Gratitude at Gunpoint

Years ago, a motivational speaker told a story about the importance of gratitude. It has stayed with me for years. I can’t remember the name of the man who told the story, but the gist of his message on being thankful in the darkest moments remains emblazoned on my brain. And when I’m experiencing a difficult day, week, or year (Hello, 2020!), I recall that impactful story in order to gain perspective on my struggles. I hope it’s a help to you as well.

At the end of WWII, a young American airman parachuted behind enemy lines for a reconnaissance mission. He was to gather information about a Japanese military camp nearby, the number of men, and weapons and report back to his fellow airmen waiting in the distance. As he cautiously snaked his way into the unchartered territory taking note as he progressed forward, hiding in the brush, he heard the click of a gun behind him. He held his breath for what seemed like an eternity. Breaking the silence was a string of unrecognizable, shrill Japanese exclamations from a frantic soldier at his back. The American airman understood nothing of what was being said, but he knew instantly, he was doomed. He handed over his gun and waited. He was marched back to the camp where there were more than twenty Japanese soldiers waiting for them. He was presented to the commander who secured his arms and blindfolded him placing him securely between the barrels of two guns.

The troops resumed their march, “but to where?” the young American wondered. As the gravity of his situation set in, he realized he was a dead man. Not normally a praying man, the soldier began pleading with God to help him out of the awful mess. What he heard startled him more than the original click of the gun that signaled his capture. He heard in his mind, “Offer a prayer of thanks!” The confused airman didn’t know what to make of God’s message and his mind raced as to how to give thanks in his predicament. He was understandably resistant to offering his praise in such a deadly situation. He dismissed the prompting and kept marching.

He heard God’s voice a second time, “Offer a prayer of thanks!” The young man who was not religious at all scoured his brain trying to come up with some prayer of thanksgiving from his childhood. The only thing he could remember was a song he had learned years ago at Sunday school. What did he have to lose? He was going to die if he sang or not. So, he began to sing—tentatively at first:

 Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red, brown, yellow
Black and white
They are precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children
Of the world

The marching stopped. His singing ceased too. The march began once more. His singing resumed:

Jesus died for all the children
All the children of the world
Red, brown, yellow
Black and white
They are precious in His sight
Jesus died for all the children
Of the world.

Now, he heard the commander shout a fierce order. Everyone halted. He waited for what felt like the longest moments of his life as he heard someone rush towards him, removing his blindfold. An angry gaze bored down on him. Then the commander spoke. In a very slow and hard to discern Japanese accent, his enemy sputtered out, “Arrrrrr you er Christ-ee-Ahnn?” (Are you a Christian?) His voice wavering, the American solemnly answered, “yes.” 

There was a long pause.

“Me too,” admitted the Japanese commander with a big smile.

Through broken English and hand gestures, the commander conveyed that since the war was almost over and his country was losing, he and his troop would surrender to the American if they would treat his men with mercy. In a matter of moments, the tide had completely changed for that young American soldier. Instead of being killed, he marched his now unarmed captured prisoners back to his fellow troops. His life was saved by listening to that still small voice that reminded him to give thanks. Nothing short of a miracle!

When things seem insurmountable and I am feeling as if I am backed into a corner, I think of that soldier. I remember the unimaginable request that God made to him in asking for thanks in one of the most frightening moments of his life. It is indeed those moments when we most need to offer our thanks. While gratitude won’t fix our problems, it is like a calming deep breath in the midst of a mother’s searing labor pain. It offers a brief respite and a small surge of strength to move through the pain in a positive way.

As we make our way through these waning weeks of 2020, let’s keep taking deep breaths… and from time to time, let’s consider lifting our voices in song. It doesn’t matter what song we sing, or how well (or badly in my case!) we sing it, but let it come from a heart filled with boundless gratitude.


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