Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Damage Control

On this day 250 years ago James Cook aboard the HMS Endeavour landed at what is now known as Botany Bay. In primary school Social Studies during the 1960s it was called a ‘discovery’. When I later sat in a university history course in the 1980s, taught by an Indigenous Australian, the lecturer referred to the same event as an ‘invasion’. Regardless of your perspective Lieutenant James Cook, an officer of the Royal Navy, changed this ancient land’s history. Cook’s extraordinary life has many lessons to teach us today, not least was his ability to humbly lead through adversity.

Cook circumnavigated what is now known as New Zealand and then sailed west. After landing at Botany Bay, Cook continued his extraordinary journey heading north and charting the east coast of Australia. At 11pm on 11 June 1770 disaster struck when Endeavour ran aground on what we now call The Great Barrier Reef. Fortunately, after discarding 40 tonnes of equipment overboard, including an anchor which is on display in the Cooktown Museum, the ship was floated off the reef on the next high tide. However, a large gaping hole was left in the ship’s hull. The ship’s company including Cook rallied to the task of manning the pumps, but with over 20 nautical miles to land, and water coming in faster than could be pumped out, it seemed certain that Endeavour was doomed.

In the midst of such terrible adversity the ship’s young midshipman Jonathon Monkhouse hesitantly approached his Captain with a suggestion. He had previously witnessed a successful technique on a merchant vessel called fothering the ship. The idea was that a sail would be slung under the hull and then sucked into the hole to cap the leak. Cook accepted the suggestion and entrusted the midshipman to supervise the task of sewing bits of oakum and wool into an old sail, which was then drawn under the hull allowing water pressure to force it into the gap. It worked. The ship was saved. And the rest is history.

A midshipman is the lowest ranked officer and in some sense not really an officer at all. Today our trainee officers begin at the rank of midshipman. For Cook, a brilliant navigator and successful ship’s captain, to take the advice of his midshipman, in the midst of a life threatening catastrophe shows his extraordinary humility. Here was a leader willing to trust his life, the life of his crew and the success of his mission on the advice of one whose rank was lowly, but whose experience was great. Cook did not pretend to be a leader who knew all the answers, rather in humility he accepted the wisdom of another and in the process saved many.

Humility listens to the advice of experience. It accepts the best wisdom. It trusts. It risks doing something different. Cook did not save his ship by pretending to be the wisest man in the room. He rescued his ship by following wise counsel. 

Humility remains an undervalued virtue.

The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice. Proverbs 12: 15

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Lest we forget

Guerino grew up in a small picturesque village in Northern Italy. His youth was marred by the great economic depression of the 1890s. As a teenager he left poverty behind in the hope of finding a new life. He arrived in Fremantle WA, and eventually worked as a tin miner in the Atherton Tablelands in far north Queensland. On 24 Jan 1916 Guerino, aged 21, enlisted to fight for Australia in WW1.   

Standing just 5ft 3in and weighing 9st 9lbs, Guerino, or George as he became known, had a fresh complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair.  He was appointed to the 4th Tunnelling Company on 12 May 1916 at Rosebery Park, Sydney.

He embarked on HMAT Warilda on 22 May 1916, arriving in France on the 29 Aug 1916 where he joined the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. Apart from a minor misdemeanour in Dec 1916, and a short stay in hospital in 1918, George appears to have survived the war without any great misfortune.  

The young Sapper (service no 3358) was deployed at Hill 60. Following the first explosion deep below German trenches in 1915, the Australian Tunnellers were given the task of building and maintaining a tunnel system, which included drainage and ventilations shafts. They dug extensive tunnel networks, assembled explosives and defended their tunnels from detection and capture by the Germans. This dangerous, demanding and at times deadly work culminated in a final massive detonation on 7 Jun 1917.

Captain Oliver Woodward, Officer in Charge of the detonation at Hill 60, wrote a personal unpublished diary that formed the inspiration for the making of the 2010 Australian movie Beneath Hill 60. Woodward’s diary also reveals that he was given the task of stealing behind enemy lines with a small group to investigate an explosive mine threatening a major railway. Guerino was an integral member of the group because he spoke fluent French.

In Nov 1918 Guerino was awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry in Battle – probably as a result of his involvement in the Battle for Sambre Canal in France.

After the war Guerino bought land in the green belt of Sydney. On weekends and at night, he established  a 10 acre orchard while during the day he laboured in a sandstone quarry at Pymble. Tragically like many others who returned from WW1, Guerino’s wartime experiences and suffering never left him. He struggled with significant physical and psychological ailments. His fondness for a drink often led to complications. He died an early and untimely death at the age of 50, two days before victory was declared in Europe at the end of WW2, leaving a wife, a 22 year-old married daughter and a 12 year-old son.

I retell Guerino’s story for two reasons. Firstly, although Anzac Day parades are cancelled this year, it is still essential to stop and to pay our respects to those who have gone before us. At a time of challenge, hardship and struggle, remembering past sacrifice has never been more important. Our present way of life is built on the sacrifice and service of those who have gone before. Guerino’s story is one personal reminder of the cost of war.

The second reason I tell Guerino’s story is because he was my grandfather.
I would love to be able to tell him...

Guerino (Nonno) I am grateful for your service and sacrifice. I am so sorry that you had to endure the horrors of war. I would not presume to walk in your footsteps but your service continues to inspire me as one of your 5 grandchildren. Your 14 great grandchildren and 8 great-great grandchildren, 16 of whom share your surname Quadrio, continue to honour your sacrifice.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. John 15: 13

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Are we there yet?

After his plane was shot down, Commander James Stockdale spent more than seven years of his life as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton). In spite of being a senior ranking naval officer Stockdale (later to become Rear Admiral Stockdale) suffered extreme humiliation, abuse, torture and was refused medical treatment. Later in life he was asked by James Collins, author of the business classic Good to Great, to explain what sustained him physically and mentally in the face of such extreme and lengthy hardship. 

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

Collins asked Stockdale about those who didn’t survive the ordeal of capture.  

Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

Stockdale then added:
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

The most brutal facts of our current global reality are stark. Today Covid-19 is an incredibly infectious virus that is lethal for many people. Left unchecked the virus spreads quickly and health systems are easily overrun. Today we have no cure, no real treatment and no guarantee that ‘herd immunity’ is possible. Today, locking down (at an unimaginable personal, social and economic cost) is the only thing that seems to be slowing the spread.

Now is not the time to demand that our politicians and scientist answer our cry – ‘How long?’

Now is the time to follow their lead, respond to their advice and do whatever we can to be part of the solution.

Focussing on today, while living in hope, is better than false optimism. There are over eighty separate teams of the most brilliant men and women working on a vaccine. Anti-viral experiments using existing drugs are being pursued desperately. No scientific quest has ever been explored with such universal international support. History too, encourages us that scientific breakthroughs often come way out of left field; with a chance observation, a random thought or an accidental connection.

We do not have the luxury of pleading like an impatient child on a long journey ……….
‘Are we there yet?’

Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:34

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

We had plans.

Life is looking very bleak. Our plans seem to have come to nothing. The bad news completely overwhelms the good. Hope seems to have evaporated. Fear surrounds us like choking smoke. The optimists amongst us seem to have lost their voice. Pessimism is the new normal. Navigating the future is beyond us. Our leaders have been so strong, but are now beginning to waver. Panic seems inevitable. We are drowning in despair.

Only a matter of months ago we were so full of hope. We had plans, we could mingle freely, we could enjoy the crowds and we believed we were invincible.
We heard rumours of trouble, but assumed that we would be safe. There were reports, but we never thought our lives could change so much, in such a short period of time.

We didn’t appreciate how vulnerable we are to attack. We are shocked that our world switched from light to dark. Financially we are facing ruin, but even that seems secondary to the silent, invisible threat that has now emerged. Our lives are now on hold. It’s too dangerous to venture out. How long will this last?

The above words describe exactly how the followers of Jesus felt, two thousand years ago, when their Lord was led out to be executed. Their world collapsed. The silent forces of evil seemed to overtake them like a contagious disease. Their hopes and beliefs were crucified. They stared evil in the face on the blackest Friday. Their defeat, however, was not final and a new day was coming.

This holy week there won’t be many live church services anywhere in the world. Holidays are banned. Family gatherings are postponed. The bunny may be turned back at state and regional borders, but Easter is not cancelled.

Easter is a story of death. It’s also a story of resurrection. Like nature itself it reflects dying and rising. A seed dies and a plant is born. A caterpillar fades so that a butterfly can shine.  The blackened trunk of a scorched Australian gum tree bursts back into green growth.

For believers the despair of Good Friday is countered by the hope of new life, Easter Sunday. Even death itself has been swallowed up in the victory of resurrection. Hope comes not through sacrifice or service, but by the redemptive power of a God who loves us.

As a world today, we need a dose of resurrection. We don’t presume our darkness will be solved in three days. With humility, under God, following the guidance of the wise, we will endure our isolation in the hope that we too will rise again.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” John 11: 25