The prisoners had succumbed to the elements long before their hope for survival began to diminish. As hundreds of men died daily, their guards watched in vain as the extreme drought in their region of Georgia dried up all creeks and wells. Livestock were being set free to keep them alive in hopes that they would find some source of sustenance on their own. The war between the states was far away, yet in Andersonville, hell on earth was real. As Union soldiers lay dying, calling out in their last breaths for mother, a few firm believers gathered to seek God in prayer. They asked for His deliverance from the torture and despair, they had nothing left to lose except life itself. In the distance, sounds of what many thought were cannons began to rumble later that night. The winds started whipping the sparse flaps of the tent city within the crude walls of the Confederate prison as the rogue storm cell passed over. Suddenly, a crash and roar of thunder rolled many out of their pallets shaking the ground as the bolt of lightning struck just inside the outer prison wall, just inside no-man’s land. At that moment, water began gurgling forth from the ground and by morning, the trickle had become a flowing stream. There as the sunrise began to make a glow on the horizon, grown men sat by the brook crying as they held their withered, parched hands below the life giving fluid and raised it to their blistered lips, soaking in the blessing one gulp at a time.
Many never lived to see that sunrise.
The other evening, I saw where a former colleague of mine had a birthday. Curious as to how he was doing, I reached out to him. He replied and we began catching up. As time passed and we began to share our feelings on life and where we were in our walk with God, I could quickly feel my old self come back through the description of my friend’s words. Trapped in the prison we had created of our own doing, he was as once was I held captive. His chains were a mortgage and a company that literally kept you from escaping from one shift to another; his was as was mine, the dreaded third shift. The fear of leaving it all behind holds you within that cell until eventually you either are terminated against your will or you die without experiencing the life you always wanted to live; his and mine were to serve the Lord. To many, termination was an answer to prayer. Others would find their freedom and escape but at a cost. Many had chosen a journey deeper into the secular world, the price they would pay would be severe. Yet, some would awaken to the fact that the life they were living was void of faith or prevented them from serving God. It was these few who would eventually say, “Enough is enough,” and begin to pray to God for deliverance, as did those prisoners in Andersonville. Miraculously, those prayers would be answered, time and time again.
In the Bible Jesus told us, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
As every veteran knows, no matter the branch of the military in which you serve, the object of the Drill Sergeant is to break each recruit down, strip them of their identity until they are a shell of a human. Then, once they have stripped them of “who” they are, they begin to refill the void with the soldier they want you to be. In other words, you are programmed to perform in the way in which supports that branch of the military. When we truly give our lives to Christ, we essentially must do the same thing as those young recruits; stripping away our former selves until there is nothing left of our previous inequities to keep us from following him with every ounce of our being.
An elderly man sat next to me in the Paddock Mall one day, back in 1982. We were both waiting for our wives to finish shopping and like most guys, we would rather sit and wait outside the store than stand idly inside. He told me his name was Roy, and before I knew it, he began telling me the story of his survival in a Korean prisoner of war camp. Roy told of how they would strip them naked in the dead of winter and put them in cages like animals and then hose them down with fire hoses. He said there were many times he didn’t remember being dragged from the cell; wet, cold, frozen. Roy talked about how he survived life-threatening injuries. They would put rats in the window sills in order to grow maggots. Once the gruesome larvae were the right size, they would place them into the gaping wound of their fellow prisoners so that they could eat away the dead flesh before gangrene could set in. Roy rolled up his pant leg to show me the indentation from the wound, where once muscle had been before the injury. He continued to share with me how he survived to see their liberation, but barely. He was released from the Army and given all his back pay that had accrued while being a POW. Roy was told by the Army doctor’s that he only had a few months to live, so depleted was his body from the lack of nutrition and injuries. Figuring he was going to die, he left for Florida, bought an old barge and began drifting from one island to the next in the Marathon chain. Roy looked at me and said, “It was then that I talked to God and asked him to do with me what he would. I didn’t care if He called me home or not. Each day I would wake up and catch fish or shrimp and each day I would thank Him for another day.” Roy then shared how eventually, after a year or so, he realized he wasn’t going to die. The day he walked in the front door of the supply shack at the marina instead of the back door where he had always gone before, he knew his life was going to change. The old man that had always waited on him through the rear entry didn’t recognize him at all. Roy had shaved his beard and cut his long hair before stepping inside; he was a new man. God would take Roy down many roads, but there we sat that day as he shared his testimony.
When we turn our lives over to God, all things are possible; we too can become new men and women. Roy realized that he had nothing left to lose, giving all he had was easy. Unlike my friend, Roy’s life was at what he thought was its end. The soldier’s in Andersonville also had their backs against the wall to where they too had nothing left to lose, but to seek God. However, when we have so much, so many worldly possessions, it becomes hard for many to seek Him. In that instance, we can find it even harder to walk away from it all. Satan wants us to cling onto the things of this world so our choices become difficult if not impossible; cars, TV’s, houses, beach-front-condos, club memberships, hefty mortgages, and so on become our chains.
As people age, we begin to look around us and ask ourselves what we can offer those we love most when we’re gone. Those things of this world tarnish, age, and rot. The things that matter most are those that continue on long after we’re gone. Those everlasting impressions we make on our children, grand-children, and fellow Christians are what matter most. Those impressions can become the wake-up call so many need to hear, so that someday, they too may make that choice to serve God. Hopefully, they won’t wait until their backs are against the wall.
The Union Army prisoners held in Andersonville prison would name the water from the spring that saved their lives, Providence Springs. The water still flows today inside the memorial park in Andersonville, Georgia; a testament to what is possible when we give it all over to Him.
When we are stripped of everything, either by force or by choice, we can then be free to make the decision that can change our lives and make us new, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
Today chose to lose your life for His sake, and the life you will find will be eternal.
Do so today, there may not be a tomorrow.
Thanks be to God.