by Becky Hobbs

     The cool night breeze brushed against the sailor's cheek and brought momentary relief from the oppressive heat and humidity. He stood atop a wood tower as his eyes ranged out across the grassy fields. Undulating and wave-like, they stretched into the distance until they reached the dark line of the forest beyond.

     It was two a.m in 1972. The place was Southeast Asia, and the date was Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. As Senior Advisor to River Interdiction Division 42, RTS Professor of Missions Sam Larsen had received military intelligence warnings that the communist insurgent Viet Cong were expected to launch coordinated attacks throughout South Vietnam during the night, especially against remote bases such as his. Knowing that he would not sleep anyway, he had given himself the midwatch, from midnight to four in the morning, while the sailors in his unit slept in the barracks "hootch" nearby.

     As his eyes roamed across the surrounding countryside, so his mind began to reflect upon his life and the events leading to this moment. He remembered with fondness growing up in a believing family where his parents faithfully taught each of their children about the Lord. He could never remember a time when he had not known that God had created the world, that Jesus was His Son, and that He loved Sam. But he recalled very clearly the time when that knowledge impacted him personally. On a rainy Thanksgiving Day morning in Chicago when he was almost eight, his father explained to Sam and his younger brother why Jesus had died. For the first time, Sam understood that it was for his sins that Jesus had gone to the cross, that He had taken the punishment Sam deserved upon Himself, in order that God might forgive him as he came, in simple childlike repentance and faith, to Christ as his savior.

     Sam was thrilled and eager to tell all his friends about his new relationship with Jesus Christ, and several of them knelt with him over the next two weeks to pray the same prayer he had prayed. He wanted nothing more than to become a preacher of the Gospel when he grew up, following in the footsteps of his father.

     It would be nice to say that Sam became a pastor, missionary, Navy chaplain, and missions professor directly from that childhood decision. It did not, however, work out that way. Often, our spiritual lives are more circuitous than direct. Sam's certainly was.

     About a year and a half later, he found himself standing beside his mother in a Sparta, Illinois, mortuary. Before him was a little casket bearing the still, lifeless body of his two-year-old brother, Joey. Sam wept every tear he could weep. Subsequently, however, he steeled himself and would scarcely weep again for another twenty-five years. He consoled himself with the knowledge that he would see his brother again one day, and that was no small comfort. Yet his young heart cried out to God in pain. "Why?" he wanted to know. "Why does God permit some mean and spiteful people to live to be very old, and yet take my little two-year-old brother away?" To that haunting question, his nine-year-old mind could find no answer, and he decided then that, if that was how God treated his servants, he would not serve Him. God did not owe Sam either mercy or patience, but the Lord showed him both, and Sam is deeply grateful. He now also knows, firsthand, how important counseling support is for grieving families--including children--but such support was rarely available in those days.

     Sam loved his family and did not want to cause further grief to his parents, so he became a model student and churchgoer, but inwardly he could hardly wait to leave home and seek a career promising adventure, prestige, and freedom from financial stress. He won an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and determined to become an admiral. Religion was commendable enough, provided that it did not intrude upon his personal aspirations and lifestyle.

     Through the personal interest shown to him by several members of the Naval Academy faculty, he found himself on Sundays attending a new little congregation meeting in an elementary school. They had not yet reached fifty members, but they took the word of God seriously, and they truly cared about one another. Such a church family drew Sam like a magnet, despite his discomfort in hearing the claims of Christ upon his life. The new pastor preached God's covenant grace, and Sam was convicted. He was also attracted to a lovely young lady whom he had noticed sitting a few rows in front of him. She turned out to be the pastor's daughter, Louise, and she is the only girl he ever dated whom he met in church. Upon her graduation from nursing school and his commissioning as a naval officer, they were married.

     After two tours of duty aboard a naval destroyer, Sam volunteered for duty in Viet Nam. Part of his preparation required him to undergo training in riverine operations at Vallejo, California. There the couple began to attend Castlewood Baptist Church, then under the ministry of Pastor Gene Dodson and his associate, Dave Hagy. Sam had become active once again in church attendance, financial giving, and sharing the Gospel, but he couldn't get away from the conviction that Jesus didn't just want his time, money, and activity--he wanted all of Sam! One Sunday evening, Pastor Dodson gave an emotional invitation at the end of his sermon, urging people to come forward to dedicate or rededicate their lives to Christ. He said, "Someone here knows that they have been resisting God's claim on his life. You know who you are, and you need to come in full surrender to Jesus' lordship over all of your life." Sam knew that Dodson's words were meant for him. He could not sit still a moment longer. He got up, moved out of the pew to the aisle, and, instead of going forward, simply walked out and went home, where he could think. A stunned Louise watched him go.

     For the next three nights, he hardly slept, spending the time instead praying, reading the Scriptures, and talking it over with Louise. At the end of the third night, he came to what was for him a difficult decision: he turned over his life goals, his career--everything--to Christ. Looking back on his life, he knows that when he trusted Christ as his savior as a young lad, Jesus entered his life as both savior and Lord, even then. Yet, the full implications of Christ's lordship in his life had to become clearer over time, as God brought him through the experiences that had led him to acknowledge that lordship. The next Sunday evening, he went forward in that church in order to make public his commitment in the presence of God's people. Not long afterward, he kissed his young wife and their five-month-old son goodbye at the airport, leaving them with his father-in-law as he departed for combat in Viet Nam.


     All these memories had just gone through Sam's mind when the first mortar round came in. The incoming shell whistled loudly through its trajectory, falling at a bearing of zero six zero, range 175 meters. In an instant, without having to think about it, he reacted just as they had drilled so often. Picking up the radiotelephone, he broadcast: "Control, Control, this is Tower. Incoming, incoming. Out." Then he began clanging on the alarm bell inside the tower in order to awaken his troops so that they could seek the relative safety of the sandbag bunker beneath his watchtower. Meanwhile, the rounds continued to fall every few seconds. Zero six zero, 150 meters. Zero six zero, 125 meters. Sam knew what the attackers were doing. The explosions were falling at a constant bearing and decreasing range. The mortar team were walking their rounds in on his position, which was a strong point along the perimeter of the base.

     Now, the one place one doesn't want to be during an artillery barrage is up in the air, because shrapnel flies upward. The best defense is usually to dig in as low to the ground as possible. However, military procedure required that the sentry on watch had to stay at his post, exposed as it was, during an attack, in order to prevent enemy sappers from infiltrating undetected under cover of the bombardment to fling a satchel charge into the bunker where everyone had sought shelter. It was Sam's responsibility to remain at his station, keeping surveillance.

     The rounds continued to zero in. The fourth round impacted zero six zero, 100 meters from his position. The fifth round impacted along the same bearing, just seventy-five meters away. The sixth round hit fifty meters away, and dust and debris drifted down on him. The seventh round impacted twenty-five meters from Sam, and the shrapnel penetrated the wood sides of the tower, but were largely spent, so that his helmet and flak jacket protected him. But he knew in that instant that the eighth round would land in his hip pocket, and he remembers thinking in that split second, "Lord, was it for this that you brought me through those three sleepless nights in Vallejo? Was it for this that I kissed my wife and infant son farewell at the airport? Then, Lord, if that will most honor you, here I come!"

     But the eighth round never fell. Sam's base came under fire on other occasions, and their boats were in firefights along the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta. But that particular night of Tet, however, would forever stand out in his mind. The psalms became very precious to him during his tour in Viet Nam, especially Psalm 91, even though it remained something of a mystery to him. Did the psalm, or did it not, promise deliverance? While he had been spared, he had seen better men than himself sent home in body bags, while profligate individuals seemed to escape harm. He asked again the question of his childhood: "Why?" He still could fathom no answer to that question.


     In the course of time, Sam resigned his commission in the regular Navy and went into the Naval Reserve, going to seminary and then to the mission field in Africa and later Australia. During his itineration prior to their departure for Australia, he visited his old church in Sparta, Illinois, and stayed with friends of his family. They insisted on taking him to the old Union Cemetery to visit the gravesite of his little brother. He had not been to that site, as far as he could remember, since the day of Joey's burial. He didn't want to go, but he did, realizing it would be difficult to explain to his hosts. They found the gravesite, a small plaque lying on the grass, surrounded by far more imposing monuments of his mother's grandparents and great grandparents. It said simply, "Joseph Daniel, son of Edna M. and Harold J. Larsen, 1954-1956." On the lower edge of the plaque, inscribed as though by afterthought, were three words from the little song his two-year-old brother had loved to sing: "Jesus loves me." He struggled to keep his emotions in check.

     When returned home. Louise asked how the trip had gone and where his travels had taken him. When she heard that he had visited Sparta, she asked, "Did you visit the cemetery while you were there?" Her question was unusual, for they had seldom spoken of such things. He admitted to having visited his brother's grave, and Louise then asked, "How did you find it?" Sam began to describe the unpretentious little marker, surrounded by high grass and imposing monuments. When he got to the part about the inscription "Jesus loves me," he lost control. Twenty-five years of repressed grief poured forth through tears. He finally came to God with his pain, and found in Him a gracious healer. He confessed his sin of attributing injustice to the One who had given his Son to die for him.

      It was only after Sam had resolved the relational issue between himself and his Lord that God began to answer his questions. One day, as he was again reading through the psalms, he came across Psalm 91 once more. As he reflected upon its words, the thought suddenly struck him that the psalm was quoted in the New Testament. Ironically, the one quoting it was Satan! During Jesus' temptation (recorded both in Matthew 4 and Luke 4), Satan appealed to God's promise in Psalm 91 to induce Jesus to display his faith in God's promises by a death-defying leap from the Temple pinnacle. Jesus did not dispute the promise, but addressed the underlying issue, citing the Scriptures as he did so: "It is also written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test."

     The point of the promise in Psalm 91 is that the one who trusts God and walks in the pathway of obedience is untouchable in this life, apart from the divine purpose of God (which may include chastening or suffering for Christ's sake), until the work God has for him has been completed. The promise is not there for us to manipulate God according to our whim, but to reassure us as we obey him. Suddenly, Sam understood for the first time the answer to the question he had cried out in Viet Nam and so many years before at his brother's death: "Why?" Young as he was, little Joey had completed God's purpose for him on earth, and Sam would not bring him back if he could, for Joey is now cradled in the lap of Jesus. Sam will see him again one day, but God's work for him is not yet complete. The proof of that is that he is still living to serve him.

      Sam's father used to tell the old adage: "Only one life, 'twill soon be past; only what's done for Christ will last." That testimony is true. Sam is deeply grateful that the Living God who made him and who sent his Son to redeem him has also graciously pursued him, calling him into his service to share with others the message of his marvelous love, and weaving together the "coincidences" of his life to teach Sam of Himself.

     God's love, in the words of George Matheson's hymn, is indeed a "love that will not let me go." Sam is confident that Philippians 1:6 is true: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6, NIV).

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 1
© 2001 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Last updated 5-21-2001.