Last week I spoke on “The Element of Surprise” at a monthly lunch held in Houston’s Energy Corridor. Here I provide the transcript of the talk in three parts.
It still stands out. It probably happened when I was 6 or 7 years old. My room had a window that was right at the front entrance of the house. If someone was doing something at the front door, I knew it. And on that night, December 24th, boy, was there someone doing something at the front door. Out of the dead of night there was a bang, bang, bang –a pounding on the door like I had never heard. And then a thundering voice: “Ho, ho, ho!” as I jolted out of bed. This was no dream. Standing outside my window and knocking at the front door was St. Nick. Soon my brother and sister were awakened too, and my parents took us to the front entry. And there he was: white beard, red coat with white trim, and big black boots. And best of all, presents in hand for all of us.
What a memory! Years later we would find out who it was—a friend of my parents who wanted to bring a little fun into some kids lives. But you can imagine what we must have looked like. Dressed in our little pajamas, eyes as big as saucers, there before us was the man we had already been told didn’t exist. My parents were in on the whole thing. But, of course, they did not tell us what was going to happen; had they done that, it would have ruined the whole affair. That night is a memory, one of my favorite childhood memories, for no other reason than it had a huge element of surprise.
I grew up in California, about 4 hours from the Magic Kingdom. My family made regular trips to Southern California to see relatives, but Disneyland was rarely in the cards. But every once in a while, while traveling along I-5, and always when we seemed to least expect it, my father would make the turn—the turn off the freeway onto Disney Way. The grins on our faces in the back seat when we realized where we were headed were probably worth the price of admission for my parents. I know that because years later with my own kids in the back seat, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw their faces light up, when I did the very same thing.
Giving gifts is a great, isn’t it? But giving gifts with the element of surprise—that is even better. Sometimes giving a surprise gift involves a price tag. But some of the best surprise gifts can’t be bought at Macy’s, Best Buy, or Bass Pro Shop. I want to share with you three such surprise gifts today.
The Surprise of Mercy
It was December 20, 1943, a rookie bomber pilot, 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown, was returning from his first mission. Only one of his four engines was fully functional after a raid on a German factory. Of his ten crew members, there were only three who had not been wounded. Brown himself had been hit by shrapnel and had momentarily passed out before regaining consciousness. His tail gunner was dead. Blood was splattered all over the plane, and the plane’s sheet metal was riddled with bullets, in some places literally ripped to shreds. And to make matters worse, the return course Brown had been given took him right over a Luftwaffe fighter base.
Standing by his plane at that base was Franz Stigler, one of Germany's best fighter pilots. He had already shot down two B-17 bombers that day. One more and he would win the coveted Knight's Cross, the highest award a Luftwaffe pilot could earn. Spotting the low-flowing B-17, Stigler entered his cockpit and took off in pursuit.
Within a few moments, Stigler caught up with Brown’s beleaguered bomber. This would be an easy kill. But something happened at that moment. You might call it mercy. Stigler had never seen an airplane in that condition before. He flew from one side of the bomber to the other; it was a dead duck in the sky. He couldn’t bring himself to shoot it down. But what would he do? He knew if someone saw him pull away, or worse yet escort the Allied plane to safety, he would be court martialed. But he did it anyway. He had to do it to keep his humanity.
Brown’s plane, thanks to Stigler, made it back to England. Brown would never forget the German fighter who preserved his life. And so some 45 years later, he began to search for Stigler. It took three years, but to his surprise, he discovered that Stigler had been living less than 200 miles from him for decades. A meeting was scheduled. And when the two met, it was Stigler who reached out for Brown and gave him a hug, later saying, “I love you, Charlie.”[i]
That’s quite a story of the gift of mercy. It’s about as dramatic a story of mercy as there is, largely because it came completely by surprise. I know that Christmas is supposed to be about “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men,” but I think if we are honest, often times we find ourselves at war with others during Christmas. We fight people in traffic. We fight people at stores. We argue with family members about this or that. We draw battle lines with those who have long been our enemies. And sometimes, we find ourselves in the perfect place for the kill, to put that person in their place. But what would happen if like Stigler, we saw a wounded warrior more than an adversary, and surprised him or her with the gift of mercy?
[i] Otteray Scribe, “70 Years Ago Today, Two Honorable Men Met…”, Daily Kos, December 20, 2013.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.