. I never met her, of course, but as Papa Jack described them, fried to perfection and filled with fresh fruit, I dined on those pies in memory. They were unusually good lunch-pail fare, according to Papa Jack. He could trade with anyone for anything in their lunch pail for a peach pie. Some kids didn’t have it so good. All they got in their pail were leftover biscuits from that morning’s breakfast. The poor things, having to lunch on cold biscuits. I wonder if Papa Jack ever traded with those kids. He didn’t say.

All my memories of Papa Jack were of him sitting. He’d had two major knee surgeries, replacement and re-replacements. His favorite places were at the table where we ate meals or his plush armchair surrounded by piles of books. Papa Jack was a speed-reader, among other things, and he went through books so rapidly that the library was the only option. The bookshelves in the house were all full, mostly with Nana’s photo albums or her travel souvenir plates, spoons, and thimbles. At the table, he’d read the newspaper or do the crossword puzzle, in pen. Sometimes, he’d write letters to old friends.

His handwriting was terrible. Not from the arthritis he told me, but from hand-writing his PhD dissertation. He didn’t mention that he actually did two dissertations. He had a PhD in Divinity and another one in Church History, and for much of his career, he taught at the Golden Gate Theological Seminary in the San Francisco Bay area. He never talked about his teaching, though. Nana did talk about her teaching, though. She taught math to gifted students and loved it.

Papa Jack also was a preacher at a Chinese Baptist Church in the Bay area. He didn’t talk to me about his preaching, but I did get to see him preach his last sermon. At the age of 95, he stood and preached on the entire book of 1 John. If you’re not familiar with sermon formats, usually a preacher uses a couple verses or a passage from a chapter, but to preach on an entire book of the Bible is unusual. Even a short one like 1 John. It’s packed full of things that a preacher could turn into a 12-week series. Papa Jack did it in an hour.

As a child, he told me that he’d read the dictionary, a huge two-part volume, on his own. For fun. He loved words, but didn’t waste them.

I remember him making breakfast. Mostly Nana handled the cooking, but Papa Jack’s specialty was breakfast meats. Chunks of smoked ham, fried alongside links sausage and strips of bacon. The smell, incredible. If Nana made Belgian waffles, he’d heat the bottle of maple syrup on the stovetop and melt butter in a small saucepan. Before I left for college, he bought me a set of tuperware containers and talked me through recipes so that I could feed myself on my own. He dictated the recipe for salmon loaf, meat loaf, and ham loaf (never made them), and gave me the secret to making the best beans and split pea soup (a ham hock!). He died 15 years ago, and I still make soup like he taught me. My five-year-old daughter loves that soup. So do I. It reminds me of my Papa Jack, every time.

Some of his stories I know from my dad telling. Living in the Bay Area in the fifties and sixty, the visiting Alcatraz made an impression on my father. Papa Jack visited once a week to do a service for the prison guards. He sometimes too my father along. He told me that the only prisoner he ever saw was the ‘lackey’ who tied up the boat. But my father did get a souvenir – a red rubber ball that a guard had seized as contraband from a prisoner and passed along to the kid who had to wait in the boat.

The one story that my grandfather told, in an incomplete form, was of his service during WWII. Too old to soldier, he’d served as a chaplain and had risen to the rank of Lt. Colonel. My father said that in modern rankings, that would be a full-bird General. Papa Jack didn’t talk about that, though. He didn’t talk about the most important, most horrible thing he endured. I didn’t learn about that until I stood on the beaches of Normandy. I dipped my fingers in the water and tasted the salt, and my father told me how my grandfather had waited back in England to minister to the dead and dying of the D-day offensive. How many last rites my grandfather performed on that day, I’ll never know. How many hands he held, how many heads he held as life leaked from those brave young men, that number is God’s alone.

The part that Papa Jack told, the part that he could tell and was proud to tell, was of serving with C.S. Lewis in the English hospitals that received both Allies and Axis wounded. Papa Jack said Lewis was very kind, but quiet, almost withdrawn. I can imagine seeing the devastation of war on human bodies every day would do that to anyone. Papa Jack told me that he taught himself German so that he could preach to the prisoners of war. At the time, I was impressed with his scholarship. I didn’t understand the lesson of mercy he was trying to teach me.

Now, that I’ve stood on that beach and glimpse the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought and died that, I understand this mercy better. My grandfather learned his enemy’s language to offer them a chance at the only absolution he could give. These soldiers were captured fighting and killing Allies. They faced imprisonment or even death from their wounds. Papa Jack literally loved his enemies. He served them, labored for them, even as he witnessed daily the fresh destruction that Germany wreaked on the Allies.

Papa Jack spent the majority of his service far from Germany, he still faced danger in England. I have a framed artifact proving it, written by my grandfather: “An original sermon outline of Charles Haddon Spurgeon in his own handwriting. Given to me by his grand-son-in-law, then pastor of…while we hid under a steel-topped table during an air-raid in fall ‘43.”

The enemy was raining down bombs, and Papa Jack was giving sermons, inspired by the “Prince of Preachers,” Spurgeon, alongside one of the greatest Christian authors of the century.

This is my heritage. People used to tell me that I look like him. Something a twelve-year-old girl does not want to hear, I assure you. I’m not speed reader. I didn’t read the dictionary, but I did win the Reader Award multiple years in high school, an award for checking out the most books in the library.

I do want to be a chaplain, though. A chaplain can do church anywhere, and that’s where we need it, anywhere. Out here, in the world. In hospitals. In grocery stores. In the psych ward. We need Jesus’s hands and feet on the ground. I want to be one of those. Someone who loves their enemies. Someone who answers the call.

I am one of those, I know. Because on the darkest day of my life, I still wanted to make friends. I still wanted to show kindness. To love other people. I did. I showed love to the broken even as I was breaking. That’s who we’re called to be the most broken and the most loving. It’s how it works. When we understand in the meat of our soul that God loves us, made us, and delights in us, it’s easy to do the same for others. That understanding only comes from facing your own utter weakness.

“This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends…You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you. But remember the root command: Love one another.” John 15:12,16-17