Church Sermon Illustration: The Faith of a Prisoner of War…
Admiral Jim Stockdale served on active duty in the regular Navy for 37 years, most of those years he spent at sea as a fighter pilot aboard aircraft carriers. Shot down on his second combat tour over North Vietnam, he was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times, in leg irons for two years and in solitary confinement for four years during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a well-treated prisoner. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture. He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his being shot down. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Author Jim Collins read Stockdale’s incredible story and said he felt depressed. And then he thought, “If it feels depressing for me, how on Earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”
Collins interviewed Stockdale and asked him that question.
Stockdale replied, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”1
Church Sermon Illustration Takeaway:
The key to living life as a follower of Jesus Christ is to never lose faith in the end of the story. That is what keeps you going through the ups and downs, hits and hurts, dashed hopes and deep disappointments of life. It may not all get resolved for you right now. It may not turn out the way you want right now. But there is an end of the story that will be incredibly and unendingly enjoyable. This is an important message that those of us in ministry should cling to and must continue to remind our congregations.
- Jim Collins, “Former POW Jim Stockdale on Hope,” Preaching Today, 2001, accessed February 22, 2017, http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2002/april/13620.html.
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