Heroes You Should Know:  Vasili Arkhipov

 

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“The man who saved the world” is a pretty impressive title.  But that’s exactly what Vasili Arkhipov did.  Arkhipov was second in command on one of the Soviet Union’s four B-59 attack submarines, sent to Cuba in October of 1962.  Arkhipov’s submarine carried 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear—and as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

 

Each of the captains had been given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes as long as they had the blessing of their on-board political officer.  The only other officer with veto power was Vasili Arkhipov, who was in charge of the submarine flotilla.

 

Because the submarines had been so deep under water en route to Cuba they did not receive radio transmissions from Moscow about the United States’ naval blockade of Cuba.  So on October 27, when eleven U.S. destroyers and the USS Randolph located the submarine Arkhipov was on and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface and identify its self, Soviet captain Valentin Savitsky mistakenly believed war had begun. He and the political officer on board wanted to respond by launching their nuclear torpedo.  Arkhipov forcefully disagreed, arguing that no direct order had come from Moscow and such a response would be catastrophic.  He suggested the sub surface and find out for sure what was going on.  A heated argument reportedly ensued between the three men in charge, but Arkhipov held his ground against the other two officers.  Eventually, he prevailed.  The submarine surfaced, was told by the Americans to return to the Soviet Union, and a nuclear war was averted.

 

It is believed that Arkhipov’s position eventually carried the day because of his prior heroism.  You see, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had been present at another near-catastrophic nuclear disaster!

 

In July of 1961, the K-19 nuclear submarine Arkhipov was on, complete with a nuclear missile, sprung a leak in the reactor coolant system and was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown.  Engineers on board the sub built a make-shift cooling system and were able to contain the overheating reactor. But the first-responders, along with many crewmen, died of radiation exposure and in response the crew of the K-19 almost erupted in mutiny.  Arkhipov himself was seriously irradiated, but stood by his captain, was credited with helping to quell the revolt, and was later awarded a medal for valor.

 

Arkhipov would go on to serve another twenty years, retiring as a Rear Admiral.  He died in 1998 at the age of 72, and his exposure to radiation on the K-19 was cited as a contributing cause of death.

 

A man who was in the right place at the right time—twice!  And the world should be very grateful.

 

Vasili Arkhipov is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know:  Maria “Meva” Dobrucka

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 Maria Dobrucka, nicknamed “Meva” (“seagull” in Polish), was born in 1927 and grew up in Czortkow, a small Polish town in present-day Ukraine.  Czortkow had a large Jewish population, and by March of 1942 the Nazis had established a ghetto where all the Jewish inhabitants—approximately 6,800 people—had to relocate to.  And within six months, the Nazis had begun shipping people from the ghetto to the concentration camp at Belzec.

 

It was around this time that the Hausers, a Jewish family, got message to their friends the Dobruckas, begging them to help save their two year-old daughter Inka Hauser.

 

Because of her size, it was decided that 15 year-old Meva would sneak into the ghetto through a tiny window in the wall, get Inka, and sneak back out.  The plan seemed to have little chance of succeeding, and if Meva had been caught she surely would have been executed on the spot.  Yet into the ghetto she crept, at dusk on that August night in 1942 with a Star of David on her arm in case Nazi soldiers spotted her.  Meva met the Hausers, took Inka in her arms, and climbed back out and into the night undetected.

 

For the next three years, as the Nazi atrocities grew, and roughly half of the Jews in the Czortkow ghetto were killed, Meva and the Dobrucka family raised Inka.  It would have been more than heroic enough for teen-aged Meva to courageously risk death by sneaking in to the ghetto, getting Inka, and sneaking back out without the guards seeing her.  But the teen-ager also had the compassion to continue comforting and caring for Inka as a sister for the duration of the war.

 

Miraculously, the Hausers survived, and after the war came knocking on the Dobrucka’s door.  Inka did not recognize her parents at first because she had left them when she was so young.

 

In September of 1983 Maria Dobrucka-Mikusz, along with her parents Aniela Dobrucka and Andrzej Dobrucki, was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel for her heroism.

 

Now living in California with her own children, Inka Hauser-Huber has remained in close contact with the woman who had carried her through the valley of the shadow of death so many years before.

 

Maria “Meva” Dobrucka is a hero you should know.  And I‘m Dr. Ross Porter.

Listening very much…

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Holiday.  You’ll read that word a lot in the next several weeks.  We know what the term means to many nowadays:  time off from work, vacation, a chance to get last minute shopping done, parties, lots of food.

But what did it originally mean?  Halig (Holy) daeg (day) was a Middle English word, first used in the 12th century.  It marked special days set aside by the Church.  General work was suspended in order to frame, consider, and celebrate “holiness”.

Holy days help us understand what holiness really is—and how we too can become holy.  In the Christian world, every Sunday is considered a Holy Day—the Sabbath.   And of course we have days like Easter and Christmas to remind us why we have a faith.  Most believers will make some effort to get to church on these days at a minimum.

But if it’s just about Church attendance, we’re missing the point!

Do you see signs of holiness in yourself, and in those around you?  My guess is that you’d know it if you saw it, or experienced it, even though you might not call it “holiness.”  It’s found in love, and gentleness, and goodness, and sacrifice, and faith, and joyful humility.  I’ve been blessed with many examples in my life, but I want to focus on an example from my seminary days which still stirs my heart.

For a couple of years, I lived next door to a beautiful Chinese family.  Grandma Yen, the matriarch, was well into her 80’s when I first met her but still very much in love with Jesus.  One day she knocked on my front door to ask a favor of me.  Would I be willing to read her favorite Bible verses while she recorded me?  I agreed, thinking Grandma Yen was wanting to practice her English, and quickly affirmed her desire to become more fluent.  With a smile, she politely corrected me stating that it wasn’t about her English, it was about her spiritual life.  As she explained it, because she didn’t have a strong command of the English language, the recordings would challenge her to “listen very much when God talks to me.”

Grandma Yen has been in Heaven for twenty-one years now, after a lifetime of listening very much to God’s words to her, and then following His directions.  I think of her every time the Holidays Season rolls around.  She will always serve as an example of holiness for me, and provides a clue for how we can all stay connected to the original meaning of the Holidays.

May we all listen “very much” to the words of God, cherish them, follow them…and help make this Holiday Season truly holy.

 

 

Heroes You Should Know:  Neerja Bhanot

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Twenty-two year old Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight attendant on Pan Am Flight 73 bound for New York City when it was hijacked in the early morning hours of September 5, 1986, during a layover in Karachi, Pakistan.  As four heavily armed terrorists, members of the Abu Nidal Organization (an offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO) boarded the plane, Bhanot notified the cockpit.  And since the plane was still on the tarmac, the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were able to escape through a ceiling hatch.

Now the most senior member of the 13 person flight crew, the terrorists demanded Bhanot gather the passports of the 360 passengers so they could identify the Americans on board and execute them.  Bhanot instructed the attendants to hide the 41 American passports, under seats and in a trash chute.
After a seventeen hour stand-off, the terrorists opened fire inside the plane and began setting off explosives.  Bhanot opened the emergency exit, and as the first closest to the exit could have easily escaped.  But she chose to stay, and began helping people get out.  Pakistani commandos stormed the plane and took control.  In the chaos, Bhanot, shielding three children with her body, was shot multiple times by the terrorists and died.

Because of her quick thinking, and extraordinary bravery, Bhanot was able to keep the plane from taking off, helped to stall the hijackers, and limited the massacre to 22 dead.  It had been believed that the hijackers intended to use the plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus and Israel.  However, in 2006 one of the hostages wrote that he’d heard the hijackers discussing the plan of crashing the plane into a target in Israel.

All four hijackers were eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison.  By 2008, though, all four hijackers had been released.

Bhanot was posthumously honored with India’s highest peacetime medal of bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award.  She was the first woman, and the youngest person, to receive this distinction.  Her parents and Pan Am Airlines honored her memory by establishing the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, which awards prize money each year to one flight crew member worldwide and one Indian woman who act with remarkable courage for social justice.

Almost exactly fifteen years before 9/11, Neerja Bhanot embodied an eternal truth—that nothing is more powerful than the willingness to die to save lives.  It’s the opposite of terrorism, and it’s the stuff of greatness.

Neerja Bhanot is a hero you should know.  And I‘m Dr. Ross Porter.

 

Heaven, Hell, and the virtue of Hope

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“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”  -Viktor Frankl

 

Dante, in his Inferno, wrote that the gate leading into Hell carries the inscription, “Abandon all hope, you who enter.”  Indeed life without hope is hell.  But can hope be found in the midst of hell?  I’m talking about the here-and-now, in this world and this life, in the midst of suffering, and pain, and despair that threaten to rob one’s life of meaning?  Can hope be found when all that matters most seems lost, or in real danger of being lost?

 

To fully understand the virtue of hope, one must recognize that “hell” is actually the best place to find it.

 

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor Frankl described an intimate moment that speaks to this point.  Early one morning he was marching with fellow prisoners inside the concentration camp of Auschwitz when he began thinking of his wife.  He imagined her smile, her reassuring facial expressions, and a dialogue they might have if they were together.  And he suddenly realized that whether she was in fact alive or dead, at that moment he was changed.  He had connected with something transcendent, and the hope it inspired lifted him above the horror of his present situation and gave him a reason to go on.

 

Surrounded by death, Frankl discovered that which death cannot swallow up.

 

Hope is what makes life worth living.  It is the virtue that confronts cynicism and despair.  It is the anchoring conviction that there is meaning in life, and it is the force that urges you to find it…and keep finding it.  But hope is more than this.

 

Hope is grounded in the reality that in the eternal battle of good versus evil, good will win.  In the end, things will make sense.  If optimism is lighting a candle in the darkness, hope is the knowing that whether the candle goes out or not the dawn will eventually come.

 

It may not look that way sometimes, in fact it may not look that way many times.  And if one only considers the present state of the world, and passing circumstances, disillusionment and fear can set up permanent residency in the heart.

 

Bad things do happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and life is not always fair.  Hope does not deny this reality, but it does challenge the belief that this reality needs to be final and ultimate.

 

Do you believe this?  Do you believe in your heart that good is more powerful than evil, that love is greater than hate, and that death doesn’t have the last word?  And are you moved to act?  I pray you are.

 

Because the ongoing search for meaning and purpose is essential to being fully alive.  It is only in this search that one finds reasons to hope, and thus reasons to go on.

 

Heaven and hell do begin in this life.  Hope is the virtue that decides which one you’ll choose.

Heroes You Should Know: Dobri Dobrev—The Beautiful Beggar

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You’ve seen his type before, at the bottom of Freeway off ramps, sitting outside a church, sleeping in dark corners.  His clothes are worn and dirty.  He’s haggard, despairing, defeated.  Or is he?

 

A familiar figure who spends his days sitting outside the Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria Dobri Dobrev, seems to fit this description perfectly.  His weather-beaten face, long white beard, and scraggly hair coupled with his homemade clothes and shoes certainly give one the sense that he is a lost soul.  But the man commonly known as ‘Grandpa’, who just turned 101, is anything but.

 

Dobrev remembers little of his childhood, where his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet.  During World War II, a bomb exploded near him, and left him almost completely deaf.  Along the way he married and had four children.  And sometime around 2000 he gave away what little he had to the Church, and began begging.  Until recently, in sunshine, rain, or snow, he’s walked a 15 mile route with his little donation box in hand to the Cathedral to ask for money from passersby. At his advanced age, he’s finally agreed to take public transportation, but nothing deters him from his work.  And for a long time people assumed he kept the money he collected.

 

Recently, however, it’s come to light that Dobri has given away 100% of the donations received from his decades of begging, and has lived only on his monthly state pension of 80 euros (about $85 U.S.).  Churches and orphanages have been the beneficiaries of Dobri’s generosity to the tune of 40,000 euros (almost $43,000 U.S.).

 

Ultimately, however, generosity should not be measured by how much one gives, but rather in how much the giving stretches the giver.  Like the widow in the Gospels who gave a mite, Dobri Dobrev has been out-given by many in terms of amount donated.  But because his life has essentially become a continuous act of giving, you’d be hard pressed to find someone more generous than the old man of Bajlovo.

 

And why does he do it?  His answer is simple.  “We must love each other as God loves us.”

 

It’s been said that we make a living by what we get, but a life by what we give.  Dobri Dobrev is a living testament to that truth.  What a beautiful life.

 

Dobri Dobrev is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Alok Dixit and Laxmi

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In Agra, India, one mile from the breathtaking Taj Mahal something just as magnificent is taking place.  Sheroes Hangout is a café where women who have been maimed in acid attacks work—and heal.

 

In 2014, there were a reported 309 acid attacks where men purposely threw acid in the faces of women to scar them.  Often the reason involves the rejection of a marriage proposal.  As barbaric as it sounds until 2013 it was difficult to even prosecute the attackers because of archaic laws and prejudice toward women.

 

Alok Dixit, first confronted the horror of acid attacks as a journalist, and soon became a fulltime crusader for the victims when he founded ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ in 2013.  He realized well that in India, a person bearing the scars of an acid attack is typically shunned and finding employment is virtually impossible.  Thus the idea of Sheroes Hangout was born.  The business, launched by ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ in 2014 served over 5,000 customers in the first six months of its existence and has continued to grow since then.  Here, these survivors are empowered to leave the shadows of shame and learn to embrace life again.  Here, these remarkable women are free to develop new skills—both personal and professional.  And here, society learns to see facial and body scars as signs of courage and perseverance.

 

And as if this story couldn’t get more inspirational, in his quest for justice, Alok found love.  He met Laxmi, a television host and advocate for acid attack survivors.  She had survived such an assault herself at the tender age of 15 when a man more than twice her age threw her to the ground and splashed acid on her face and arms after she rejected his marriage proposal.  Alok and Laxmi have been inseparable ever since, and welcomed a baby girl into the world in 2014.

 

This couple continues to challenge the legal and social systems of India for greater justice, and in 2014 Laxmi was given the International Women of Courage award.

 

Change in India is slow, but progress is being made.  Since 2013, it has become illegal to buy acid over the counter, victims of acid attacks now receive free medical attention, and acid attackers can be sentenced to up to ten years in prison.

 

Alok Dixit and Laxmi remind us all that there is nothing more beautiful than goodness, and their courage and love inspire not just India, but the world.

 

He is a hero, and she a SHEro, you should know!  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Hunting for zombies:  The virtue of authenticity

“Whatever you bury before it is dead will come back to haunt you.”

-Anonymous

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Zombies are on the loose!  The fact that we see them year-round now, in movies, on television shows, in commercials, and in video games shows that they are no longer contained by Halloween.  And in our increasingly wounded world this is not accidental.

 

Like all imaginary creatures zombies are powerful symbols of a very real phenomenon.  With their robotic walk, their dead eyes, and their grey skin tone, they graphically represent the parts of our lives that are “un-dead” and haunting.  We all have painful, ugly experiences we’ve not fully faced, understood, worked through, and finally put to rest forever.  And there can be good reasons for this.

 

If the painful experience is overwhelming, one may need to put it off for a while, or make sense of it a little at a time….it’s just too big to do all at once.  For instance, it took me years to work through all the fear I felt about my first born son’s fragile early years, where he almost died three different times.  There was so much.

 

And even with disturbing experiences that aren’t life-or-death, the bracketing of these memories can be essential to moving forward.  If we sat with all that has gone wrong, or could go wrong in life…all the possible scenarios where we could be injured in mind, body, or spirit…all the ways we have been and still are vulnerable, we’d literally have trouble getting out of bed each morning.

 

So, this “compartmentalizing” of psychological pain is protective and can even be adaptive to a point, giving us time to “get ready”;  to build up psychological resources and relational support.

 

But in time, whatever we bury before it is dead will come back to haunt us.

 

Authenticity is fundamentally about truth.  It seeks truth, loves truth, explores truth, and works at removing anything that might keep someone from living in truth.  And it is especially good at exposing and disposing of “zombies.”  As zombie hunters have special ways of searching for zombies, those who practice authenticity do as well….beginning with key questions:

 

Which periods of my life do I not remember well? 

What social situations do I feel especially anxious in? 

What are the big losses I’ve had, and what did I do with the feelings connected to them?  What emotions do I feel most uncomfortable with now?

 

Zombies are scary, but not nearly as frightening as a life spent hiding from them.

The Problem with Pope Francis

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I’ve been alternately amused, frustrated, angry, and sad over the last two weeks as I’ve watched people try to label Francis rather than understand Francis. It’s not enough for him to simply be a Pope. No, he’s got to have a political label too. And so the tug of war began.

He’s a liberal because he speaks about climate change, and income inequality, and ending the death penalty. No, he’s a conservative because he talks openly about the importance of a life of faith, is thoroughly pro-life, and believes passionately in the importance of a religiously formed conscience.

What is he?

People were almost frantic in their efforts to categorize this man. And that’s human nature. Because people don’t like surprises, or anxiety, or unpredictable behavior…especially in leaders. After all, if people can’t be categorized they become wild cards, uncontrollable. God forbid. And here comes Francis, always upsetting things. Just when you think you can use his authority to prove your point, and how right you are, and how wrong your enemies are…he goes and does something like meet with a county clerk from Kentucky in private.

Great break for the anti-gay marriage ‘true believers’, right? I mean, you couldn’t pray for better optics—the spiritual leader of 1 billion Catholic Christians makes time for Kim Davis, the ex-Catholic and quintessential church lady from Kentucky. Well, the Pope must agree with her, then, right? She was right to deny that marriage license to those gay men, right?

Immediately millions of people who were adoring the “progressive pope” the day before were jumping off his bandwagon as quickly as you could shout “judgmental.” And people who’d been busy bad-mouthing the pontiff because he’d spoken about the sin of unfettered capitalism were now back on board.

In all the jumping, though, most liberals and conservatives missed the fact that before Francis met with Davis he met with a friend who is openly gay, Yayo Grassi, along with Grassi’s partner of 19 years Iwan Bagus. Grassi said Francis had asked him to stop by so he could give his former student a hug. This too was a closed door meeting, the details of which were not shared with the general public—which is how closed door meetings generally work.

Well, now what? What good is Francis now? Because a good liberal wouldn’t meet with someone like Davis, and encourage her to be courageous, and a good conservative wouldn’t meet with a gay couple to give out hugs.

BLANK STARE.

How about this as a possible explanation? Pope Francis is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He is a man trying to live and love like Jesus. Wait, a religious leader who’s actually trying to practice what he preaches? Something like that, yes. Francis engages the political world, but refuses to be a politician. He cares about people, and not just the ones the press believes he should care about. He seeks understanding before agreement, and charity before consensus. And he’s much more interested in opportunities than optics—opportunities to encourage people to be good and do good…for the Good. And if some don’t like the way this looks, for instance who he meets with in private, than optics be damned. Kind of like that other radical who lived a couple thousand years ago in Galilee.

Francis talked a lot during his week in the United States. But his greatest sermon wasn’t spoken, it was lived. He once again refused to be categorized or cubby-holed—especially for the sake of petty politics and Pharisees. And I love him for it.

Heroes You Should Know: Hugh O’Flaherty

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Hugh O’Flaherty grew up on a golf course, and dreamed of being a professional golfer.  He was good enough to receive a college scholarship offer, but decided to pursue his other great love, religion, instead.  And the world should be forever grateful.

 

O’Flaherty had planned on being a missionary priest, but because of his interpersonal and language skills (he was fluent in several languages), his superiors decided that he would be more useful as a diplomat.  Between 1925 and 1938, he served in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia, gaining invaluable experience and contacts that would come in very handy when he was transferred to Rome as a Vatican official in 1939.

 

By then, Italy—allied with Nazi Germany—had set up Prisoner of War camps around Rome, and O’Flaherty was assigned to the papal nuncio as an interpreter and assistant.  He visited the POW’s, ensured that they were receiving proper care, and contacted their families to update them on their loved ones.  But O’Flaherty got himself in trouble with the Italian government when he began broadcasting on Vatican Radio not just news about the POW’s, but the poor conditions in the camps.  The Italian government pressured the Vatican to remove him from his POW assignment, and keep him silent in Rome.  This turned out to be providential.

 

In 1943 Mussolini was ousted from power and thousands of prisoners were released.  However the Nazis quickly moved into Italy and the direction changed radically.

 

Immediately they sought to round up the just-released POW’s as well as the Jews.  O’Flaherty responded by setting up Vatican-sponsored underground networks that provided false identification papers for refugees, and employed churches, monasteries, convents, and private homes as escape routes and hiding places for men, women, and children.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, head of the Gestapo in Rome, did learn of O’Flaherty’s activities.  He had a white line painted on the pavement at the opening of St. Peter’s Square, where Vatican City became Italy—and one left the protection of “neutral” soil.  He promised to torture and kill the priest if he ever caught him on the wrong side.  This did not prevent O’Flaherty from making his pastoral rounds, disguised as a street cleaner, a laborer, a postman, and even a nun.  This was described by one saved prisoner as “The most gigantic game of hide-an-seek you’ve ever seen.”

 

It is estimated that of the roughly 9,700 Jews in Rome, only 1,007 were caught by the Nazis and shipped to concentration camps.  O’Flaherty alone was responsible for saving 1,700 Jews, as well as 6,500 other refugees.

 

But Hugh O’Flaherty’s most unlikely “save” came years after the war.  Month in and month out, year in and year out O’Flaherty visited his old nemesis—the former head of the Gestapo in Rome Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler—in a Roman prison cell.  O’Flaherty challenged the hate and the fear, and slowly the walls came down in Kappler, and a light shone in the darkness.  And in 1959, fourteen years into his life sentence—and with O’Flaherty as witness—the former Nazi accepted a Jew as his Lord.

 

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction…and more inspirational.

 

Hugh O’Flaherty is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.