With some trepidation I turned up on a Saturday night last month to the 40th anniversary reunion of my old army training unit.
It was a weird experience, as reunions are, when you haven’t seen old friends for, in this case, forty years.
We met at the Union Club in the city because one of the ‘band of brothers’ was a member there. It was as close as we could come to a ‘gentleman’s club’ and the old Scheyville Officer Training Unit mess, where in 1972 so many memories were in the making. Our birthdays had been drawn out of a barrel and we had been thrown together from all over Australia, to train and serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure, as the war in Vietnam was grinding on and Saigon was soon to come under siege.
Leading up to the night my mind was awash with memories of that period of my life. I had justified my decision not to be ‘conscientious objector’ and proceed with ‘national service’ with the notion that I was a part of a greater, ‘just’ cause. I conforted myself on many a night by playing an old reel to reel partial recording of the famous Teddy Kennedy eulogy at Robert’s funeral:
We live in times of danger and uncertainty . . . . My brother . . . . saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it . . . Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?” I dream things that never were and say, “Why not?”
I was looking forward to catching up with the two Christians I knew from the intake that started with over a hundred men. On the night I was informed that one of two had died, only earlier this year.
The other sat directly opposite me for the formal meal. It was special catching up with him after forty years and hearing of his journey of grace over all those decades. He lives interstate but we have resolved to keep in touch.
It was a full-on night, starting at 6pm and me, being a party pooper, cutting out early at 1am. The clocks were to be put forward an hour at 2am and I still had well over an hour’s drive home. Thankfully I didn’t have to preach at 8am later that morning.
“Won’t you join us for a cleansing ale down in the poolroom before you leave?” some insisted, mantra like, as I was blinking back the fatigue and backing out the front door.
It was a great and a gruelling night. Getting past the superficial banter and hearing stories of peoples’ lives, of beauty and of brokenness, is something I always find moving. Life for many of us under-trained once child-officers really was a mess. Who was it that said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation?”
But it was also gruelling. When I spoke about Jesus I found myself defending all things bible and especially biblical sexuality. Some conversations were energy sapping and emotionally draining, made more difficult by being in a confined dining space where forty sexagenarian (what an unfortunate word) ex-soldiers with significant levels of hearing loss were trying to make themselves heard above the animated chatter. What’s that old line in Good Morning Vietnam? The man in artillery who is parodied by Adrian Cronauer yells, “Play anything, just make it loud, okay!”
A couple of conversations confirmed to me that there is now an almost direct connection and short distance between Christianity and what is viewed as a totally unreasonable position on ‘marriage equality’. It was almost impossible for me to talk about the Gospel without becoming embroiled in this issue and being a punching bag for popular culture and political correctness. I felt as if I had gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.
All the stereotypes, generalisations, accusations and insinuations were there. I was a homophobe. I was denying people their fundamental human rights. It was people like me who were causing cemeteries to be filled by hundreds of young men and women.
Arguments were almost exclusively made from selective anecdote and emotion rather than principle, or well documented research. Homosexual relationships were marked by integrity, fidelity, faithfulness and caring parenthood. Heterosexual marriage was blighted by abuse, parental neglect, infidelity and hypocrisy.
When will we move on from the pathetic propaganda portrayed in Four Weddings And A Funeral years ago?
It was, however, wonderful catching up with these old acquaintances whose lives had collided for one chaotic compulsory military experience. I loved these men then and I still do. I’d be up for a reunion annually, sentimental bloke that I am. And I left with a suggestion from one old acquaintance that he would like to come and hear my “speech” when I was next at a church in his neck of the woods. Another was positive to my invitation to come down for a BBQ.
Perhaps the thing that stood out to me most was the raw statistic that of the 78 who graduated, nine had died - more than 10% - and we were only in our early sixties. Oh, that people would get it and stop living in denial when everything about Jesus’ speaks loud and clear that sin and death are real but defeated.
On a night I will always remember I thank God that He granted me the grace to speak of the Lord Jesus who could be the living hope to those who were still standing (some just), whose lives, like mine, bore all the marks of mess, loss, quiet desperation, dis-ease and death.
For it is the Lord Jesus who bore the punishment we deserve, bested the grave that beckons us and offers the magnificent and undeserved gift of eternal life to all who abandon self-trust and surrender their lives to Him.
And it is only the Lord Jesus who will stop war, right wrong, heal suffering!