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December 4, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 162




Pat Marrin Facing the storm head-on

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

Today's Reading: Matthew 7:24: Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise person who built a house on rock.

I love museums as a form of time travel. We are fortunate here in Kansas City to have wonderful museums like the presidential museum and library for Harry Truman in nearby Independence. I was there last weekend with my visiting brother, Mike, and we took in a sobering exhibit on Truman and the Korean War.

Other Today's Takes by Pat Marrin
Dec. 3, 2003 Just one pope away from ...
Dec. 2, 2003 'Hope is the thing with feathers'
Dec. 1, 2003 Peace: the minimum requirement
Oct. 31, 2003 Freely chosen reality
Oct. 30, 2003 The burden of servant leadership
Oct. 29, 2003 Entering by the narrow gate
Oct. 28, 2003 Gracious Ignatius
Today's gospel reading about building on rock leads naturally to a reflection on the challenges of commitment and the burdens of leadership. Nothing forces us to probe our soul's foundation like a difficult decision we cannot escape. I love to analyze and speculate, and I recognize in my often facile critique of those in authority (popes, presidents, bishops, even publishers) a secret relief that I am not responsible for the decisions they have to make. As Truman would say, the buck stops with them, not me.

Though we somehow managed to come out on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I am in awe of my oldest brother Jim's experience in the Navy on a nuclear submarine that would disappear for months at a time under the cold Atlantic during the long standoff with the Soviets in the late 1960s. He forged a deep commitment to his country in that experience that easily matches if not surpasses my own determination to serve the church as best I can.

My visit to the Truman museum was a timely reminder of the period of complex and violent confrontation that shaped the world we live in today. As a leader, Truman had two things working for him: Truman knew history and he had a conscience. When faced with fast-moving international circumstances, he could draw on precedent and personal experience to make informed decisions. He accepted responsibility for what he decided. However harsh its verdict, history will not judge Harry Truman for avoiding difficult issues.

Truman reminds me of Captain MacWhirr, the skipper of a steam-powered freighter caught in a storm in the straits of Formosa in Joseph Conrad's short novel Typhoon. As the fury rises, MacWhirr's first mate expresses relief when the captain appears on deck.

While he was exchanging explanatory yells with his captain, a sudden lowering of the darkness came upon the night, falling before their vision like something palpable. It was as if the masked light of the world had been turned down. Jukes was uncritically glad to have his captain at hand. It relieved him as though that man had, by simply coming on deck, taken most of the gale's weight upon his shoulders. Such is the prestige, the privilege, and the burden of command.
Juke's reliance on his captain's outward confidence belies MacWhirr's fear and his realization that he, and he alone, is responsible for taking the ship into extreme danger.
Captain MacWhirr could expect no relief of that sort from anyone on earth. Such is the loneliness of command. He felt under his feet the uneasiness of his ship, and could not even discern the shadow of her shape. He wished it were not so, and very still he waited, feeling stricken by a blind man's helplessness.

The ship is barely saved, and in triumph, MacWhirr counsels Jukes with one of the great lessons of life and literature, as few but Conrad, an experienced sailor himself, could have expressed it:

"Don't you be put out by anything," the captain continued, mumbling rather fast. "Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it -- always facing it -- that's the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That's enough for any man. Keep a cool hand."
One item in the exhibit on the Korean war caught my eye, and I share it in the interests of reminding myself that, whatever my political views, I need to pray for our leaders. It also serves as a simple observation on the kind of character a president needs.

In a handwritten letter to Truman, a grief-stricken father blamed him for the loss of his son in Korea, one of 54,000 U.S. deaths in that tragic, unresolved conflict. A purple heart medal was enclosed, with best wishes that Truman's daughter, Margaret, might have shared the same privilege of serving her country. What was most striking to me about this heart-rending message was that the letter and medal were found in Truman's desk drawer when he died in 1972. He had kept it for over 20 years as a reminder of the terrible responsibility he bore for all the lives lost under his command.

Most of us will mercifully escape this kind of responsibility, but we cannot escape the singular risks and burdens of deciding and acting in our own lives. The gospel offers us counsel and the assurance that if we trust in God, we will never be alone. Find solid rock and build there. Face the storm and go through it.

Pat Marrin's e-mail addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. For a preview, follow this link: Celebration.

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