In 2000 I wrote the following article in remembrance of a distinctively unique experience in my life and the lessons that I learned from that experience.
Thinking about…Vietnam, mistakes, and ministry
In the summer of 1968 I was a youth pastor and had taken my youth group on our second annual Western Camping trip to the mountains of Colorado. We were camped near the ghost town of Marble, which is approximately twenty miles across the mountains (as the eagle flies) from Aspen. On a warm afternoon the group, which included teens from several churches, was rappelling on the cliffs surrounding the marble quarries a mile or so above the old town. From these huge quarries had come the marble used to construct the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and other famous structures in our nation’s Capitol.
I had taken a small group on an errand back to the campsite. We were slowly driving a four-wheel vehicle back up the steep trail when we came upon a couple hiking up the mountain. As they stopped to let us pass, we recognized that it was former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had only a few months before he resigned from President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet amid the growing controversy swirling around the unpopular Vietnam war. For the next couple of hours our combined youth groups played host to this famous couple, demonstrating our daring exploits on the cliffs.
The fact that is significant about this encounter is that at the moment we were entertaining Secretary McNamara, the infamous Democratic National Convention of 1968 was being held in Chicago. And at the very time we were showing off to the man known as “The Architect of the Vietnam War,” protesting students and police were waging a bloody battle on Chicago’s streets. From then on the national turmoil over Vietnam worsened until the war was finally stopped in 1973. Actually the distress of that conflict still lingers today in our country.
Recently, I’ve read two books that McNamara has written during the last five years: In Retrospect (1995) and Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (1999). In the first book Mr. McNamara attempts to take responsibility for and explain the mistakes that he made, as well as those made by President Johnson and the other top advisors who led our country at that time. Not everyone agrees with his assessments, and further controversy has resulted from this book. The second book is actually a collection of thoughts from former U.S. leaders, scholars, and even representatives of the enemy nations. Truly, the title accurately represents the contents of the book, and it typifies the disagreement that still exists about this troubled era of our history.
I’ve wondered several times over the past 30 years, “Why was McNamara hiking in the mountain wilderness when his political party and his former boss, President Johnson, were struggling in a battle of such strategic importance?” I don’t know, and these books don’t give me answers to that question. But that experience of many years ago has given me pause to ponder. Perhaps he was just trying to get away from it all. Perhaps he was weary of the battle. The irony was – we were in the mountains trying to prepare young people for battle. We were trying to prepare them to avoid costly mistakes caused by a failure to implement God’s strategic battle plan. We were engaged in youth ministry, and our mission was to prepare teenagers to develop purpose, focus, and integrity in their lives.
When you read the books and articles about Vietnam, you find a rather uncanny accord among the disagreeing commentators. The quarreling parties find common agreement that the worsening situation stemmed from a lack of clear purpose, a decidedly wrong focus, and a resultant loss of integrity. Even though the leaders stridently disagree about the reasons for these failures – and the solutions that should have been invoked – agreement nevertheless exists that the great nation of the USA failed in purpose, focus, and integrity.
Today, bloody battles and conflicts continue to plague our world. Vietnam has faded, but Kuwait, Somalia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and many other hot spots have emerged to trouble our great nation, and world. Mistakes are still being made – and human suffering continues to persist as a result.
But I feel that the battle for the lives and minds of young people is really the most important battle being waged today. Those of us in ministry best be warned that we dare not fail in our PURPOSE, FOCUS, INTEGRITY. In our ministries, in our lives and in the legacy we leave for our youth – we must strive to achieve God’s purpose, focus and integrity.
“…but this one thing I do…I press toward the mark for the prize of God in Christ Jesus.”