Calvary Road Baptist Church

“MY UNCLE’S CONVERSION”

Romans 5.6-8

 

Tomorrow our nation officially observes Memorial Day. I say officially because while some few ceremonies and observances will take place, the vast majority of the population will pay no attention whatsoever to the reason that day has been set aside each year to memorialize our nation’s military war dead and to honor those who served in our nation’s armed forces. I say observe to give a nod to the fact that Memorial Day is an official holiday, and that at least on a superficial level such men are shown respect.

It is a terrible fact of human existence that armed forces are even necessary in all but the most out of the way and unthreatening countries. Throughout human history men have banded together in disobedience to God, forcing still others to also band together so they might protect themselves from aggressors who would do them harm. However, once a nation recognizes the need to protect themselves from those who would do them harm it has been the almost universal habit of nations to then honor those have been called to arms and to memorialize those who have fallen in battle. The greatest of tragedies is that those who are most capable of answering the call to arms are also those who are most usually the youngest, who typically have the least in terms of life experience and wisdom, who typically have the most potential that is put at risk by wearing a uniform, and who most oftentimes leave behind a young widow and orphaned babies if their lives are forfeited for their flag. Memorial Day is our nation’s answer to the felt need to show respect for those who answered the call, to shed a tear for family members and loved ones who served, and especially for those who died violent deaths in faraway places or who died quietly at home after having faced violence in combat and the threat of death far away.

Most families in our nation have their own stories to tell on Memorial Day. Jim Ccccc has his father’s story to tell as well as his own. Mike Ddddd has his father’s story to tell. Dali Sssss has her father’s story to tell. Larry Aaaaa has his own story to tell. My wife has three nephews who are presently serving combat veterans, and a brother now dead who served in the Navy. I have several family members who served in the Army and in the Marine Corps during World War Two and during the Korean conflict. If my memory serves me correctly it was five uncles and my dad. One served in the European theater of operations. Two that I know of served in the South Pacific. Some of you know of my uncle Leon, whose name I have mentioned to you from time to time, who was captured at Corregidor and served as a prisoner of war for the duration, who then served in the Korean War and was in the First Marine Division at the famous Chosin Reservoir.

On this Memorial Day weekend I choose to begin with his story.

 

HE WAS KNOWN BY HIS EXTENDED FAMILY AS COTTON

 

His given name was Leon, and he was a sharecropper’s son, born on someone else’s land in Oklahoma, somewhere in the middle of a large family whose only claim to fame was their maternal grandfather. Francois Lacasse, was a Quebecois[1] who had served on a whaling ship, and then on a ship in the United States Navy during the Civil War, and then became the only French Canadian ever to serve as a Texas Ranger.[2] He is how my uncle came to be born in Oklahoma.

Leon dropped out of high school (not at all unusual during the Great Depression) and joined the Army, was shipped to the Philippines just before the outbreak of the war, and was captured by the Japanese on what was called “The Rock.” He survived the war and the brutality of prison camp in both the Philippines and Japan only to fight again in one of the most famous battles of the Korean War. Afterwards he descended into a miserable existence of attempting to drown his memories of war and the unspeakable horrors of prison camp with liquor, until one day the prayers of his mother and father were finally answered and he found new life in Christ. He was never the same man after that, though the two wars and the 3½ years of prison camp left very deep scars.

I had loved and adored him as the older brother my dad very obviously worshiped when I was little. But it was when he came to Christ, and then came to visit us with the gospel, that he impressed me even more. I was not converted myself for eight more years, but his testimony to me of God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice at the kitchen table in our home one night was never far from my heart. Oh, how he loved the Bible. Oh, how he enjoyed telling folks about the Savior. He had been a soldier for his nation. He became a soldier of the cross. He served in both ways with honor and distinction.

Can I rehearse a few things about my Uncle “Cotton” to you?

First, his qualifications to serve his country. To serve in the United States Army during World War Two and in the Marine Corps during the Korean War you had to meet minimal physical and mental qualifications. Being a strong farm boy with more education than most meant they took him when he enlisted. Then they trained him. Then they sent him half way around the world to fight.

Next, his sacrifices for his country. His first terrible sacrifice was in the prison camps, with the deprivation and harsh conditions that cost so many lives from disease, malnutrition, and exposure to the elements. Despite those horrors I was told by my neighbor Rex Bray (who surprisingly was also a prisoner in the same camp) how my Uncle “Cotton” and a Navy pharmacist’s mate saved the lives of many a soldier and sailor by their ingenuity and bravery in a prison camp.[3] His third terrible sacrifice took place after the Korean War began and he served in the Marine Corps, as part of the First Marine Division, in a bitter Korean winter fight that lasted almost two weeks, with temperatures plunging to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, against tough Chinese soldiers that outnumbered them, 10 to 1.[4] What about his second terrible sacrifice? That took place in 1945 after he arrived at the Madigan Army hospital near Tacoma, Washington and was put on a troop train destined for San Antonio, Texas with other newly liberated prisoners of war. That train ride to San Antonio was under military guard, with windows blacked out, under orders not to make themselves visible to civilians under penalty of being shot by the MPs with Thompson submachine guns placed at each end of the railroad cars. Why did that happen? Why subject returning heroes to that kind of treatment? My uncle guessed that after winning the war none of the higher ups wanted civilians to see guys like him, emaciated and weighing only 85 pounds when he should have weighed 175 pounds. His fourth sacrifice was over the course of the rest of his life, suffering from what today is called PTSD and the physical backlash to 3½ years of mistreatment and abuse without sufficient sleep or nutrition. My, my, how that man suffered for his country. Yet he always insisted that the real heroes were the men who did not make it back home.

Third, what he accomplished in his service to his country. My uncle was one man in a seven million man military machine that fought and won victory in a two-front war that claimed millions of lives. Five years later he served again as part of an effort to prevent the takeover of an entire nation by a communist dictator. His prolonged efforts, along with the service of millions of others, purchased with blood the freedom of untold numbers, who then lived out their lives and died. It is appropriate for a nation such as ours to honor men such as him for what they accomplished at such a high price. However, it is shortsighted to end here. It is one thing to sacrifice as a patriot to defend yourself, your loved ones, your country, and your way of life. It is quite another thing to sacrifice all for undeserving sinners.

 

HE IS KNOWN BY HIS OWN AS THE LORD JESUS CHRIST

 

Unlike my uncle’s or anyone else’s sacrifice who served in uniform, my Lord Jesus Christ paid no price to preserve His cherished way of life, or to protect His loved ones or His country. Quite the contrary, the Apostle Paul observes why the Lord Jesus Christ did what He did in Romans 5.6-8:

 

6      For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.

7      For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.

8      But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

 

In this passage reference is made to God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and also to sinful men like you and me. Notice the thrust of each of these three verses: In verse 6 sinners are identified as being both without strength and also ungodly, yet Christ died for such ungodly weaklings. In verse 7 it is observed that there are those who will die on behalf of those who are righteous or those who are good, the implication of course is that who would die for those who like us are neither righteous nor good? Verse 8 then concludes that God demonstrates His love toward sinners such as we are, and Christ actually died for us, who are neither righteous or good. That, my friend, is a sacrifice worth memorializing.

Let me now rehearse a few things about the Lord Jesus Christ, both comparing and contrasting my uncle and others like him who will be honored tomorrow on Memorial Day:

First, His qualifications. You will remember that my uncle and most others who serve are, like him, only minimally qualified. He was mostly young, immature, and inexperienced. Were he really of value to his country he would not have been cannon fodder with his life placed under enemy fire where only the expendable are sent. The Savior, on the other hand, is the Crown Jewel of heaven. He is the eternal Son of the living God, the One in Isaiah chapter 6 Who is described as sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, with His regal train filling the heavenly temple. What are His qualifications? He was born of the Virgin Mary, Isaiah 7.14. Listen to how He is described in Isaiah 9.6:

 

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

 

I could go on and on, but the point has been sufficiently made. The Lord Jesus Christ is the most highly qualified individual to ever live. He is not qualified by meeting minimal requirements, as is so often the case with those their nations are willing to place in harm’s way in conflict. He is the most qualified in that He is eternal, He is holy, He is omnipotent, He is all-wise, and He is God’s only begotten Son! Understand that I have no complaint about memorializing such men as my uncle. They were heroic. They sacrificed. They exhibited bravery. They were wonderful. However, those who normally are sent are not sent because they are so highly regarded but because they are willing to go. The Lord Jesus Christ was not only willing, but He was also astonishingly qualified.

Next, His sacrifice. My uncle risked his life, that which was his greatest prize, that which was his most valued possession. Thankfully, he did not die in battle, or as a prisoner of war. Had he died he would have spent the ceaseless ages of eternity in the never ending torment of the lake of fire. Had he sacrificed his life it certainly would have counted a great deal, but it would not have accomplished much, you see. Oh, how different was the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. What did the Savior gain by His sacrifice on the cross of Calvary? Did He die protecting His home? Did He die defending His loved ones? Did He die in an attempt to preserve the nation or His cherished way of life? No. His was an entirely selfless sacrifice for the benefit of others, others who were neither good nor godly. He died on the cross for sinners.

Third, what did He accomplish with His sacrifice on the cross of Calvary? What He accomplished was staggering in its effect and consequences. He fulfilled predictions made centuries before.[5] He bore our sins on His own body and paid the penalty for our transgressions. Though He was sinless He shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. May I respectfully point out what is accomplished by the sacrifice of a soldier? A man gives his life for his comrades-in-arms to preserve them from enemies who would take their lives. Then they go home to their families, live out the remainder of their lives, and eventually end up in the grave. But no mark is made for eternity. None of their sins have been dealt with. Those lives affected by the brave man’s sacrifice remain spiritually unchanged. However, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, not for His buddies and comrades but for ungodly sinners, the shedding of His precious blood, accomplishes incredible things: A man’s sins are forgiven when he trusts Christ. He is born again by the miracle of the new birth. He is graciously given the standing of a righteous man in the sight of God. He is adopted into the family of God. He is indwelt by the Spirit of God. He is sealed by that same Spirit. And the Savior becomes that believer’s advocate in the court of heaven. These are just a few of the things accomplished by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. So you see, as personally heartbreaking and worthy of memorialization as the sacrifices of our nation’s veterans are, they pale in comparison to the sacrifice of my Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Yet a nation will regard the bravery and selflessness of her soldiers while at the same time dismissing and otherwise ignoring the greater bravery and even more selfless accomplishment of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

 

I mentioned earlier the propriety of a nation honoring their war dead and their veterans, while observing that stopping at that is insufficient. You see, each of us has been given a life to live in preparation for eternity. Therefore, while it is a wonderful thing to be patriotic, to serve your country, to seek to preserve its freedoms and liberty, and to honor those who served to protect our nation and way of life, it is simply not enough.

My Lord Jesus Christ asked, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”[6] It is a valid question that needs to be addressed by each one of us. What good does it do you to make all the money in the world and then lose your own soul? What good does it do you to enjoy a successful career that must come to an end and then lose your own soul? What good does it do you to fight for liberty and to do your best to protect your country, your family, and your cherished way of life and then lose your own soul?

My uncle, Leon Waldrip, was a great patriot. He was a warrior. He volunteered to serve his country; twice. He is a prime example that being a great American is simply not enough. Being a decorated combat veteran is not enough. Being tough enough, as tough as any man you would ever know is not enough. Deserving the honor of your grateful nation is simply not enough.

Every man, every woman, everyone needs Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins He alone grants to those who trust Him. Understand. My Uncle Leon was a marvelous Christian, but he knew as well as anyone, and embraced as a personal conviction, that no one deserves to go to heaven. Not him; not anyone. The Bible teaches, and therefore he believed, that the salvation of his eternal and undying soul was dependent upon Jesus Christ, and that salvation in Christ is by grace through faith in Him, apart from works of righteousness or good deeds of any kind. That is why a hero, a survivor of unspeakable horrors, and a hero in yet a second war, who was then humiliated by his own sins, turned to Jesus Christ.

Memorial Day is a wonderful time to honor our veterans, especially those who died in conflict. However, a Memorial Day that ends with that is incomplete, because death does not end anyone’s existence. Wonderfully, thankfully, the believer in Jesus Christ who dies is then ushered into his Lord’s presence, there to enjoy eternity. My Memorial Day thoughts most usually turn to the Savior of my Uncle “Cotton,” whose testimony to me as a lad was useful to prepare my own heart for the gospel message and the forgiveness of my own sins through faith in Christ.



[1] A native of Quebec, he was a French Canadian.

[2] He is listed in the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame in Waco, Texas and is mentioned in one of Louis L’Amour’s books as “Frenchy” Lacosse.

[3] The following account is virtually identical to what Rex Bray told me about my Uncle Leon, though his account was related to me in 1965 and the book was released in 1981. Donald Knox, Death March: The Survivors of Bataan, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1981), page 239: “The ingenuity of the American soldier is something to behold. The Japanese were well ensconced by this time in the Philippines, so they began to get venereal diseases. It was nearly an epidemic. Gonorrhea mainly. Venereal disease became a very serious affair for the Jap military. So the guards around the camp, rather than going to their own doctors for treatment and then punishment, started coming to our medics. Our guys thought, “Hmmm, let’s work something out.” So they began manufacturing pills out of salt, pressing them in a small homemade mold, and selling them to the Japs as sulfathiazine. It became a real business, even to pressing a pharmaceutical company’s brand on the pill. The medics would trade the pills to the Japs for sugar, salt, peanuts, or anything they could get. The medics, in turn, gave the stuff to the kitchens. The comical thing was watching the guards who had bought our pills. Everybody in camp knew what was going on. Pretty soon you wouldn’t see a particular guard any more because he had gotten so damn sick that he had to be hospitalized. They never understood why our “sulfa” didn’t work on them.

[4] Eric Hammel, Chosin: Heroic Ordeal of the Korean War, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1990), page 11.

[5] Genesis 3.15; Isaiah 52.12-53.12; Psalm 22

[6] Mark 8.36

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pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org