Two soldiers sat huddled together in a small fox hole with the rain beating down on them. To be drafted into this Vietnam conflict had not been their choice. They were from different parts of the country with just as different personalities. Tom was older and married to his lifelong sweetheart Mary. He had just found out his vivacious little wife was pregnant with their first child. What timing! If it would have been before his notice he would have been deferred from the draft. Tom had worked hard to get through college and now was in charge of the family’s hardware business. He enjoyed working in a small town where his family had lived and been respected for many generations. Tom was a very strong Christian and tried to have his life reflect his beliefs.
Joe was an immature young punk. He had been given a choice, either sign up for the draft or be charged with felony assault by the local sheriff. Joe had always hung around with tough gang members, and had already been kicked out of school twice for fighting. His parents were divorced. His father was an alcoholic while his mother struggled to put food on the table. Pot was his choice for finding solitude in life, a life that had no idea where it was going.
Tom and Joe both ended up being replacements for a platoon that had been shot up pretty bad. They were buddied up because no one else really trusted them. Most thought Tom was too soft to shoot around civilians, while Joe was a druggie, his mind to often unclear of what was going on around him. So Tom and Joe were thrown together. Tom was thinking Joe won’t last long as drugs would blur his ability to react; while Joe was thinking Tom cares too much for the gook civilians, will be an easy target for an enemy who was infiltrated among them.
Being opposites one would think this relationship would be nothing but fighting and fuming. But Tom and Joe got along fairly well. Joe did not think he would like Tom, yet Tom was now the only person who really cared whether Joe lived or died. Joe could not dislike Tom, for when someone treats you fairly, worries about you, you feel differently deep inside about them. Tom couldn’t hate anyone, much less someone who had never had anyone really love him. Joe needed a lot of growing up, but maybe that is why the why the good Lord had put them together.
They soon became good friends and Tom often wrote to his wife about Joe. Soon Mary had her Sunday school class writing letters to Joe as he had not been receiving any mail. Joe thought it was silly that anyone would write or pray for him, but some mail was better than none at all.
This did not mean that Tom and Joe didn’t have their disagreements over various issues. Many of their discussions would be when Joe was half high on pot and Tom was trying to discuss the Lord with him. Joe didn’t think there was any place for him in the church. He had seen all the religious people who went to church and espoused they should keep the all the Lord’s commandments and love their neighbors. Yet Joe had been in a position to see how they acted on the wrong side of the tracks, when they were away from home. How their demeanor changed when it helped them get an extra buck or enjoy a little pleasure.
As far as Joe was concerned Christians had split personalities. One personality of righteous indignation on Sunday morning, bragging about all the good they were doing. The rest of the week they had a personality of self-indulgence, when there was no one around to see what they were doing, or their pocketbooks were at stake. One day at church and six days being part of the world, their odds of getting to heaven were 7 to 1. The local church goers had better hope they all died on Sunday while they were still righteous.
Tom tried hard not to lose his patience with a boy who had never felt love before, only the evil side of man. A boy who could only find solace when he was not living in reality with the help of drugs. A boy who must grow up, if the war would allow him to, and find the love and peace of the Lord.
Time did not seem to go very fast in this Viet Nam war environment, as it was hard to know who your Viet Nam friends and enemies were. But somehow Tom and Joe had managed to get through their stay in Vietnam and would be transferred out in about two weeks. Joe was getting stoned on drugs, and while in a good mood Tom was able to get him to promise to come home with him for a visit once they were stateside. Tom’s baby was to be born anytime and they could both celebrate its birth. It sure would be good to get home were shooting and killing was not an everyday affair.
The next day they started out on patrol like usual. Joe was still groggy from the high the night before and was not very alert. Tom kept an eye out for him as this was an area where they had often encountered the enemy. Suddenly their earlier premonitions happened. Because of drugs Joe was slow in seeing the Viet Cong soldier’s movement in the grass, and because of Tom’s love his automatic reaction was to try and knock Joe out of the way. There were a couple bursts of gunfire and then all was silent again.
Joe reached over to help Tom and suddenly realized Tom had been hit by the gunfire. Joe frantically asked, “ Are you all right? Are you all right? ” Gasping Tom answered, “ I am hit pretty bad, man this hurts.” The second lieutenant came running over to see if he could help Tom, but realized there was nothing to do as Tom was dying. In anger the second lieutenant lashed out at Joe, threatening to court martial him for being hung over on drugs. But Tom in his dying words made the officer promise not to do anything. Then turning to Joe, Tom made him promise to tell Mary how much he loved her and hold their baby for him. Then Tom went home to the Lord.
Joe went berserk crying out,” Why did you do it! Why did you do it! I am good for nothing. Your life is worth a hundred of mine. You have a wife and child on the way. Why didn’t you let me get shot and end this miserable life of mine? Why did you do it?”
It was a foggish nightmare for Joe as he somehow completed the patrol and finished the last two weeks of his tour in Vietnam. There were some letters from Mary that had come through for Tom. Joe left them unopened not wanting to endure any more guilt than already had engulfed him. It would be much easier to write and explain everything that had happened foregoing a visit to Mary. But how could anyone break a vow to someone who had given their life for them? He had promised Tom, and out of love for him would not break it. He would visit Mary.
A few weeks after Joe’s discharge in the states he found himself on a bus headed to Tom’s hometown. Joe checked in at the local motel and from the address on the letters went by Tom’s house. There was not anyone home and it was just as well, for here was Joe, a grown man, having his eyes well up in tears at what he would say to Mary. After composing himself he started to walk around the small town and noticed a hardware store that was just as Tom described it. Taking a deep breath to control guilt ridden emotions, Joe walked in half hoping Mary would not be there. A pretty, petite lady came up and Joe instantly recognized Mary from Tom’s picture of her. In a broken voice Joe introduced himself and then was barely able to get out how sorry he was about Tom before Mary started crying. Joe tried to console her, but they needed to be alone to talk and there were still customers in the store. So after Mary regained her composure she invited Joe to dinner that night.
Joe went back to the motel dreading going to Mary’s house. How could Joe tell her he was the reason Tom was dead. He thought about taking the bus and leaving, but somehow Mary had to know the truth, about what a courageous and loving husband Tom was. As Joe was walking to Mary’s house for dinner he was thinking, how could anyone have been such a foolish pothead to cause someone he loved to die? And why would anyone risk their life in trying to save such an idiot as he was? It just didn’t balance out. Tom’s act was out of love for Joe, while Joe’s act was pure selfish pleasure.
Suddenly Joe was at the house and Mary was opening the door with a little bundle in her arms. With a big smile on her face Mary said, “ Joe I want you to meet Wendy Jo. Tom thought so much of you, he wanted to use your name as the middle named for our child whether it was a boy or girl. I hope you don’t mind that I spelled it just J-o for her.”
Joe had been very tough all of his life and nothing could ever get to him or bother him. But he just couldn’t take any more of this love and kindness. All choked up he just blurted out, “The only reason I am here is that I promised Tom I would come to see you and the baby. Tom’s dying wish was for me to tell you how much he loved you and to hold his child for him. He told me to tell you he would see you both in Heaven.”
“Now I have to get out of here because I am so full of guilt I can’t stand it. The reason Tom is dead is that I was half stoned while we were on patrol and I did not see the snipers. You’re stupid husband tried to knock me out of the way and in doing so was hit by the bullets that should have killed me. I will never understand how your husband could risk his life for me when he had you and the baby on the way. To top it off he forgave me for being stoned and told me not to worry, that everything would be all right. That I was a very special person. I have never had a person love me like that. I am so sorry for getting him killed and if there was any way to bring him back I would gladly take the bullets he took. Please forgive me.” Then Joe turned and ran out of the house.
Joe went back to the motel but couldn’t sleep. He thought about getting stoned. But then he thought about what happened the last time he got stoned and the guilt was so strong he couldn’t touch any pot. The next morning he left early to catch a bus somewhere. It really didn’t matter where as long as it could carry him away from the shame of ruining a family. The next bus east would leave in a couple of hours so Joe decided to wait in the terminal until it arrived. About 30 minutes before the bus arrived Joe saw Mary coming into the terminal. Joe thought, oh no, I really didn’t give her a chance to vent her anger on me last night. Well she deserves the right to tell me off but I hope she does it quickly, not causing too much of a scene.
Mary came over to Joe and quietly sat down beside him. “Joe, I need to talk to you a minute. I am not like Tom, I just can’t forgive you immediately like he did. I guess that is why I loved Tom so much. He cared about others so much that he could forgive instantly. Tom cared alot about you. He was planning on having you come home with him after you were released. He made me agree that you would come up with the family when Wendy Jo was baptized. I know you are busy but could you see your way clear to stay until Sunday and be part of Wendy Jo’s baptism? It would mean a great deal to me.”
What could Joe do. He wanted to jump on the first bus and head anywhere. This being loving, truthful, responsible, were new and scary concepts for Joe. But then in Joe’s mind he saw Tom’s face, Tom’s dying request for Joe to help his wife and child. Joe had no choice but to stay for the Sunday baptism.
The next morning Joe decided to go down to the store and see if there was anything he could do to help out. He couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. Besides doing a little work would make the time go faster. Joe began taking inventory with the newly hired worker Ben. Joe had seen how many a worker had skimmed a little off the top while working for companies. At one time Joe had been one of them. So when he looked at the inventory sheets at the end of the day while waiting for Mary to close up, Joe was surprised. Ben and Joe had both inventoried about the same amount of merchandise, but Ben’s inventory list was much shorter than Joe’s.
Joe first thought was that he would only be here one more day so why should he get involved with someone stealing from Mary? But then he thought of how Tom would have handled the situation. When they were alone the next day Joe pulled Ben aside and confronted him about the inventory sheets. Ben admitted he had been treated well by Mary, but he just had to have five hundred dollars to rent a house for his family. Ben even offered to cut Joe in, as he could sell the unlisted stock at fifty cents to the dollar. Then Joe did something he never thought he would do. He pulled out his wallet and gave Ben five hundred dollars of the last six hundred he had to his name. “Don’t you ever steal again,” Joe sternly said. Then added, “Help someone else along the way and we will call it even.”
Sunday morning finally came. Joe had enjoyed the time visiting with Mary and making faces at Wendy Jo. Joe was even able to bring a smile to her little face. At least he was good for something. Joe put on his suit. It was a little small as it had been at least four years since he had worn it. But if he didn’t stretch out his arms or button his coat Joe would be able to get by. As he walked into the church Joe felt a little uncomfortable. He had not been in one since he was in grammar school. Then the entire congregation had made him their pet project. They were always smiling and patting themselves on the back for what great people they were for helping children like Joe. But Joe knew he was always different in their eyes, never really being part of the church. Joe sat down with Mary as the service started. The pastor was older, more laid-back and friendlier than the ones Joe remembered.
The baptism took place at the beginning of the service and when the pastor was baptizing Wendy Jo, Joe felt a quiet presence around him. For the first time since Tom had been killed, Joel felt calm and relaxed. After the baptism little Wendy Jo began to cry. Joe offered to take her into the cry room so Mary could enjoy the sermon. Holding Wendy Jo and rocking her to sleep with her bottle, Joe was at peace with himself like he never had been before in his life. Tom had the right answer to a happy life and had known what was important. But the mere thought of Tom tied up Joe’s stomach once more with guilt. How could anyone steal a father away from such a precious daughter?
After the service was over Joe gave back Wendy Jo to Mary. He almost hated doing it for Joe had never felt so needed as when Wendy Jo was sleeping in his arms. Joe quietly told Mary that he wanted to thank the pastor and would like to walk home to clear his mind. Mary told him there would be a big chicken dinner waiting for him so not to be too late.
Joe ventured back in the church and asked the pastor if he could have a few minutes with him. Pastor Jim said he would be glad to visit with Joe and then he would drive him to dinner at Mary’s. Joe came right out and said what was on his mind, how he didn’t understand who or what God and Jesus were all about. That he would never be good enough to make it to Heaven. That he wished he had enough money to give the church to make up for all his mistakes.
Calmly Pastor Jim replied, “Joe it should be very easy for you to understand Jesus Christ’s love. Tom gave his life for you out of love not because of anything you did. And out of your love for Tom, you have tried to help his family and change your life. Just take this one step higher and you understand the gift of Grace from Jesus Christ.
Until Jesus Christ came men had to do certain things under the law to be saved. But Jesus changed all this when He came out of love for us and gave His life as a redemption for our sins, that we may have eternal life. Jesus died that we may live. We can all have this gift of eternal life by merely believing in Him. You have found out though when someone dies for you, your life will never be the same. You will always love that person and out of love for what he has done for you, your life will change, you will love others as you have been loved. Jesus would have us love Him as our only God, and love all people as we love ourselves.”
Then suddenly it all came together for Joe as he realized how he had changed. He had not made excuses about being stoned when Tom was killed. He had accepted the responsibility for not being alert. He kept his promise to Tom by seeing his wife, even though it had been extremely hard to face up to her. He could have stolen from Mary but didn’t. He had helped Ben rectify his problem. If Tom’s love could change him this much maybe Christ’s love could rid him of the awful guilt he still carried in his heart. Joe went to the altar at the church, fell to his knees and asked the Lord for forgiveness. The sudden peace he felt in his heart told him he had been graciously forgiven. Now with the Lord’s help, he must learn how to forgive himself.
Most of Tom’s and Mary’s relatives were gathered at Mary’s house. Joe was very glad he was walking in with the pastor, as they were late and everyone was already sitting down at the table. Joe really felt out of place. He was sure they all knew about him and could not be very pleased to have him eating at the same table. So after the pastor said grace, Joe stood up. “Please, I have something to say, it will just take a minute. I was so wrong in living the way I used to. It caused the death of Tom, who saved me at the cost of his own life. I am so sorry and I ask you all for your forgiveness. I don’t know what Tom saw in me, but his way was so right and mine so wrong. I now know what Tom meant when he told me that Jesus loved us so much that He died for all of our sins. Tom not only talked his faith, he lived it. Please excuse me. I will be leaving now. I really don’t belong here. Thanks for everything Mary.”
To his surprise Mary stood up and said, “Please stay Joe. This is still my house. Tom would have welcomed you and so will I. I know you are struggling over your guilt, but the Lord will forgive you and I know He will eventually help this family to forgive you also. As a favor to me and to Wendy Jo please stay.” What could Joe do but sit down and eat a delicious home cooked meal with all Tom’s relatives.
It was tense at first, no one knowing what to say. But soon conversation started and the pastor was sure Joe was included. When the dinner was over Tom’s father and mother came over to wish Joe the best, both giving him warm hugs. Joe went over to Mary giving her and Wendy Jo a final hug, telling Mary that the pastor was bringing him to the bus station.
Mary quietly said Joe was welcome to stay and could have a job at the store. But Joe felt they all had a little more healing to do. Mary made Joe promise to come back for Thanksgiving, reiterating that he was part of the family. Joe squeezed Wendy Jo one last time, coaxing a big smile out of her and left with the pastor.
When Joe was getting on the bus and saying goodbye to the pastor, he saw the sun come from the clouds. It was gorgeous and Joe started his own healing while looking at the beautiful skyline. For the first time Joe realized that God was in charge here on earth. Following the Lord he would find peace and comfort until the day he would be reunited with Tom in Heaven above.
We will never completely understand or comprehend our God’s great love for us. That our Savior would die for such a wretch as I am, so my sins could be forgiven. That Jesus freely forgives our sins if we just believe in Him. For by our God’s love, by Jesus, atoning grace on the cross, we become children of God, and will inherit eternal life in Heaven. This is what our human lives are all about.
*"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. Jn 3:16 NASB+
Copyright 2002 amended 2013 by Ron Borkey
+ ESV “Scripture quotations marked [ESV] are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version,” copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good New Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
+ NEW AMERICAN STANDARD
BIBLE (1995 Update) Copyright © 1981, 1998 The Lockman Foundation, A Corporation Not for Profit,
+ NIV Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
+ NKJV "Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved."