When I still was a young fellow in school, in my home state there was a famous football player at the University of Oklahoma by the name of Bob Kalsu. Bob was from a small town, but through hard work and his steady exploits on the gridiron, he became known throughout our region, and indeed across the country, as one of the premiere offensive linemen in the nation.
As I recall he was a consensus All-American at his position. He was drafted into the National Football League by the Buffalo Bills, where he was named their rookie of the year, and similarly attained all-star status. Everyone followed his career. Everyone was proud of him.
But Bob Kalsu’s time in the sun coincided with the war in Vietnam. So he voluntarily left his teammates and joined our military forces to do what he considered to be his duty as an artillery officer in southeast Asia.
As you might guess, Bob eventually and tragically was killed as the result of a fateful attack and explosion. He was the only active NFL player to that point to die in combat. It wasn’t long before this tragic news filtered back with sorrowful effect to Buffalo and to Oklahoma.
You may recall from the end of the movie Chariots of Fire, when Scottish Olympic runner and later missionary Eric Liddle later lost his life in occupied China during WW II, it said “all of Scotland mourned.” When Bob Kalsu was killed, all Oklahoma mourned.
Not too long afterward, I was working a summer job in my Dad’s commercial laundry and cleaning business—at age 14 or 15 mostly just trying to stay out of trouble. One morning he came to me and, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, “Come with me for a moment, I want to show you something.”
Unbeknownst to me was that Bob Kalsu’s family had sent his clothing to my Dad’s Oklahoma City plant for a final cleaning and packaging. There among his effects was his official Oklahoma Sooners letter jacket—you know the kind—filled with unspoken but treasured memories of significant achievements: Team member, team captain, all-conference player, All-American.
There was a lump in my throat as I ran my fingers along those sleeves, as other employees and fans also left their work stations for a moment and gathered around in quiet, reverent admiration. Bob was famous, but he was one of us, and beloved.
After moving to Washington, DC so many years later, I early on made a point of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, where I was able to locate, among all the chiseled names of fallen heroes, the name “James Robert Kalsu.” I traced the letters with my finger, recalling yet again the valor, the sacrifice, the sense of purpose.
Today’s worship at The National Presbyterian Church focused in part on themes of Memorial Day. In both services we included the hymn, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” emphasizing particularly its third verse:
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.
This is my favorite national hymn, with its deeply stirring tune Materna, but it always is the searing phrase “mercy more than life” that catches me up short every time. What does it really mean to love “mercy more than life.”?
The answer to this question may well lie down many different paths, but singing and weighing it again brought to my mind some cryptic words of the late and esteemed preacher and one-time president of both Denver and Gordon-Conwell seminaries, Haddon Robinson. Dr. Robinson famously insisted,
You’ve no doubt heard it said, “After all, a man’s gotta live…”
But actually this is a lie straight from hell.
Nowhere is it written that a man has to live.
A man has to die and face God’s judgment,
but nowhere does it say that he has to live.
Multitudes of heroes have made the ultimate sacrifice,
and paid the ultimate price in witness to the truth
that some things are more important than life.
Our Lord himself of course said, “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and all of this is ultimately rooted in the truth of Micah 6…
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with yearling calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give him my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.